Neema Barnette addresses the crowd at Women Thou Art Loosed: On the Seventh Day, the closing film at the 2012 Pan African Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Venus Bernardo PhotographyBlair Underwood and Sharon Leal, the stars of Women Thou Art Loosed, part of the Reverend T.D. Jakes' franchise. The Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) wrapped its 20th anniversary with a number of festivities, including the closing night movie, Women Thou Art Loosed: On the Seventh Day—part of the Reverend T.D. Jakes’ franchise. Starring Blair Underwood, Sharon Leal (Dream Girls, Why Did I Get Married), and a delightful turn by Pam Grier, the story centers around a family whose bonds stretch until they snap when a child goes missing. (The film will be released in April by the African-American owned Code Black Entertainment.)“I always love to be in the Pan African Film Festival,” celebrated director Neema Barnette (Civil Brand, The Cosby Show) told the audience, “because it’s the community’s festival.” She set her film in New Orleans, where the character played by Underwood is quietly haunted by his mother’s loss to Hurricane Katrina.The actor spoke about the pleasure of taking direction from Barnette and said, “I’ve watched her work and admired and respected it.” While the Emmy Award winning actor Glynn Turman, who was seated in the audience, rose to second Underwood’s sentiment, calling Barnette a “griot” (African storyteller) and a “warrior.”After the talk-back session, the audience headed into an upstairs wing of the mall for a party with deejayed music, soul food and a smogasboard of networking. For the last few years, PAFF, the largest and most prestigious international Black film festival, had been held in Culver City; this year, it went home again to Baldwin Hills’ Crenshaw Plaza, playing at the Rave Cinemas (formerly Magic Johnson Theatres), featuring 160 films from 30 countries, including more than 90 features and nearly 70 shorts. Upwards of 100 artists, designers and craft persons sold their wares in the nearby mall. For Ayuko Babu, who founded the festival two decades ago with actors Ja’net DuBois and Danny Glover, the highlight of 12-day fest was that “African people continue to come out to hear our stories, and we continue to make films.” The festival brought back a number of “jewels”— films that were a hit at the festival over the last two decades, including A Lucy, about the African woman from whom all mankind descended, and for which PAFF was able to get Academy Award consideration, and Fear of a Black Hat, the best satire of Hip Hop, according to Babu, a tall kindly presence who can be seen moving about the festival wearing his signature African clothing. Another familiar face at the festival was Oliver Litondo, who plays the lead role in The First Grader, based on the true story of the late Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old villager in Kenya whose studies were interrupted during the Mau Mau Uprising, when Kenyans fought against British colonizers for liberation. During the struggle, Maruge was tortured and saw his wife killed. In later years, he answered the government’s countrywide call to “educate everyone,” making it into the Guinness World Records for the oldest person to start primary school. The First Grader recently won a 2012 image award. “Film cuts across nations, races, tribes and languages because education is an element that all of us would want to have,” Litondo observed. “So this film has had a hand in inspiring a lot of people, and a lot of people in Kenya, of various ages, have since enrolled in school,” he told an audience that stayed to listen to his insights into the project.
Aside from countless hours of film watching, many who attend PAFF are themselves interested in making movies, working in TV, or delving deeper into the process that takes a story from script to screen.Kevin Robinson of San Francisco lead a “Diversity In Film Criticism” panel because “there is a lack of different voices/opinions when in comes to having intelligent and objective analysis of film.” A member of MediumRareTV, a multicultural group of critics who write reviews and interview filmmakers, Robinson asserted: “This type of panel gives critics of color an opportunity to introduce themselves to an audience that otherwise might not be aware of them, and it provides a face-to-face platform for discussion between critics and moviegoers.”In another panel, Romell Foster Owens, an Emmy Award winning producer, hosted a producer-and-directors roundtable on “The Art of Creative Collaboration.” Among the panelists were Barnette, Janine Sherman Barrois, executive producer of Criminal Minds; and Lyndon Barrois, visual effects producer/animation.“I feel it is important that new and emerging producers and directors see that there are people in Hollywood who are not only successful, but who also look like them and who have remained true to their heritage,” Foster Owens said about why she chose that topic. “Having been in this business for more than 25 years I know how difficult it is to make your mark. It is important that we mentor and encourage others.”