Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival + Lecture Series is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Oct. 21 and Oct. 22. Founded by African Voices publisher Carolyn A. Butts – Reel Sister’s Film Festival provides a unique platform for women of color in an industry that so often shuts them out. “[We] have so many dynamic women who are now producing and who are making opportunities for others,” Butts told me. “I think that’s wonderful. However, since I started the festival, Hollywood hasn’t been as progressive. We still need outlets like Reel Sisters because there are so many talented filmmakers and we’re one of the places where these filmmakers can be celebrated.”
Butts says she’s most proud of the family-friendly festival because of the relationships that she was able to help the filmmakers forge to get their work to wider audiences and on platforms like BET and Netflix. “I think the festival gives a chance for the audience to really see some of the untold histories that we have in our families,” she explained.
20 years after its founding, Reel Sisters is much more than just a film festival. The month-long celebration also provides access to leading professionals by presenting panels and workshops on topics from screenwriting to producing. In the past, Reel Sisters has honored everyone from Issa Rae to Julie Dash. This year, actress Vinie Burrows (Walk Together Children) is the Reel Sisters Hattie McDaniel Award honoree, the Reel SistersTrailblazer Award went to actresses Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU) and Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow), and the first Reel Sisters Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to veteran film producer/director Nicole Franklin.
The idea for the Reel Sister’s Film Festival was awakened back in 1996. Butts had co-produced a short film called, Underground Voices with Tony- nominee Reg E. Gaines. The former New York Post reporter recalled the pushback she got when she attempted to shop the film in hopes of transforming it into a feature-length documentary on the poetry movement in Brooklyn. “It was so hard to get support for me as an African American woman,” she reflected. “So, I kind of came in with a small group of women, and I came up with the idea to do a conference or a festival that was solely devoted to women of color — not just African American, but Caribbean, Latina, and Asian. That’s kind of how it was sparked to have an outlet where we could network; we could build a resource for each other to get our films made. It’s not always money [or] having money. It’s also having that support system — that tribe that you can go to to get your films produced.”
This year, Reel Sisters Film Festival will take place in Harlem at the Magic Johnson Theather on 125th Street and in Brooklyn at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The expansion of the Reel Sisters Festival into Harlem was a strategic one. “African Voices has a strong audience in Harlem,” Butts revealed. “I wanted to give that audience a chance to see the films.” The Reel Sisters Family Day will take place on Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Alamo.
This year, Reel Sisters will open with That’s Why They Call Us Colored — a short directed by Malika Franklin, featuring Vinie Burrows as the lead actress. Film’s like the Gabourey Sidibe directed, The Tale of Four, Francesca Andre’s Charcoal, and the intensely moving documentary film Quest will also be screening. The festival will also feature a conversation with select film clips on SIGHTED EYES/ FEELING HEART, a new documentary on Lorraine Hansberry’s life directed by Tracy Heather Strain.
After two decades of being a staple in the New York City, Butts is ready to spread the wings of Reel Sisters even wider. “We want to have a partnership or a way where the films can have a traveling component where it can go to different cities, maybe even different countries,” she explained. “That’s one thing that I want to develop. The second thing is to be able to have Netflix or a streaming platform to stream the films so that if people are in other cities, they can still enjoy. The filmmakers would also get paid for that showcasing of work — that’s my dream.”
Find a complete schedule of the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival + Lecture Series click here.
Be sure to look out for Shadow and Act’s coverage of the Reel Sisters Film Festival.Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami