Tarheel Shorties Film Festival

Tuesday, Aug. 25–Thursday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m.

free–$25 suggested donation

“I’m a former businessperson realizing that I’m an artist,” says Durham-based filmmaker Stephanie Diane Ford, whose career trajectory has been an example of following your passion.

After earning a business degree and working in IT and software development, Ford moved to Paris to pursue fashion management. Motivated by the desire to escape the 9-to-5 and immerse herself in a visually creative environment, she discovered her love for filmmaking while creating a short promo trailer for her fashion blog. It didn’t feel like work. 

“Once I discovered my interest in film, I knew I could hit the ground running as a producer because management just came naturally,” she says. “That whole process was fun from start to finish. I decided in that moment, this is how I want to spend most of my day.”

Eight years later, she’s a “Filmed in NC” grant recipient from the Cucalorus Film Foundation. Her first short, The Black Baptism, premiered at the Hayti Film Festival in February, and then screened at the Hip-Hop Film Festival and the Revolution Me Film Festival, where it won in the “Best Horror/Thriller/Sci-fi” category.

Next, at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, August 27, The Black Baptism appears in a block called “Tough and Transforming” in the Tarheel Shorties Film Festival. A program of Wilmington’s Cucalorus Film Festival, Tar Heel Shorties showcases indie films from North Carolina. It usually takes place in Wilson but is online-only this year.

A genre-blurring ode to Black women in search of their higher selves, the Afrofuturist film takes viewers deep into the main character’s psychological state, skillfully incorporating African and European mythology and religion in nuanced ways.

“The first character, the Goddess, she is inspired by the Egyptian Pantheon, and the overall story comes from the Yoruba Oya story mythos,” Ford says. “Those stories correlated with the themes I wanted to tell, and they create the space to put it in a fantasy environment.”

Ford says the plot was inspired by a combination of her personal life experiences and the collective experience of Black women: “The feeling like there’s no protection, on a collective level. The feeling that we’ve got to figure it out all alone. Everything’s a struggle. You know we’re overworked, having to build things from scratch, not having something established to walk into—but then, look at what can come.”

The protagonist, played by Amethyst Davis, begins as a prisoner.

“She just has herself,” Ford says. “She starts off naked, imprisoned, barely getting any supplies.”

But as the 20-minute film progresses through short vignettes, we realize a murder has occurred, which results in the prisoner being forced to navigate a series of life-or-death challenges that are meant to connect her to her divine purpose.  

The Black Baptism is also a metaphor for the dynamics of dysfunctional relationships and break-ups. Ford considers what internal healing looks like in order for an individual to take responsibility for their own actions.

“Most people don’t,” she says. “We really do have the power to create our own reality. As hard as it is, when you really take full ownership of that, you move away from being a victim in a lot of ways.”

Rather than a specific romantic relationship, the film reveals the emotional turmoil and pain women experience as a result of relationship lows or breakups.

“For some people, certain relationships stick with them forever,” Ford says. “So it really is, for women, a process to work through that type of hurt sometimes. That is what shaped the foundation of why [the protagonist] needed to connect to her spiritual side instead of being stuck.”

There are a number of important messages embedded in the plot, communicated through the Goddess that directly assists the protagonist and the viewers. For Ford, the most important takeaway from the film is the tagline—“fear is a lack of imagination”—which reminds us that, through collective self-belief, Black women can overcome almost anything.

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