For the past four years, film programmers Amir George and Erin Christovale have been watching filmmakers of colour get shut out of the industry thanks to entrenched standards and practices. The problem is reflected in the #OscarsSoWhite scandal and risk-averse studios petrified of investing in diverse talent. But for those same four years, George and Christovale have been forcing open critical conversations about race and film in high-culture institutions with their Black Radical Imagination short-film series.
"We did a screening at the Dallas Museum of Art, and one of the questions was if this meant that there were going to be more things about black people [at the museum]," George recalls. "The museum had to answer that and recognize that they had never had that degree of representation."
It's just that type of institutional introspection that embodies the spirit of the Black Radical Imagination program, which features films that tell stories of the African diaspora through video art, new media and experimental narratives, and will enjoy a run at the Regent Park Film Festival in Toronto this weekend.
A majority of the series' films feature the works of black filmmakers working within avant-garde and experimental formats, often combining a variety of visual, textual and audio elements to explore the aesthetics of such typically underrepresented genres of black sci-fi, Afro-futurism and Afro-surrealism. Essentially, it's an acute engagement with a black identity that departs from the tropes that have traditionally dominated the screen; the Black Radical Imagination program not only comments on the current state of black culture but offers a deeply considered reinvention of it.
George, 29, and Christovale, 28, from Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively, began the project as a grassroots effort in 2013 after realizing there simply was not enough representation of black lives and artistry on screen.
"I came into a community where there weren't any black programmers at all.… So many images over time depict black people in a negative light and we've been bombarded with these things for centuries," George says. "I wondered, how do we introduce new imagery that doesn't cause trauma, that doesn't cause us to feel badly about ourselves?"
One of the pair's most striking achievements is the international network of artists drawn into their orbit. George and Christovale have opted out of a program that engages solely with black identity and experience through a North American lens to instead begin a discussion on the meaning of blackness around the world. The program at this week's Regent Park fest, for example, will feature the work of filmmakers from Canada, Haiti, Colombia and the United States.
For Michele Clarke, an acclaimed Toronto filmmaker and the current artist-in-residence at the Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto, this embrace of the global black community, and the dialogue it generates, has been one of the most gratifying parts of working with the Black Radical Imagination.
"One of the things I am most interested in is conversations within blackness," she says. "To be in dialogue with the large African-American audiences that turn out for these screenings has been a real gift that has enriched both myself and my practice."
George and Christovale, meanwhile, are not limiting their efforts to one medium. Following the publication of the inaugural Black Radical Imagination Catalogue, a collection of essays, production notes and reflections on the touring film program, George and Christovale have plans to release a second book – with the pair acutely aware the future of their series depends on interrogating the traditional curriculum for budding filmmakers.
"The book is definitely an education tool for students who might go through their entire three years of school and never once see a black moving image," George says. "I've been working toward creating a black cinematic vernacular amongst myself and my peers."
Judging by its long and well-received run so far, the series has succeeded in cinematically affirming the work of black filmmakers while cementing the varied, unpredictable and extraordinary existence of black lives. For black filmmakers in any corner of the globe, Black Radical Imagination just might be the first step in levelling the industry playing field.
Black Radical Imagination plays the Regent Park Film Festival on Nov. 26 (regentparkfilmfestival.com).