The illustrious and inclusive Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival was held in Harlem this past weekend. The Reel Sisters is a celebration of diversity and women in film. The two-day festival celebrated its 25th Anniversary with a full line up of films from a diverse array of female filmmakers from around the globe. Reel Sisters presented an exciting retrospective celebrating the festivals diverse collection of films produced, directed and written by women of color. We got to cover the festival front and center and watch the thought provoking short films that evoked so many emotions. The celebration showcased both in-person and virtual screenings and events, of the multitude of distinctive genres.

From comedies, to documentaries, and science-fiction, there were so many different types of films with many cultures and nationalities represented. The films were showcased at the Maysles Documentary Center, located at 343 Lenox Ave in Harlem, NY. with the theme of “Resilience.” The Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series is an annual film festival founded by African Voices magazine and Long Island University's Media Arts Dept. (Brooklyn Campus). It was established in 1997, and still continues its dedicated mission of providing opportunities for women of color building careers in the film industry. Reel Sisters is rated top three in Film Daily’s 10 best internationally recognized women centered film festivals.

We got to sit down with the Festival’s Founder Carolyn A. Butts, and Curator Esther Duran to discuss the importance of the festival and what they look for in submissions.

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L to R: Producer Elizabeth Grupp, Founder Carolyn A. Butts, Filmmaker Tiffany Tenille, and Curator Esther Duran Nadya Martinez (self) Reel Sisters Fest

Founder Carolyn A. Butts, talked about the lengthy process of reviewing submissions and pre-screeners. Preview screeners are part of the process that decide which films will showcase at a film festival.

Carolyn: “We have pre-screeners, they kick out films that aren’t well told or that don’t meet our qualifications for women in color. The Second stage we usually have about seven to nine judges that select the final submissions, and from the 600 we might have 100 or 150 to choose from, and we go by scores. Usually the scoring is anything 7.9 and under we just kick out, and anything 7.9 over we choose from the top. Then we also go to the borderline films, because we know that sometimes there are different viewers, like some people might love sci-fi, so we try to see if there are a few borderline films that we want to pull into the festival because they are interesting or abstract.”

Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series is the first Academy Qualifying Festival for Short narratives devoted to showcasing films produced, directed and written by women of color.

Esther: “The films are directed, written, or produced by women, or have very strong female topic’s thematically. If the filmmaker is a man, is co-producer or co-writer, a woman has to be involved.”

Carolyn mentioned “we've had men want to be in our festival because they are writing stories about women.. and some of them are good, but we usually have to say no because thats not what our films are about…but we have a Reel Sisters Tea and Cinema Series so sometimes in that series we invite people who are writing about women or writing to our audience.”

The festival accepts all genres and formats with a special interest in submissions from animated and web series producers. Films co-directed, co-produced or co-written with a male filmmaker are eligible for submission.

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Esther discussed the focus on WOC, being a curator/ programmer, and the different genres they look for.

Esther: “The full name of the festival is Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Fest & Lecture Series, so we give priority to black women… women from here in the U.S, the Caribbean.. or anywhere in the world, Latin American, U.S. Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Asian American women.”

Esther mentioned being a judge, she tends to like topics about justice, exclusion, inclusion, equity, and cultural thriving communities and family. From a writing perspective, Carolyn like’s “really character driven stories, like ‘Ro & the Stardust’ … so I want to see that, when things are well-written and fleshed out. We love experimental films, people who are breaking traditions.”

The festival features an array of films from comedy, to drama, sci-fi, horror and experimental documentaries. After watching the films Esther tries to put them in blocks thematically for distribution, e.g. MotherHood, Growing up, Sci. Fi.

Carolyn: “Esther is an exceptional programmer, it’s been a pleasure the past few years we've been working together, and I think you see that on the screen.”

“From Brooklyn to Harlem, Reel Sisters is celebrating our 25th Anniversary with a strong lineup of films by women of color from across the world,” states Reel Sisters Founder Carolyn A. Butts. “We are proud to premiere two MicroBudget Films at the Maysles Documentary Center, an Oscar qualifying venue. We are celebrating the resilience of our filmmakers and artists to bring us together to celebrate life through the stories they tell.”

This year was the first time Reel Sisters gave $5,000 to three projects, to help them get started. Two of those projects actually premiered there on Saturday “Take Me Home,” and “GRO Up,” both from Latina creators.

