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A Black Film Festival Undressed - ABFF 2011 Wrap-up

by Tambay A. Obenson
July 14, 2011 1:35 AM
8 Comments
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Last weekend, the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), generally considered to be the preeminent black film festival in the land (certainly one of the biggies), wrapped up another installment of its annual black cinema showcase – its 15th year, a remarkable accomplishment by almost any measure.

Despite the unexpected rainy forecast, a simple stroll down Collins Avenue or Lincoln Road between July 6th and 10th this year would have indicated just how much of an attraction the festival has become, thanks in part to its resort-style location, a stone’s throw away from the beaches of South Florida, luxurious hotels, cuisine variety, and beautiful people, all there to soak up the sun, socialize, network, catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two, and, by the way, take in some good black cinema.

Ask any of the attendees, as I did, about their experiences, and you’ll find that most appreciated their time there, and all that the festival and its location have to offer - from the opening night festivities, which included co-founder Jeff Friday's welcome speech, followed by a screening of the opening night selection, Robert Townsend's fact-based drama, In The Hive, to the closing night ABFF Honors Award ceremony, which included a feting of industry veteran Keenen Ivory Wayans for his contributions to both film and television, as well as the first-ever inductees into the ABFF Hall Of Fame.

In between, festival attendees were treated to a variety of events, including screenings of films in the festival's 2011 lineup (shorts and features, narratives and documentaries), panels, and conversations with established talents from both in front of and behind the camera, master classes, nightly social events, and more.

There was something for almost everyone, depending on what exactly you were looking for.

For this writer, the primary attraction, as is always the case in every film festival we've covered closely since this site was created, are the films, first and foremost - from Sundance, to Cannes, to Tribeca, to London, to New York, New York African, the African Diaspora film festivals, and more. After all, they are called film festivals.

In my humble opinion, a film festival is only as strong as the films it shows; so, with that in mind, how did the 2011 installment of the ABFF grade?

Before I answer that question, I should add that I had the opportunity to chat with Jeff Friday a couple of days after I returned from the festival, because I had some questions for him, whose answers would assist in informing my thoughts on this year's event. And I'd like to spend a few paragraphs on what I did uncover.

For about as long as I’ve been following the ABFF, a frequent criticism I’ve heard from filmmakers, audiences, critics and industry reps alike, whether unfair or not, is that the festival’s annual selection of films is often underwhelming and uninspired.

Of course, try telling that to those filmmakers whose films have screened successfully at the festival over the last 15 years since its debut.

My POV on the matter has changed somewhat, since having curated one film festival myself this year, as well as a bi-annual film screening series here in New York City, for the last couple of years. One thing that becomes immediately apparent during the selection process is that attracting the preferred caliber of films (in this case, films that tell stories primarily about people of African descent) that would afford the festival or screening series the reputation it seeks, is indeed a challenge.

Just as festival curators make their selections based on some specific list of criteria, the filmmakers themselves also have expectations of their own, and rightfully so. The point at which the two sets of desires meet is where success lies.

Given what I do here on Shadow And Act, I meet, talk to and follow the careers of many black filmmakers, and for most of them, the end goal, after pouring often limited resources - money, time, etc – into their various projects (specifically those with feature-length films) is to get the kind of exposure that would lead to distribution deals; preferably theatrical to start, despite how lofty, and some may even say, undeserved that objective might be.

We can go into discussions about changing business models and alternate methods of distribution that suggest a theatrical release is no longer the zenith, nor is it as elusive as it once was. But that's another topic to dissect in another post.

Taking into consideration the end objective of most filmmakers, as I stated above, there are very few festivals that offer the kind of industry attention that would increase a film’s chances of being acquired for distribution by a major or even minor film company. I’ve already named a couple of those festivals, and the ABFF unfortunately doesn’t make the short list, which in turn automatically eliminates it from submission consideration, from the perspective of many filmmakers, especially when it comes to premieres of their films

In general, those with films that meet accepted industry expectations in terms of technical and narrative style and proficiency, tend to shy away from festivals like ABFF, in favor of those that they, the filmmakers and their representatives, deem better opportunities for their films – i.e., the kind of attention that would increase their distribution prospects, or raise their visibility.

That’s fair enough I suppose.

So, it goes without saying that filmmakers submitting their films to the ABFF, and festivals of its ilk, are fully aware of what the festival offers, or at least, they should be; and, based on the few conversations I had with filmmakers this year, and in previous years, the opportunity to screen their films in front of predominantly black audiences at a festival like ABFF, and compete amongst their peers, is more than sufficient! It’s a beginning; it serves as a launching pad, as their films begin long journeys through the festival circuit – often primarily the black film festival circuit, which itself presents the only real theatrical screening opportunities for a lot of these films and filmmakers (the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) aside).

