8 Women Filmmakers to Watch at the Pan African Film Festival

by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

As diversity debates wage on in Hollywood, the Pan African Film Festival spotlights an array of stories and storytellers conveying broad narratives from the world’s African diaspora, with more than a dozen documentaries, narrative features, or shorts by women directors being presented during the 12-day cinematic bonanza which starts this week at the Rave Cinemas 15 Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles. Many of these filmmakers are already making noise in independent circles, and Hollywood would do well to pay attention to these emerging voices. Here are eight directors – and their films – we’re excitedly watching.

Lacey Schwartz, Little White Lie

Since the world premiere of Little White Lie at the Jewish Film Festival last summer, critics and audiences on the indie film festival circuit have universally applauded Lacey Schwartz’s engaging documentary narrative of growing up white and Jewish, and the odyssey of racial identity that began after discovering her biological father was black. The film, which marks her directorial debut, offers a moving look at the legacy of family secrets and lies as she explores the questions of how and why she passed for white, as well the hard conversations that followed with family and friends. Schwartz is also executive producer of the Ethiopian narrative film Difret, an audience darling of the 2014 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. It will also premiere at the Pan African Film Fest on Monday, Feb. 9 at 6:55 p.m. As head of the New York-based production company, Truth Aid, Schwartz has worked on a variety of projects for MTV, BET, and @radical.media. Little White Lie will be broadcast on PBS in March.

PAFF premiere: Friday, Feb. 6; 5:40 p.m.

Carol Bash, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band

After an 11-year journey with the film, Carol Bash’s Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, makes its official world debut this week at Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. The premiere project from her Paradox Films banner, Mary Lou explores the little-told story of the iconic jazz pianist who composed over 300 works of music – and happened to be a woman. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, and featuring performances from Carmen Lundy, Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington—the film follows Williams’ decades-long career writing notable swing-band hits in the ‘30s for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and others. She was an arranger for Duke Ellington, and mentored the likes of Theolonius Monk, Dizzie Gillespie, and John Coltrane. No stranger to the documentary world, Bash has worked on numerous prestigious projects, most notably with Firelight Films on the three-time Emmy Award-winning Freedom Riders: A Place of Our Own, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Bash also worked with Two-Tone Productions on Banished, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. She’s also teamed with Kunhardt Productions on the PBS series, African American Lives. Mary Lou airs nationally on PBS in April.

PAFF Premiere: Friday, Feb. 6; 5:45 p.m.

Destiny Ekaragha, Gone Too Far

Destiny Ekaragha showcases an exciting work, deftly balancing comedy with drama in her adaptation of Bola Agbage’s Oliver Award-winning British stage production of the same name, Gone Too Far. Just as Agbage did with his play, Ekaragha draws on her own Nigerian roots and London upbringing in this tense tale of two estranged brothers whose unhappy reunion is further hampered by the conflicts of varying racial factions within the community. Gone Too Far, which premiered in the UK last fall, is Ekaragha’s debut narrative feature for the British Film Institute (BFI). She currently has a slate of feature films in development—including Limp, an original features project, and another with BFI. (Director Amma Asante’s international box-office hit, Belle, is another BFI project.) Ekaragha made a strong impression on the British film scene with two short films, The Park (2009) and Tight Jeans (2008), both of which were official selections in the BFI Film Festival in London—and the latter of which was voted best short by The Observer newspaper. In 2010 she shot a Coming Up film for RDF /Channel 4, The Future Wags of Great Britain.

PAFF Premiere: Friday, Feb. 6; 7:20 p.m.

Nefertite Nguvu, In The Morning

Having garnered favorable reception for two shorts, and the 10-part web series U.N.I.T.Y. Reignited, chronicling the life of five aspiring emcees hand-picked by and featuring Queen Latifah, Nefertite Nguvu makes her feature debut with In The Morning. A complex love story told in a single day, the website describes it as a story about “love and transitions.” The film premiered at the UrbanWorld Film last fall, as an emotional mediation stitching together the stories of three women exploring personal growth and the power of choice. A provocative storyteller, with considerable range, Nguvu is graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts. Her thesis project won the school’s award for Outstanding Screenplay. Her short films—all of which she wrote, directed, and produced—include the uniquely stylized black-and-white romance, I Want You (2007), and The End of Winter (2009), an exploration on loss. Both films were highlighted at numerous film festivals across the country.

PAFF Premiere: Friday, Feb. 6; 7:45 p.m.

