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Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film celebrates diverse filmmakers

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The Sonja Haynes Stone Center is pictured on Feb. 14, 2023.

The Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film, hosted by the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, celebrates and promotes the work of Black and independent filmmakers. 

The festival consists of seven days of different screenings, which span from Oct. 3 to Nov. 2. According to its Heel Life event page, the films engage with African American history, culture and contemporary issues, in addition to the global Black experience. 

Sheriff Drammeh, the senior program manager for the Stone Center, said although it may seem like there are a lot of opportunities for Black filmmakers right now, that is not really the case.

“They still face the same barriers. They still face the same challenges in this instant,” Drammeh said.

According to a report released by UCLA, nine percent of directors and seven percent of writers for the top streaming films of 2022 were Black. 

Drammeh said the first iteration of this event began in the '90s in an effort to hear and represent Black filmmakers’ voices.

“It's important because the Black experience is not monolithic,” he said. “Our struggles, our resistance, our histories, are merely similar — and the art — but our general experiences are different.” 

First-year Ahmed Abnowf, a work-study student at the Stone Center, said the film festival showcases stories that people rarely ever hear about. 

“It's not something we think about day-to-day,” he said. “It's really drawing more niche issues to the forefront, and I think that's important.” Abnowf said these films convey important ideas because if there is injustice in one place, there is injustice everywhere.

Shelby Armstrong is a 2023 UNC graduate and co-owner of Sticky Feet Productions, which creates audience-driven films. She said Black stories are underrepresented because filmmaking is a predominantly white industry. 

"As a person of color it's much, it's like you're probably less likely to know someone as high up or be afforded an opportunity to work on a great project," she said. 

Armstrong said the film industry is a “who-you-know game.” She said many white filmmakers inherently create, discuss and network in predominantly white circles, and that Black creators tend to do the same. Because many people get jobs from recommendations and friends, Armstrong said when people are only surrounded by those similar to them, opportunities are less likely to spread.

During Armstrong’s time at UNC, she said she worked to include non-white filmmakers on campus as co-president of the Carolina Film Association. 

“People would look at us and be like, ‘Obviously, there's space for me, if there's someone that looks like me running the club,'” Armstrong said. “I really appreciated having the opportunity to provide that for other people as well.” 

Current UNC student Brooklyn De Shazo-Griffin, who is interested in the film industry, said she thinks the UNC filmmaking environment is very welcoming toward Black students, but that there are not many Black filmmakers on campus. 

“It's kind of up to you to focus on your identity as a Black filmmaker in your work and also actively try to include people that are of your identity,” she said. 

Drammeh said that while cinema is all about access and connections, film festivals like the Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film help bring awareness and opportunities to Black filmmakers. 

“It's a work in progress,” he said. “And everything that we can do to help move the ball on that situation, that's the whole point of the film festival — to create more opportunities for more people to be in these films.” 

@funderburkcelia

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