One of the best things about the Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF, held this year February 5-17) is that it gives a voice to independent black filmmakers ignored by an industry only a few miles away geographically, yet light years off in access.
Headquartered at the Magic Johnson Theaters, near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw Boulevards, PAFF celebrated its 11th year in Los Angeles and attracted more than 35,000 filmgoers.
Fresh from Sundance, DGA indie director Neema Barnette opened the festival with a screening of Civil Brand, her provocative look at the merger of prisons and industry.
The Guild further made its presence known by hosting a brunch for filmmakers whose work was screened during the festival. More than 60 filmmakers heard from the IDC Chair Michael Apted, AASC Co-chair Loretha Jones, PAFF founder and executive director Ayuko Babu, and DGA Special Assignments Executive Regina Render. The Guild also co-sponsored, with Kodak, a spirited an informative panel: "Persistence of Vision: Maintaining Your Creative Vision in a Bottom-Line Environment." Moderated by entertainment attorney and DGA member director Loretha Jones, the panel included Spike Lee protégé Jeff Byrd, USC film grad Tim Story, whose studio debut Barbershop has grossed more than $75 million since its release last September, and seven-time-nominated NAACP Image Award filmmaker Kasi Lemmons.
Jones asked Story, who self-financed his first two features, about the gap between working for the studios and working for yourself.
"My mentality for independent filmmaking has been to ask for money from people who couldn't say 'no' — my family and friends — based on who I was, rather than what I'd done," Story said. "I wasn't about to represent my $30,000 movie as this huge moneymaking investment, when I had no idea where or if it would ever be shown. When I made Barbershop, I was respectful, perhaps too much so at times, that MGM was paying the bills because I had financed my own films and understood their concerns. We shot Barbershop in Chicago in the winter, while James Bond was shooting in the Bahamas with Halle Berry," he laughed. "So MGM left us all alone. Barbershop was 100% my vision. It's exactly the way I wanted it to be."
Jeff Byrd offered a counterpoint. "The only time I've ever felt like a project was entirely my vision was in the independent world," Byrd said. "Working with a studio or network is scary because there are layers of people you don't even know giving input, yet the final product still says 'Directed by Jeff Byrd,' which is synonymous with me being in control. I can't travel to every theater in the country and explain to audiences that someone at the studio made me put in that shot. I can say 'No, I will not change that shot.' But then I run the risk of getting a reputation of being difficult. It's a hard line to walk when you leave the independent world, and you must pick your battles carefully."
Kasi Lemmons shared an experience from Eve's Bayou where the completion bond company was on her set during a climactic scene with a train. "My vision was ambitious and I was told, as a first-time director, I could not pull off such a technically complex scene. Everyone wanted to use a bus instead, but I held firm for the train, which is what I had envisioned in the script. I learned from that experience that a director must draw a line in the sand, even if that line is only in your own mind and never gets tested. You must establish what compromises cross that line, and how far you'll go to protect your original vision."
When Jones opened up the discussion to the audience, questions about the creation of a black-owned studio poured forth. "To put it bluntly," Jeff Byrd noted, "there are gatekeepers who control the [distribution] system. We tried to four-wall [self-distribute] a film, and we still had to go through those gatekeepers, who are basically people who sit in judgment on what films get onto screens. Everyone on this panel wants a black-owned studio and distribution chain to happen, but it's a very difficult thing to create, due to the amounts of money involved."
When the debate over distribution subsided, Lemmons offered up a passionate response to a young filmmaker's question about directing movies for love or money. "This business shaves time off your life and is way too hard to do just for money," Lemmons said. "Directors are artists who interpret and relate to the material from our souls. To try and guess what an audience wants and tailor your film to that is a losing game. You have to make films for love, and for yourself. I believe that with all my heart."