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San Diego Black Film Festival

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The San Diego Black Film Festival reveals the diversity of contemporary black filmmaking.

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando.

The San Diego Black Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, January 27th and for more than 10 years it has been shining what it calls a "spotlight on African American and African Diaspora cinema." This year, the festival arrives on the heels of yet another very white crop of Oscar nominations. One film that focused on African-American themes that was nominated was, "Straight Outta Compton." Here’s the trailer:

[Excerpt from Straight Outta Compton]

“I heard you’ve been spending a lot of time at [indiscernible] [00:00:46]

I got my woman and my baby living there. It’s hard man. You know? Everybody can’t do what you do.

Really what I do getting played out Dre.

Where my money at?

Man, why you got to be so ruthless cuz?

I’ll make a few changes.

Where you think you going?

I’m just trying to get home.

That’s my son.

You need to get back in the house or I will ruin your life.

Don’t talk to my mom like that!

If you had the chance to change the situation, would you take it?

Just hit that first beat hard. Aright, you cruising down the street.


Cruising down the street in my 6 4.

Hey that was dope, E.

You listening to Compton’s very own Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. I got to tell you, you are witnessing history.

People are staring at you guys. You have a unique voice. The world needs to hear it.

They want NWA? Let’s give them NWA.”

Beth Accomando: “Straight Outta Compton” received an original screenplay nomination and the San Diego Black Film Festival will be holding a free community screening as part of the Festival on Saturday. I spoke with Festival Director Karen Willis and asked if there was anything new or different at the festival this year.

Karen Willis: What’s different this year and we’re very excited about it is that we’ve added a pre-opening reception this year. A lot of the other film festivals do it. They’ve done it for years and we’ve resisted it. So for the first time, we’ve added that and it’s a wonderful thing and it gives the public and the attendees an opportunity to learn what’s to come at the 2016 San Diego Black Film Festival. We’ve added our first pre-reception which is Wednesday, January 27th at 6:00 pm at the Jacobs Center out on Market Street. And it’s free to the public. So we’re very excited about that and we’ll have a lot of the film makers that arrive early. We have actors, actresses there. It’s a wonderful thing. We’re very excited about that.

Beth Accomando: I noticed you also have listed what you’re calling a community screening of “Straight Outta Compton” and what’s that about?

Karen Willis: Yes. Each year, we’ve done this now for the last four years, whereby we give back to the community by offering what we call a community screening. That’s a complimentary screening of a major motion picture. This year our focus is on “Straight Outta Compton.” Last year was “Selma” but “Straight Outta Compton” the special screening will occur on Saturday morning 11:00 am at the Reading Cinemas. It’s 5th and G in the Gaslamp Quarter. We’re working closely with Universal Studios with that. We’re going to have giveaways, surprise appearances. We are very excited about our community screenings and again it gives us an opportunity to give back to the public and they really turn out for it.

Beth Accomando: Now your festival is coming on the heels of the Academy Award Nominations being announced and once again they’ve been very white and ignoring diversity. Do you feel that’s bringing an extra spotlight or attention on the festival this year?

Karen Willis: It is. It’s bringing, all of the media wants to talk about it. We’ve had from the LA Times to our sponsor San Diego Union Tribune; they’ve interviewed me about it. It’s apropos to us in that Spike Lee is very vocal and Spike has been to our festival. He’s been a part of the San Diego Black Film Festival a few years ago. Also the San Diego Black Film Festival is really the only black film festival in the country that’s considered an Oscar buzz festival. The timing of our festival is right prior to the Oscars actually making their nominations known. So if you get into the San Diego Black Film Festival such as like “Selma” last year, it sort of adds to the Oscar buzz. Right? So because of our connection to that, I think that what has happened with the Oscars every year is really shameful in my opinion in that African Americans, whether it be their actors, actresses, they’re in the main stream of the motion picture industry. In the same respect that African Americans are in the main stream of the recording industry. So therefore what if the highest award with the recording industry, which is Grammys. Each year it would be 100% white with the exception of one or two blacks winning for some music. People would really be outraged. So you’re seeing now the actors and actresses in the motion picture industry sort of speaking out saying, “Look we’re here and we want to be recognized. We don’t accept that it just so happened that all of the films that you nominate are white.” But the wonderful thing is that, I think Cheryl Boone, she’s making some changes, the Academy President. She’s announced some really dramatic changes in the way the membership works and all that. So I think real soon we’re going to see some changes in the Academy whereby it won’t automatically be all white. It’s easy to say to see the Academy is being all white and then for people to say, “Well they’re just judging it based on the films.” Well why are they all white? Are you saying that only the whites are producing the best films? No. It has to do with the voting. There’s going to be some changes soon so we’re happy to hear that.

