After its enthusiastically-received inauguration last summer, the Colored Pictures Short Film Festival is back for a second go-round in Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
Encouraged and emboldened by the response to last year’s event, the festival’s brain trust of Sherri Daye Scott, Shani Harris Peterson and Russell Robinson have expanded the programming to two days, and have added several side attractions.
“We’re going to fight the sophomore jinx,” Robinson says with a laugh, during a phone conversation that also includes Harris Peterson. “Right after last year’s festival, people were asking us when we’d do it again.”
This year’s program, which begins Friday evening, will include a larger slate of films from across the country, as well as several features that have come to be expected of film festivals. Two expert panel discussions are on tap and there is also a program of vintage African-American shorts from a collection held in Tyler, Texas. This year, Colored Pictures is also encouraging audience participation with a filmmaking contest.
Robinson, Harris Peterson and Daye Scott began the festival last year as an alternative to the increasing exclusivity of established Afrocentric film festivals. From the start, however, they wanted to loosen the boundaries that can unnecessarily confine a festival. Hence, the name “Colored Pictures.”
“There’s a perception that when you’re talking about [a] person of color you mean ‘black’,” says Robinson. “But the term is not so monolithic. One film that’s very interesting is Porcelain, which is set in a Filipino community and deals with issues of sexual orientation. It’s by a black woman filmmaker, about a gay Filipino man.”
Another film, Marcial Rios’ Land of Pain, has no African-American actors whatsoever. Although it’s hampered by clumsy staging and more melodrama than its 22-minute running time can comfortably accommodate, it’s nonetheless an indisputably authentic look at the terrible vulnerability of undocumented Mexican workers. Focusing on the love affair of two embattled young adults, the film succeeds in conveying an outsider’s point of view. Whites appear in the film as distant, capricious and all-powerful figures. Like Greek deities, they’re unpredictably crooked or munificent or wrathful. (Director Rios will be among at least five filmmakers who will be on hand to discuss their films.)
In programming this year’s festival, the organizers found themselves thinking a lot about the complexities of racial and ethnic representation. Having a successful first year under their belt didn’t hurt their ability to be choosy. “We definitely had more submissions,” says Harris Peterson, “but this year, we also had more time to fill. So it runs the gamut.”
Although the organizers are loath to contrast films against one another, a viewing of several films that were made available in advance demonstrates that the quality has stepped up a couple of notches from last year. Production values are higher, and there’s a wider range of stories.
One of the swankier films on display is the lovely and surprising Hope. Written and directed by California filmmaker Tamika Lamison, the story concerns an architect named Zach–played by television actor Morocco Omari–who’s sort of a slimmed and buttoned-down Ice Cube. Grieving for his recently deceased wife, Zach hits the bottle and takes an aimless drive through the California desert. The trip takes an unexpected turn into the Twilight Zone, however, with the appearance of a mysterious hitchhiker named Hope. Although it may be tempting to assign importance to the fact that Hope is a blond, buxom Claudia Cardinale type, the characters’ melanin levels turn out to be completely irrelevant to the story. But then, in the context of a festival such as Colored Pictures, one wonders if race is ever completely irrelevant? Could it be that the Caucasian actress was cast in order to deracinate the film in an effort to broaden its appeal? Perhaps not: Sometimes a good story is just a good story.
Another film in the lineup, A Nothing Kind of Day also features a mixed-race cast, but there’s a nicely underplayed edge to the story about a West Indian slacker’s wanderings in his white SoCal neighborhood on a day off from work. As offhand as its title, this lightly comic and sentimental film manages the nifty trick of exploring the interactions between the dreadlocked, hipster protagonist with the all-white world he lives in, without producing any phony, overt confrontations.
One film with an all-black cast is the old- school You, a straight-up comic romance from writer Charles K. Maye and director Rod Rosby (both of whom will be present at the screening). You tells the story of a studmuffin poet (who may or may not also be a playa) and his efforts to woo a woman away from her faithless, dangerous ex. Although You isn’t the freshest game in town, the film is well-executed and features a winning turn by Christopher Richards, who kills in his stock role as a clown sidekick to the leading man.
