A land of discoveries at the Montreal Black Film Festival

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Brown Girl Begins

Last week I noticed that the New Arrivals section of Netflix had just been filled with about a dozen mainstream Nigerian films. These were not “festival” films in the proper sense, they were melodramas, comedies, action movies — the Nollywood equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. It occurred to me that the majority of foreign films we watch in North America are not necessarily even the films that are watched by the general public — they go through a certain process of “cultural legitimacy” that leaves out wide swaths of mainstream filmmaking. (It goes both ways, mind you — we’ll export a Xavier Dolan movie but not De père en flic 2.) I’d be interested to watch the aforementioned Nigerian films, except I actually haven’t the slightest idea where to start.

These types of films are often best served by smaller, more focused film festivals like the Montreal Black Film Festival, now well into its second decade. Originally conceived as a Haitian film festival, the MBFF has broadened its horizons considerably: The rules for a “black film” can include something like Dabka (which has a white director and white lead, but is set in Somalia) as much as they can include a film like the opening movie, Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu (screening tonight at 7 p.m. at the Imperial), which was shot by a South African cast and crew in South Africa.

There are two Canadian fiction features on the program this year. The first is Brown Girl Begins, the feature debut by Toronto-based filmmaker Sharon Lewis (probably best known for hosting counterSpin and ZeD on CBC in the early 2000s), which bills itself as an Afrofuturist fantasy inspired by the novel Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. The second homegrown fiction feature is D’encre et de sang, a low-budget film that garnered mostly positive reviews in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run in late 2016.

There are also a handful of local documentaries, the most celebrated of which is almost certainly the biographical Oliver Jones: Mind Hands Heart, making its world premiere at the festival. The beloved Montreal-born jazz pianist will also be honoured by the festival as the recipient of its yearly lifetime achievement award.

Although quite a few of the films are shown with talent present, a couple of screenings are explicitly being billed as “Movie Talk” screenings, followed by Q&A. It’s the case for Marianne Noires, a French documentary following seven French-born African women as they discuss inequality and identity in the wake of growing nationalist sentiment in France. Director Wade Gardner will also lead a discussion after his film Marvin Booker Was Murdered, about the senseless death of a homeless street preacher at the hands of the Denver Police Department.

The festival is heavily skewed towards shorts and documentaries; in fact, only 11 of the selections are fictional features, which ensures that the MBFF is a land of discoveries. It’s also nearly impossible to write a preview article about shorts because shorts are tremendously underserved and underreported by film journalists (I’ll include myself in that lot). As with most festivals, there are a few shorts programs as well as shorts preceding the majority of screenings, meaning it’s difficult not to attend MBFF without discovering at least one previously unknown film. ■

The Montreal Black Film Festival runs from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1.

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