Thursday, Feb. 14–Saturday, Feb. 16, free–$50

Hayti Heritage Center, Durham

This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hayti Heritage Film Festival, presented by the Hayti Heritage Center with the support of St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation. The annual event is one of the nation’s longest-running film festivals focusing on Black films and storytellers. Since its inception, the festival has screened many narrative films and documentaries, providing a platform and an audience for emerging and established filmmakers. The festival was created to be the premier event for films by Southern filmmakers from the African diaspora.

Since last year, the festival has been led by director and curator Lana Garland, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Durham, where she is the executive producer at Insibah Media and an educator in film.

“Soon as I got to Durham, I just got plugged into anything relating to film,” Garland says. “This film festival was one of the events that I would come to. I came for several years, and then I just had an idea of how it could be. So I begged Angela Lee, the executive director of [the Hayti], to trust me with it.”

Garland’s love of film began early, when she spent hours of adolescent summer breaks watching classic Hollywood movies. It wasn’t until 1989, with the release of Spike Lee’s iconic Do the Right Thing, that Garland decided to be a filmmaker. She describes a scene in the movie in which a little girl draws on the street with chalk.

“It’s a very innocuous scene, and no one ever remembers this,” she says. “Eventually there’s the big reveal that she is writing her name, and it is Lana. I took that as a sign.”

Thirty years later, Garland is including the film in the festival, with a free screening on Thursday morning. Although she was not a part of the festival at its inception, she understands why the founders created it when they did, as Black independent cinema was thriving in big cities but less prominent in the South.

“If you think about twenty-five years ago, that was a time when we were getting into the vanguard of the Black independent film vis-à-vis Spike Lee and others,” Garland says. “If they are doing that there, meaning the city centers like New York and Los Angeles, why can’t we do that here? Build it, and it would grow.”

Garland earned her chops on the festival circuit as a producer for HBO, where she became a critical advocate and partner for the American Black Film Festival, Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, and Urbanworld Film Festival. Primarily, she experienced festivals that cater to the industry or to artists who live in major film hubs. The Hayti Heritage Film Festival stands out because of its commitment to uplifting local stories about the American South.

“When you talk about Black content, there is no film festival that is trying to forefront Black Southern storytelling,” Garland says. “That has to happen. Why? The South is ancestral land for African Americans.”

The significance of the festival being held at the original St. Joseph’s AME Church, now run as the Hayti by St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation, cannot be overstated. A national historic landmark, the former church anchors the Hayti district of Durham, which, from the 1880s to the 1940s, was an independent and self-sufficient Black community. But the advent of “urban renewal” in the 1950s began to disrupt and displace businesses and neighborhoods in the district. Fast-forward to the present day, Durham is once again undergoing gentrification and rapid change. With the rise of new development, neighborhoods such as Hayti are again affected. Garland, however, is intent on holding onto its resilient spirit.

“I feel like there are so many places that do not have a Hayti, something that has lasted as long as it lasted,” she says. “It is really important. It almost feels like whenever we have an institution like Hayti, we almost have to grab on to it even more and uphold it.”

Garland hopes the festival can put Black Southerners on the film-industry map and help them receive the support that they need.

“Coming back down South for African Americans is like coming to the village,” Garland says. “This is where you get your sustenance. This is where you get your light. If there is anything that the African-American community needs, it’s that. We need to come back, circle the ranks, and support who we are and what we have.”

The idea of returning home holds true for Durham natives Bruce Francis Cole and Kevin Wilson Jr., two independent filmmakers who will be in conversation with each other on Saturday afternoon. Cole has worked as a cinematographer on critically acclaimed films such as JINN and Solace, which are both screening at the festival, and Wilson is a filmmaker whose live-action short, My Nephew Emmett, was nominated for an Oscar.

The schedule contains a wide array of programming. On Thursday, the opening day, there will be a sneak peek of television and online projects by North Carolina filmmakers, including The Land of Fish and Grits by Justin Robinson, which tells a story of Southern food rooted in Black and indigenous culture, and Mr. Soul!, a documentary on landmark television show Soul!, which captured the Black experience in the late sixties to the seventies.

On Friday, standout options include While I Breathe, I Hope, a feature-length documentary about Bakari Sellers and Southern democratic politics, and a series of short films that explore Afrofuturism and science fiction, including the hysterical Hair Wolf, a zombie-esque film that takes place in a hair salon. Saturday is also chock-full of good options, including a sci-fi-cartoon writing workshop for kids. Two international films will also screen: Black Orpheus, a love story set during Carnaval in 1960s Rio de Janeiro, and the North Carolina premiere of Bakosó, a documentary on the rise of Afrobeat in Cuba. Director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi will be in attendance, and after the screening, Oakland-based artist DJ Leydis will deejay an Afro-Cuban dance party.

“It’s a pretty robust group of films,” Garland says. She encourages everyone to map out a schedule of programming they want to attend in advance. “Don’t come to just one film block. You will not get the full experience. Come out to the festival and we won’t let you down. We are the festival that Black cinema and Black Southern filmmaking deserves.”