Film

Documentaries That Make New Connections Between the Personal and Political

At BlackStar Film Festival, filmmakers of color address topics ranging from immigration, to hip hop, to Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals.

Still from Titixe (2018) (all images courtesy of the BlackStar Film Festival)

Founded in 2012 by Maori Holmes, the mission of the BlackStar Film Festival is to amplify the voices of filmmakers of color, with a particular emphasis on discovering and nurturing up and coming creators. In a film and television industry that has long disadvantaged voices of color, the festival provides its filmmakers with much-needed space to take creative risks and tell their own unique stories. This year’s documentary lineup included almost 50 shorts and 14 features addressing topics varying from immigration and displacement, to a forthcoming docuseries on hip-hop. This year’s Best Documentary Feature was awarded to the critically-acclaimed Sundance film The Infiltrators, an urgent dive into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by husband and wife co-directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra.

Here’s a look at four other documentary features from the festival that stood out, from a diverse slate spanning from a film revisiting Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, to a soulful meditation on a Mexican family’s connection to their farmland. It’s a collection of deeply personal stories, often told in experimental ways, that make new connections between the personal and political.

Titixe (Taina Hernández Velasco, 2018)

In the documentary feature Titixe, Mexico City-based filmmaker Taina Hernández Velasco goes to her grandfather’s farm five hours outside of the city to paint a portrait of how his farming tradition affected her family for generations. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s festival, the impetus for the film came from a confession made by her grandfather a few years before his passing. Hernández Velasco explains: “ … it pained him that none of his grandchildren had developed any curiosity about his lifetime work cultivating the fields.”

When a farmer dies, their spirit ensures the next crop will be plentiful, says a salt-of-the-earth-type elderly woman who goes unidentified in the film.  In this way, Hernández Velasco sets a shapeshifting tone that extends throughout the journey of the film. But the doc doesn’t dwell entirely in the spiritual realm. A campesino elder talks about how climate change has made the weather unpredictable for farmers, making it exponentially more difficult to yield a successful crop.

Visually, the film’s cinematography feels like a Georgia O’Keefe painting. The blues, greens, browns, and oranges reveal a lush and vibrant natural landscape. Wide shots of the clear blue sky stay in the frame for minutes at a time, and Hernández Velasco gradually weaves in snapshots of life on her family’s land, like an elder’s hand holding frijoles negros in their palm. She pairs the early sprouts of green that shoot through the soil with upbeat music that makes it look like the plants are dancing along.

It’s a film that, in many ways, defies language. It is less concerned with being understood and more interested in conveying a mood. In a world where globalization has made it hard for families like the filmmaker’s to keep their traditions and their land, it’s nice to sit inside the simple yet vast frames of Titixe and just breathe for a while to the music.

Still from The Cancer Journals Revisited (2018)

The Cancer Journals Revisited (Lana Lin, 2018)

Much like Tixite, The Cancer Journals Revisited feels like a visual diary. Over a dozen women, most of whom have survived cancer, read aloud from Audre Lorde’s 1980 book The Cancer Journals, which explores her fight against breast cancer through the lens of Black lesbian feminist theory.

The film is an ode to this breaking of silence — for Lorde, for the women interviewed, and for the filmmaker Lin, who eventually reveals her own cancer diagnosis. In the documentary, Lorde’s daughter (Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins), reads a famous passage that references an interaction she had with her mother in her childhood, though she cannot remember it for herself:

But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”

The film is full of black and white footage of the places where Audre Lorde spent her time: the hospital where she was diagnosed, the New York City colleges where she taught, the Staten Island home where she once lived. Lin also weaves in b-roll of healthcare landmarks around New York City, like the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Lower Manhattan and the New York Cancer Hospital (now known as Memorial Sloan Kettering) first oncology treatment center in America, which opened in the late 1800s.

