Thirty years away from San Antonio did nothing to dampen Ada Babino’s enthusiasm for her hometown. But after graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., with a master’s degree in filmmaking and returning home, Babino realized there was one thing missing.
“I felt like this city needed a black film festival,” she said. “When I moved back home, there was a need to start a film festival here to expose audiences to the wealth of narratives out there.”
Babino got together with other filmmakers, including Aundar Maat, Born Logic Allah, Dat Mayne DeeWayne, and Cedric Thomas Smith, and decided that though San Antonio has several film festivals, “nothing really concentrates on black filmmakers, … pulls you in, and exposes you to stories from our perspective. That was just churning in me.”
DeAnna Brown of nonprofit Forward Progress Arts and Entertainment Center, Inc. joined the effort, and the result is the San Antonio Black International Film Festival (SABIFF), free and open to the public this Saturday, Feb. 23, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Carver Library. The fest will feature an all-local slate of filmmakers, along with director Q&A sessions and panel discussions focused on the independent film industry.
Babino consulted with Krystal Jones, film and music administrator for the City’s Department of Arts and Culture, who encouraged her to move forward with the idea. Such a festival would allow filmmakers and film fans “to experience independent film made by talented local African American filmmakers, and to understand and celebrate the significant contributions African American filmmakers have had on our City,” Jones said in an e-mail to the Rivard Report.
The filmmakers mentioned above all had different paths into independent filmmaking. Unlike self-made directors and producers Maat, Allah, and DeeWayne, Babino studied film at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and went on to produce her own films. Her formative experience was with the “Sankofa school of learning,” as she described working under independent filmmaker Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian transplant and former professor at Howard University, where Babino earned her bachelor’s degree. There, she worked on Gerima’s Sankofa, a 1993 film about the legacy of slavery in Africa.
Even after a successful run at film festivals, including the top-tier Berlin International Film Festival, Sankofa was not picked up for distribution. Babino worked with Gerima to establish a city-to-city tour showing the film, which eventually grossed $2.7 million.
“That experience was mind-boggling in terms of us making the charts,” she said of the film’s hard-won success. The experience led her to become an independent filmmaker and eventually found the SABIFF, Babino said. She learned multiple roles, from production to marketing, that gave her key insights into all sides of the industry, maintained her passion for filmmaking, and – most importantly – for building audiences.
“Making [a film] is one thing, but getting it seen – and to the right audience – is another,” she said. Thus, like other film festivals, the SABIFF will be an information-sharing opportunity for filmmakers at all levels of experience.
Maat and Allah have recently sold out multiple screenings of Walk On The River, a feature-length documentary on the black history of San Antonio, and DeeWayne won the annual NAACP Cinematic Shorts Competition in July, garnering a $7,500 to produce an extended version of his film.
For the SABIFF, Maat and Allah will show an earlier film, Message to the People: A Story of Malcolm X. DeeWayne will show music videos he’s produced and a short film, Freeword, the first part of a five-part fantasy scenario involving a world in which poetry is illegal “and people start selling it in the street like drugs,” he said. The film was a semi-finalist in the Hollywood Shorts Film Fest in 2018. Smith will present his anti-bullying tale Melissa, and Babino, a former producer for BET, will screen I Don’ Been Through The Snake’s Skin & Come Out Clean, her 2014 documentary on her Louisiana grandparents.
Among the featured panelists will be San Antonio filmmaker Michael L. Jackson, who recently released Cost Effective, a short video thriller, on Amazon. Topics include the importance of black film and how to get started on a film project.
Such methods of self-distribution using widely accessible platforms are becoming more common, Babino said. “It’s come so far that the average layman can do their own movies if they’re passionate,” she said. The key is finding “an environment that supports you professionally. I want to let these young folks know that it’s so doable,” she said, citing Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl as a prime example. Rae had started her own YouTube channel, and “got so many views, HBO came to her,” Babino said.
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Jones said she appreciates the effort to diversify film experiences in San Antonio. “Not only does SABIFF align with our Film Strategic Plan to build a strong film culture and grow professional development opportunities in San Antonio, but it also speaks to the Department of Arts & Culture’s commitment to promote and support cultural equity within the arts community,” she said.
The Feb. 23 SABIFF daylong event is just a precursor to a full-fledged festival scheduled for Oct. 10-13, with venues and sponsors yet to be secured. Babino and fellow SABIFF board members are seeking a headlining film to round out a program that will mix local, national, and international films.
“We want to show films from around the world,” she said.
Updates and more information will be available on SABIFF’s Facebook page.