Beth Accomando: Well it seems the change that really needs to occur is that the people who are green lighting the projects and the people who are creating the stories, there has to be more diversity there for a real change to take place.

Karen Willis: You better believe it. The San Diego Black Film Festival, we deal with all of the major studios. This year we dealt with MGM, also this year Universal. We’ve dealt with Paramount and so we see it first-hand. There’s not a lot of diversity in these executive positions in these studios. You’re right. That’s where the green lighting occurs. What happens is that you see the studios, they start to cater and target, they know who the academy voting members are. They know. They really do, take my word for it. They target them. It just so happens that they’re unable to target many minorities because they’re just not there. It really starts with the studios, the green lighting and it’s sort of a game. So again we’re hoping that this change is real soon.

Beth Accomando: Now in terms of how you select the films for your festival, how many submissions did you get this year and what is it that you’re looking for in these films to make them worthwhile to showcase?

Karen Willis: We receive hundreds each year, I think this year we got close to 300, 310 or somewhere like that. Normally we narrow them down to about 150 or 160 and then we’ll narrow it down. I’ll come and I’ll get involved usually when it gets to the 100 range. Then we’ll narrow them down even more and then with our process we bring in film makers. We have a select committee of film makers each year who have submitted films to us. We invite them to actually be a part of the film jury to help select these films. So when they get involved, we’re able to narrow it down to usually about 100 or right under 100. We normally, we screen over 100 each year but only about 79 to 80 actually make it into the public. We usually reserve about 20 of them or more what we call private screenings. They occur during the awards dinner. They occur during the film maker’s breakfast where we’ll show maybe four or five films that are shorts. Once that decision is made, that sort of makes for our official selection. There’s several levels there.

Beth Accomando: Tell me about your opening night film.

Karen Willis: The opening night film, we’re very excited and we have what we call opening night films, plural. They’re normally two films that we show and the two films this year, the actual feature film is called, “The Prodigal Song”

[Excerpt from The Prodigal Song]

“Faith, Family, Forgiveness, Love. This is a story about music.”

Karen Willis: The two films this year, the actual feature film is called “The Prodigal Song” and “The Prodigal Song” stars Chris Webb. It’s really about a hip hop artist who’s becoming a star but he’s also really devoted to the church. So he’s sort of trying to weigh him being a hip hop artist with his devotion to the church. He’s getting a lot of flak. The film sort of focuses on that. We also have another film that we’re excited about. It’s called “This Little Light of Mine”, the Story of Fannie Lou Hamer.

[Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine]

“I’ve heard several comments from people that was talking about with the people, for the people, and by the people. Being a black woman from Mississippi, I’ve learned that long ago that’s not true. It’s with the handful, for a handful, by a handful, but we going to change that baby.”

Karen Willis: That’s going to open for “The Prodigal Song” and that’s about a 30-minute film. “The Prodigal Song” is a 90-minute feature. Really for the first time, we’re like the second film festival to screen this film. It basically sort of goes into the life of Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a very important civil rights leader during the time of Reverend Martin Luther King. She did a lot to bring attention to voting rights. That’s also going to screen as a part of the opening film.

