Aug 5, 2007

Roxbury Film Festival - Dispatch 3

In many ways the most elegant of African-American film events, the ninth edition of the Roxbury Film Festival has been a solid if not spectacular affair, culling together a group of features and shorts that compromise a majority of the interesting work among emerging Black American film artists from the last year. The event has trimmed its program for its 2007 edition and as a result doesn't suffer from the bloat and uneveness suffered by the Hollywood and San Francisco Black Film Festivals. The parties, luncheons and panels seem a bit rote: they don't overflow with filmmakers, offer festival committee members as "industry panelists" and engaging in dialogue about African-American cinematic representation that seems pedestrian and overwrought. That and sometimes these events take place in Chicago Pizza chains, but for the most part the hospitality and atmosphere is a plus. Screening just over sixty titles at a series of Southeastern Boston's venerable cultural and academic institutions (Museum of Fine Arts, MassArt, Northeastern University and the Wentworth Institute of Technology), the festival has a high mindedness (despite its largerly middlebrow programming) is a respite from the California festivals more populist sensibilities and suggest their still lies potential for a richer, more unique and challenging African-American film culture, even in our sorry postmodernity.

Negligent fathers and the burden of their excesses and betrayals has been a constant theme among the stronger films at this year's festival. Among these is Lanre Olabisi's "August The First". Shot with a gentle naturalism in long, loose handheld takes, the film recounts the college graudation party for Tunde (Ian Alsup), a sensitive if irresponsible young man who has invited his estranged African father (a terrific Dennis Ruben Green) to his party after an abrupt, ten year absence. He's done this without telling his ailing grandmother (Gloria Suave), pregnant sister (Kerisse Hutchinson), alcoholic mother (Joy Meriweather) or dutiful brother (Sean Phillips), all of whom hold different degrees of hostility toward the returned patriarch. The film never reveals the nature of his earlier disappearence, but we slowly learn of the tentative relationship he has maintained with Tunde, and his desire to relocation his new, Nigerian family into his previous household. Olabisi and co-writer Shawn Alexander parcel out details with sparsity, and to great effect.

As the Nigerian's machievellian intentions and supremely manipulative nature rise to the surface on this long day's journey into night, "August The First" delicately crawls underneath the spectators skin, becoming sneakily powerful by its climatic moments in a way reminiscent of Charles Burnett's "To Sleep With Anger". Alsup bouys the film with as the child who only wants to please everyone, and ultimately unravels each of his loved ones darkest secrets. Stylistically the film falls well within the AmerIndie tradition, but also owes a debt to the narrative verite style of French D.P. like Eric Gautier. Shot at the director's mother's house, a piece of autobiographical information of no small relevance considering the subject matter. A favorite at SXSW this year, this powerful slice of black American working class social realism deserves a much larger audience.

Among this year's shorts, the trend continues: This year's festival screened films in which father's, unable to accept their childs homsexuality, beat them viciously, (Dee Rees' amazing "Pariah"), force them into seclusion on a lifeless middle African military compound (Faith Kululu's slight "Autumn's Turn") inexplicably abandon their children for a life underneath the subway (Randall Dottin's Fox Searchlight produced "Lifted") and implicate them in a series of intra-family lies and betrayals in order to protect their shattered masculinity (Moon Molson's "Pop Foul"), which received another curious reception, as audiences a black film festivals can't seem to take this absolutely devestating short seriously.

One woman walked out of the screening twice! In a twenty minute film no less. It's bizarre that in front of a sizeable and ostensibly cine-literate audience at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, chuckles spread through the audience as Darryl, a gargantuan thug, begins to beat the shit out of a little leaguer's hypocritical father right in front of the boy, in one of the film's several harrowing scenes of the dark side of nihilist black masculinity. Later, after both of his parents have betrayed him physically and emotionally, the child returns to the baseball field, inflicting his anger on both the outfield fence and, in perhaps the most terrifying and emotionally resonant moment in any short film this year, his dog. Still, until Steven Clark's character strikes the dog, scattered chuttle spread through the crowd. One was almost compelled to shout them down, yelling "Will You Please Take This Movie Seriously!", as someone famously did during the initial screening of David Cronenberg's "A History of VIolence" at Cannes a few years back. Yet this is even more troubling. "A History of Violence" is a tongue in cheek genre deconstruction; "Pop Foul" is an earnest and extremely moving film that provokes the audience with clarity and concision, so why the laughs? It seems that certain segments of the black movie going audience just seems unable to deal with these issues in a mature manner.