Erica A. Watson, Roubado

Even before her graduation from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts last spring, 26-year-old writer-director Erica A. Watson was already a seasoned veteran of the illustrious Cannes Film Festival, having attended for five consecutive years with films in the Short Film Corner, and as a participant of the Marche du Film. It was during one of her Festival visits, in 2011, that a chance meeting with a young photographer inspired her short film, Roubado, the story of an introverted Afro-Portuguese teen growing up in the south of France. Agonized by his parents’ recent breakup, his only solace is through his photography. Watson is currently a directing fellow at Film Independent’s Project Involve and was in-residence at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in January as a Sundance Knight Fellow. At 19, she co-founded Hyphenation Nation Productions, a film production company based in her hometown of Detroit that produced 10 short films and 5 episodes of the “Conversations in Cannes,” an interview series which aired from 2007 to 2011. Roubado is her 2014 thesis project.

PAFF premiere: Sunday, Feb. 8; 5:15 p.m.

Ashley D. Ellis, Fixed

Director Ashley D. Ellis tackles homophobia in the African American community with her uniquely nuanced short, Fixed. The story follows the trail of mysterious circumstances leading to the death of a severely-closeted young man. Using a multidimensional perspective, Ellis deeply explores his internal and outward struggles with flashbacks retracing his life in both the LGBT and broader black communities. Ellis’ passion for stories involving human rights, social justice and conservation spurred the founding of Emerald City Arts, a media and arts collective designed to create meaningful content with like-minded collaborators. She completed her first short, If I Had a Son, in 2013 and dove right into Fixed in the fall of that year with writer and executive producer Porcha Evans. The Center for Black Equity, a social justice network empowering the black LBGT community, praised the film as a “commendable work” and a notable catalyst for discourse to create a change in attitudes about black gay men.

PAFF premiere: Sunday, Feb. 8; 9:53 p.m.

Kiara C. Jones, Christmas Wedding Baby

A standout at film festivals across the country, Christmas Wedding Baby’s quadruple threat—writer, director, producer, and music composer—Kiara C. Jones launched the project through her New York-based Cultivated Films company, dedicated to producing films by underrepresented storytellers and providing a nurturing environment where writers and directors can explore their voices. Christmas Wedding Baby, which she has described as “a relationship-family drama packaged in a romantic comedy wrapper,” tells the story of three independent women who are seeking to find their happily ever after right around the holidays. Having produced projects for HBO, BET, Lifetime, PBS, and FOX, Jones was most recently recognized as the U.S. winner of the Bombay Sapphire Imagination Series at the Tribeca International Film Festival in 2014. She was also the recipient of the the CICAE Award at the Berlinale as a producer of Anja Marquardt’s feature, She’s Lost Control. Jones is currently writing her next feature, and recently became engaged—proving that life can imitate art.

PAFF premiere: Tuesday, Feb. 10; 6:50 p.m.

Rachelle Salnave, La Belle Vie (The Good Life)

As Haiti seeks to rebuild after its devastating 2010 earthquake, filmmaker Rachelle Salnave journeys to the region for La Belle Vie (The Good Life), revealing a decidedly complex exploration of her Haitian heritage. Her travels both in Haiti and the U.S. uncover the searing social class and racial prejudice within Haitian society, and issues of cultural identity in America. Through interviews with historians and journalists, and the insights of family stories, Salnave provides humorous glimpses of a community much maligned and little understood. From her home base in New York, the writer-director-producer has balanced an extensive career in the film and music industries, having worked behind-the-scenes for Blackfilm.com, ImageNation, The Queen Latifah Show, and Columbia Records, among others. In her documentary, Harlem’s Mart 125: The American Dream, Salnave documented the gentrification of Harlem over a 10-year period and its impacts on businesses, the community, and its people. The film toured widely through film festivals, universities, and community organizations around the country, winning the Best Documentary prize at the 2010 African World Documentary Film Festival in St. Louis.

PAFF premiere: Wednesday, Feb. 11; 7:40 p.m.

Visit paff.org for encore screening dates/times, and for additional information on these films and others.

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is an L.A.-based journalist covering media and entertainment (television and film, in particular), and the convergence of art and culture. She is co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, and is co-writing an interracial romance, Lovers in Their Right Mind, with Navid Negahban (American Sniper, Homeland) attached to produce and star. She is currently producing the jazz documentary, “…but can she play?” Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @janicerhoshalle.