Beth Accomando: Can you tell me about your closing night movies?

Karen Willis: We devote our closing day to what we call; they’re foreign films from the African diaspora. What that means is that these are foreign films in various countries where black people, where there’s a community of black people. This year we’re focusing on, we even have films from Italy this year. One of the ones that we’re very excited about is called “Aslem”. So we have films from Nigeria on the closing day “Oloibiri” that’s a very big film that day.

[Excerpt from Oloibiri]

“Do you remember when oil was found in Oloibiri?

And we all jumped about like monkeys.

When this destroyed Oloibiri’s rivers and lands, if I had protested and held my ground in the 60s. All this would not be happening. All this [unintelligible] [0:11:53] and his devils.”

Karen Willis: And we have a couple of films from Brazil. One called “O Samba”

[Excerpt from O Samba]

[Foreign language] [0:12:02] to [00:12:25]

Karen Willis: Talking about the whole Samba craze and all that. So we have quite a selection of foreign films. If you really would like to learn more about foreign films and see some of them, what’s to offer, come on Sunday, which is a closing day. It starts at 11:00 am and that’s where you can see a great selection of foreign films from the African diaspora.

Beth Accomando: Hearing you talk about the diversity of films that you’re screening makes it feel even more of an oversight by the academy that they couldn’t find one or two. Talk about the breath of diversity. You’ve got shorts, features, documentaries, foreign.

Karen Willis: Yes, so here it is for example, every year the San Diego Black Film Festival, we’re very diverse. You’ll find that there are whites in a lot of the movies. This year we have “Delka” which is produced, I think directed by an African American but its basic subject matter. It’s not an African American subject matter. We have several films each year that are what we consider to be non-African American. So we even have diversity. I think this year we have five films that would be considered non-African American. I think they have no excuse. We are very diverse. Everything from non-black films to GLBT. We have about; I think we have six GLBT films in there this year. That’s diversity. We also have Christian films. Its runs a whole gamut with us.

Beth Accomando: Is there any film or short that you’d like to particularly highlight that maybe is a smaller film that might get lost in the shuffle that you want people to come see?

Karen Willis: There’s a film called “The Bravest, The Boldest.” It’s a short. It’s a feature short because it’s about 20 minutes. It’s very apropos to now because it’s about a mom whose son is out fighting out in Iraq somewhere years ago. Basically a couple of people appear from the military to inform her that her son has been lost. She hears to knock at the door and they identify themselves and she knows what’s going on and she does everything she can to try not to open the door to hear the news. She sneaks out the back door. She goes into the laundry room to do laundry. It’s just a wonderful story until eventually she faces them and they give her the bad news.

[Excerpt from The Bravest, The Boldest]

“Sayeeda Porter. I’m Major Dandridge. This is Lieutenant Torres. We are from the United States Army. We regret to inform you that your son, Private Corey Joseph Porter of the 82nd Airborne Division, has been killed in action.”

Karen Willis: It’s called “The Bravest, The Boldest” that’s one that really stands out to me.

Beth Accomando: Do you have any local film makers represented from San Diego?

Karen Willis: We do. The San Diego Black Film Festival, unlike a lot of other film festivals, we don’t segregate our local film makers. We don’t have a local film series. We put them right into the main stream of the festival because we want to say to our local film makers we’re not going to point you out. You’re hear trying to get your film heard and seen all over the world. We’re going to throw you into the rest of them. It’s worked out really well for us every year. I think we have at least three this year that are considered local. You will only discover it by coming to the festival and hearing the Q&A on it. That’s how we handle local. We put our local into the mainstream where they don’t feel local. We don’t want them to feel that we’re just a local film maker here and so please give us some attention. We’re like no. You’re in a major film festival, you’re going to be in with the big guys.

Beth Accomando: Now one of the things that’s always appealing about festivals is the opportunity to interact with the film makers. So do you have a lot of film makers coming and doing Q&A?

