Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video | Festival | Chicago Reader

Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video 

This festival of films and videos by black artists from around the world runs Friday, August 2, through Thursday, August 15, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8, $4 for film center members, and $3 for SAIC students. For further information, call 312-846-2800. Films marked with an * are highly recommended, and unless otherwise noted, all films will be projected from 35-millimeter prints. Following is the schedule for August 2 through 8; a complete festival schedule is available on-line at


* Sia, the Python's Dream

Born in Burkina Faso but now living in Paris, director Dani Kouyate is the son of a griot, a traditional African musician and storyteller, and his 2001 feature uses a seventh-century myth to comment on the power struggles, bogus moral authority, and perpetuation of lies that still plague many African nations. An emperor, hoping to reaffirm his mandate from the people, decides to sacrifice a virgin to the python god, but the unlucky virgin goes into hiding while her soldier sweetheart rushes back from the fort to rescue her. Kouyate is rather lackadaisical in laying out his subplots (a general puts the affairs of the state above his family, court counselors conspire to suppress a madman who speaks the truth); however, in the final third the elemental power of his storytelling takes over, pulling together a spellbinding tapestry of motives and dilemmas. In Bambara with subtitles. 96 min. (TS) Also on the program: Black Soul (2001, 10 min.), a Canadian animation by Martine Chartrand, who will attend the screening. (7:00)


* Short films, program one

A famous song becomes a window onto the complexity and diversity of culture in Strange Fruit, Joel Katz's fine 2001 documentary on the title jazz ballad. Written in 1938 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx, to protest lynchings ("Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root") and initially banned from radio, "Strange Fruit" was taken up by Billie Holiday and later sung by performers as varied as Archie Shepp and Tori Amos. The video's details reveal the fabric of the times: Holiday first performed the song at the integrated Greenwich Village nightclub Cafe Society, where the doormen wore rags to parody pretentiousness; singing the song in public could attract anticommunist witch-hunters; after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953, Meeropol and his wife adopted their two young sons, who tell their story on-screen. In Hughes' Dream Harlem, Jamal Joseph offers a spirited remembrance of Langston Hughes that includes his poetry, musical fragments, and commentary from current poets and hip-hoppers. But Joseph's attempt to claim Hughes as "the original master rapper" effaces the poet's distinctive calm, and the video avoids any mention of the man's homosexuality. 117 min. (FC) Joseph will attend the screening. (4:15)

Race Behind Bars

Three videos on African-Americans and the criminal justice system. Julia O'Farrow's Beyond the Bars/No Extended Embraces (1999) shows a group of women in love with men who are doing serious time. Their relationships and motives vary, but many of them seem damaged by past traumas: one woman, who says she's survived abuse from every man she's had a relationship with--including her psychiatrist--makes her husband promise that if she divorces him he'll pay the legal fees. Still the relationships register as authentic: one woman supports her lover's repeated rejections of parole because he insists he's innocent. Narcel G. Reedus's prayerlike The Fight is a brooding meditation inspired by the case of Charles Stuart in Boston, who falsely accused a black man of having murdered his pregnant wife. It centers on the figure of an African-American photographed in isolation, against darkness, and as the camera lingers on a shoulder or an arm, as if he were under some threat, multiple voices on the sound track read Psalm 69 ("let me be delivered from them that hate me"). Also showing: Tina Morton's Severed Souls (2001). 75 min. (FC) (6:15)

Mama Africa

Queen Latifah is the on-screen host for this 2001 triptych of half-hour shorts about young people in urban Africa. They're as competent as your average film-school project and surprisingly American in feel. "Raya," by Zulfah Otto-Sallies of South Africa, is the strongest entry, partly because it manages to evoke the tradition-bound Muslim community in Cape Town. The title character, fresh out of prison, clashes with her old-fashioned mother, who's been caring for the convict's young daughter; there aren't many surprises, but the emotional ties are believably drawn. In "Hang Time," by Ngozi Onwhura of Nigeria, a shantytown teenager is torn between the lure of big-league basketball and the stern advice of his grandmother, who wants him to be a teacher, until an ironic twist reminiscent of O. Henry reconciles the two options. Onwhura's direction makes one wonder if she's campaigning for a Nike commercial. "Uno's World," by Bridget Pickering, succumbs to the cliche of the irresponsible black man and the black woman who can't let him go; neither character is appealing, and the film's Namibian setting of sleek clubs and apartments might as easily be in West Hollywood. 89 min. (TS) Also showing: Twinings, a digital video by Malene Charles. (6:30)

