BIPOC directors rethink suffrage history via avant-garde film

Caption: “Afronauts,” a five-minute film about the Zambian Space Race, is one of three films selected to stream at the Reimagining Black Feminists Pasts and Futures festival. Credit: Kathryn Antonatos ‘22

In the midst of a global pandemic, daily life requires some imagination. Reimagining Black Feminist Past and Futures, an upcoming film festival developed by a Poughkeepsie artist group and five Vassar film students, required some imagination to transform into a COVID-friendly configuration.

The festival, which will take place September 6 at local Poughkeepsie space Queen City 15 Gallery and will  stream through Zoom on September 7, is a collaboration with Poughkeepsie organization WE RISE, established last year by local gallerists, artists and activists. WE RISE celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage, as well as coordinates art events that bring attention to the efforts of suffragettes, particularly the differing experiences of Black suffragettes. 

An intensive taught last semester by film professor Erica Stein forged the connection between WE RISE and film students Stella Royo ’21, Malka Fleischman ’22, Kathryn Antonatos ’22, Lena Stevens ’21 and Sydney Salk ’22, with the goal of combining Vassar’s resources with those of the Poughkeepsie arts community. The five students selected three avant garde films, “Water Ritual 1,” “Night Cries” and “Afronauts,” all of which are directed by Black or Indigenous women. 

To Paola Bari, co-owner of Queen City 15 Gallery, centering BIPOC voices is essential to WE RISE’s goal to explore the role of Black women played in the passage of the 19th Amendment. If your familiarity with the details of suffrage is muddled as mine was before I did a deep Google dive, you may struggle to remember that Black suffrage was set aside by white suffragettes despite white suffragettes’ reliance on Black women to bolster the fight for voting rights. As a result, many Black women were disenfranchised during the five decades succeeding the institution of “female” suffrage.

“The most prominent people in the early suffrage movement were actually Black women. Together Black and white women fought for the right to vote, there were some divisions within the movement, some discrepancy between the North and the South,” Bali explained. “White women were able to vote much earlier than Black women. Black suffrage is something they had to fight for further to actually achieve equality.”

Addressing this oft glossed-over history is critical to any celebration of suffrage. The films selected for the festival, Royo told me, span beyond our current moment into the past.

“These stories really make an effort to reimagine the past and future of Black art and Black experience,” Royo said. “I think it’s really relevant to what is going on right now, so I’m hoping that people will make that connection and show up and support these Black and Aboriginal artists because visibility is something that is really important right now.”

While the idea was to hold a week-long film festival in conjunction with WE RISE, the plan fell apart. Plans changed. Then it would be several film events in late summer. Plans changed again. Slating the festival for two events—one in-person and one online—highlights the flexibility that was essential in adapting the event to  shifting circumstances.

“No one wanted to cancel twice but we did have to keep reimagining what this was going to look like,” Professor Stein said. “It helps you conceptualize, what is the actual value of this event? What is important? What has to remain in order for this to fulfill what people had envisioned?”

Unlike blockbuster films, which are available to stream for a few dollars online, avante-garde films are more expensive to access, Professor Stein explained. Bringing avante-garde films to local arts events opens communities up to experimental filmmaking. Art events like this film festival can also confront national conversations using localized, perhaps more personalized perspectives. 

“The other thing I learned was how hungry people are for events, to bring them together even if it’s not necessarily in person. Just around an idea, or a cause, or a moment to consider and contemplate something that may not be at the forefront of what they’re doing,” Stein said.

While WE RISE was organized to celebrate the centennial anniversary of a woman’s right to vote, Bari was already thinking about how to use WE RISE’s platform to cultivate awareness of Juneteenth when I spoke with her. The current idea is to use the few weeks between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July to hold art exhibits informing people about the history behind both holidays in 2021. We all know plans change, but, as Bari said, Reimagining Feminist Past and Futures is a model for how events can adapt to engaging online formats.

The collaboration with WE RISE also sets a precedent for Vassar arts events to branch out into Poughkeepsie. Both Royo and Bari expressed that the partnership will benefit everyone involved, and will hopefully foster continued community engagement.

“I think it’s always important to be involved in the community you’re in, and Vassar has so many resources, especially when it comes to wealth and technology, especially on the film and arts side of things, but Poughkeepsie also has a lot of resources in terms of spaces and people. There are a lot of projects and a lot of artists,” Royo said. “It’s sad that Vassar is so isolated and insulated from that.”

This semester, the once metaphorical “Vassar Bubble” has been newly legitimized and defined. A closed campus sets barriers to engaging physically with the Poughkeepsie community, but Reimagining Black Feminist Past and Futures sets a precedent for virtual involvement.

“I do believe that more collaboration would be extremely beautiful and I think it would be interesting for both sides,” Paola Bari said. “Vassar students have something that we don’t have, and the community has something that Vassar students might want to see.”

Stein emphasized that while she taught the intensive and facilitated some of the event, it was the students’ contributions that realized the event.

“This was pretty much entirely a volunteer project over the summer undertaken by students on two different continents, four different time zones and in the middle of the summer being what it was,” Stein added emphatically before we ended our call.

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