An “ABFF Official Selection” sticker on the poster for their film is welcomed and coveted.

Now, as we repeatedly lament, we (black people) aren’t a monolith; our tastes vary, and no one person or group has a monopoly on "good taste" or "good art" defined. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? And thus, if a festival’s attendees and selected filmmakers are content with what the festival offers, then we reach that magical place where the three sets of expectations (those of the filmmakers, the festival and the audience) meet agreeably. And everyone’s happy!

So what’s the problem?

While he certainly would welcome coverage from the national media, as well as attention from Hollywood distributors, who he says he invites to the festival annually, ABFF co-founder and director Jeff Friday seems to have come to terms with the fact that his festival may never be that hub of market activity involving buyers and sellers, 6- or even 7-figure pickups, talent agent signings, etc, that many filmmakers would like it to be.

In a conversation we had over the phone yesterday, he sounded very much like a man, once frustrated, though now settled, after years of what may have been challenging attempts to shape his festival into the kind of yearly event many of us (himself included) have hoped it would grow to become, and who now seems to have chosen to be content with the path his festival has taken, and its place in the larger scheme of things.

I wouldn't suggest that he's entirely given up on making the necessary, though difficult adjustments that would turn his festival into the annual, crowning marketplace of black cinema that black filmmakers especially would find most attractive - for all intents and purposes, the African American equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival, the preeminent film festival and market in the nation, and one of the top in the world.

Though, to be fair, as Jeff noted, very few festivals, regardless of focus, are able to attract the industry's attention the way Sundance has long dominated, a crown it still wears, despite changing times.

But I'll say that from my conversation with him, he doesn't particularly seem to see much incentive to putting a different face on the festival - at least certainly not after 15 years of continuous service. If it's working as it is, why change it?

How does a black festival like the ABFF become a must-stop for all black filmmakers - especially those who instead opt to premiere their films at non-black specific festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto and others? What would it take to convince any of the black filmmakers who've debuted their films at festivals other than a black film festival like ABFF, to consider an ABFF premiere instead?

That's where my concerns and efforts currently lie, and, to be sure, the answer to that question is one that would require a collaborative effort from all sides - starting with a mutual respect between the filmmakers, the festivals and audiences.

Conversely, as Jeff noted, every festival doesn't strive to be the next Sundance; each has its own mission, and becoming a hub of market activity isn't necessarily the goal for every festival head, and it certainly doesn't have to be.

However, while Jeff seemed to suggest that his festival had found and settled into a specific, comfortable niche that continues to be successful and profitable, it was also evident to me that he would love for the ABFF to have a grander kind of industry presence. The question is whether the effort that would be required to get there at this stage is entirely worth it. It's also a path that's riddled with complexities, and not at all a slam dunk.

"You learn to stay in your lane," he said more than once, suggesting that he’s found his, and is content there.

But despite all the criticism, and even lack of respect some have for the festival and others of its ilk, one cannot ignore what the festival has accomplished and continues to offer black filmmakers - namely exposure of black films to predominantly black audiences, something that non-black film festivals cannot claim, especially given that many of these films, if eventually acquired for distribution and released, will be marketed as "black films" to primarily black audiences, however unfair and limiting that might seem to some who believe their films to be universal and deserve broader circulation.

This exposure is even more crucial for those films that don't receive attention from the top-tier film festivals, which some may say is indicative of their quality (or lack thereof); but then the conversation shifts to a matter of taste and subjectivity, as well as, as I said earlier, whether any one person or group has a monopoly on how "good taste" or "good art" is defined; also, there are the monetary awards, notably, the HBO $20,000 Short Film Award given to the best short film at the ABFF; and lastly, you can't help but respect the effort. As someone who's gone through the process of helping to put together a film festival, I can say with certainty that it presents numerous challenges, is by no means an easy task, and requires an unwavering dedication - especially for a festival of ABFF's size and scope.

Then again, one could make similar statements about the film production process; which then leaves us at a crossroads, where further volumes could be written on the matter.

But back to my original question – how would I grade the 2011 installment of the American Black Film Festival?

To be frank, it definitely wasn’t one of its strongest years in terms of its selection of films – particularly the features. I fully expected to see some of the highly-touted black films that screened at festivals earlier in the year, at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca; however, as Jeff Friday stated, though he would have liked to have all those titles screen at his festival, his preference, as is the case for many other festival heads, is for premieres of some kind, whether US or world.

