Elaine Brown stares directly into the camera lens, squinting hard as if her furrowed brow has the power to underline her words: "To be poor, black and female in America is about the bottom of all (hardships)," says the former Black Panther, putting her own spin on a quote from W.E.B. DuBois. "Because we are so irrelevant, that's why we can be raped. Because, what difference does it make? It's only some black woman."
The scene is from No! a documentary about rape by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons. In the film, rape survivors, activists and intellectuals share their views on what communities of color have endured under the commonplace threat of sexual assault. It's also about what, as a global issue, needs to be done about it.
Like many indie films, No! (released in 2006) is flying under the radar. You'll never bump into a screening in your neighborhood multiplex. Or anywhere.
Detroiter Oyatunde Amakisi thinks films like No! that empower women and people of color deserve a wider audience. To that end, the 35-year-old Web designer and entrepreneur created the First Annual Detroit Women of Color International Film Festival. Set to debut at the Johanson Charles Gallery in Detroit's Eastern Market April 13 and 14, the festival features 13 films showcasing the work of women of color from Detroit and around the world.
"Most of the films I was interested in were being shown at film festivals and art houses outside the state of Michigan," says Amakisi, who started working on the project in August 2006. "Friends that were attending festivals in Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York told me about these films and I knew that I wanted to see them here in Detroit."
Amakisi took action and the results are impressive. Award-winning films like God Sleeps in Rwanda about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide share the stage with documentaries like Breakin' In a Canadian film exploring the cultural and personal intricacies in the life of a burgeoning hip-hop dancer. Actress-producer Salma Hayek's major motion picture, In the Time of Butterflies about the murder of the Mirabal sisters (Las Mariposas) in the Dominican Republic will screen alongside films like Mama Lee's House, an otherworldly directorial debut by Detroiter Njia Kai, about a woman who loses her way in a freeway construction zone.
Amakisi says that, while the festival focuses on the work of women of color, its appeal is universal. "I chose the films based on the stories they had to tell," she says. "These films show our commonality beyond race and gender. They are powerful stories of transformation, healing, elevation and empowerment." She says she plans on producing the festival annually, eventually adding workshops and live music events. Interest in the fest has been so strong that she has actually had to turn away volunteers. "It's the community that makes an event a success," she says. "I have a passion for film. I want the festival to build each year so we can have more."
That's good news for Kai who, like many independent filmmakers, is always on the lookout for creative ways to reach the audience. "Independent producers often face the challenge of finding a place to screen their films," says the 52-year-old former Howard University film student. "I'm very proud of Oya for this effort. Here is an actual film event where people who have this interest and work in this industry will be present. And the fact that it's an international festival here in Detroit is great. People always describe Detroit as being 'black and white' which we have never been. We've always been an international city."
Friday and Saturday, April 13-14, at the Johanson Charles Gallery, 1215 Division St. (in Eastern Market), Detroit. Screenings begin at 6 p.m. on Friday; 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. For info go to myspace.com/detroitfilmfestival1.
Wendy Case is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send letters to [email protected]