With a new home and new director, the International Black Film Festival raises the stakes 

In 2006, a small local coalition of filmmakers, producers, writers and others decided they wanted a community event that would showcase the varied work of both known and unknown black artists. It encountered the usual struggles of any fledgling event. Issues ranged from finding a permanent home to expanding the slate of movies and cultivating the necessary industry relationships for long-term success.

Judging by the many changes that have occurred since its inception, though, the 2009 International Black Film Festival of Nashville has emerged as not only a viable independent operation but a major civic and cultural event. Continuing through Sunday, the lineup boasts 50 films, from shorts to documentaries and features, all gathered under the theme "Defining Our Stories, Transforming the Image."

The IBFF was initially run by a skeleton crew out of headquarters shoehorned into Fisk University, before jumping to The Belcourt in Hillsboro Village. This year marks the festival's move to a splashy new home at Regal's Opry Mills megaplex. In addition, the Gaylord Opryland Hotel is the host site for a series of related industry seminars and panel discussions, signaling the IBFF's ambition to become a yearly lure for out-of-towners.

"I think that the IBFF will emerge in the next few years as a destination event," says Rashid Bahati, the festival's newly hired film procurer and general manager. "It will be among the festivals that people will attend, not only from around the country but across the globe."

Bahati's presence bodes well for the IBFF's future, according to Hazel Joyner-Smith, the festival's founder and CEO. A senior vice president of business development/acquisitions for Lead Dog Entertainment, a marketing and distribution company whose stated mission is to promote socially relevant work by black artists, Bahati brings more than 10 years' experience and a host of both domestic and international contacts to his new role.

"I remember talking last year with [Joyner-Smith] about this event and was just really impressed by her passion and knowledge of film," Bahati said. "The big thing I want to do in my role is broaden the scope, and especially get more international films. I feel these add value to the festival. We also are bringing in films that may not be on the radar in terms of what the commercial media may be following, but are certainly happening within the film world as a whole."

"Rashid has incredible relationships that he's developed over the years around the globe and that's something that he's really brought to the festival this time," says Joyner-Smith, widely viewed as the festival's heart and soul. "He's been working over a decade with people like Spike Lee, been involved with prestigious events such as The Pan-African Film Festival, and he's in touch with African directors in such countries as Mali and Senegal." She adds that future festivals will spotlight more documentaries and first-person films as well.

Toward that end, the IBFF has secured the participation of the French Consulate, who will have representatives at the event for its final three days. IBFF is also working with Tennessee State University and its foreign language department as well as the Africa Channel, one of the festival's sponsors. The channel provided the IBFF with Jarreth Metz's documentary Soul of Ashanti (4 p.m. Oct. 1), which tells the story of the Ashanti Kingdom's Golden Stool, a sacrament that dates back to the 17th century and remains one of the most revered and treasured in African history.

The film examines the sacrament's role in helping unite Ghana over centuries, showing its continued importance as part of a contemporary celebration to honor the Ashanti king.

Metz's film screens as part of Thursday's "Africa Pavilion Night," which includes the local premiere of the highly regarded Skin (see sidebar review), the incredible story of two white Afrikaners whose own black descent is revealed in their daughter's complexion.

Of course, as the Nashville Film Festival has proved in recent years, you can't have a film festival in Nashville without a significant music presence. Bahati says the IBFF will be only the second market to show Still Bill (see sidebar review), a fond portrait of the great soul and folk singer Bill Withers, who hasn't made any new commercial music since the mid-'80s. The new general manager is just as enthused about Dirty, which examines the short but colorful life of the Wu Tang Clan's late gadfly Ol' Dirty Bastard.

"There's much more to his music and life than many people know," Bahati says. "This film goes very deep to show you not just the man and his work, but the things that made him so compelling."

Other major events include the premieres of Sacred Journeys (3:30 p.m. Oct. 4), a new documentary on the Fisk Jubilee Singers by local filmmakers Robert Swope and Susan Bowman; Nashville playwright Mary McCallum's film version of her stage play The 70% Club (5 p.m. Oct. 2); and the feature film A Mother's Prayer (7:30 p.m. Oct. 2). The directorial debut of TSU grad and former Whites Creek drama teacher Alvin Moore, who co-stars with Robin Givens, Shirley Murdock and Johnny Gill, it's adapted from the gospel play Moore presented at last year's festival. The official DVD release of A Mother's Prayer is another part of the weekend festivities, with Moore in attendance.

Not all has gone smoothly this year. A scheduled appearance by Hollywood Shuffle writer-director Robert Townsend fell through at the last minute over scheduling complications. But even the festival's growing pains are a sign of health. "We're really just getting started in terms of what we want the festival to become," Joyner-Smith says.

A complete schedule of all festival events and films is available online at ibffnashville.com

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE 2009 IBFF

SKIN
Set in 1960s South Africa, where the practice of apartheid held up a mirror of equal ugliness to America's Jim Crow laws, Anthony Fabian's melodramatic but wrenching drama explores the derangement and self-loathing that are racism's legacy. Fabian tells the true story of Abraham and Sannie Laing, two white Afrikaners whose daughter Sandra is born with dark pigmentation. They raise her as white despite all the laws forbidding it, and the girl doesn't know the difference—until time comes for her to go to boarding school. The storyline will anger, alarm and perhaps enrage those who see her treatment as either overblown or outdated. But the performances of Sam Neill and Alice Krige as the parents, and particularly Hotel Rwanda Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo as Sandra, bring dignity and conviction to this tale. It underlines the madness governing both a society that uses skin color to determine policy, and people who judge the worth and value of themselves and others by that sole criterion. (7:30 p.m. Oct. 1)

STILL BILL
The career of singer-songwriter Bill Withers never developed in a conventional manner, and Damani Baker and Alex Vlack's wonderful documentary celebrates and underscores that history. From his late start (28) as a performer through his battles with record labels and his refusal to fit stereotypical images regarding song content and approach, Withers delighted in confounding experts and ignoring the advice and counsel of industry insiders. The film is much more about the thoughts, feelings and viewpoints of Withers than the hit songs that made him a superstar. While there's ample performance footage alongside examples of his biggest hits, the movie spends more time with confidants and friends, while also delving into his current life and former occupations. (Bet you didn't know the man who sang "Use Me" once made toilets for the Air Force.) Withers hasn't made any new commercial music since the mid-'80s, but Still Bill shows that he's no less a captivating a personality today than he was during his peak as a performer. (7 p.m. Oct. 3)

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