And while that’s certainly, perfectly understandable, one has to also consider what’s really feasible, given one’s ranking in the hierarchy of existing festivals; which then leads us right back to square one above all over again.

I’d also add that, if one of the festival’s goals is to showcase the talents of the best in independent black cinema, as I believe is one of the ABFF’s objectives, then, in recognizing that the audience differs from that which attends the other mentioned festivals – an audience that will likely be seeing these films for the very first, and maybe only time – I’d expect to that some of these critically acclaimed titles would be highly sought after, and will eventually screen at the festival, to be seen by a predominantly black audience, which could later affect the film's box office if it's ever commercially released.

But from what I gathered in my conversation with Mr Friday, there’s more than meets the eye here, and likely more than many of us idealistic types may ever be privy to.

I believe the word used by one of my colleagues was “politics,” and all that the term suggests.

I tried reading between the lines, but that leaves open the possibility for misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

So where does that leave us? Back at square one it seems.

In summary, I think what he said about determining and learning to "stay in your lane" speaks volumes. As I suggested, he's apparently settled into his, and is comfortable there, which is ultimately all that matters, despite what anyone else (filmmaker, audience, critic) might think or wish for.

There’s always next year; and as long as we're invited back to the festival, we'll be there, though with a new understanding, and thus different set of expectations.

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8 Comments

  • chiguy | July 15, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    Tambay I would suggest that you read a book, Why should white guys have all of the fun by Reginald Lewis. I say this because it will give you a degree of insight in to the infrastructure of business and how glass ceilings are imposed and enforced. It is a much bigger picture going on than premiering films already screened at Sundance or Tribeca. Jeff Friday has always had an agenda, sometimes it was the powers that be thwarting him and sometimes it was the crabs in the bucket mentality that derailed certain aspirations. Regardless, the fact that the ABFF is 15 deep speaks volumes, it began and continues to be a source of inspiration to the independent african american filmmaking community

  • Quentin | July 15, 2011 7:44 AMReply

    @ Tambay

    "I’m pretty sure that most festivals, even the majors, choose films based on who is in them. Not just ABFF; And some of those films aren’t very good. I saw a few at Sundance this year." -- Tambay

    But ABFF can't afford to do such things, especially when they only screen like 10 narrative features, 5 in competition (if that). Meanwhile a film festival like Sundance and Toronto screen about 30 to 50. Those top tiers can squeeze in a turd or two for name credibility. Their ratio of good to bad films would always be positive. If ABFF screen a lot more films and decided to throw in a steaming pile like I Do... I Did! because the writer and star used to be the chick who was the best friend of Laura Winslow in "Family Matters" then great. Screen it along side much stronger films that don't have name credibility. But they don't. ABFF's ratio of good to bad films need to always lean towards a respectable positive outlook on the overall festival as a whole.

    By the way, IMDB doesn't say Night Catches Us screened at American Black Film Festival. Even if it did, that would go against the festival's objective to screen world or US premieres being that it screened at Sundance first, right? They certainly didn't stick to the plan when screening Legacy, which premiered at Tribeca. So, maybe you're right. :)

  • CareyCarey | July 15, 2011 5:57 AMReply

    Nice post Tambay, as always, it was well written and obviously thoroughly thought out.

    I attend film festivals, and since you took the time to write this post and give us you heartfelt opinions (hat tip your way), I am going to take a little time to give a little feedback. First, I have to start at were this begins for me and what I believe is the central point of this issue (film festivals in general).

    Tambay: “There was something for almost everyone, depending on what exactly you were looking for”

    That small sentence, imo, speaks volumes. Like you, when I go to a film festival, my primary focus “are the films, first and foremost”. Now, that could be the end of the story, however, I’ve always received several serendipitous rewards (pleasures I was not looking for) at many festivals I’ve attended, which makes we want to return, and tell others about “it” and the icings on the cake. It could be subtle things like an unpretentious atmosphere, or being one of the first to see a future smash hit... the friendliness of the welcoming and organizing committees (volunteers included).... great conversations with other “average” Joe-Schmo movie goers,.... a chance encounter with a (and several) known director, actor, or screenwriter which leads to a friendly conversation as open and honest as two people just having morning coffee (it happens). Many of them love to talk about their craft, their life and their journey. So yeah, again, what a person is looking for and what they ultimately take back home speaks volumes. However, having said that, we are back to....


