The Black Harvest Film Festival, hosted by the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, should be starting in August. But, due to COVID-19, the festival will be virtual from November 6 through November 30. The festival, annual since 1994, recognizes independent films of international Black cultures. Director of Programming and cofounder of BHFF Barbara Scharres believes the number of entries has been fewer than previous years, mainly due to COVID-19. Delayed are many filmmakers’ work. Limited resources may be reasons for possible shutdowns of production services. Lack of funding is also a problem, and film entries were fewer than last year.
According to Cofounder of the BHFF, Sergio Mims, they received about 100 entries. On average, they get around three times as many. The festival often shows about 40 films. There may be less this year as a result of the pandemic. Black Lives Matter has also been a significant effect on the GSFC.
Executive Director of the GSFC Jean de St Aubin says, “Created in 2004 the Black Harvest Community Council is a group of film lovers who help to guide, promote and represent the BHFF in the community. The Gene Siskel Film Center staff had a long evening zoom meeting with the BHCC after the killing of George Floyd to see how we could contribute to the work of BLM and social justice. The general concession was that we need the BHFF now more than ever to celebrate the stories of Black lives and support Black filmmakers. The BHCC is also going to sell merchandise during the festival to support organizations working for racial justice. We are also planning more panel discussions and on-line forums this year to use film as a catalyst for conversations.”
But, at least for now, there aren’t any films on BLM specifically. Scharres says that there are a plethora of films that have a substantial impact on other social issues. There are always several films entered that forcefully address current social problems. Like mental health, violence against women, and fatherhood. She says, “There is no limit on what we may potentially choose, either in genre or theme. Our programming for BHFF typically encompasses documentaries, personal essay films, serious dramas, comedies, romance, sci-fi, animation: you name it, we’ve included it at some point.”
Mims, says that he also hasn’t viewed any BLM films for the festival just yet. The combination of BLM and Black cinema is unforeseen. However, he does predict that we may have films on BLM and COVID-19 next year for the festival and in general.
Along with being supportive of BLM the theater is also in support of women in film. The number of female filmmakers, for the past two years, has increased. It is unclear how many women will be involved in the festival. But more than likely, they will be included. Scharres says, “Black Harvest has always attracted a strong representation of female filmmakers. I’m happy to say that this is not a new trend for our festival. The greatest number of films entered in the festival each year is small, self-funded productions and women have proven to be just as creative, enterprising, and entrepreneur-minded as men in this field of DIY independent filmmaking.
“Mims has his own thoughts on the matter. “We’ve always had films by female filmmakers. We always show films by female filmmakers. The ratio? I’ve never really stopped to count because we’ve simply always done it. If you’ve got a film, and it’s good, we’ll show it!”And, de St Aubin comments that of the 10 current films streaming, five are directed by women.
On the importance of BHFF Mims mentions, “One thing a filmmaker always wants is for his, or her, films to be seen by an audience. So, that’s why Black Harvest is so important, it’s one of the opportunities for these films to be seen and appreciated by an audience. The audience isn’t looking for the same ‘okie-doke.’ They’re looking for films to be challenging. They’re looking for films to be different. They’re looking for films that deal with other subject matters than the ones you usually see in a Black film.
de St Aubin states, “Year-round the Gene Siskel Film Center curates and presents the best in international, independent and classic cinema many of the films that we screen can not be found at other theaters or streamed on other platforms. The Black Harvest Film Festival presents the best new films that represent the full range of the Black experience in film.”
The history of the BHFF goes way back. Scharres says the GSFC paired initially with another organization to present the Blacklight Film Festival. Mims cofounded Blacklight in the 80s. He left a few years after it originated. The festival lasted only around four or five years after his departure. He says, “The film center decided to keep another Black film festival going after Blacklight stopped. That became Black Harvest.” The film Scharres says, “I felt very strongly that the city of Chicago needs a Black film festival. And, that the Film Center was well-positioned to found one, and to find ways to sustain this new endeavor.”
The GSFC is still looking for film entries. The deadline is September 1. What makes a good film? Mims will tell you. “You can’t make a good film without a good script and director. It’s about perception. What makes a good film is through the beholder’s eye.”
You can stream the festival along with other films on the GSFC site. Please visit the BHFF link for more information. The GSFC is in correlation with the School of the Art Institue of Chicago. Yearly, 85,000 viewers watch films at the GSFC. There are 1600 screenings. One hundred filmmakers visit the center every year.
Top Photo: GSFC Sign
Middle Photo: Large Theater at GSFC
Bottom Photo: Audience at BHFF 2019
Photo Credits: GSFC, Lori E. Hile, and Kyle Flubacker.