Columbus Black International Film Festival returns to a landscape both strange and depressingly familiar

Andy Downing
"Wali & Zuri," Derrick Woodyard

For a brief moment in early spring, Cristyn Steward, founder and CEO of the Columbus Black International Film Festival (CBIFF), wondered if the event could even take place in its fourth year amid coronavirus-driven shutdowns.

“Briefly it was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” Steward said recently by phone, tracing these initial qualms less to the virus itself than the dampening effect it has had on film production. Last year, for instance, Steward said she received 142 submissions— a record high for the fest — compared with just 116 this year, more than half of which were screenplay submissions owing to restrictions on in-person filming. “So the only part of me that thought I would cancel was if I didn’t get enough submissions that would be palatable to the audience. … But as I started digging in, I found some gems and I started getting really excited.”

During initial planning for 2020, Steward had a grander vision for this year’s event, plotting to stretch beyond screenings to include an industry aspect that could drum up job opportunities for filmmakers both in Columbus and beyond. There were talks of a producers panel, workshops and speaking engagements, all of which fell by the wayside as COVID swept through the country.

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“With the pandemic, all of those moving pieces couldn’t exist in the way that I wanted them to,” said Steward, who will likely revisit the expansion in future years. “So not only could we not [stage the fest in] a venue, but our brains kind of broke, which I can’t even explain but I know you understand. Our brains kind of broke, and we can’t even think about things in the same way we did pre-COVID, and I think that changed everything.”

This year’s festival, which will take place virtually on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 28 and 29, features 39 films, which nearly equals the total from 2019, when 42 submissions screened. Of this year’s films, though, only one short touches on the coronavirus, which Steward chalked up in part to the idea that filmmakers, like the rest of us, are still finding their way in this new world.

“We’re still experiencing it, so I think we’re going through a process of figuring out how we operate in the world with this looming virus,” Steward said. “We’re still going to work, whether we’re leaving our houses or not. We’re still going to the grocery store. We’ve added new words to our lexicon, and adopted new mannerisms and routines, but we’re still living in a way where we haven’t processed it.”

This isn’t the case with the current round of Black Lives Matter protests, which have experienced a resurgence in recent days, drawing fresh media attention to issues of police violence against the Black community — a subject that has been depressingly relevant since CBIFF launched four years ago.

“I’ve always gotten films about police brutality and the safety of Black lives, so I think that energy was about the same [this year],” Steward said. “The topics or names might have been different. The murals might have had different faces, unfortunately, but I’ve always gotten films that were about Black Lives Matter. Since I started the festival in 2017, it’s always been that, because this is not a new topic. It’s been going on since before I was born. … It’s something that’s been part of the fabric of this country for a very long time, so it’s part of how we tell stories, it’s part of how we navigate society, it’s part of who we are.”

Visit the festival website for a full rundown of screenings.