The film, nominated in the festival’s Best Experimental Film category, experiments with holding our attention and distracting us. When a caption appears in a frame, it’s often paired with voiceover of a woman reciting something else at the same time, forcing us to decide which one to focus on. This happens repeatedly throughout the film, perhaps as an attempt to mimic the unsettling and nonlinear nature of diagnosis and recovery. Ultimately, like Lorde herself, the film makes interesting connections between the personal and the political that at once underscore the timelessness and timeliness of her writing.

Still from Always in Season (2019)

Always in Season (Jacqueline Olive, 2019)

Always in Season is a haunting probe into the horrors of lynching in America. The film’s title refers to a quote from Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, a well-known lawyer and anti-death penalty advocate interviewed in the film. He describes the lack of safety Black Americans felt in the wake of Jim Crow’s hold on the South, musing:

If you were Black and alive in many parts of this country in the 20th century, you were always at risk. You were always a target. You were always an object to be victimized, to be humiliated, to be taunted, to be sexually exploited, to be killed. And there was no respite. There was never a moment when you were allowed to feel like you can be safe for just a little while. You were always in season.

Olive wants us to ponder the connection between a recent, suspected lynching of a Black teenage boy named Lennon Lacy and the racial terrorism of the post-Reconstruction era, in which an estimated 4,700 lynchings occurred from 1882-1968. It’s a complicated tale of police negligence, teenage secrets, and the ghosts of racial violence rearing their heads in the present.

Though Olive does a good job making sense of Lacy’s story, the film goes off-kilter is in profiling of a group of lynching re-enactors in Georgia. With a stated intention to be healing for the community, about a third of the film follows the Black and white actors who participate in a staged re-enactment of a lynching, in which they replay the gruesome scene in front of a crowd of predominantly Black onlookers. Olive mostly focuses on the white actors’ remorse for the actions of their ancestors  — a worthwhile topic if handled correctly — but here, it pulls the focus too far off of the victims of actual lynchings. While the film unearths a conversation about a part of American history that is too little talked about and understood, it unfortunately tries to tackle too many narrative threads at once, muddling the force of its message.

Still from Fear No Gumbo (2019)

Fear No Gumbo (Kimberly Rivers Roberts, 2019)

Fear No Gumbo is an unfiltered look at the recovery of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, told through the eyes of one of its longtime residents, director Kimberly Rivers Roberts. Rivers Roberts and her harrowing, on-the-ground cell phone footage of Katrina was featured in the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary Trouble the Water from Carl Deal and Tia Lessen. Fear No Gumbo feels like a reality show meets docu-series in which Rivers Roberts takes to the streets of New Orleans to talk to its residents and the new (mostly white) folks who have come to town since Katrina. As one of the film’s interview subjects points out, prior to the hurricane, the Lower Ninth Ward was a solidly working-class community where homeowners were in the majority. However, most of the residents haven’t been able to return and rebuild their homes due to the now-concluded Road Home Program, whose funding disbursement policies disadvantaged residents from neighborhoods with low property values. Rivers Roberts wants us to feel the pain of a community torn apart that will never be able to return to what it was before the  2005 storm devastated it.

Shot in a guerilla-style that captures both her day-to-day as a mother and wife and her confrontational style as a community activist, the film is brutally honest — at times you have to fight the urge to look away. Yet, it’s Rivers Roberts’s courage to speak her truth even as it makes others uncomfortable that also makes you lean in. In her interviews around the city, Rivers Roberts asks tough questions that create awkward moment after awkward moment. Like when she questions disgraced former mayor Ray Nagin about his policies and questions the practices of a white recent college grad who has helped start a museum in the Lower Ninth. It’s in these moments that you can’t help but root for her, but you’re also sad and angry for her too. The displacement of her neighbors from the city they love, and the at best spotty recovery of a neighborhood devastated by a natural disaster, is an injustice that most of America has long moved on from. That Fear No Gumbo makes an unignorable case for why the Lower Ninth should still be on the national radar is no small feat.

The 2019 BlackStar Film Festival ran August 1-4.

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