Urban film festival a work in progress

by Amy Kingsley

Joseph Wilkerson and his partners, Kiki Bowden and Leo Ballard, are building toward a five-year plan. Which means that this, the fourth annual Urban Literary Film Festival, is a building year.

Evidently it’s a slow build. On the Friday opening of the festival, staff and volunteers outnumber audience members by roughly two to one. On this afternoon the lobby of the Elliot Center Auditorium has few of the earmarks associated with the high glamour of the movie industry.

Even though the local audience has taken little notice of this upstart film festival, it has hit the radar screens of urban filmmakers from around the world. The film festival includes entries from across the US, Italy and Australia.

Defining “urban” in the realm of filmmaking can be a tricky maneuver, Wilkerson said, so he and the other organizers devised a 10-point survey to determine the “urbanness” of a particular piece of film. Any submitted feature, short or documentary need only meet three of the criteria to qualify. They include: musical score, minority actors, minorities behind the scenes and wardrobe. The Urban Literary Film Festival is modeled after other African American film festivals like Atlanta’s Spaghetti Junction Urban Film Festival, the San Francisco Black Film Festival and Urbanworld VIBE Film Festival in New York City.

“If you don’t meet three then you can still submit your film as ‘Eye Candy,'” he says. “That means it’s not necessarily urban but it’s still a great film.”

The Urban Literature brand graces more than just a film festival around these parts. There is also a magazine, regular beat battles and B-boy competitions. In addition to all of that, Wilkerson has his own filmic aspirations cooking on the backburner.

For the weekend all other projects are on hold as the Urban Literature team hosts their survey of independent urban filmmaking from around the world.

The festival opens with Turntable, a feature film that dissects the temptations and tribulations facing the lonely DJ Spyder. Born into a criminal family, Spyder fights his way out through music, only to be dragged back again. Having ceded his fate to the will of the gods, Spyder licks his psychic wounds by spinning records in a seedy nightclub. Just when it looks like love might be on the horizon for our hero, his family ties threaten to tear it all apart. Spyder and his lady love are charged with outwitting a stunning number of evildoers to save themselves and their fledgling relationship.

Organizers programmed that particular film first because the rough edit submitted by the filmmaker included a number of technical glitches. The DVD player snags and jumps at several crucial moments during the film, often dropping a serious amount of exposition. The broken copy gives us glimpses into Spyder’s violent past, but not enough to flesh out his taciturn character, a more than the overwrought narration the film relies upon more frequently.

After Turntable, a short documentary titled “Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story” closed the first screening block. The piece, which clocked in at a little longer than 20 minutes, chronicles the impact of gun violence on the life of one Brooklyn teen. It’s an amateur production – shot, in fact, by a teenager – but a moving exploration of gang and police violence in the American inner city.

The second screening block continued to mine the political vein, featuring a short, “For Colored Boys Who’ve Considered Homicide,” and a documentary, Vanishing Black Male. The films following the soft opening were a bit more artfully done than their predecessors.

The handful of audience members present during the second block applauded and cheered the films. As they left, Ballard encouraged them to return in the evening for the marquee screening by filmmaker Christopher Martin (formerly Play of Kid ‘n’ Play).

“We expect more people by tonight and tomorrow,” Wilkerson said as the audience trickled out.

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