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Roxbury International Film Festival enters its 16th season

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Roxbury International Film Festival enters its 16th season
“The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” The directors — Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina (r) with Doris Payne.

The annual Roxbury International Film Festival (RIFF) begins its 16th season on Wednesday, June 25, with the real-life story of international jewel thief Doris Payne in the documentary, “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” The festival runs four days, with all screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts. The “throwback-themed” finale on Sunday, June 29 will be a screening of the 2001 film “Lift” from Boston directors Khari Street and DeMane Davis, followed by a “Where are they now?” Q&A with several of the film’s participants.

RIFF started in 1999 as a $5,000 grant to ACT Roxbury (Arts, Culture & Trade Roxbury) to showcase local African American filmmakers and their stories. First known as the Dudley Film Festival (because of its location in Dudley Square at the time), the festival morphed into the annual Roxbury Film Festival, adding the “international” in 2010 to become RIFF.

The festival has become, “a much more multicultural and international festival, with filmmakers that span the globe,” says Lisa Simmons, RIFF director and programmer. “It just makes sense. As our world becomes more global, what better way to share your stories than through the power of film?”

In 1999, Simmons and Michael Trent were doing a series of film-related programs under the Roxbury-based nonprofit The Color of Film Collaborative (TCOF) when ACT Roxbury and Candelaria Silva Collins contacted TCOF to help plan the first festival. “

“TCOF was attracted to the fest,” Simmons recalls, “because it was something that we had wanted to do but didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. There were so many filmmakers of color from the Boston and Roxbury area who were not getting in to other film festivals.” ACT Roxbury and TCOF produced the festival together up until 2009, when TCOF became its sole producer.

Simmons has been a witness to the growth and impact of the festival over the years. She has seen firsthand how the festival adds to the richness of cultural offerings in the city, she says.

“I think it helps shine a positive spotlight on the Roxbury area,” she says. “There are so many amazing things going on in Roxbury — not just now, but throughout its history — and it needs to be celebrated.”

In its first year, the Dudley Film Festival showcased about 10 films with directors who had ties to Massachusetts; in 2012, more than 65 films were shown. In the past two years, the festival has scaled down to a more manageable combination of approximately 30 feature films, documentaries and shorts.

Lisa recently spoke with the Banner about the importance of the annual festival, its impact, and her fondest memories over the past 16 years.

Why is the festival so important to you?

It is important to me because I think that filmmakers of color and people making movies that celebrate or tell a different story of people of color do not get to share their work with larger audiences. When the fest started there were so many films that told great stories, so many filmmakers who were producing quality films but there wasn’t an audience and there were not that many “black” film festivals. So, people were creating work, showing it in small venues or in homes and then shelving it. Film festivals give filmmakers the opportunity to share their stories, their vision with audiences that have an interest in, and have been affected by, the subject matter of the film. It is so important to see films that reflect a wider array of images of people of color, and not just those images that Hollywood portrays of the African American experience of crime and urban decay. These were the films that were gracing the megaplexes when the Film Festival was started, so there needed to be a place where the stories that connected to different aspects of the African American experience could be seen.

Did you imagine it would still be around 16 years later?

I guess I never gave it much thought. It is pretty amazing that it is, because there have been so many changes and when one person leaves you think it is all going to fall apart but we have just continued going. That is in large part because of the dedicated volunteer staff that has been at the heart of this festival. No one is making money on this festival. It is out of passion and commitment to these filmmakers and our audience that we keep going. It doesn’t feel like 16 years. My son is 20, and it seems so strange to think that this has all being going on since he was 4. Every year I think it will be my last, but when it comes around, so many people ask about it, and I feel such an obligation to them and to the filmmakers to continue something so important, that literally does change people’s view of the world.

What have you learned from your involvement over the years?

I have learned that the filmmakers are such a creative force in the world. They have the power to change minds, to enlighten, to educate and to engage you beyond what you may have thought you were capable of. RIFF filmmakers are telling stories about subject matter, individuals, history and life that you wouldn’t even know existed if you didn’t see it at the festival. I am constantly moved by what I have seen over the years. Many of the films stay with me well beyond the screening. I’ve also learned that people are amazing: the staff that has stayed despite not being paid; the audiences who come year after year; and the volunteers who have contributed countless hours. I love that it brings people from all walks of life to a shared experience that is oftentimes so powerful, you are moved to tears.

What are your fondest memories of the festival?