With the expanded programming, the festival organizers took advantage of the opportunity to wander off the beaten track. There’s no better example than Independence Day from Lori Fontanes. “This was obviously an experimental film,” Robinson says, recalling their initial concern that it would be out of place among the more traditional narratives of the rest of the program. “We thought about it a lot, deliberated and voted. And the majority ruled.” And indeed, Independence Day is singularly weird in its depiction of a young black boy going door to door in a white condo development, selling patriotic and Republican tchotchkes for a school fundraiser, while odd characters pursue odder pastimes. It’s not entirely clear what director Fontanes (who ran for governor of California during last year’s recall election) is up to here, but by the time “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays over the closing credits, the mysteriously malicious Independence Day will probably stand out as one of the more striking efforts of the festival.
Another film program will feature the work of the “collective,” films by organizers Daye Scott, Harris Peterson and Robinson. Though they were too self-effacing to show their films last year, this Saturday afternoon they will show Aunt Sophie’s Plan, (Daye Scott’s romantic comedy about a young woman’s search for wise counsel), Sarah’s Secret (a tale of child abuse and an adult who attempts to stop it by Harris Peterson) and Hyperman (Robinson’s humorous look at the lack of black superheroes, “a cross between Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Network,” according to its creator).
Running concurrently with the collective’s films will be two expert panels to cover the theoretical and the practical: Beyond Stereotypes: Challenging Images, Elevating Film and The Biz!: What They Don’t Teach in Acting Classes or Film School. Both will feature panels of mostly local experts. “These will help people with their questions,” says Harris Peterson. “They also want to network. This gives them the opportunity.”
From a purely curatorial standpoint, the most exciting part of the programming may well be the Historical Film Shorts block, set to begin at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. First off are four rare shorts from the Tyler Black Film Collection. These are examples of what were once called “race” films, shot between 1918 and 1950, which offer a unique glimpse into the African-American past. Following these will be an archival newsreel that affords a glimpse into the Hayti community of a half-century ago.
And then there’s that 24-Hour Film Contest, in which participants were to meet last Friday night with cameras at the ready, receive a “mystery” prop, and then produce a five-minute film by the following evening. These filmmakers, too, will have a place at Colored Pictures, with their handiwork to be shown late Saturday afternoon. “We understand that they’ll be rough,” says Robinson. “It’s the Cannonball Run of filmmaking.”
Oddly, after this summer, only one of the three founders–Daye Scott–will continue to live in the area. Harris Peterson moved to Baltimore last August, where she is doing a post-doc at Johns Hopkins University. Robinson will begin a post-doc of his own at Howard University in the fall. “We’ll be a subway stop away,” he says.
Colored Pictures Short Film Festival program schedule
All Access Pass: $30 (includes all screenings, panels, receptions and wrap party)
Friday Pass: $15 (includes welcoming reception and opening night screenings)
Saturday Pass: $20 (includes Saturday screenings, panels, networking reception, and 24-Hour Film Contest screenings)
Individual Film Blocks: $10 each
Friday, July 9
6:00 p.m.: Welcoming Reception
7:00 p.m.: Opening Night Films
* Filmmaker Q&A to follow screening
Saturday, July 10
2:00 p.m.: Panel Discussions (45 min each)
4:00 p.m.: The Collective’s Corner: Films by the Festival Founders
5:00 p.m.: Historical Film Shorts
Four short films, made between 1918 and 1950, offering an entrance into the world of the early 20th century African-American filmmaker. These “race films” represent a rare snapshot of American filmmaking history.
A historical newsreel produced circa 1950 of Durham’s Hayti business district at its peak. Heralded as the Negro Wall Street, the Hayti district was the home of numerous black-owned and -operated businesses. Most notable is the North Carolina College for Negroes which later came to be known as North Carolina Central University.
6:30 p.m.: Networking reception
8:00 p.m.: 24-Hour Film Contest (world premiere of films created as part of the Colored Pictures 24-Hour Film Contest: Fun, Fast, Films!!!) & Saturday Evening Films
* Filmmaker Q&A to follow screening
10:00 p.m.: The Official Wrap Party
737 Ninth Street
Check out www.coloredpictures.com for official programming schedule and updates.