The Festival is held once a year, usually two days in Brooklyn, and two weeks before a Harlem kickoff, but it was in reverse this year. They typically, rent spaces in Brooklyn and Harlem for the festival and events, with screenings and workshops. Carolyn and Esther emphasized the idea is to be in the community, and what better way than being in the heart of both Brooklyn and Harlem. They also have an incredible selection of virtual films including films from New Zealand, Yemen, and Brazil.

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Curator Esther Duran, Moderator, Filmmaker Vivian Ip, Filmmaker Jeannette Louie Nadya Martinez (self) Reel Sisters Fest
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L to R: Curator Esther Duran, Filmmaker Tiffany Tenille, and Producer Elizabeth Grupp Nadya Martinez (self) Reel Sisters Fest

Check out the Film Selections Below:

November 5
1:00 pm - 2:15 pm -

Dear Diary: A woman cleaning out her childhood room is uncomfortable with facing her past self. The old diary that she disregards magically finds its way back to her, echoing the voice of her childhood self.

The Lifted: Inspired by the cultural awakening to dismantle assault against women and conquer their own past trauma, two best friends of over thirty years attempt to rescue a young woman they believe to be in danger in a car share ride. When things take a bad turn, the aunties take matters into their own hands in this short, thrilling adventure.

Are you still there?: Producer: Reef Oldberg Directors: Rayka Zehtabchi and Sam Davis Writers: Rayka Zehtabchi and Sam Davis

narrative, 16 min.

Silk: In this short narrative nod to the classic film Gaslight, gifted aerialist Cara falls hard for Sol, the lighting designer on her upcoming high-stakes solo show. When safety and communication issues plague rehearsals, Cara begins to doubt her perceptions and grows more and more dependent on Sol.

2:25 pm - 3:50 pm

Ro & the Stardust: A free-spirited teen fulfills her terminally ill grandmother’s dying wish of building a rocket ship to launch her into outer space.

Amina: Haunted by the loss of her partner, a former astronaut struggles to connect with her unborn child.

Contraban: Desperate to maintain Whiteness in a dystopian future, the American government bans BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) citizens from reproducing after they become the majority of the population. CONTRABAN follows the heart-wrenching story of Essence and Elijah as they go about their everyday lives while navigating the danger of illegally conceiving a child in this society.

True Freedom: After his father leaves the family, a black kid grows up to build a time machine to save his mom, but when he ends up in the year 1860, the real insight begins when brings a slave to the year 2014.

4:00 pm - 5:05 pm

Chico Virtual: A boy must come to terms with the harsh reality of his immigrant status when his brother alarmingly doesn’t come home.

World Premiere (MicroBudget Film) Gro Up: Ollie, BK, and Carmichael are three girls who are NOT going back to juvie. When given the opportunity to stay locked up or to “gro up” they decide to spend the summer sifting through soil and their own personal shit.

Harlem Premiere (MicroBudget Film)

Take Me Home: When her mother becomes unresponsive, Anna, a young Asian-American woman with an Intellectual Disability, must turn to her sister in New York for help. The two sisters navigate their grief and miscommunication, the dysfunctional Florida health system, and a difficult move away from the only home Anna has ever known. Amidst this uncertainty, Anna has to hold her own and make her voice heard.

Bria: While going for a routine walk, a non-verbal autistic woman living with Asperger’s syndrome named BRIA, comes across a yellow object seen in an unknown garden. Peeked by curiosity, Bria steps out of her comfort zone to explore the unknown, where she is given a chance to experience the authenticity of nature in her own autistic world.

5:00 pm - 6:30 pm

Mary: While speaking the actual words transcribed from Mary Armstrong’s 1930s U.S. Federal Writer’s Project interview about her experience with slavery as an African-American enslaved woman who loved to dance, a modern-day and taciturn Custodian trails a Ballet Mistress and her company dancers’ rehearsals until his true identity is revealed.

Fearless 11: In the fall of 1965, eleven courageous Black students volunteered to integrate John W. Provine High School in Jackson, Mississippi. Amidst a sea of raging students, parents and teachers, these 11 seniors endured unimaginable hostility with their heads held high. Now, 50 years later, the students share the impact it has had on their lives, reflecting on their feelings as unsung integration pioneers.

5:15 pm - 6:45 pm

The Blue Drum: A woman mourning her father’s passing is tormented by memories of a mother she never knew. A presence reveals secrets hidden within her family home.

Blind Samurai Woman: In the mountains of the Edo Period Japan, when a blind woman’s samurai father is killed by a young samurai avenging his own father’s death, she agrees to be escorted to the nearest village, but she’s not as helpless as she appears.

