Last weekend, the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), generally considered to be the preeminent black film festival in the land (certainly one of the biggies), wrapped up another installment of its annual black cinema showcase – its 15th year, a remarkable accomplishment by almost any measure.

Despite the unexpected rainy forecast, a simple stroll down Collins Avenue or Lincoln Road between July 6th and 10th this year would have indicated just how much of an attraction the festival has become, thanks in part to its resort-style location, a stone’s throw away from the beaches of South Florida, luxurious hotels, cuisine variety, and beautiful people, all there to soak up the sun, socialize, network, catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two, and, by the way, take in some good black cinema.

Ask any of the attendees, as I did, about their experiences, and you’ll find that most appreciated their time there, and all that the festival and its location have to offer – from the opening night festivities, which included co-founder Jeff Friday’s welcome speech, followed by a screening of the opening night selection, Robert Townsend’s fact-based drama, In The Hive, to the closing night ABFF Honors Award ceremony, which included a feting of industry veteran Keenen Ivory Wayans for his contributions to both film and television, as well as the first-ever inductees into the ABFF Hall Of Fame.

In between, festival attendees were treated to a variety of events, including screenings of films in the festival’s 2011 lineup (shorts and features, narratives and documentaries), panels, and conversations with established talents from both in front of and behind the camera, master classes, nightly social events, and more.

There was something for almost everyone, depending on what exactly you were looking for.

For this writer, the primary attraction, as is always the case in every film festival we’ve covered closely since this site was created, are the films, first and foremost – from Sundance, to Cannes, to Tribeca, to London, to New York, New York African, the African Diaspora film festivals, and more. After all, they are called film festivals.

In my humble opinion, a film festival is only as strong as the films it shows; so, with that in mind, how did the 2011 installment of the ABFF grade?

Before I answer that question, I should add that I had the opportunity to chat with Jeff Friday a couple of days after I returned from the festival, because I had some questions for him, whose answers would assist in informing my thoughts on this year’s event. And I’d like to spend a few paragraphs on what I did uncover.

For about as long as I’ve been following the ABFF, a frequent criticism I’ve heard from filmmakers, audiences, critics and industry reps alike, whether unfair or not, is that the festival’s annual selection of films is often underwhelming and uninspired.

Of course, try telling that to those filmmakers whose films have screened successfully at the festival over the last 15 years since its debut.

My POV on the matter has changed somewhat, since having curated one film festival myself this year, as well as a bi-annual film screening series here in New York City, for the last couple of years. One thing that becomes immediately apparent during the selection process is that attracting the preferred caliber of films (in this case, films that tell stories primarily about people of African descent) that would afford the festival or screening series the reputation it seeks, is indeed a challenge.

Just as festival curators make their selections based on some specific list of criteria, the filmmakers themselves also have expectations of their own, and rightfully so. The point at which the two sets of desires meet is where success lies.

Given what I do here on Shadow And Act, I meet, talk to and follow the careers of many black filmmakers, and for most of them, the end goal, after pouring often limited resources – money, time, etc – into their various projects (specifically those with feature-length films) is to get the kind of exposure that would lead to distribution deals; preferably theatrical to start, despite how lofty, and some may even say, undeserved that objective might be.

We can go into discussions about changing business models and alternate methods of distribution that suggest a theatrical release is no longer the zenith, nor is it as elusive as it once was. But that’s another topic to dissect in another post.

Taking into consideration the end objective of most filmmakers, as I stated above, there are very few festivals that offer the kind of industry attention that would increase a film’s chances of being acquired for distribution by a major or even minor film company. I’ve already named a couple of those festivals, and the ABFF unfortunately doesn’t make the short list, which in turn automatically eliminates it from submission consideration, from the perspective of many filmmakers, especially when it comes to premieres of their films

In general, those with films that meet accepted industry expectations in terms of technical and narrative style and proficiency, tend to shy away from festivals like ABFF, in favor of those that they, the filmmakers and their representatives, deem better opportunities for their films – i.e., the kind of attention that would increase their distribution prospects, or raise their visibility.

That’s fair enough I suppose.

So, it goes without saying that filmmakers submitting their films to the ABFF, and festivals of its ilk, are fully aware of what the festival offers, or at least, they should be; and, based on the few conversations I had with filmmakers this year, and in previous years, the opportunity to screen their films in front of predominantly black audiences at a festival like ABFF, and compete amongst their peers, is more than sufficient! It’s a beginning; it serves as a launching pad, as their films begin long journeys through the festival circuit – often primarily the black film festival circuit, which itself presents the only real theatrical screening opportunities for a lot of these films and filmmakers (the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) aside).

An “ABFF Official Selection” sticker on the poster for their film is welcomed and coveted.

Now, as we repeatedly lament, we (black people) aren’t a monolith; our tastes vary, and no one person or group has a monopoly on “good taste” or “good art” defined. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? And thus, if a festival’s attendees and selected filmmakers are content with what the festival offers, then we reach that magical place where the three sets of expectations (those of the filmmakers, the festival and the audience) meet agreeably. And everyone’s happy!

So what’s the problem?

