Columbus has been hosting film festivals for a long time. In fact, the oldest and longest running film festival in the country is right here in Columbus.
In 1952, OSU professor Dr. Edgar Dale banded together with a number of film industry professionals to launch the Columbus International Film and Video Festival. Several more film festivals have popped up in Columbus in the decades since, including Cinevent and the Film Festival of Columbus, but Cristyn Steward noticed that something was still missing.
“I saw that there was still a need for Black representation in film,” Steward told me during our recent interview at Lincoln Cafe in downtown Columbus.
Born and raised in Columbus, Steward went on to study poetry, creative nonfiction, and short stories at Miami University. When she graduated in 2009, the recession was in full swing. “For us, it was kind of like, you work a job that you hate or you go back to school– because no one was hiring us to do what we knew how to do.” So she moved to San Francisco and got her Masters in Motion Pictures and Television. A few years later, facing tight finances thanks to California’s cost of living, she moved back to Columbus.
When she arrived back home, she worked as a script supervisor and sound recordist for a few film projects, including feature-length film “Holy Hustle,” directed by Mark Cummings.
“He doesn’t get his just due,” Steward says of Cummings. “Features are hard, features are expensive, and if you don’t know how to navigate a feature then you can’t do it. He’s one of the only African American people doing it here successfully.”
Recently, Cummings sold out all 8 theaters at Gateway Film Center for the premiere of “Holy Hustle.” “He sold out the entire theatre,” Steward explains.“That’s not a thing. So why aren’t we talking about this in the film community?”
With so many film festivals occurring in Columbus, it struck Steward that hardly any were highlighting films directed by or featuring Black people. When she looked to other major cities like Miami, Atlanta, and Cleveland, she saw that many cities host several film festivals highlighting Black and African narratives. It didn’t take her long to determine that Columbus needed its own festival to showcase Black film and put Black people in control of the narrative. According to Steward, Columbus can’t be a leader in film and art if it doesn’t have spaces where all kinds of art can thrive.
“We need to have this [a Black film festival] in order for us to be taken seriously. Now, why did I think it was my duty?” Steward hesitates, then lets loose a hearty laugh as she admits, “I have no idea.”
“I think it was more or less the passion, but I think it was also coming home and thinking, nothing has changed.”
And so Steward created the change.
From June of 2016 through May of this year, Steward laid the groundwork for the Columbus Black International Film Festival (CBIFF) almost entirely by herself. Initially she envisioned a massive event at the Columbus Convention Center with screenings, vendors, workshops, panels, and more. Soon she realized that an event of that scope was not feasible for its inaugural year, so she honed her plans down from the initial vision to something more realistic: a long weekend of exceptional film screenings with one workshop and one panel.
From this experience, Steward draws the most important piece of advice she’d give to anyone who wants to host a festival or large event: “Research, create a timeline, and stick to the plan as much as possible. If things change, that’s fine– if you can keep your mission the same, no matter how small it [the eventl] has to be for you to make your point, then that’s the best thing to do.”
Steward garnered film submissions from all over the world, including works from Nigeria, Trinidad, Senegal, United Kingdom, Italy, and of course, the United States. Out of the pool of submissions, she selected 25 films to screen this year. She has also managed to register CBIFF as a nonprofit organization, put together a Board of Directors, and recruit help with ticket sales and event logistics.
With a team supporting her through the final months of planning, Steward has been busy putting the finishing touches on the weekend’s events.
The Columbus Black International Film Festival will consist of a three day blitz of standout films created by Black people, both in front of and behind the camera. The events will take place at three locations: Wexner Center for the Arts, CCAD’s Canzani Center, and Drexel Theatre. The selected films include a mix of drama shorts, documentaries, features, and art music films; they cover topics ranging from Afro-Cuban dance to mental illness in Black communities to the making of a rap album.
Highlights include a workshop led by local sci-fi filmmaker Celia Peters in which she’ll teach the basics of guerilla style filmmaking (no experience necessary), the Ohio premiere of feature film “parTy boi: Black Diamonds in Ice Castles” directed by Michael Rice of New York City, and a panel discussion on “Why Black Film Representation is the Fabric of America.” Columbus-based filmmakers will also be highlighted in the Homegrown Shorts film block on Saturday evening, including the absurdly talented teenage brothers Julien and Justen Turner behind Dreadhead Films.
The locally made films are particularly meaningful in Steward’s mind. “I think, wow. Do people in Columbus know that these types of things are happening, right here? Right in their city? These are their community members.”
And that’s what Steward hopes that the audiences take away from the inaugural Columbus Black International Film Festival: filmmaking, and Black filmmaking in particular, is happening in your city. Filmmakers live, work, and play, amongst us, whether we realize it or not. “They’re regular people,” Steward assures. “Hollywood does not need to set the standard.”
She also hopes that CBIFF will help local community members learn that film festivals are “for the people”– not just for those involved in producing films. Filmmakers want you to come and engage with them and their work.
“Film is a team sport,” Steward points out. “This is one art form you can’t do by yourself.” And according to Steward, that team includes you.
The Columbus Black International Film Festival is this weekend, August 4th-6th. See the schedule and snag your tickets here.