Civil Brand

Neema Barnette's muckraking drama about a prison uprising piles on the cliches about abused women inmates and their lecherous, vicious male guards. The facility is operated for profit, and everyone up the command chain gets an illegal cut from the unpaid labor, but the episodic and poorly conceived script by Joyce Renee Lewis and Preston Whitmore never examines this contemporary angle, sticking instead with the usual exploitation-movie outrages (brutal beating, sexual molestation, solitary confinement) that push the women over the edge. Barnette's visual style is anything but subtle, and the players (including Lisaraye, Da Brat, MC Lyte, and Mos Def) veer from the overripe to the catatonic. Only the hip-hop music track manages to strike the right note of miserable defiance. 90 min. (TS) Barnette will attend the screening. (8:30)


Short films, program two

Accurately described in its subtitle ("Brothers Sound Off on Relationship Issues"), Cheryl R. Matlock's Keepin It Real (2001) makes its talking-head shots more austere by blurring the background, which focuses one's attention on the words. Nine African-American men describe a variety of experiences ("A good nasty girl, [but] when she found Jesus . . . all of the good times stopped"), but a frequent theme is the attack on black masculinity by everyone from domineering mothers to brutal police; one man thinks women are attracted to "thugs" as an alternative to "pookified" men. The sometimes amateurish acting can't sustain LaTonya Croff's drama A Second Chance (2001), in which a woman with an abusive past is reluctant to love another man; the spontaneity required for the street talk at the opening is utterly lacking. 71 min. (FC) Matlock and Croff will attend the screening. (3:00)

* Sia, the Python's Dream

See listing for Friday, August 2. (5:00)


Yolngu Boy

Shot in Australia, this drama by Stephen Johnson (2000, 85 min.) looks at three aboriginal teens "spiritually lost between the demands of their elders amd the lures of rap music, soccer, and easy money." Also on the program, local filmmaker Grace R. Alston will discuss her five-minute short Ancestral Memory (2001), to be projected from Beta SP video. (6:15)

He Said, She Said: Short Films About Love

A disappointing program of shorts in various formats, about relationships between well-to-do men and women. In Sheron Johnson's Strike! (2001), the best of the bunch, a wife gets fed up with her busy husband and goes on strike. The pace is choppy, but Johnson injects some sadistic humor into the husband's subjection and shows the pitfalls of life in suburban comfort. In A Song for Jade (2001), Chicago filmmaker Shari Lynn Himes honestly presents the regrets of a breakup and the lingering bond between ex-lovers. Her direction is assured, but the film has more posing than acting, and its tone is no more penetrating than the lite-jazz sound track. Love in Harlem, also about the aftermath of a split, suffers from superficial situations and dialogue; director Julius Key can't get a fix on his actors, so the music supplies the moods. Also on the program: Man Made by Erma Elzy Jones and Best of Both Worlds by Lesley Thomas. 100 min. (TS) Himes will attend the screening. (8:15)


* Short films, program one

See listing for Saturday, August 3. (6:00)

