Hala, played by May El Calamawy (left) and Amal, played by Tamara Dhia (right), are shown in a scene from Raouf Zaki’s “Santa Claus in Baghdad,” an entry in the 2009 Roxbury Film Festival. Zaki said the festival affirmed to him that minority filmmakers have a place in national film discourse. (Photo courtesy of RA Vision Productions)
|“Jump the Broom: A Musical,” the opening night film at this year’s 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival, features a young woman played by Renee Elise Goldsberry (center) who has second thoughts about marrying her well-mannered groom-to-be, played by Brandon DeShazer (left). (Image courtesy of Roxbury Film Festival)
|Filmmaker Llewellyn Smith’s entry in this year’s Roxbury Film Festival, “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness,” examines the life of Melville J. Herskovits, a Jewish scholar who focused on black history. (Parker Digital Imaging photo)
Brandon DeShazer has seen his share of glamorous film premieres and after-parties. But the Los Angeles-based actor said that last Thursday night’s opening of the 11th Annual Roxbury Film Festival (RFF) swept all the others under the red carpet.
“I have never experienced anything like it,” he said in an interview last Friday. “The Roxbury Film Festival has completely blown my expectations of what a film festival can pull off. This really is an event that is held by the community, and you can see that in the passion that everybody brings to the festival.”
DeShazer plays a well-mannered groom-to-be in “Jump the Broom: A Musical.” The film, written and directed by Kena Tangi Dorsey, was chosen as the festival’s opening night film.
Dorsey, who was also in town for the screening, echoed DeShazer’s high praise for the festival and raved about the opening night festivities that took place at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“The program opened with an amazing gospel choir,” she began.
“Amazing!” DeShazer repeated, for emphasis.
“The house was full and there was so much love in the house,” Dorsey continued. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Dorsey said that her film, a 31-minute short about a young woman who has second thoughts about marrying her stand-up but straight-laced fiancé, aims to capture a life experience while also providing the audience with the chance to “escape and go on a journey.” She chose the musical form to marry these objectives.
“These are real emotions and decisions we are faced with every day … it’s kind of an organic musical,” Dorsey said. “I wanted to do something that was true to life … [and also] healing and beautiful.”
By exposing Boston audiences to independent films, the Roxbury Film Festival plays a crucial role in enabling filmmakers like her to continue their work, Dorsey said.
“You can tell the community loves this organization, because the organization gives back to the African American community through exposure of these films that you might not see in [mainstream theatres],” she said.
Support for local and independent filmmakers translates into support for all minority filmmakers, noted Framingham-based director Raouf Zaki. His film, “Santa Claus in Baghdad,” tells the story of a young Iraqi boy living in Baghdad who believes that his uncle visiting from the United States is Santa Claus.
“I was struggling really hard to find money for this film,” he explained. The Color of Film Collaborative, which is one of the festival’s producing partners, became one of his project’s main supporters.
The collaborative also provided a small grant that helped offset some of the expenses involved in making the film, including endeavors such as transforming a warehouse and a museum, both in Framingham, into settings as disparate as a book market and school in Baghdad.
Zaki said he hoped his film would help “humanize the Iraqi people and show that there are more commonalities than differences between us and them.”
“Any boy wants a car from Santa Claus … I wanted to defy the stereotype of a kid running through an Iraqi street burning an American flag like you see on television,” Zaki said.
Taking part in the RFF also affirmed to Zaki that minority filmmakers have a place in national film discourse, especially in light of the challenges he has faced as an Egyptian-born American filmmaker. (“I prefer not to use the word ‘Arab,’” Zaki quipped, “because whenever an American hears the word Arab, it generates negative stereotypes about a man sitting on a camel in the desert or a rich man in Saudi Arabia driving a Mercedes with a couple of hawks on his shoulders.”)
“I am really honored to be at this festival,” he said, adding that it is often difficult to obtain financial backing for his films.
“I’m still struggling to finance my next film,” he said. “It bothers and upsets me that this type of film and my previous film are hugely and very widely used [as educational tools] in American universities and schools, yet I get rejected from most grants and honestly most festivals, which I don’t understand. Are we not able to accept stories from another culture?”
Questions about who has the authority to dominate the discourse about a people’s culture led Allston-based filmmaker Llewellyn Smith to produce and direct “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness,” which examines the life of Jewish scholar Melville J. Herskovits.
An anthropologist by training, Herskovits focused much of his work on black history and black people and heavily influenced 20th-century scholarship on Africa and African American culture. Whether this influence has been positive or negative remains a subject of debate.
“What we try to do in the film is challenge the audience to make up their own mind,” Smith said. “On the one hand, he popularized his field and created the first African Studies program at an American university. On the other hand, he was also manipulative in the way he tried to dominate the field and tried to undermine other scholars like [W.E.B.] Du Bois, which we talk about in the film.”
Local organizations like the Color of Film Collaborative and events such as the RFF provide opportunities for filmgoers to critically examine their own assumptions while also showcasing work that can act as inspiration for a younger generation of filmmakers, Smith added.
“For me, part of it is getting younger audiences to imagine and be aware that this community of filmmakers exists and they could be a part of that community,” he said. “A lot of younger people don’t open up the horizons of possibility around themselves because they don’t see around them any examples.”
The film festival is an opportunity for younger audiences to see that “there are black filmmakers doing really interesting work and that they can be a part of that community,” he said.
But encouraging independent filmmaking reaches beyond the festival itself, he added.
“It’s about making audiences and Boston — not just black Boston, but all of Boston — aware that there’s a community of color doing a lot of work in film and we’ve been doing that for a long time,” he said.
Smith’s advice? “The festival makes our work present. Seek it out, not just during the festival but throughout the year.”