Philly’s BlackStar Film Festival is looking for a new home

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A scene from 'The Burial of Kojo,' a film from Ghana that is one of the highlights of the BlackStar Film Festival. (Courtesy of BlackStar Film Festival)

A scene from 'The Burial of Kojo,' a film from Ghana that is one of the highlights of the BlackStar Film Festival. (Courtesy of BlackStar Film Festival)

The annual BlackStar Film Festival returns this weekend, with four days of new cinema from African-American filmmakers and other communities of color in West Philadelphia.

But the festival will be at International House for the last time. BlackStar is losing its longtime home venue, which may cause it to move to another city.

This year’s schedule includes several standouts: a documentary series by Questlove spotlighting iconic hip-hop songs over the last 40 years; “Sprinter,” a feature film co-produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith; a new film from Ghana, “The Burial of Kojo;” and an appearance by filmmaker Spike Lee in conversation with Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase #MeToo. Lee and Burke will be discussing the use of radical storytelling to foster social justice.

The festival started eight years ago at International House, a residential building with a large screening auditorium on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

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International House, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, has hosted the BlackStar Film Festival for eight years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Since then, BlackStar has grown significantly, from 40 films with about 1,500 tickets sold to this year’s 115 films and an expected 9,000 tickets. Several locations around the Penn and Drexel University campuses are being used for screenings, panels and events.

The heart of the festival remains International House. “It definitely is the hub,” said founding director Maori Holmes.

Maori Karmael Holmes, founder and executive director of BlackStar Film Festival, poses for a portrait in the Sidney Kimmel Theater at the Constitution Center on February 23, 2019. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

The building is shutting down, however, and is being prepared for sale by the end of the year. The auditorium is programmed by Lightbox Film Center, the city’s only year-round art-house cinema. Lightbox has screenings lined up until the end of the year and is actively searching for a new venue partner with a screening room.

The BlackStar festival has built a reputation for being more than a showcase of African-American film. It’s also a conference, fostering discussion about film aesthetics and social consciousness, pro-actively building a sense of community among filmmakers. Of the 115 films programmed (features and shorts), 90 filmmakers are expected to attend.

So many filmmakers come to Philadelphia for the festival that last year it began offering daily yoga sessions to ease the bodies of aching travelers.

Holmes does not yet have a plan for future festivals, being focused on this year’s event. She said it’s possible BlackStar may move to another city.

“We could move anywhere,” she said. “Philadelphia is obviously our home. We have deep roots here. We have incredible support from all of our community partners. But there isn’t anything about the conference or the festival that requires that it stay in Philadelphia.”

Holmes said she has had informal conversations with venues outside Philadelphia, but that nothing has been decided yet.

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