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Building BlackStar: Maori Karmael Holmes on City's Newest Film Fest

Restless City

FunkJazz Kafe

Maori Karmael Holmes

Organizing a one-of-a-kind event like the BlackStar Film Festival, Philadelphia's only event devoted to work by and about people of African descent in a global context, has not stopped Maori Karmael Holmes from being an artist.

In fact, it may wind up supplementing her artistry. The working filmmaker's current project is a screenplay about a recently divorced 30-something woman who is trying to decide between her desire for a baby and a man. Holmes is also indulging in some acting, playing the part of Kristen Wiig's Saturday Night Live character Lillia -- "Don't make me sing" -- during BlackStar planning sessions.

"I think people are often surprised by my not-so-secret wish to appear on an episode of Saturday Night Live," says Holmes.

That fantasy will have to wait until at least next week. BlackStar kicks off Thursday and runs through Sunday, Aug. 5 at three ideal sites: African-American Museum, Art Sanctuary and International House.

Holmes has held a variety of positions in Philadelphia that have shaped her ability to pull off such a herculean feat. Holmes has worked for the Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association, University of Pennsylvania's Community Arts Partnership, Painted Bride Arts Center and the Black Lily Film and Music Festival (2006-2010). Last year she was promoted from communications director to associate director at the Leeway Foundation, which funds women and trans artists who drive social change. She is also a partner in Coolhunter Management, a business management and entertainment brand consultancy that works with the likes of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, Ursula Rucker and Pattern is Movement. Some of Holmes' recent work has been for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation's Philly 360 Creative Ambassadors video series. Her 45-minute documentary Scene Not Heard: Women in Philadelphia Hip Hop highlighted the overlooked contributions of Philly female artists and featured interviews with Lady B. and Monie Love.
Holmes was kind of enough to make time to answer some questions about the inaugural festival, which features narratives, documentaries, music videos, and experimental films.

Flying Kite: What specifically inspired you to create the first BlackStar Film Festival?
Maori Karmael Holmes (MKH): I started the BlackStar Film Festival out of a desire to see work by independent directors of African descent that wouldn't otherwise be screened at the mainstream festivals in the city and most likely wouldn't make it to the local cinemas. I wanted to re-create the boutique festival environment that I've participated in while traveling to other cities and have forged lifelong creative bonds across the country.

FK: How will it be different from other black film festivals (locally or nationally)?
MKH: When I started the festival I didn't know of any other black film festivals in Philadelphia. I've recently learned of two that focus on black American work but from what I can gather from their websites, it's an assumption and not specifically in their mission statements. Our festival is specifically targeted to highlight global black life and culture.
FK: How does BlackStar represent Philly?
MKH: Philadelphia, as corny as this sounds, is the birthplace of American independence and historically has been the home of many milestones in the African American pursuit toward full citizenship--and culturally, there's no other city like in terms of African American contributions to the arts and humanities--if we just start with jazz alone it would take forever to list. This is the perfect city to have a festival that is merging both a recognition of history and a celebration of contemporary artistic practice. Additionally Philadelphia has a strong indie arts ethos and this festival is meant to illuminate independent black filmmakers.
FK: In what part of the city do you live?
MKH: I live in Fairmount. I'm new to the neighborhood. I previously lived in Old Kensington/Northern Liberties for many years. I like the trees and the proximity to Center City. I like being able to walk to work in about 20 minutes and being fairly central to points north, east and west. 
FK: Who are some of your favorite up-and-coming black filmmakers in Philly?
MKH: I'm really interested in the work that Quincy "QDeezy" Harris is doing. He's best known as a radio personality. His film "Exit Strategy" was an alternative romantic comedy that I thought was really intriguing. I'm curious to see what his next films will be like and witness his evolution as a producer/actor/writer. I think that Rashid Zakat is one of the most talented DPs in the city and is doing amazing work (including working on BlackStar--full disclosure; he did our trailer). And then there's me. LOL. :-)
FK: You've held a lot of different positions in Philly in the last decade. How has that shaped your artistry or professional trajectory?
MKH: There's no doubt that my decade living in Philly has shaped me as an artist and as a curator/producer. I've made friends in a diversity of environments and it has helped me launch my projects from a broad platform and test out ideas among a heterogeneous population.
FK: What was the toughest part or biggest obstacle related to creating this festival?
MKH: The biggest obstacle to creating this festival has been funding, but then that's expected. We've really had a lot of support from the community and from our partners and sponsors.

FK: If we can only attend one movie or event at BlackStar, what should it be?
MKH: We have so many wonderful films and events it's really hard to choose. More than half of our directors will be in attendance with their films for Q&As, which is a real treasure. But to answer your question, my top two picks would be: the Conversation With Ava DuVernay on Saturday, Aug. 4 at 2:15 p.m. and the Philadelphia premiere screening of Byron Hurt's Soul Food Junkies on Sunday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m..
FK: How can Philly become more of a center for filmmaking, particularly when it comes to black directors/producers/writers?
MKH: I think that Philly is already a center for indie filmmakers. Each year it is listed in Filmmaker Magazine's Top 10--I think it's doing a great job. What wasn't happening was the attention by the festivals--and now BlackStar is here to fill that void.

FK: What part of Philly inspires you as an artist?
MKH: The most inspiring aspect to living in Philly for me has been my support system of fellow artists and cultural workers. The folks I know are talented, smart, insanely creative, and incredibly supportive.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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