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Enjoli Moon (left) with “Dream” director Nijla Mu’mi. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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“Dream” director Nijla Mu’min fields the audience’s questions after the film’s Dec. 17 screening. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Enjoli Moon isn’t a cinema studies student, or involved with film production. She’s the branding coordinator of a restaurant, Croaker’s Spot, and, like many of us, an avid moviegoer. But one day she asked herself a simple question: Why doesn’t Richmond have a black film festival?
“With all of our history, it just didn’t make sense,” she says.
Moon, the daughter of Richmond activist and music producer August Moon, founded the Afrikana Independent Film Festival in 2014 with what she calls “divine inspiration.”
“I don’t have a background in film, so I was going to pitch the idea to some organization that was more established,” Moon says. “I just didn’t think I had the background to do it. But the more I thought about it, I was convinced that someone else just wouldn’t see it like I see it.”
Her fledgling organization has produced a floating series of increasingly popular events, under the “Noir Cinema” tag, that bring up-and-coming African-American filmmakers to town the third Thursday of each month. Moon calls Noir Cinema “a series dedicated to exploring the genre of short indie films by and about people of color from across the globe.”
The events have been held in different arts spaces and venues: Page Bond Gallery, Candela Books + Gallery, 1708 Gallery, Glavé Kocen Gallery. Balliceaux, Ghostprint Gallery and Artisan Café were among the first. “One of the things that keeps it fresh is that we do it on a different screen each month,” she says.
To program the event, Moon follows the national film festival buzz, watches a lot of YouTube and Vimeo clips, and reaches out to a growing contact list. On a no-string budget, she’s managed to attract a diverse array of directors, from South American filmmaker Zakee Kuduro to New Yorker Stefani Saintonge to local Richmond-natives-on-the-rise Praheme and R. Shanea Williams.
“It’s a different film each time, a different experience,” Moon says of the offerings, which range in length from 10 to 40 minutes. “This season, I’ve been more experimental in the films I’ve chosen. The first season, the films were straight narrative; this season I’ve shown more films that were out of the box.” She’s also been receiving an increasing number of submissions from outside filmmakers. “There are a lot of people making films right now and a lot more people of color making films. So the content is there.”
A Noir Cinema showcase at The Valentine in December featured the short film, “Dream,” a beautifully photographed 16-minute coming-of-age movie set in a small desert town. Nearly all of the 50 seats were filled for the showing, and director Nijla Mu’min, who based the script on her own short story, was in attendance to answer questions.
“I never thought I would like short films, but what makes this special are the discussions afterward,” says John Mitchell, who volunteers with the festival running audio-visual equipment. “This is different because we’re pulling from the African diaspora. There are a lot of young filmmakers at different colleges making films and a lot of them never get seen. This is an outlet for it. But it isn’t just the films. It’s the questions, the fellowship.”
At The Valentine, the crowd lauds Mu’min for her film’s soft cinematography, inventive sound design, even for having the guts to show black people living in a desert community — something rarely seen in mainstream movies. The young girl at the heart of the story is watching her parents go through a rough patch, but there’s no violence, no forced melodrama, just a sweet, simple story about learning life lessons. “I’m a little mad because I want to know what happens next,” one attendee says. Mu’min, a University of California, Berkeley grad who was a production assistant on “Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s first film, tells her that she’s pitching a feature-length version of the movie. The room erupts in applause. ”Dream” — a “no-brainer to schedule,” Moon says — is clearly a hit with this crowd.
“The reaction to what we’re doing has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Carlease Briggs, a high school guidance counselor who volunteers with the festival. “We’ve had people come out from Maryland and D.C., and we’re starting to build a regular audience — a very engaged audience at that.”
In addition to the monthly showcases, AIFF has also sponsored special regional premieres, like “Finding Fela,” a documentary about Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti that played The Byrd Theatre. On Feb. 27, the AIFF is scheduled to feature a documentary on poet and human rights activist Sonia Sanchez at the Grace Street Theater, with Sanchez in attendance.
Moon is looking ahead to making Afrikana a real, honest-to-goodness festival in July. “Right now, I don’t know where I will hold it,” she says with a sigh. “It will be different in that it will be a full-fledged, multiday festival that shows the entire spectrum of film works, not just short indie films. It will be documentaries, short films, narrative feature films, everything.”
Meanwhile, Afrikana will continue the Noir Cinema screenings. “I think people really have enjoyed having something a little different to do in the city, and to see these films they may never have seen before. I think one important thing that excites people is that you get to meet the filmmaker. You actually get to talk to these people. These are the future Ava DuVernays of the world.”
"BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez," Feb. 27 — As part of the Afrikana Film Festival’s Noir Cinema Series, catch a screening of this documentary about the human rights activist, who will attend the post-screening discussion. Grace Street Theater. 7 p.m. Free ($5 suggested donation). afrikanafilmfestival.org.