Karen Willis: We do. We offer a Q&A on all of our films. When the film makers come to the San Diego Black Film Festival, they know that there’s two big things that’s going to occur. They’re going to have an opportunity for Q&A and they’re all going to walk the red carpet and be there and get the attention. It’s their night. They’re going to feel like they’re at a major Hollywood premiere of their film. Those are the two things that they look forward to every year, the film makers. We’re considered a film maker’s film festival because we really focus a lot on the film makers. I would say 99% of our festival is focused on the independent film maker and maybe we have one or two each year that we’ll bring in that are considered major. We never make our festival about the latest stars or actors in a film. We’ll pick one or two.

Beth Accomando: Does your festival do anything in terms of highlighting classics from the past or older films or is it all kind of looking to contemporary work?

Karen Willis: It’s all contemporary but like for example, this year we have films of course that are documentaries that incorporate old footage and all that. We have a movie this year called “The Luft Gangster” which is about World War II with a group of African American soldiers who liberate a holocaust camp in Dachau, I believe it is. They went there and did some liberation, stuff like that, in 1940s. They show a lot of old clips but we don’t. When we first started, we focused on; I think our very first films were Oscar Micheaux years ago, 14 years ago. We just showed [overlapping conversation] [0:18:24]

Beth Accomando: That’s going way back.

Karen Willis: Yes. I got my hands on I think six or seven of the old 1920ish Oscar Micheaux films and we sort of used that to kick off the San Diego Black Film Festival. It was a lot of fun. I think the year after that we did similar stuff but by the third year, we were up and running and we focused on contemporary films. The word was out that San Diego Black Film Festival existed and so we focus on current films now.

Beth Accomando: Do you give out awards?

Karen Willis: Oh we do. This year we have 14 awards in various categories, 14 categories and it’s been 14 to 15 categories probably for the last seven years now.

Beth Accomando: Are these voted on by audience members or by a jury?

Karen Willis: This same process, we have what we call, the film makers who do what we call film maker’s choice voting. Then of course we have the San Diego Black Film Festival Jury that votes on them. A lot of the festivals, they make a big deal out of everyone wants to talk about the film jury and all that. We don’t. We have our film jury. We bring in our film makers but we don’t make a big deal out of, we don’t focus on them. They keep quiet and we just get a good selection that way.

Beth Accomando: When are the awards given out?

Karen Willis: The awards will be handed out during the San Diego Black Film Festival Awards Dinner and Gala which is Saturday, January 30th and this year we’re taking over the Horton Grand Hotel. We got the whole area over there for the awards dinner. The awards dinner is hosted by Actress Robin Givens.

Beth Accomando: If there are young film makers, young African American film makers out there right now beginning their careers, maybe still in film school. What kind of advice would you give them for what to do at this point in time?

Karen Willis: I think they should continue to hone their craft and definitely when they’re done or if they have the confidence, submit it in to a film festival like San Diego Black Film Festival. That’s where it really all starts and/or you attend a festival like the San Diego Black Film Festival because there is where you’re going to find other film makers. You’re going to find other up and coming actors and actresses and you’re going to get an opportunity to network with them. That’s what I’d say.

Beth Accomando: If people want more information can you tell them you have a website where they can go to?

Karen Willis: Yes they can visit San Diego Black Film Festival’s website which They can also give us a call at (619) 234-0022 and of course please like us on Facebook. We are there, San Diego Black Film Festival, we are on Facebook as well as Twitter.

Beth Accomando: All right is there anything else you would like to add about the festival?

Karen Willis: Well I want to say simply the festival runs January 27 through Sunday, January 31st. Come on out and have a good time.

Beth Accomando: All right, thank you very much.

Karen Willis: Thank you.

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’ll follow up this podcast on the San Diego Black Film Festival with the discussion about under-appreciated African American Directors on Friday. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or find it at Thanks again for listening. Until our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place