Exploring the Black Story

The 8th Annual Afrikana Film Festival takes bold new steps.

The Afrikana Film Festival, Virginia’s pioneering event for African-American filmmakers, has largely been about creating a space that offers up new cinema from creators of color. “But fundamentally, we want to explore the Black story,” says its founder and director, Enjoli Moon. “I have less of a desire to hold fast to what a traditional film festival framework looks like and more of an allegiance to what my spirit call is, and what people will gravitate toward.”

With everything from an all-day focus on South African filmmakers to the debut film by Richmond hip-hop legend Mad Skillz, the four-day Afrikana, starting Thursday, will boast more than 50 screenings, panel discussions and workshops in venues across Richmond. The festival is also taking some bold new steps, most notably the Saturday night premiere of the festival’s first produced film, “Ninki Nanka.” Written by Chester native Revel Denkyem and directed by Leron Lee, the movie was produced as a part of Afrikana’s inaugural script-to-screen filmmaker residency. Oakwood Arts and VPM were co-producers along with Afrikana. [Full disclosure: VPM, which owns Style Weekly, is a sponsor of the Afrikana Film Festival].

“It’s a short film that explores a teenager’s challenging home situation and their need to escape,” Moon says of “Ninki Nanka,” which was lensed in the home of Dominic Willsdon, the director of VCU’s Institute of Contemporary Art, one of the festival’s host venues. “They encounter an otherworldly being and the film is about that encounter.”

Afrikana will kick off its Thursday grand opening with another first, the inaugural installment of Diasporic Fork, a traditional Ethiopian feast served up at Buna Kurs Ethiopian Cafe in Jackson Ward. “We’re talking about the cradle of civilization here,” says Moon. “Food is a fundamental part of the human experience. There’s so much history, so much innovation, so much resilience that shows up in how food is prepared and passed down. We want to explore that.”

Cuisine is also front and center at Friday’s Taste Liberation Dinner, a regular Afrikana feature that puts the spotlight on the festival’s chef-in-residence, food historian BJ Dennis, with a theme of “Southern Spoons from the Gullah to the Gulf.” The special guest at the dinner will be Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the Grammy-nominated New Orleans band, Tank and the Bangas, who will speak about their acclaimed PBS docu-series, “Ritual.”

The food focus is somewhat unusual for a film festival, Moon admits. “But Richmond loves a good plate … and what could be more natural than dinner and a movie? It has been around as long as the movies have been around. This allows us to tell the Black story through some different entry points. What are the different ways in which we can explore food as a storytelling device, especially through the Black diasporic lens.”

Saturday is when Afrikana will take over the downtown arts district with a daylong deluge of feature and short film premieres, panel discussions, and workshops, in venues such as the Black History Museum, Candela Books and Gallery, Elegba Folklore Society, ADA Gallery, 1708 Gallery, Common House and Black Iris. Art 180 will also host Afrikana’s “Youth Takeover,” a free, all-day screening of new movies suitable for young people 12 and up. (You can find a full schedule of films and events at https://www.afrikanafilmfestival.org/2023-schedule )

The ICA is where the festival will host “Sawubona: A Tale of Two Souths,” a multi-event Saturday concentration on South African film and culture – it was inspired by a revelation Moon had on a recent trip to Johnannsburg.

“When I was there, I saw the reflections of home,” she says. “A particular energy kept showing up that reminded me of the U.S. South. When I started to think about that, and about how Jim Crow was a framework for the apartheid structure in South Africa and also how the freedom movements here informed the liberation movements in South Africa, the connections grew deeper. Arthur Ashe, from Richmond, had a real impact on the desegregation of courts in South Africa … there’s an Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre [in Soweto] today.” Putting Richmond in the conversation with the world is extremely important, she adds.

Screenings at the ICA will include the Virginia premiere of “Milisuthando,” a Sundance festival standout by director Milisuthando Bongela, who will also participate in a post-film Q&A discussion. “It is a socio-political peek into the dynamics of South Africa in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Moon says, “but it’s through her lived experience. It helps us understand the political landscape of that time, what it meant for families, what it meant for the country and for her as a little girl.”

At the ICA on Saturday, Afrikana will also screen movies by South African filmmaker Sifiso Khanyile, including 2016’s “Uprize” and his 2017 movie about Arthur Ashe, “I Want to See For Myself.” Khanyile, who is also something of a music historian, will also participate in a vinyl listening session with WRIR DJ Mike Kemetic and VCU professor Siemon Allen, who is a South African native. “The event will use vinyl records as a prompt for a conversation, a lovely and intimate experience where people can sit around the table and listen and participate in the conversation.”

Saturday’s movie-thon will wrap up at the Valentine with “Movies and Mimosas: Midnight Brunch,” which will showcase a late-night screening of “90s Girl Brunch,” a documentary directed by Richmond rap legend, Mad Skillz.

“This is the first feature I’ve ever done,” Skillz says. “Like most DJs during COVID, I was stuck in the house and so I hopped online during the weekends and did this thing called ’90s Girl Brunch’ for almost two years before the world opened back up. It was basically me playing music for two hours.”

Something interesting began to happen, he says, and he knew he had to document it. “I started to bring people together from all parts of life who didn’t know each other. We became a family. And it was 90% women because I was playing songs that were women-friendly, like Mary J Blige, Toni Braxton, Faith Hill. I would play newer stuff but it was mostly based on that ‘90s R&B bag.”

Eventually, Skillz arranged an in-person meetup for the brunch, an emotional event captured in the film. “They flew into Richmond, and it was like a family reunion of people who never knew each other. And these women still connect to this day… 350 women from all over the United States and they are connected now.”

“It’s a film that shows the power of music,” Moon says of “90s Girl Brunch,” “and how, even in times when we’re in our corners, we can build community.” Skillz still does his “Brunch” once-a-month on Twitch, and he’s caught the filmmaking bug. “I love telling stories and I realized that I’m a good storyteller. It’s something I look forward to doing again in the future.”

With so many movies on hand this year – including a documentary on sneaker art (“Sneakers on a Wire”), a German satire about a QVC-type network (“Homeshopper’s Paradise”) and a poignant road trip movie (“KALKIDANE”) about an Ethiopian orphan’s journey to meet his father –it will be hard to navigate all of Saturday’s offerings. But Moon urges patrons not to pass over a new work called “Storming Caesar’s Palace,” screening at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia at 11:30 p.m.

“It’s a documentary about a Las Vegas activist, Ruby Duncan, who, with a group of mothers, created an anti-poverty movement that was impactful. It had the local government really afraid of the amount of influence and power and change this group of young Black mothers could instigate.”

Afrikana will end with a Sunday “filmmaker trolley ride,” co-sponsored by RVA Trolley, that highlights Richmond African-American history. It will be followed by a closing brunch on the rooftop at Common House. With a core team of eight, and 30-50 volunteer “ambassadors” standing by, Moon says that Afrikana is still growing and learning. “We’re still trying to figure things out … we didn’t really have Black film festivals in Virginia before Afrikana, and there was a void. And we’re happy to help fill that.”

The Afrikana Independent Film Festival runs Sept. 14-17 in numerous venues across Richmond. All access festival passes are $60. Most individual screenings are $10 and up. The Taste of Liberation Dinner is $90 or $65 with an all access pass. For tickets and information, go to afrikanafilmfestival.org.

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