May 2001
African-American Women in Cinema : On Earth with Terra

AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN in CINEMA : March 15th thru March 18th - Manhattan : On Earth with Terra

By Wilson Morales (New York)

In Manhattan, from March 15-18th, is the 4th Annual African-American Women in Cinema Conference and Film Festival.

I had a chance to talk with the founder of the conference, Terra Renee, and she shared with her reasons for the festival’s existence. Terra hails from Philadelphia and studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and School of Film and Visual Arts.

How did the AAWC get started?

I would have to go back a little ways as it started back in 1997. I had written a script that I was passionate about and started to apply for grants. I ended up getting a grant from the Lower Manhattan Arts Council and instead of them mailing me a check, they sent me a letter stating that they were going to have an award ceremony. At the time of the award ceremony, Ruth Messinger was still the Manhattan Borough President and she had her assistant press secretary there as well. Not realizing then but her assistant was taking photos and she took mine and submitted it in a weekly publication. She called me a week later and said that I made the paper. I was very excited about that. A year later I saw her at a Manhattan neighborhood cable station. I went over to her and called out her name, Carolyn, and she asked how my film was going. I told her I was still looking for money. She said it was great timing because she now has her own publication, African Voices, and she wanted to do publicity for independent filmmakers. There are things at this stage of the game that could be done to attract resources and we went ahead and had a brainstorming session and one of the things she called for was a conference. Immediately, I saw this vision of women filmmakers coming together under one roof networking, and just exchanging ideas and resources. I said this would be great and I would call it African American Women in Cinema and that's how the whole thing came into conception and was born. It was only supposed to be a one-time event.

What is the ultimate goal?

As I did research and found out where we stood as African-American women in the film industry, I discovered we have the least voice and the least knowledge of where resources are available. The ultimate goal is to seek out and research these resources to provide this information to minority women to help them further their dreams and goals and also put programs in place to help that as well.

Have you encountered difficult challenges in continuing the festival?

Yes, in a lot of ways, but the unique thing about it is that because I've been a filmmaker looking for resources myself, I've established a lot of relationships. It's because of those friendships that I was able to call upon those and pull people together. And because of the success of the first one, Carolyn, actually an Alumnus from Long Island University, had called up her friend Rodney Hurley, another alumnus, and they came aboard as co-sponsors and co-organizers. When all that came into place, we received a lot of publicity so the resources grew each year which enabled the conference to go smoothly in a certain way.

What's planned for this year's conference?

We have a very powerful conference planned for this year. There are several highlights including the international film festival which takes place Thursday and Friday (March 15-16) and then on Saturday (March 17) we have Lisa Gay Hamilton from The Practice. She's very excited about this as an African-American woman and I believe the audience will see Hollywood from her perspective and I think that's extremely important. We also will be focusing on digital filmmaking. Films like BAMBOOZLED and KINGS of COMEDY were done digitally. We will have individuals who worked on those films there to talk about the digital era and the effects and changes it has caused now. And I'm very excited about the New York premiere of ODESSA which stars Yolanda King, the oldest daughter of Martin Luther King. The film takes place in 1969 and it's an incredibly, emotionally moving film. The film will be shown at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Harlem on Sunday (March 18) at 4pm.

A few years ago you helped produce a film that went to the Cannes Film Festival and this year you will be hosting a film symposium. Are you excited?

Yes, very, very excited about that. I had met a young man at a film director's class who pulled me aside and said "we have money for this feature.” I really didn't think that was going to go anywhere. It was an 80 minute narrative with no special effects, just dialogue. I didn't realize that the director would submit it to the Cannes Film Festival and that it would be accepted. When I went there, I noticed a presence of minorities but not a lot of activity. So while over there, I made some connections and now we're going to do a symposium and the theme is 2001: BLACKS in CINEMA. We're hoping to talk about the existence and presence of minorities in cinema and look at what the future will be.

What's your opinion on the industry for African-Americans?

It's a large one because we have been making films since Oscar Micheaux and it's so incredible that the work we do is still at a bare minimum. Looking at an old report from 1996, only 15% of female roles went to African-American women while 79% went to White Americans. I really believe in my heart that we need to support one another, pull together the resources, and I think that will start a more bigger change; but we have to expose what's going on to help each other.

What would you tell an African-American woman who wants to enter the industry?

Get an education. You need to understand exactly what you're getting into and once you get the education, you need to start networking because you'll start meeting people who have resources that can assist you. You need the resources because you need to be able to direct something as a calling card. This isn't a situation where you fill out an application and hand in your resume for a job. This industry is very competitive.

Are there any African American women directors you admire?

Yes, Kasi Lemmons. Darnell Martin. I really applaud her for sticking to her guns and Julie Dash. I really salute these women because it is not easy.