BlackStar Projects, the premier organization celebrating visionary Black, Brown, and Indigenous film and media artists, is pleased to announce the award-winning films from the 12th edition of the BlackStar Film Festival. The full list of award winners is below.
Among those recognized are Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides’s Fire Through Dry Grass, honored with the Jury Award for Best Feature Documentary. Fire Through Dry Grass, which made its world premiere at the festival, chronicles the experiences of the Reality Poets, a collective of young, disabled Black and Brown artists documenting their pandemic experiences within New York City’s nursing homes. The jury also named Girl, directed by Adura Onashile, as Best Feature Narrative. Girl tells the story of eleven-year-old Ama and her mother, Grace, who take solace in the gentle but isolated world they obsessively create.
This year, the first-ever Climate Justice Award—presented in partnership with the Center for Cultural Power—was awarded to Mirasol, a short narrative directed by Annalise Lockhart, set in 2043. Amidst a transformed climate, the film follows Mirasol, living on a farm with her mother and grandmother, as she discovers and tends to a seedling, eventually getting the courage to show her mother what she’s been working on.
The Audience Award winners are also listed below and among the films recognized is MnM, directed by Twiggy Pucci Garçon, selected by BlackStar members for the Shine Award, given annually to a first-time filmmaker. MnM is a short documentary that explores the experience of being nonbinary in the drag ballroom community.
The honorees were selected from a slate of 93 films representing 31 countries.
“The energy around this year’s festival, being on Broad Street for the first time, has been tremendous and matched only by the power and creativity of the filmmaking on display,” says BlackStar Founder, Chief Executive and Artistic Director Maori Karmael Holmes. “We’re thrilled to have showcased so many groundbreaking films this year, and extend our congratulations to the filmmakers honored by the festival’s jurors and audience members.”
“The filmmakers, audience, and staff at BlackStar 2023 came with so much energy and enthusiasm,” said Festival Director Nehad Khader. “We are forever grateful to the joy we co-created.”
The 2023 BlackStar Film Festival’s lineup spanned narrative features and shorts, documentary features and shorts, and experimental films and showcased 19 world, 11 North America, 5 US, and 10 East Coast premieres. 47 films were Philadelphia premieres. The festival is an Academy Award-qualifying festival for both short documentary and short narrative films, making those awarded as Best Narrative Short and Best Documentary Short eligible for entrance at the Academy Awards.
In addition to screenings, this year’s festival included panels, workshops, parties, morning yoga sessions, and The Daily Jawn—formerly a daily talk show—was transformed into a stage activation replete with daily conversations hosted by Maori Karmael Holmes, Dr. Yaba Blay, Shanti Mayers, and D’Lo. Guests included Violeta Ayala, Zeinabu irene Davis, Michelle Parkerson, Dr. Fahamu Pecou, and J. Wortham, among others. The Daily Jawn Stage was also the site of panels and, for the first time, live podcast tapings featuring festival guests with partners Love+Grit, Well-Read Black Girl, Micheaux Mission, Around the Way Curls, and BlackStar’s own Many Lumens.
BEST EXPERIMENTAL FILM
Jurors: Awa Konaté, Nour Ouayda, Portia E. Cobb
Winner: Before I Let Go, dir. Cameron A Granger
Five years ago, the eastside neighborhood of a town called Bad City was leveled by giant monsters called the Titans. Before I Let Go is told from the eyes of a filmmaker who was recently hired by the city to document the community’s recovery efforts — and now is seeing just how different the road to recovery can look for a city, and for its people.
Jury Comment: “This film uses fiction to subvert our expectations and expresses loss in a most surprising way. Every moment was creating synergy, it was ingenious, thought-provoking, and fun. In a word, this storytelling is seductive. By fabricating an archive to retell a story, the film effectively translates the mourning for a lost home and community.”
Honorable Mention: Quiet As It’s Kept, dir. Ja’Tovia Gary
Quiet As It’s Kept is a contemporary cinematic response to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970. Set in Ohio in 1941, the book is an evocative illustration of the everyday particulars of colorism and its ravaging effects on the intramural.