Nelio's Story

Part fable, part realism, this 1997 Swedish feature by Solveig Nordlund follows an impressionable orphan as he makes his way from a war-ravaged village to an unnamed city in Mozambique. Along the journey he's blessed by a lizard woman, and his powers to heal and see the future help him to overcome a Fagin-like con man, an attraction to an albino girl, and the troubles that befall his gang of street urchins. Adapted from a novel by Henning Mankell, the film has been compared to Hector Babenco's Pixote but lacks the other film's desperation and insight into the chasm between wealth and poverty that afflicts the young. Nordlund portrays a corrupt government unable to feed its own, but the force of her commentary is diluted by magical realism and theatrical claptrap (the story is told by a baker who works out of an avant-garde theater). In Portuguese with subtitles. Also showing: Mans Mansson's 16-millimeter film Clyde. 97 min. (TS) (6:15)

* Personal Visions

A loosely bundled program of works in various formats, about family, heritage, and the discovery of self. Check out That's My Face (2001, 56 min.), an experimental documentary by San Diego-based filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, whose Super-8 mosaic of crowd scenes and intimate gatherings, of impressions and reactions, is accompanied by a voice-over of poetical riffs and candid conversations about family, religion, and skin color. Born and raised in the Bronx, Harris has been on a 30-year odyssey through three countries (the U.S., Tanzania, and Brazil) in search of racial and cultural identity--donning and then discarding his "all-American mask" for something more fluid and spiritual. His devout biracial grandfather and pan-African mother figure as importantly as friends who've introduced him to various subcultures; despite some travelogue giddiness, the film makes a highly personal journey into one we can all understand. In Crossing Jordan (2001, 15 min.), a drama by local filmmaker Alison Lonesome, a sickly old man resents being cooped up in the house, sneaks out, has a heart attack, and is saved by his granddaughter. Lonesome imparts a graceful touch to this simple vignette but not much more. Also showing: Marla Moore's Blood Orange (15 min.) and Tina Morton's dance film If You Call Them (2001, 7 min.). (TS) Lonesome will attend the screening. (8:15)


Mama Africa

See listing for Saturday, August 3. (6:15)

Two Towns of Jasper

Marco Williams and Whitney Dow devised an unusual approach to examining the brutal 1998 torture-murder of James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to his death by three men in a truck in Jasper, Texas: during the murderers' trial a black crew taped black residents and a white crew taped whites, underlining the racial divide between them. The history of the town creeps in: A fence had long separated white and black sections in the town cemetery. One white kid explains that the Confederate flag just means "kick-ass" and thinks blacks take it "real personal"; a nicely turned out but very obese woman criticizes Byrd's less-than-exemplary life; meanwhile the Byrd family want the death penalty for his three killers (two of whom were covered with racist and Nazi tattoos). But nothing can really explain the opening images of a rural road stained with Byrd's blood and flesh, which seem to make the crime's horror irreducible. 90 min. (FC) To be projected from Beta SP video; Williams and Dow will attend the screening. (8:00)


Civil Brand

See listing for Saturday, August 3. (6:15)

Kali's Vibe

Brilliantly played by Lizzy Cooper Davis, the title character is a highly competent social worker who's trying to deal with the emotional repercussions of having discarded her irrepressible but unfaithful lesbian lover (Phalana Tiller). Director Shari Carpenter has a strong feel for color, motion, and characterization, which pay off in such fantastic imagery as the whirring movement of two expressively painted lovers. Kali succumbs to the romantic entreaties of a male colleague (Charles Malik Whitfield), a conversion that seems sexually and emotionally false, yet Davis's easy charm and Whitfield's expert timing make the characters hard to shake. This may not have the courage of its convictions, but it offers some funny, touching, and woundingly accurate observations about love and desire. 94 min. (Patrick Z. McGavin) To be projected from Beta SP video. (8:30)

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Popular Stories

  • Book It

    New and recent book releases from Chicago authors and publishers
  • A silence louder than words

    How allegations of sexual abuse exposed cracks in the foundation of Young Chicago Authors, Free Write Arts & Literacy, and the city’s spoken word community
  • Comedy is back, baby!

    A glimpse at how stand-ups coped during the pandemic and made their triumphant return to telling jokes again.
  • Weed Wolf, the tagger

    'No matter how lame or artsy-fartsy it is, I'll take anything over a poo-brown wall'