    Tambay: “In my humble opinion, a film festival is only as strong as the films it shows; so, with that in mind”

    Raising my hand again (in agreement). The above mentioned other ingredients to my gumbo, again, imo, would not be as rich (spicy) if “strong” films were not present. I believe it’s safe to say that’s sad but an unfortunately truth. Think about it, word of mouth is a very effective “tool”. The location of a film festival is important, but if the only thing I pass on to others is a sparkling review of the location, the festival has been subjugated to a position that I believe does not speak well for said festival. Well, without “attention” and all that implies ....

    “industry attention that would increase a film’s chances of being acquired for distribution by a major or even minor film company. I’ve already named a couple of those festivals, and the ABFF unfortunately doesn’t make the short list”

    “How does a black festival like the ABFF become a must-stop for all black filmmakers - especially those who instead opt to premiere their films at non-black specific festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto and others? What would it take to convince any of the black filmmakers who’ve debuted their films at festivals other than a black film festival like ABFF, to consider an ABFF premiere instead? That’s where my concerns and efforts currently lie, and, to be sure, the answer to that question is one that would require a collaborative effort from all sides - starting with a mutual respect between the filmmakers, the festivals and audiences”


    Ouch, the evil and very elusive “collaborative effort”. Well, your next paragraph said it all and I could hear what you didn’t say.

    “But from what I gathered in my conversation with Mr Friday, there’s more than meets the eye here, and likely more than many of us idealistic types may ever be privy to.
    I believe the word used by one of my colleagues was “politics,” and all that the term suggests. I tried reading between the lines, but that leaves open the possibility for misunderstandings and misinterpretations”

    Again, this was a nice informative post, and a good place to stop.... “politics” “humans” “who’s looking for what” and “between the lines” all under the unspoken umbrella of the mean green dollar bill. Yep, there’s a lot of lanes to jump in, and out of.

  • tambay | July 14, 2011 9:27 AMReply

    @ Quentin - I'm pretty sure that most festivals, even the majors, choose films based on who is in them. Not just ABFF; And some of those films aren't very good. I saw a few at Sundance this year.

    And for every "I Do... I Did," there's a "Legacy," "Mississippi Damned," "Night Catches Us," and several others that have screened over the years - those 3 in the last 2 years.

  • Quentin | July 14, 2011 9:17 AMReply

    So, you mean to tell me ABFF didn't have any alternatives to nightmarishly horrendous films like Kiss of Death and I Do... I Did? I'm sure they had better films "in terms of technical and narrative style and proficiency." I Do... I Did was probably the worst film I ever saw in my life. They went with those films for the names. ABFF has no choice but to stay in their lane, especially with their practices.

  • tambay | July 14, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    I disagree with you there Donnie. The filmmaker's process is one that's been well-documented, so much that even Joe-Schmo in North Dakota knows all-too well the challenges that exist in getting a film produced, from thought to screen. They may not know the nitty-gritty, but there's definitely an awareness.

    Can't say the same for running a film festival.

  • Donnie Leapheart | July 14, 2011 3:41 AMReply

    Tambay, I got a feeling of.....um, hesitation on your part in sharing how you REALLY feel. But the key word mentioned in the essay was "politics".

    Excuses for the festival aside, unfortunatly people only care about results. Any filmmaker can tell you how incredibly DIFFICULT it is just to make a BAD film, let alone a great one. But the audience doesn't care about your financing difficulties, or your issues with actors, equipment malfunctions, weather delays, Crew dropouts, last minute location cancelations, etc. They only see the result, the end product. I almost wish every film review began with detailing all the obstacles the filmmakers faced, then critiqued the film itself. LOL. But films usually don't get that kind of treatment.

    I think the same should apply to the ABFF.

    As someone that has both attended and had a feature film screened at the festival, I will say that the ABFF, UWFF and others like it are very much needed. Regardless of any shortcomings they may be perceived to have.

  • Laura | July 14, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    Tambay, it's seems like this man has hit an industry glass ceiling. He is accepting of it. Probably 15 years ago he saw unlimited potential of getting Black films out in the mainstream market place, the way Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW (I remember when SXSW was only known for it's cutting edge music) did. However after years of learning the ropes he understood the institutional infrastructures that prevents his vision from coming a reality.

    This is something that Black art curators experience in the music recording, theatre arts, publishing industries, etc. The realities of the and the day to day dealings and operations, politics spoken and unspoken laws as well as the nature of the market place force him to operate in his own lane.

    I commend the man for doing it for 15 years straight. I have seen many Black arts organization curate Black art works being inconsistent and/or die an early death.

    Having said that, he did something that was not done 16 years ago. He may not see the change in the market place in which he was working, but if he looks back he will see the impact he made.

    True success will be that we no longer need any "Black" film festivals. Hopefully he or Blacks who were influenced by him will head one of those type of "no longer need any Black" film festivals. ; )

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