BlackStar Film Festival founder Maori Karmael Holmes has left Philadelphia to become the executive director of ARRAY Alliance, the nonprofit arm of famed director Ava DuVernay’s film collective, ARRAY.
“It is a gift to have Maori Holmes join our tribe as we enter a new era of public programming and educational work at ARRAY,” said DuVernay, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 2016 Netflix documentary on the criminal justice system, “13th.” “Maori brings a deep well of knowledge around artist-centered organizations and a stellar reputation in the world of artists and curators of color.”
But where does that leave BlackStar, which showcases international films and filmmakers from the Black diaspora and is set to host its seventh annual fest this August?
Two years ago, Holmes told Generocity she was “not afraid” to end the festival someday — it’s hard to run something basically full-time that makes basically no money:
“Doing this work after your day job, after several day jobs, after freelancing, doing it on the weekends, not going on vacation or spending vacation days to run the festival —” Holmes took a breath.
“It’s taxing, both physically and emotionally.”
Wait — let’s back up. The festival is not ending, and Holmes will still be involved as artistic director, at least through this year. But things are certainly changing for the now-cultural mainstay.
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Holmes has been entrenched in the arts, film and nonprofit sectors for the entirety of her nearly 20-year career. The native Angeleno cofounded the Philly-based Black Lily film and music festival for women, which ran from 2007 to 2010; she worked as communications director and later associate director of arts-focused funder Leeway Foundation from 2007 to 2014; and most recently, she was the director of public engagement at the University City-based Institute of Contemporary Art.
BlackStar launched in 2012 as a place where underrepresented filmmakers could get screen time, celebrate community and learn from more established artists.
DuVernay screened an excerpt of her film “Middle of Nowhere” during a master class at that first festival, but she and Holmes had met about five years earlier when she screened her first feature film, hip-hop documentary “This is The Life,” at Holmes’ Black Lily.
The director “has always been supportive” of BlackStar, Holmes said. “I remember she did a press conference for ‘Selma,’ she was wearing a BlackStar t-shirt.” During the 2017 festival, its fifth anniversary, Holmes invited DuVernay to attend and receive the Richard Nichols Luminary Award.
This past October, Holmes and DuVernay connected again when Holmes was visiting Los Angeles for a speaking engagement following another recent, BlackStar-related trip (more on that later). That’s when DuVernay offered her the job at ARRAY Alliance.
Holmes said she was surprised by the offer and took a few days to think about it — but “I felt like I needed to do it, only because, it just felt like one of those opportunities that you don’t say no to. I would really pinch myself if I didn’t explore what’s possible with this new position.”
In her role as executive director, Holmes will oversee fundraising and programming for ARRAY Alliance, which is “focusing on filmmakers of color and women filmmakers and amplifying their work and opportunity.” (For instance, ARRAY distributed Philly filmmaker Heidi Saman’s “Namour” last year.) The position itself is new, too, so Holmes is also tasked with building out her responsibilities.
“My last two jobs were jobs where I was the first person to have them, at ICA and at Leeway,” she said, “so that part was not daunting.”
But again: What about BlackStar?
Holmes will remain as artistic director from afar through this next festival. It’s a departure from her previous title of producing artistic director, which means she won’t be fundraising or working with sponsors — just curating films and programming.
BlackStar announced last week it hired Meg Onli as festival director and Patrice Worthy as managing director, both part-time roles. The hope is that, in future years, the fest would launch a guest curator program with visiting artistic directors.
But the ongoing struggle is funding. Despite the festival’s consistent popularity and acclaim, “every year, we raise just enough money to put the festival on, and then we’re sort of back down to zero,” Holmes said.
That unpredictability has worn heavily on its founder, who has borne the brunt of the mostly-volunteer-fueled BlackStar’s administrative work since its inception.
“What we had been doing just feels like it’s always on the brink of not happening, and that cycle has been very exhausting to me because I’ve been holding a lot of the weight of it,” she said.
Hence, the fall visits to L.A.: Holmes and other members of the BlackStar crew had been meeting with filmmakers and corporate partners to research the feasibility of launching some West Coast version of the fest for the sake of generating more resources (i.e. bigger, nationally focusing sponsors) to better support the event.
For now, that’s off the table as the team adjusts to losing their full-time leader, who in turn is adjusting to having just one job, rather than one paid job and one mostly unpaid job of running a film festival.
There’s something to celebrate in a founder free of founder’s syndrome, aka the tendency to have a hand in every pot for the sake of control and a refusal to plan for their own eventual departure.
Instead, Holmes is perfectly fine with passing the baton. She knows she’s earned it.
“Often, when the festival ends, I’m just completely drained,” she said. “But maybe someone else will have more energy or a way to do it more efficiently. I don’t think I’m the only person that can run the festival.”-30-
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