Carolyn Butts

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As a young black girl growing up in Oklahoma in the 1960s, Del Hunter-White loved to sing and dance, but she never thought she’d be able to channel her creative impulses into filmmaking. Now, she is a winner at a film festival beginning today.

“The idea of me becoming a filmmaker was just non-existent,” says Hunter-White, whose 10-minute short film “Cornbread” documents a 6-year-old African-American girl’s search for the missing ingredient in her life: her father. “What role models did you have? None.”

Now a film festival featuring “Cornbread” and 24 other pieces by women of color offers aspiring filmmakers the possibilities Hunter-White had to create for herself. The Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival and Lecture Series, which runs today and Saturday at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, is a showcase for a diverse array of perspectives, among them the experiences of African-Americans, American Indians, Arabs, Asians and Brazilians.

Hollywood studios “ghettoize us,” says Hunter-White, who adds she often received positive feedback on the screenplay for “Cornbread,” only to be told producers didn’t know how to market it. “They want us to do something like ‘Booty Call,’ a crude sex comedy, she said. “They are still locked into their small microcosm of what we’re about. And we are about so much.”

Among the films to be shown this weekend is the documentary “In My Own Skin: The Complexity of Living as an Arab in America,” which explores the Arab-American experience of five women living in New York in a post-Sept. 11 world. “Standing at the Edge, We Dance,” also a documentary, features candid interviews with Joan Myers Brown, the maverick artistic director and founder of PHILADANCO!, the Philadelphia Dance Co., a multi-cultural troupe known for performing the work of African-American choreographers. And the sudden death of a young funk bandleader, the Maestro, creates turmoil in the Mangueira Samba School in the Afro-Brazilian comedy “Un Gurufim Na Mangueira” (A Funeral at the Samba School).

“It’s important for women to see women of color, to see images that represent them and their perspectives,” said Carolyn Butts, who co-founded Reel Sisters five years ago to provide opportunities for women of color in the film industry. Butts is a member of the Women’s Enews advisory board. “Women are half of the audience, yet we command just a small percentage of films. If you look at the history of women directors–doesn’t matter if they’re white, black or anything else–there are not too many that command a Hollywood presence.”

Films Present Fresh Themes and Find an Audience

Kim Brizzolara, co-chair of Films of Conflict and Resolution, a section of the Hamptons International Film Festival, said that film festivals that explore issues free of Hollywood formula capture authentic stories “you’ll never see anywhere else.”

“It represents more of the realities from the standpoint of the person who is in it and not from observers, people on the outside looking in,” said Brizzolara, who looks for films from directors in war-torn regions such as Bosnia.

Once puzzled about how to tap into Hollywood’s support, Butts and her co-founders now believe that if they build an audience for films with minority themes, Hollywood will come.

“If there’s a demand, people are going to start doing it,” said Butts. “People are tired of seeing the same old thing. There’s a hunger for that now. Otherwise Hollywood wouldn’t be picking up so many independent films.”

It’s not Hollywood, but schools often request “Beyond the Bars: No Extended Embraces,” a 2000 documentary in the Reel Sisters festival about women trying to maintain relationships with jailed spouses, by Julia O’Farrow. Teachers frequently request permission to show it as an educational program.

Another success: Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus each year purchases copies of all of the festival’s films to archive in its permanent collection, Butts said. The university’s events coordinator, Rodney K. Hurley, co-founded the Reel Sisters conference with Butts, who believes that audience support of popular independent films is slowly influencing Hollywood.

After director Julie Dash’s stunningly beautiful film “Daughters of the Dust” won first prize for cinematography at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, it became the first full-length film by an African-American woman to receive national distribution in 1992. Patricia Cardosa’s Latina film, “Real Women Have Curves,” won the dramatic audience award and a special jury prize for acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Women of Color Filmmakers Bring Viewers the Real Stories

Butts said that creating more opportunities at the top for minority directors and producers will also create more opportunity for actors and actresses of color. She added that that support for the Reel Sisters festival now includes the director Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks production company, the New York State Council on the Arts and The New York Times, among others.

Mainstream audiences “only get a stereotypical view of Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and other groups,” said Clairesa Clay, the film festival’s curator. “That’s so disheartening.”

When she saw “Daughters of the Dust,” a film that celebrates a family’s West African heritage and traditions, “that’s when I knew that, besides behind the camera, also in front of the camera, we are beautiful,” Clay said. “I was kissing my skin. It was an affirmation. It made me want to know more about my history. I wanted to find missing stories.”

For Hunter-White, “Cornbread” represents the kind of hopeful films she wants to make. Before she completed it, her goal was to break through the gender and race barriers in Hollywood.

“Now, I don’t even care about getting into Hollywood,” says Hunter-White, whose film has won the best director award at Reel Sisters.

Lorraine Iannello is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who loves movies.

Reel Sisters of the Diaspora:
Film Schedule (in Acrobat pdf format):

African Voices:

Women Make Movies: