Major film releases featuring Black characters and stories are few and far between. When these films do make it to theatres – such as 2018 films Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman – they often are only in select cinemas for short runs.
Three years ago, Black Space Winnipeg partnered with the Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque to do something about the rarity of Black narratives on screen. They began with a monthly film screening, featuring popular Black films that had not or were no longer playing in mainstream theatres. The screenings were incredibly successful and in turn led to the creation of the Afro Prairie Film Festival.
Ben Williams is the production centre director and director of development and marketing for the Winnipeg Film Group, as well as a co-curator of the festival. The Afro Prairie Film Festival takes to the screen for its second year this Black History Month, from Feb. 21 to 24. It will feature keynotes, workshops and screenings ranging from drama to comedy to horror and experimental filmmaking, including francophone films and stories dealing with LGBTQ2S themes.
“We call it an Afro-centric film festival that helps to give a platform and a voice to Black filmmakers,” Williams says.
“It’s the first of its kind in all of central Canada.”
Williams says he hopes the festival can elevate Black stories and provide support and awareness for Black filmmakers
“I’ve been at the film group for almost five years, and in that five years, I’ve only seen four Black filmmakers make films through here,” he says.
“I know there are other Black filmmakers here in the city, but they haven’t been coming through the Winnipeg Film Group. What we’re trying to do is bridge awareness with the Black community ... and also try to elevate the voices of the Black community, whether that’s here in Winnipeg or Canada as a whole, or all of North America for that matter, because the voices aren’t really heard enough.”
Ella Cooper is the founder of Black Women Film! Canada and the keynote speaker for the 2019 Afro Prairie Film Festival. She says she wants to emphasize that the elevation of Black voices isn’t possible without audiences to do the elevating.
“I think that there’s a plethora of ways you can participate (in) and celebrate Black History Month, regardless of whether you’re of the African diaspora,” she says.
“We talk about the need for content and more diverse voices, but the reality is if you don’t show up as the audience, then the work is not going to continue. We can make the steps to make the works, promote the works, get it out there, but it’s really about the audiences voting by showing up, by saying, ‘Yes, I want to see this. Yes, out of all the things happening this week, I’m going to go check this out.’”
Williams says the Afro Prairie Film Festival is for anyone who loves the art of film and storytelling.
“There’s all these different festivals that cater to different groups but Black people. Because we don’t have enough of a platform or a voice, nobody knows our stories,” he says.
“We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, look! We want everyone to be aware that this festival is about filmmaking. It’s about connecting people, period.’ That’s what filmmaking is supposed to do.”
The Afro Prairie Film Festival takes place at Cinematheque from Feb. 21 to 24. Individual screenings are $10, and student festival passes are $30 (regular passes are $40). Ella Cooper will deliver a free keynote address on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m.