by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
In a film-loving city like Seattle, it probably won't come as a shock to anyone that the Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival (LHAAFF) is turning 12. Same time, its growth over these past dozen years is still extraordinary, and what started as a small showcase for Black film and Black filmmakers from across the globe has blossomed into a nine day event the Emerald City has wholeheartedly embraced.
Arguably featuring its most ambitious slate of narrative features, documentaries and shorts in its entire history, LHAAFF is poised to take off as it never has before. With a plethora of guests scheduled to attend, filled with workshops and events sure to educate, fascinate and delight attendees of all races, ages and genders, it's virtually guaranteed there's something for everyone scheduled to screen at some point during the festival.
A Seattle legend known for her directing and staging of the perennial Black Nativity, Jacqueline Moscou has been the artistic director over at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute since 2002 and as such she's been shepherding this festival since its infancy. I had the pleasure of engaging in a brief email back-and-forth with the local writer, director, actress and activist earlier this week. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: The Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival turns twelve this year. What does this anniversary mean to you? Can you believe it's been a dozen years at this point?
Jacqueline Moscou: It is hard to believe and very rewarding. It means that the film festival resonates with the public and the filmmakers who participate.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This feels, in many ways, to be one of the more ambitious, multifaceted slates of programs and films for the festival (at least that I've seen) so far. What's important to you when putting the schedule together? What is it that you and your team of programmers are looking for?
Jacqueline Moscou: The core value of the festival is to present the many facets and voices that exist within the Black Cultural experience globally. We also look to build relationships with filmmakers. It is important to us that filmmakers feel they have a home and a platform for their work. This is where we began with Ava DuVernay, when we screened her first feature documentary ten years ago and now she is the first African American female to be nominated as a Director for the Golden Globe [for Selma].
On the same platform we work with first-time Directors like Amen Gibreab who we have encouraged and given opportunities to over the past four years that have fueled his passion for filmmaking. Now he is screening his first documentary with us, Horeta: The Journey Beyond Culture. He has had the benefit of other filmmakers critiquing his work and helping him learn the craft. We look forward to seeing where this takes him.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me a little about the opening night film, The Ground on Which I Stand. What made it stand out? Why was this the perfect film to open the festival this year?
Jacqueline Moscou: The festival strives to build community across the aisles of the theater and neighborhood. Wherever the opportunity arises we showcase who and what exists in our own back yard. August Wilson is not only a national treasure, he was a local treasure. The Ground on Which I Stand is the perfect film because August Wilson chronicled ten decades of African American life. He was unapologetic about Black Life being important and American. His film sets the tone for what the festival is all about. The poster art this year is a Black Power fist, with the words, 'representation,' 'presentation' and 'identity.' August Wilson embodied it all.
The festival is also not a static event of just viewing films either. We build programming around the films to add value and relevance. For this film, we will have two local winners of the national August Wilson Monologue Competition (a competition for high school students) perform live.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Ladies Night is back this year. Why bring it back? What has made this evening so successful?
Jacqueline Moscou: As a woman, honoring ourselves and having fun makes the world a better place. Women have traditionally been the backbone of movements, churches and cultural traditions. They attend the festival in large numbers and this is for them.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You have so many diverse community sponsors and beneficiaries. Seattle Rep Theatre, the Fred Hutch HIV Vaccine Trial Unit, BABES, Neighborhood House, CFAR, so many more. Why is this important? What drives you to keep expanding the outreach, bringing more organizations from across the Seattle and Pacific NW communities into the Langston Hughes fold?
Jacqueline Moscou: The performing arts is one of the few arenas left that bring people together in the flesh. With the preponderance of online entertainment, shopping, education and work, it is a serious responsibility for Cultural workers to build bridges of communication with people from all walks of life. The diverse communities involved in the festival also affirm the success the festival is having showcasing the tremendous diversity of our stories and in breaking down the stereotype that Black programming is just for Black people. We all live in this world together.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You're an accomplished actress, director and writer and as such I imagine putting together this festival each year has to be an incredibly rewarding and highly personal experience. What keeps bringing you back? What energizes you?
Jacqueline Moscou: The energy and drive people have to express themselves really inspires me. If you look at TV, the newspapers, magazines, etc. you can pull your hair out seeing the negative images that are attributed to Black people. When you see the 100th Black male killed by a cop, the economic disparity for Black people, you could just give up. But the film festival exposes you to the rainbow of the human mind and reminds you, 'Oh, by the way, you are not only included in the rainbow, you help make it.'
I love, working with the volunteers and the festival team and communities. I am very fortunate to have been able to live my life in the arts. I am continually learning, being challenged, inspired and called to action.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This year's slate of LGBT-themed shorts and films is intriguing, to say the least. What drew you to these films? What can you tell everyone about them?
Jacqueline Moscou: Once again, the films are very diverse. Our two feature length films, Positively Beautiful and We Came to Sweat appear to be two different topics and films. One is about women living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, [the other] about the oldest Gay Black Lounge in New York. However, the heart of each film is about resistance and activism. They reflect the spirit of people to survive and willingness to fight to keep what is important. Even if you don't win or achieve the goal, you have placed your name on the rolls of humanity, saying, 'I count.'
This festival is all about showing films that you won't see in mainstream America. Films that show Black people not as victims but as survivors. These films provide options and inspiration that ordinary citizens can become extraordinary activists in the struggle against stigma, fear and displacement. Gonna Sip That Sip, Hit that Dip documents the emerging Queer-Hip-Hop Movement, while And Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a comedic take on the Sidney Poitier film but this time with a traditional Nigerian-American family.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What is the state of African American film right now? What has inspired you? What has shocked you?
Jacqueline Moscou: The technology has made filmmaking more affordable and accessible to many more people and I am seeing a plethora of films and content coming from African Americans. With YouTube, Netflix, the web and Cable we are seeing many more avenues for filmmakers to distribute their films and the independent Black film scene is booming. As I said earlier, I am inspired by how many people are actually making films. What continues to shock me is we have made great progress on the artistic side - we have Black workers throughout all the arenas in filmmaking - and yet economically, White mainstream film dollars remain a paltry percentage of the pie. Dealing with these economic disparities, there's still a long way to go.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Why are festivals like this so important? Why do they still matter?
Jacqueline Moscou: Sharing our specific stories is where we find our mutual universalities. Societies are never remembered by the policies that were written; always it is the Culture, the Art. It is a fundamental human drive to express oneself and a fundamental human need to be loved. It may sound corny, but [we] share ourselves through art to be heard, and being heard is necessary to feel love and extend love.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Personally, what can't you wait for audiences to discover and experience during this year's festival?
Jacqueline Moscou: I am so excited about watching people see some of the documentaries, from August Wilson to The African American climbers of Mt. Denali in American Ascent, to Discovering Dave about a slave who was a master potter and wrote on his pottery as his form of resistance. I am also thrilled at the number of attending filmmakers who will be joining us this year. I want everyone to come to the filmmaker's brunch and eat and hear a discussion on the state of Black Independent film.
I am also excited that we have so many women filmmakers in the festival this year. That is not always the case. I am excited about the family films we have, a series of great shorts that young people and families can attend and one film, On Fathers, Sons and Love, showing how love is passed on from men, too. I am passionate about each film session; we have something for everyone because that's what it is to be human.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What's next on the agenda for the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute?
Jacqueline Moscou: There is always something happening at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Next on our producing end is our annual Summer Musical, which this year will be Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: Each One Teach One.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Where do you see the festival going from here?
Jacqueline Moscou: The reputation of the festival continues to grow and I would love to expand on how we nurture filmmakers here in the NW with workshops and seminars year round.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Any last thoughts you'd love to impart before the festival begins?
Jacqueline Moscou: I never miss an opportunity to express that a festival is meant to be digested as a whole as one's time allows. It is not one film at a time. It is a journey through nine days that takes you around the world and back home again. The best way to experience the festival is to buy a pass and plan to see as many films and meet as many filmmakers and neighbors as possible.
Langston Hughes African-American Film Festival is a major season program of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Beginning as a weekend series, LHAAFF has expanded over the past 12 years to include nine days of film screenings, workshops, filmmaker events and community celebrations renowned for presenting positive, provocative and penetrating independent films created by emerging and established filmmakers. Films are selected by panel and will include contemporary and vintage offerings, as well as local, national and international filmmakers. The festival will feature panel discussions, readings, and audience 'talk-backs' with filmmakers, industry professionals and community leaders. LHPAI and its LHAAFF is a founding member of the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement. Anchored by the passion and prowess of founding African-American film festivals, AFFRM empowers Black independent filmmakers with simultaneous theatrical distribution in multiple markets.
This year's festival runs from April 11 to April 19. For more information including a full schedule as well as information on purchasing tickets and passes, please go to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute website at http://www.langstoninstitute.org/film-festival-15/#schedule./i>
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