Explorations of identity, power, and time at the 19th Annual Roxbury International Film Festival
Sponsored by the Color of Film Initiative, RIFF completes another fascinating year at the Museum of Fine Arts from June 21 through July 1
The Roxbury International Film Festival this year took a powerful jab at the country’s sociopolitical state, especially as it relates to people of color. With an empowering beginning on Juneteenth with informative documentary Paris Noir (60 min. Weds. 5pm) and into the ever-innovative shorts programs known at RIFF — most notably, this years program aptly titled America? (Fri 5:30pm) — the fest declared a state of urgency towards the cultivation of diverse voices in film.
The unofficial opening of the festival was Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved person in the United States. Marking the occasion was Paris Noir (60 min, Wed 6/21), a searingly informative documentary directed by Joanne Burke. The film explores the overlooked history of African-American culture in early twentieth-century Paris — from the influence of African-American soldiers during the Civil War in Paris, all the way through the ’20s and ’30s, through the Second World War and into the ’60s. The history notes influencers and artists like the 1920s Harlem entertainer Ada “Bricktop” Smith, theatre legend Josephine Baker, and more well-known expatriates like James Baldwin and Miles Davis. Burke represents the cutting realism of Paris’s rich interaction with African-American culture of the silent era through the use of so-called “Academy” aspect ratio as well as pervasive and well-timed use of archival footage.
RIFF continued on a strong line-up for the week with Tear The Roof Off (57 min, Thu 6/22), a charismatic documentary directed by Bobby J. Brown. The film artfully tells the history seminal group Parliament Funkadelic, as well as the supposed autocracy of George Clinton and his troubling mistreatment of the core and rotating members of the group. Through the use of reenacted footage — intended to bring life to the members’ stories in the absence of archival material — Brown implores audiences to envision the consequences in the success of the band through the eyes of those manipulated and exploited during its rise.
Following up mid-week was RIFF’s Alternative/Sci-Fi shorts program (Thu 6/22), exhibiting a wide range of versatility in tone within the genre. Cliff notez’s Vitiglio and Thomas Javier Castillo’s Vida Meurtos — the former a psychological thriller and the latter a sci-fi thriller/dystopia — tackle the consequential nature of the current sociopolitical climate for marginalized communities and people of color. Meanwhile, Doll by Jae Hi, Fire by Rui Canvasking Lopes and Darkroom by David Schell take on a more horror-centric approach to the subject, as well as the more concentrated nature of the alternative in sci-fi.
RIFF’s last short program of the lineup was America? (Fri 6/23), an aptly named title to the series of shorts all with the underlying urgency on the state of POC stories in our current sociopolitical climate. All ranging in levels of execution and tone, the lineup’s standout short is Fireflies by Raouf Zaki, a silent drama about a frequenting Middle Eastern man at a local cafe who grows increasingly suspicious to those around him. Beyond the production’s technically well-executed product — in composition, sound, and direction — Fireflies speaks to powerful biases and truths that lie dormant in our society, and more importantly, within ourselves.
One standout exhibition at the tail-end of the festival is Little Boxes (Fri 6/23), a narrative film by Rob Meyer released on VOD earlier this year. The drama/comedy tells the story of a biracial boy who is forced to conform to a certain racial identity as he and his parents try to acclimate to the suburbs of Rome, Washington. Meyer’s touch is light, inclining our view ever so slightly towards the air of larger conflicts of race and identity bubbling under the surface.
Bringing this year’s RIFF to a close was Brian Flaccus’s romantic comedy, Alex and Jaime (Sat 6/24) — his first feature to enter the festival since ending RIFF last year with action/rom-com How We Met. With Alex and Jaime, Flaccus sets the stage for a multiple-storyline premise about seven different couples — each named Alex and Jaime, all navigating the complex and daunting terrain of romantic relationships. The balance between longer, more enveloping scenes between the title characters and his use of pop/modern American folk music to overlay transitional segments in story illuminate Flaccus’s interest in the core of the rom-com genre: the universal appreciation of a catchy montage.
RIFF has definitely lent it’s ear to local filmmakers this year, highlighting the importance of POC stories made for, and most especially, by POC artists. At a critical new period in American politics/society for individuals of color, RIFF exclaims the power of film as a community, as a vehicle for awareness and perhaps even change.