Jordan: When a tween mermaid enthusiast discovers an ailing water creature, she uses a magical wish to change the fate of their existence…and her own. JORDAN engages the genre of fantasy and cli-fi (climate fiction) to shape a fairytale where everyone has agency and representation.

Cranberry Chorus: An autistic boy becomes a new member of Cranberry Chorus, which is made of deaf kids. He makes friends with the member Ken and finds out a secret about the Cranberry Chorus.

7:00 pm - 8:30 pm

Journey - Cuba: Destination deferred is found in imagination as the COVID-19 Pandemic begins to take a downward turn during the Summer of 2021. Millinery collection concept by Lisa McFadden comes to life in this first of many far away daydream destinations that become reality in the mind of a stifled traveler.

When We Arrive As Flowers: Diovanna, a dancer realizes her transfemme identity through a choreographic journey of self-discovery, celebration, and the poetic metaphor of a flower coming to bloom.

The Sound She Saw: The Sound She Saw is a documentary film featuring contemporary, ground-breaking Black women photographers. The film reveals the history & struggle of Black women photographers while showcasing and celebrating their work and answering the question: What happens when a Black woman photographer has the agency and the control to reverse the gaze and see the world through her unique lens?

November 6
1:00 pm - 2:20 pm

More Than Cute: A seniors Bollywood dance class in Melbourne city, is the perfect intercultural setting, to discover new friendships and to unpack misconceptions about aging. Through the lens of the traditional costume, stories are uncovered and shared. Simultaneously, underneath all the fun, color and laughter, a miraculous healing is taking place on many different levels.

All I Ever Wanted: Rom-com obsessed teen Christine has always longed for the picture-perfect romance – but she’s soon confronted with the fact that her ideal prince charming might actually be a princess charming instead.

Albion Rose: Following the arrival of an unwanted guest, a tightly-knit bond between two sisters is put to the test when their idyllic playdate takes a dark turn.

Pillow Fight: A heterosexual couple has an argument about sex after the guy came prematurely.

Aleeya: Aleeya follows a transgender woman as she embarks on a day long journey to buy a gift for her lover, while attempting to persevere through India’s societal inequities and prejudice, as well as the growing rape culture of male youth.

2:30 pm - 3:45 pm

Luka: On a hot summer afternoon, as various people come and go at the central market, a young boy starts noticing his own shadow.

Pocha: As she nears her fifteenth birthday, Vic struggles to solidify her personal and cultural identity, caught between family tradition and the desire to fit in with her peers.

The Funnel: Trina lives on the South Side of Chicago with her mother amidst an escalating housing crisis. After falling into an intimate recollection of her family’s history, she awakes in a world with people, sounds, and possibilities she’s never known. An encounter with a familiar spirit opens Trina’s eyes and heart to a new gift.

Catching Spirits: Destiny has been told since childhood she has seizures when she dances. An unexplained phenomena that resulted in deep fear and her refusal to dance- despite being drawn to it. What she doesn’t know is that she has an ancient ability – a birthright of the Haitian women in her lineage going back for ages.

Zafar: A Pakistani immigrant juggles demanding rideshare customers while talking on the phone to his mother in Pakistan.

4:00 pm - 5:05 pm

Maternity: When a second-time mother gets an unexpected complication postpartum, she must fight to save her life in the fractured American health care system.

Nails: When Catalina develops a crush on another girl in her Quinceañera court, her fingernails grow at a superhuman pace — a blessing in Black and Latina beauty culture, but a curse for a lesbian (at first glance). A whimsical, intersectional, uplifting coming-of-age story.

Empire of My Melodious Mind: In the space of a moment, inside a cabinet, perception embarks on an epic journey through the terrain of memories that form the identity of an American born Asian.

Have a Good Night: A young Asian female tourist finds a scary person behind her while walking back to her motel late at night on the romantic streets of France. Having read similar stories on the news, she imagines different dangerous circumstances and tries to run away from the stalker.

An Island Drifts: Set in Singapore, a young teacher presses for the truth from a maladjusted student, the act leads to devastating results and they suffer the ignominy of losing everything that matters to them. The story holds a mirror up to society, where a mistake can derail a life in an overly pressurized world.

5:15 pm - 6:55 pm

Joy's Garden:
Edwin is no one’s ideal Dad. Can he step up when his estranged daughter Joy needs a home?

Blurring the Color Line: Digging into her Grandmother’s past growing up Chinese in Augusta, Georgia’s Black neighborhood during Jim Crow, director Crystal Kwok complicates the black and white narrative while exposing uncomfortable truths behind today’s Afro-Asian tensions.

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