While he certainly would welcome coverage from the national media, as well as attention from Hollywood distributors, who he says he invites to the festival annually, ABFF co-founder and director Jeff Friday seems to have come to terms with the fact that his festival may never be that hub of market activity involving buyers and sellers, 6- or even 7-figure pickups, talent agent signings, etc, that many filmmakers would like it to be.

In a conversation we had over the phone yesterday, he sounded very much like a man, once frustrated, though now settled, after years of what may have been challenging attempts to shape his festival into the kind of yearly event many of us (himself included) have hoped it would grow to become, and who now seems to have chosen to be content with the path his festival has taken, and its place in the larger scheme of things.

I wouldn’t suggest that he’s entirely given up on making the necessary, though difficult adjustments that would turn his festival into the annual, crowning marketplace of black cinema that black filmmakers especially would find most attractive – for all intents and purposes, the African American equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival, the preeminent film festival and market in the nation, and one of the top in the world.

Though, to be fair, as Jeff noted, very few festivals, regardless of focus, are able to attract the industry’s attention the way Sundance has long dominated, a crown it still wears, despite changing times.

But I’ll say that from my conversation with him, he doesn’t particularly seem to see much incentive to putting a different face on the festival – at least certainly not after 15 years of continuous service. If it’s working as it is, why change it?

How does a black festival like the ABFF become a must-stop for all black filmmakers – especially those who instead opt to premiere their films at non-black specific festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, SXSW, Toronto and others? What would it take to convince any of the black filmmakers who’ve debuted their films at festivals other than a black film festival like ABFF, to consider an ABFF premiere instead?

That’s where my concerns and efforts currently lie, and, to be sure, the answer to that question is one that would require a collaborative effort from all sides – starting with a mutual respect between the filmmakers, the festivals and audiences.

Conversely, as Jeff noted, every festival doesn’t strive to be the next Sundance; each has its own mission, and becoming a hub of market activity isn’t necessarily the goal for every festival head, and it certainly doesn’t have to be.

However, while Jeff seemed to suggest that his festival had found and settled into a specific, comfortable niche that continues to be successful and profitable, it was also evident to me that he would love for the ABFF to have a grander kind of industry presence. The question is whether the effort that would be required to get there at this stage is entirely worth it. It’s also a path that’s riddled with complexities, and not at all a slam dunk.

You learn to stay in your lane,” he said more than once, suggesting that he’s found his, and is content there.

But despite all the criticism, and even lack of respect some have for the festival and others of its ilk, one cannot ignore what the festival has accomplished and continues to offer black filmmakers – namely exposure of black films to predominantly black audiences, something that non-black film festivals cannot claim, especially given that many of these films, if eventually acquired for distribution and released, will be marketed as “black films” to primarily black audiences, however unfair and limiting that might seem to some who believe their films to be universal and deserve broader circulation.

This exposure is even more crucial for those films that don’t receive attention from the top-tier film festivals, which some may say is indicative of their quality (or lack thereof); but then the conversation shifts to a matter of taste and subjectivity, as well as, as I said earlier, whether any one person or group has a monopoly on how “good taste” or “good art” is defined; also, there are the monetary awards, notably, the HBO $20,000 Short Film Award given to the best short film at the ABFF; and lastly, you can’t help but respect the effort. As someone who’s gone through the process of helping to put together a film festival, I can say with certainty that it presents numerous challenges, is by no means an easy task, and requires an unwavering dedication – especially for a festival of ABFF’s size and scope.

Then again, one could make similar statements about the film production process; which then leaves us at a crossroads, where further volumes could be written on the matter.

But back to my original question – how would I grade the 2011 installment of the American Black Film Festival?

To be frank, it definitely wasn’t one of its strongest years in terms of its selection of films – particularly the features. I fully expected to see some of the highly-touted black films that screened at festivals earlier in the year, at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca; however, as Jeff Friday stated, though he would have liked to have all those titles screen at his festival, his preference, as is the case for many other festival heads, is for premieres of some kind, whether US or world.

And while that’s certainly, perfectly understandable, one has to also consider what’s really feasible, given one’s ranking in the hierarchy of existing festivals; which then leads us right back to square one above all over again.

I’d also add that, if one of the festival’s goals is to showcase the talents of the best in independent black cinema, as I believe is one of the ABFF’s objectives, then, in recognizing that the audience differs from that which attends the other mentioned festivals – an audience that will likely be seeing these films for the very first, and maybe only time – I’d expect to that some of these critically acclaimed titles would be highly sought after, and will eventually screen at the festival, to be seen by a predominantly black audience, which could later affect the film’s box office if it’s ever commercially released.

But from what I gathered in my conversation with Mr Friday, there’s more than meets the eye here, and likely more than many of us idealistic types may ever be privy to.

I believe the word used by one of my colleagues was “politics,” and all that the term suggests.

I tried reading between the lines, but that leaves open the possibility for misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

So where does that leave us? Back at square one it seems.

In summary, I think what he said about determining and learning to “stay in your lane” speaks volumes. As I suggested, he’s apparently settled into his, and is comfortable there, which is ultimately all that matters, despite what anyone else (filmmaker, audience, critic) might think or wish for.

There’s always next year; and as long as we’re invited back to the festival, we’ll be there, though with a new understanding, and thus different set of expectations.