Oh my, there are soooo many fond memories! Hanging out with Billie Dee Williams when he was here for an opening night film. Meeting Ruby Dee and reading to her on stage her citation from the city. She was so shocked, and incredibly wonderful in her response. It was a very, very special day. I loved the early years when there were many of us in the festival pulling almost all-nighters just to get everything done and then a big sigh of relief and a feeling of amazement that we pulled it off. Also, when Michael Beach comes to town — he has been at the festival three times now and I think it is so wonderful that he still comes back to support us. His trip here last year was memorable because of the award we gave him for all he has done in his career.

I think the perception of RIFF is that it’s backed by major financial supporters. Does the festival receive any city and/or state funding? Does the festival make money?

The festival has received funding from state and local sources as well as corporate support, but it is by no means a money making venture. The amount of funding is small and will cover filmmaker travel or receptions but it does not cover salaries (everyone is a volunteer) or a huge marketing program. We get a lot of in-kind support. The Bay State Banner has been an amazing partner, as has the Museum of Fine Arts. Without them, this festival would not be possible. The festival does make money on ticket sales, but at the end of the day it barely breaks even with costs that need to be paid.

How can people support the festival? What are the ways?

You can support the festival by buying tickets! Gold and Silver passes as well as tickets sold at the MFA. We want you to come see the films and support the filmmakers, but we also need you to buy tickets. You can also support by making a donation through PayPal on the RIFF website.

Usually RIFF has several major actors and/or directors attending the festival. This year it seems that the focus is less on the special guests, and more on the films and filmmakers. Was this intentional?

Our focus is always on the films and filmmakers, and in past years we have done our opening without a big named celebrity and it works because the films have been so strong and the film is based on a celebrity in their own right. This year we really wanted to open with Doris Payne. It is such an incredible story and, well, she would be here if she wasn’t back in jail … It’s never intentional to not have a celebrity. It just sometimes works out that way.

There are so many local film festivals these days that showcase independent films. How is RIFF different from other festivals and why is it so important?

RIFF is a filmmakers’ festival and we are known for that in the film festival industry. I love the fact that when a filmmaker is accepted into the film festival, they send an e-mail saying how honored they are to be at RIFF. That makes me feel really good, and makes me realize that we are doing something very important here, very special for these filmmakers and the audiences.

The festival has scaled down tremendously this year. According to the website, there aren’t any workshops or festivities scheduled to take place. What has changed?

Mostly time and space. Workshops are great, but I have found in the past that they are not always well attended. The filmmaker workshop tends to do well, but being at just one venue this year, we are limited on space. We are doing a filmmaker reception this year that Rob Patton Spruill and Patti Moreno are hosting. Also, we are closing the festival with a conversation with a number of actors that were in the film “Lift” (one of RIFF’s early films screened), who will be talking about the business of acting in Boston and where they are now. Jacqui Parker, Naheem Garcia and Crystal Tyson will be on hand to contribute to that discussion. Also, after the “American Promise” screening, a panel discussion with Ron Walker, executive director of COSEBOC [Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color] and others will talk about the education of black and brown boys.

Ticket prices and passes are relatively inexpensive in comparison to other local festivals, yet the festival seems to still be struggling to increase attendance. Do you think this is true, and if so, what do you attribute it to?

Ticket prices are cheaper than most festivals and I think there is so much going on in the city these days that people need to make choices. Since the recession, people hold onto their money a bit longer and they are really thinking hard about how they are going to spend it. I think we try to keep tickets low so that the choice isn’t a difficult one, and the quality up so they know they have to come because it might be the only time that they can see a particular film.

There’s been talk that this year may be the last year for the festival. Is that true?

I don’t know. I say this every year, but then the year comes and it’s time for the fest again. I know there are folks interested in stepping in and helping next year so it might not be me … but it has to be someone. This festival is too important for it to go away.

What do you want people to take away from attending the festival?

They can see and be affected by stories they might not have even known existed. They will be moved by what they see, and for many will want to know how they can support the subject matter they see. They will laugh, cry, think and feel, oftentimes in the same film. That’s powerful, and these films are just that: powerful.

The 16th Annual Roxbury International Film Festival begins Wed., June 25 and runs through Sun., June 29. The festival is held entirely at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Tickets can be purchased in advance at http://www.mfa.org/programs/series/roxbury-international-film-festival.

For more information on the festival, visit www.roxburyinternationalfilmfestival.org.