Nashville's International Black Film Festival defies hard times by making the Internet its cinema 

2012: A Cyberspace Odyssey

2012: A Cyberspace Odyssey

Since 2006, the International Black Film Festival of Nashville has debuted several top shorts, documentaries and features by both African-American and African filmmakers. But the modestly funded festival, run largely by volunteers and sometimes subject to last-minute venue shifts, has always had to scramble for resources. This year, the IBFFN faced a tough decision as time approached for the annual event. The difficult economic climate resulted in some sponsorship defections and hesitation, and no one wanted to see the festival presented haphazardly.

Rather than cancel it altogether, the IBFFN opted for a new approach. Thus the 2012 festival, which will run Dec. 13-16, will be the first presented completely online. This represents what founders hope will be an overall expansion in terms of content, as next year's event will have platforms both online and in traditional live venues.

"The economy has been so difficult that we heard from a lot of our sponsors they were having tough times," says IBFFN head Hazel Joyner-Smith, who founded the festival in 2006. "We certainly didn't want to cancel it, but we also weren't going to have something that wasn't in keeping with the standards that we've previously set in terms of providing exposure and a platform for quality black independent, shorts and foreign films.

"At the same time, we've been exploring how to utilize the digital platform and expand our activities in that area. So we decided this would be the year where we could do two things. We can and are still in the process of finding new festival partners. We're also expanding our digital presence, and sharpening it so that it enhances the complete festival presentation, and we can have both online and theatrical presentations in 2013."

Viewers will access the films through the IBFFN website, for a daily admission of $8. That opens the festival to audiences far beyond the city limits — something Joyner-Smith is particularly excited about, as getting more international attention and participation has long been part of the festival's mission. The 2012 online festival also serves as a prelude to the expanded 2013 event, which will include a spring/summer series of films and other events tentatively scheduled to begin in May.

This year's online edition showcases 20 selections — narrative features, shorts, documentaries, even a musical — which arrive in some cases after successful screenings in other cities. One is writer-director William L. Cochran's drama Englewood: The Growing Pains in Chicago (Dec. 13), which sold out two nights at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center in August. In his first film, Cochran depicts the problems and perils facing three black high-school seniors (including a budding poet played by the filmmaker) as they grapple with family strife and street violence. The paths they seek, and their ultimate fate, is mirrored by Cochran's unsentimental look at urban life and how much (or how little) has changed over decades.

A provocative premise drives Matt Dunnerstick's The Custom Mary (Dec. 13), which proposes a highly dubious partnership of religion and science. Two preachers team with scientists in a cloning experiment that purports to use the blood of Jesus; in Dunnerstick's variation on the Nativity story, mother Mary is a Latina churchgoer (Alicia Sixtos) who takes comfort in the company of African-American low-rider Joe (James Jolly). The setting is contemporary Los Angeles, and its array of storefronts and other backdrops form an unforgiving modern-day Holy City.

As in years past, there are plenty of top documentaries and shorts on the program. Leslie Easter's "Our World War II Fathers" (Dec. 14) spotlights two fathers from different racial backgrounds as they're honored for their service in World War II. But the occasion also prompts a closer look at the role of black veterans in that conflict, and how often their service has been undervalued and/or ignored.

Cheryl Halpern and Mitchell Stuart's "Natsanat" looks at the role of young female freedom fighters in 20th century Ethiopian history and the sacrifices they made in leaving their families and homes. It's paired on Dec. 15 with Claudio von Planta and Sorious Samura's Rwanda-17, which finds an inspirational sports story in the wake of the tragic Rwanda genocide: that of the 2011 Rwanda soccer team, which qualified for the under-17 World Cup held in Mexico. It was the nation's first entry into global competition, and much of the team included players who were orphaned during the conflict. The film follows their quest to qualify for the tournament, as their determination unites the international sports community behind the team.

Closer to home, a similar spirit fuels Rocket Dogs — No Limits (Dec. 14), which chronicles a major local event. Filmmakers Vando Rogers and Roderick Putnam follow the Fisk rocket team as it competes in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative. Facing off against universities with far greater resources, the game Fisk team struggles to settle internal disputes as pressure mounts from the competition's looming deadline. Stumbling blocks and pressure are no strangers to the hero of Mike Mo and Kevin D'Angelo's "Who Is Wright?" (Dec. 13): South Philly rapper Julius Wright, who overcomes an incredible set of obstacles to pursue his passion. These include the incarceration of his parents, the brutal murder of a close friend and his own imprisonment. Yet he never loses faith, and ultimately he uses these difficulties as the foundation for his work.

Like other festivals, the IBFFN intersperses these topical dramas and sober documentaries with lighter fare. "Thugs! The Musical" wasn't listed on the festival website yet as of press time, but its faux-documentary premise sounds like an amusing riff on Robert Townsend's groundbreaking Hollywood Shuffle: Tired of being told by casting directors he isn't "black enough," an actor (screenwriter Kevin Avery) decides to settle any doubts with an over-the-top gangsta musical. Watch for cameos from David Alan Grier and Margaret Cho.

The closing day, Sunday, Dec. 16, will be devoted to repeat screenings of some of the festival's most popular films. A complete list of films, as well as the upcoming schedule, events, updates and other news regarding the 2012 IBFF Online and the 2013 festival, is available at ibffnashville.com.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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