Jury Comment: “The experimental jury wants to lift up another phenomenal experimental film — a constellation of images, this film is a polyphony of archival and non-archival footage that is heightened by a jazz score. It is receiving a special mention because it feels otherworldly in its upending of traditional modalities of editing and rethinks and re-presents the continuity of the violence of American history.”
BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY
Jurors: Loira Limbal, Louis Massiah, Naomi Johnson
Winner: Fire Through Dry Grass, dirs. Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides
Wearing snapback caps and Air Jordans, the Reality Poets aren’t typical nursing home residents. In Fire Through Dry Grass, these young, Black and Brown, disabled artists document their pandemic experiences, their rhymes underscoring the danger they feel in the face of institutional neglect.
Jury Comment: “The feature documentary jury-award winning film stands strong as an investigative report with its concise clarity and unique perspective, yet it’s also stylized beautifully as a tapestry that weaves the characters together. With its brilliant approach, the jury wishes to recognize the many challenges these filmmakers faced in these conditions during this time period, yet made a film with elevated sound design, compelling cinematography, and phenomenal characters.”
BEST FEATURE NARRATIVE
Jurors: Aseye Tamakloe, Elhum Shakerifar, Jason Reynolds
Winner: Girl, dir. Adura Onashile
Eleven-year-old Ama and her mother, Grace, take solace in the gentle but isolated world they obsessively create. But Ama’s thirst for life and her need to grow and develop challenge the rules of their insular world and gradually force Grace to reckon with a past she struggles to forget.
Jury Comment: “A visually stunning film, this feature narrative pushes us to infer, imagine, and stretch our imagination. The nuances of this film were sharp, and its silences were haunting — ultimately, the filmmaker made us feel what we couldn’t see. This is compelling storytelling at its finest, complete with excellent performances, visual metaphors, and a brilliant use of space that served the story.”
BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY
Jurors: Aiko Masubuchi, Asad Muhammad, Tracy Rector
Winner: Bone Black: Midwives vs. the South, dir. Imani Nikyah Dennison
Bone Black: Midwives vs. The South is an experimental short documentary about the history and erasure of Black midwives in the American South and how the attack on birth workers has contributed toward the Black infant and maternal mortality crisis.
Jury Comment: “The winning film layered a complex topic with care while making daring aesthetic choices. It’s a short documentary that is clear about its audience and came through with a strong vision coupled with beautiful cinematography.”
Honorable Mention: A Bear Named Jesus, dir. Terril Calder
In stop-motion film A Bear Named Jesus, we meet Archer Pechawis, who is living on the rez. At Archer’s Aunty Gladys’ funeral, his mom is abducted by rabid bears and converted to fundamentalist Christianity. That night, he hears a tap on the window — it’s a bear named Jesus, who has come to apologize for the actions of the rabid bears. A Bear Named Jesus is an allegory for religious interference, with an aching yet humorous look at estrangement and mourning for the loss of someone still living.
Jury Comment: “The jury felt unanimously that a second film deserved a special mention for its evocative and vulnerable storytelling, its compelling style, and its deftness at conveying complicated emotion, recognizing all the work that goes into creating stop-motion animation and doing it so richly in just 6 minutes.”
BEST SHORT NARRATIVE
Jurors: Carmen Thompson, Dagmawi Woubshet, DJ Lynnée Denise
Winner: Sèt Lam, dir. Vincent Fontano
In an insular city’s ghetto, in the midst of a trance ritual, a young girl is paralyzed by fear. She is afraid her loved ones may be hurt or even disappear. It is then that her grandmother tells her the strange tale of Edwardo, the first one of his kin to have seen and fought death.
Jury Comment: “The winning film selected by the short narrative jury is hypnotic, strange, and unpredictable, one that embodies the very genre of short filmmaking. Though the film is a moving, shifting one, everything felt intentional, and with a unique directorial voice, the filmmaker managed to build trust and deliver exquisite visual imagery.”
