Columbus Black International Film Festival ready to reconnect with audiences in year five

Following a year shaped by the pandemic, fest founder Cristyn Allen-Steward is ready to again celebrate movies with a crowd, even if it’s a smaller one

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"An Uninvited Guest"

In planning for the fifth year of the Columbus Black International Film Festival, which takes place Friday and Saturday, Aug. 27 and 28, founder Cristyn Allen-Steward said she accepted that some changes to the film landscape driven by COVID-19 over this last year are likely permanent. 

“I don’t think we’re ever getting away from technology in any way, shape or form,” Allen-Steward said of the streaming platforms that have become a stand-in for movie theaters for many amid the spread of the coronavirus. “I think that’s always going to be a part of us, but what it does allow is access. … The streaming aspect of film festivals is very good, because a lot of these film festivals are international, and so it gives people anywhere an opportunity to see what’s going on around the globe.”

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What streaming can’t replicate, however, is the sense of community created by watching a movie unfold on the big screen alongside fellow film fans — an experience Allen-Steward relished while taking in a showing of “Black Widow” earlier this year. “Going to the movies already feels like a throwback experience. … I was a little overzealous and got the biggest popcorn I could get. … It was like, ‘I’m excited to be spending money on concessions,'” said Allen-Steward, whose pandemic viewings were relegated to home streaming. “With film, there’s this vibe that exists, so if you’re in a theater, you’re on this journey with those other people in the room.”

For this year’s fest, Allen-Steward intends to keep audiences small for indoor screenings at the Wexner Center and Art of Republic, owing to current uncertainty driven by the spread of the delta variant. (Click here for a full schedule of events.) Larger crowds are expected for Blackness Under the Stars, an outdoor screening set to take place at Chocolate Fields (1086 Hart Rd.) beginning at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

“I was very adamant in making sure any of the indoor events we had were smaller numbers … and I keep taking those numbers down. When we first started planning, I thought we could do 40 or 50 people [in a screening], and now I’d be OK if only 30 showed up,” Allen-Steward said. “But those smaller, intimate settings really work with film.”

The pandemic has imprinted itself on this year’s fest in other ways, too, impacting everything from the types of stories being told in the submitted films to the scale of the productions. Allen-Steward said most of this year’s dramatic submissions were significantly scaled back, filmed with smaller casts and crews and built around longer scenes that often featured a couple of characters locked in deeper conversation.

“Because we were in COVID for the year … I feel like I have to be reintroduced to what film is, because it’s not what it used to be,” Allen-Steward said of the changes productions made in response to COVID restrictions, which limited the number of people who could be on set, among other things.

So in addition to documentaries centered on the pandemic and the reinvigorated Black lives matter movement that sprung up in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, Allen-Steward said there is one film that take place entirely via a Zoom conversation, a handful of supernatural fantasies that serve as commentary on concrete social issues, and more intimate shorts that explore the tenuous nature of human connection in a year when social distancing became part of our everyday vocabulary. “People have had time to sit with themselves, so I think people had a lot more time to think about relationships, what we like about one another, what we hate about one another,” Allen-Steward said. 

In this year’s submissions, Allen-Steward said that there was also an increased focus on death, which she viewed as a natural extension of living through an ongoing pandemic that has already claimed nearly 4.5 million lives globally.

“We’re dealing with death in so many ways, but I tried to balance it because I didn’t want it to get too dark,” said Allen-Steward, who made a conscious effort to introduce lighter fare into the schedule, including films that celebrate Black love and uplift women of color, aware that movies offer a necessary element of escapism, as well. "But one thing you can’t control is how artists express themselves at any given time, because it’s their obligation to tell the story of the present day."

Allen-Steward said she was excited by not only the quality of this year’s submissions, but the expanding subject matter, tones and styles of filmmaking that she is starting to see each time around. “Before, the projects that were getting greenlit were coming from the same types of people, aimed for the same type of audience,” she said. “I believe as we give more opportunities to more Black filmmakers, we’ll start to see different minds behind the camera, minds we haven’t seen before.”