Bobi Morgan Wood


Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival and Lecture Series celebrated its 21st year Saturday and Sunday at the Alamo Draft Ale House Theater.

The festival started in 1997, Reel Sisters is the first Brooklyn-based film festival for women of African, Caribbean, Latino, Asian and Native American descent.

Carolyn Butts, the film festival founder, started Reel Sisters after she had made a short film herself, and discovered the difficulties of promoting and getting visibility for a film after it has been made.  This year, for the first time ever, Reel Sisters received the status to submit a film in the category of Short Documentary to the Oscars.

The Reel Sisters Film Festival has brought amazing films by women of color to Brooklyn for 21 years. The film festival embraces a myriad of styles, including animation, documentary, experimental, shorts, and full-length feature films.

Stories of the Diasporan immigrant experience were told in intimate films written, directed, and filmed by women, a rarity despite the added media attention to the movie industry through the Time’s Up movement.

Darine Hotait, who wrote and directed Like Salt, is a Lebanese-American fiction writer and film director. Hotait, who is an Iranian national, recorded a greeting for the audiences of her film at Reel Sisters, as she was unable to obtain a visa to come to the festival in person. In her recording, she explained that her experimental film was inspired by “an unexpected and brutal war” between Israel and Lebanon, and uses “a jazz musician and a boxer as a way of telling a story.”

Like Salt tells the story of Hala, a twenty-something Arab-American woman who goes out with an African American musician in New York City. We first see Hala dancing distractedly by herself at a party, holding a bottle of beer in one hand. Soon after, she’s walking to a bodega to buy a pack of cigarettes and an international calling card.

She picks out a phone card she can use to call her father back home, but when she goes to pay for it, the cashier asks her where she’s planning to call.

“Chile,” she lies.

The cashier pulls a different brand international calling card from the wall behind the counter and passes it to her.

“This one is better for Chile,” the man says, handing her the card for calling Latin America. She pushes the card she had previously selected forward, like a pass, and pays for it, although she doesn’t use it to call her father until the next morning.

When she finally calls her father, it’s from a pay phone booth in the countryside. She pours out a packet of salt onto the shelf, tracing indecipherable ruins in it with her finger as she holds a truncated conversation with her father, who asks her,“You needed war to break out to call your father?”

In Like Fine Silk, by Brooklyn-based writer and director Sandra Manzanares, a bilingual Afro-Latina named Eva accompanies her mother to a local beauty supply store. The owner, who is Korean, is mistaken for Chinese by the mother, who is mistaken for African American by the store owner. The daughter’s efforts to clarify what the man is saying to her mother, and what her mother is saying to the man, are interrupted and escalated by a local woman, who also does not immediately understand how the mom can be both black and Latina.

“We think there cannot be enough outlets for people of color to show their works,” Butts said. “Because, in Hollywood, despite all the P.R. they have, when you look at the hard figures, the numbers are not matching up. What’s interesting to me, is that in the academy awards, in the 90 year history, the only woman—not even talking about a woman of color– that won for best director is Katherine Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010.”

Butts mentioned that only five female directors have been nominated for best director since that title.

“So it’s a big deal that Reel Sisters is the first Academy-qualifying film festival for narrative shorts, for women of color,” Butts said. “But I would like to add that it’s probably the first for women in general, because the academy doesn’t track that way. It’s almost like we’re invisible.”

Esther Duran, writer and director of the web series A Chocolate Conquest, spoke to the crowd at opening night on Friday when she came to the stage to receive her award. Weeping openly, she explained that her tears were from the power of the trailers of other women filmmakers. A Chocolate Conquest, filmed in her native Venezuela, tells the story of cocoa farmers struggling to continue their traditional agricultural ways after the country’s economy turns to oil production. The series captures the traditions of the three-centuries-old farmers, whose way of life is being destroyed by the oil economy.  

“We get the chance to tell our stories so rarely,” Duran said, “That when we do get the chance to tell our stories, they are so poignant.”

Cover photo courtesy of Bobi Wood and The Reel Sisters Film Festival

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