Honorable Mention: The Truth About Alvert, the Last Dodo, dir. Nathan Clement
On Réunion Island, little Lunet and his grandfather Dadabé set out on a quest to turn a chicken into a dodo bird, whose magic feathers might save the sick mother of the kid.
Jury Comment: “The jury also wants to recognize a unique, playful film that captures childhood anguish and a beautiful intergenerational relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Its cinematography is a love letter to Reunion Island, this film is an enjoyable and charming little drama.”
BEST DIRECTOR OF CLIMATE STORYTELLING (CENTER FOR CULTURAL POWER)
Winner: Mirasol, dir. Annalise Lockhart
Mirasol lives a monotonous and somewhat lonely life on a farm with her mother and grandmother. One day out gardening, she finds a seedling growing in a puddle outside. She takes care of it in secret, eventually getting the courage to show her mother what she’s been working on.
Winner: MnM, dir. Twiggy Pucci Garçon
MnM is an exuberant portrait of chosen sisters Mermaid and Milan, two emerging runway divas in the drag ballroom community. Celebrating their joy, siblinghood and unapologetic personas, the film explores the power and beauty of being nonbinary in a community that prizes gender “realness.”
Winner: Before I Let Go, dir. Cameron A. Granger
BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY
Winner: Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, dir. by Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster
BEST FEATURE NARRATIVE
Winner: Mountains, dir. by Monica Sorelle
While looking for a new home for his family, a Haitian demolition worker is faced with the realities of redevelopment as he is tasked with dismantling his rapidly gentrifying Miami neighborhood.
BEST SHORT DOCUMENTARY
Winner: Over the Wall, dir. Krystal Tingle
Nine seconds — it’s about all you have. Welcome to the fast-paced world of a NASCAR pit crew. Over the Wall is an immersive film following Brehanna Daniels, the first Black woman pit crew member and tire changer in NASCAR, as she works her way back from injury to participate in the Daytona 500, the biggest race in the sport. A testament to the power of perseverance and what it takes to be a trailblazer.
BEST SHORT NARRATIVE
Winner: Look Back At It, dir. Felicia Pride
A 40-something single mother gets her groove back with a little assistance from her teenage daughter.
The 2023 BlackStar Film Festival is presented with the support of the following sponsors: American Documentary/POV, Annenberg School For Communication, Black Public Media, Center For Cultural Power, City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce, Descriptive Video Works, Expressway Cinema Rentals, Eventive, Firelight Media, Gotham Film & Media Institute, Indego, ITVS, Kashif Incubator, MediaJustice, NEON, Open Society Foundations, University of Pennsylvania Cinema and Media Studies, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Runway, Taproot Earth, Temple University Film and Media Arts Department, Urban Outfitters, Warner Bros/Discovery, W Hotel, and WORLD Channel.
BlackStar Projects and its year-round programs are generously supported by Critical Minded, Ford Foundation/JustFilms, Gucci Changemakers, Independence Public Media Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Michael Jordan Black Community Commitment Fund, Mighty Arrow Family Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Nathan Cummings Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, Perspective Fund, Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia’s Cultural Treasures Fund, Philadelphia Foundation/Black Community Leaders Fund, Pop Culture Collaborative, Ruth Foundation for the Arts, Samuel S. Fels Fund, Surdna Foundation, Wallace Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and Wyncote Foundation, in addition to its board of directors, community partners, and a host of generous individual donors and organizations.
About BlackStar Projects
BlackStar Projects is the producer of the BlackStar Film Festival, an annual celebration of the visual and storytelling traditions of the African diaspora and global communities of color — showcasing films by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from around the world. In addition to the acclaimed festival, BlackStar presents an array of programming across film and visual culture year-round, including the twice-annual journal Seen, the podcast Many Lumens, the William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar, and the Philadelphia Filmmaker Lab, among other initiatives.
Vice President, Cultural Counsel
Senior Account Coordinator, Cultural Counsel
Account Coordinator, Cultural Counsel