Ms. U. Ebony talks about Vancouver Pan-African Film Festival

Cinema Without Borders: Please tell us about the motivations behind arranging the Vancouver Pan-African Film & Arts Festival and your involvement with it.

Ms. U. Ebony Johnson (Founder/Executive Director of Vancouver Pan-African Film Festival): Thank you for the opportunity of sharing some background on the inaugural Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts Festival (VPAFF) 2007.
The story is a fascinating one, born from an honest desire to spotlight African/”Black” contributions in society.
British Columbia as a colony was established by “Black” people (see Canadian Heritage website) and the founding father of the Province, Sir James Douglas was a bi-racial Caribbean brother but the province today has a lot to learn about its beginnings.
It takes a keen and conscious individual to dig up the history, truths, and marvels of these hidden blind spots in our Canadian heritage. Serendipity from these discoveries propelled me to uncover the beauty, might and history of Africans from way back. This led to an honest commitment to initiate a platform of recognition of our creative works in Western Canada.
From crass racism here in our community, to traveling and living overseas (across Canada to Gaspesie, across Japan to Shizuoka, across Asia, New Zealand and from Tasmania to Brisbane) where I discovered my power as a woman of African heritage (the blessings and maledictions that surrounding that), to the discovery of the Melanesians, whose encounter opened my thought processes with regards to the fact that our African ancestors did not simply sit in Africa waiting for someone to come and capture them to another part of the world. Au contraire, our African ancestors were notoriously savvy of the navigational patterns of surrounding waters, and just as we freely travel across the borders of surrounding countries by land and sea to the States, Cuba, Jamaica and the like, our African ancestors too were explorers!
I returned home to Canada in 2004 with new perspectives. Soon after my arrival, I experienced a form of ‘reverse culture shock’. Yet with a rekindled passion to uncover some of the mysteries and misunderstandings about the African experience, I created a radio program called Afrobeat to fill a void in the current programming fare in Vancouver. My aim for the show was to enhance radio programs in our community with a documentary-style radio show surrounded by music. Art facilitates communication in a way that would otherwise be harder to reach out to some in the community. Non-profit media is a thankless job, yet the educational content and listener feedback is what encourages me to keep on.
In September 2006, after yet many ordeals of lack of steady work (I must have sent out 500 resumes, all still in the sent part of my in-basket), and in my despair, sadness, and heart-break I decided my only victory at the time was Afrobeat which—while it made no money because it’s in Community Radio Programming, hence not commercial—served the community as an educational tool. My humble student loans and odd jobs funded the show. I kept on.
I realized that Vancouver, amidst its economic boom—thanks in part to the 2010 Winter Olympics—was lacking in profiling Afro-centric people in a positive light. The pain of that realization fueled a vision. I conceived yet another platform, this time to bring all in our community under one roof in an interchange of dialogue primarily through moving pictures which celebrate African artworks from the global Diaspora. I researched the possibility, took courses and interviewed several on the topic and about the possibility of having such a venue as a needed platform to help break down the stereotypes in Vancouver.
Naively, I thought that all it took was for someone like me—merely 5’4” with passion for community and a keen desire to profile Africans with due respect—to pave the way. I approached all community ‘leaders’ – Africans, Caribbeans, Americans and Canadians – with the prospect of participation. I had paid for all aspects of initiating the Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts Festival Society, and hoped that these communities which comprise the whole as our (Afrocentric) community in Vancouver would assist by sponsoring films (I have emails here stating that they could pay the productions directly so they would be assured I was not after their money) but no such associations came in.
At the end of spring this year, when my student loan was nearly all spent, the Almighty blessed me with a job that has enabled me to sustain the VPAFF and continue in my quest to see this dream come true. Thankfully, the festival has now blossomed into a respectable forum for diversity and recognition in Vancouver and surrounding communities. I am facilitating a festival of the same caliber as established ones, only ZERO budget. I am, however, grateful for the integrity and courage required to have come this far. Here we are!

CWB: Are there different categories for the films screened at the festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: Yes. We have seven forums and a wonderful array for an inaugural festival on zero budget. In addition to the Opening Feature by Ambassador Andrew Young, Rwanda Rising, there are seven forums:
African Diaspora
Darfur Forum
African Achievements
African Animations (imagine African cartoons!!!)
AIDS Film Forum
The Struggle for Liberation: Presented by Mr. Charles Burnett

CWB: What is the level of international cinema participation at the Vancouver Pan-African Film & Arts Festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: I welcome submissions from all in your networks and affiliations. I initiated the Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts Festival to give due credit and dignity to the contributions of Mother Africa’s children inclusively from the global African Diaspora. As in the PAFF in LA, each Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts event will endeavour to present quality films from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, the South Pacific and Canada, all showcasing the diversity and complexity of people of African descent. At the same time, we wish to break down the negative stereotypes that are associated with the African community by showcasing positive images of this diverse group of people in the global Diaspora.
Without the Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts Festival, Vancouver and the West Coast at large would miss out on these films…imagine the loss.

CWB: What are the different film related events of the festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: We have a number of events such as the Artists’ exhibit at the venue, Vendors’ Market, Traditional opening ceremony, Interactive drum session with the audience speeches, MC by an original member of the Temptations and Multicultural dynamics.

CWB: Can you tell us about the filmmakers attending the festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: Yes. We now have a platform in Western Canada and the “West Coast” at large, including our neighbors in Washington and Oregon, USA. They’re on their way to the VPAFF.

CWB: Will you be holding any Q&A; sessions after screening films?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: Yes, at the core of the VPAFF is a keen desire to facilitate dialogue through these films. We need to ‘talk’ if this forum is going to help break down the negative stereotypes. Talk builds trust, trust leads to solidarity in a growing diverse population as Metro Vancouver’s.
We are hosting a series of post screening discussions, some of which include the “Talk-back” sessions after Rwanda Rising, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, the Darfur Film Forum, the AIDS Film Forum etc…Inter-cultural dialogue of the discoveries and perspectives presented is a prime focus of the VPAFF.

CWB: How the guests can attend the film screenings and is there any kind of special discount for film students?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: It’s a very good question. I am sure you can imagine the amount of work involved in a solo endeavour of this stature. Help will come eventually. But after all these hurdles and triumphs, the VPAFF is essentially a $10 event with the exception of the Opening and Closing features. This year’s VPAFF will remain a flat rate, so hopefully I can recover some of the costs incurred and perhaps afford some winter clothes. (Burrr!) In terms of how audiences can attend, we have received interest from England, across Canada and the United States. Thank you all. Let us know if we can assist you with finding lodging.

CWB: Is there any film that you think is the highlight of the festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: ABSOLUTELY. All of them! I am proud of each and every film and equally passionate about giving them due attention. Tourism Vancouver recently commented on how ‘passionate’ I was in my conversation with them about involving them in the Festival as supporters. I love all the films. I especially want all to see Afrikan World Civilizations, Quilombo Country, Rwanda Rising, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, Breath Control, The Origin of AIDS, The Magic Lion, The Cora Player, The Future of Mud, Rent a Rasta, Suffering and Smiling, Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars and both films on the Darfur crisis.

CWB: How do you see the future of the Vancouver Pan-African Film & Arts Festival?
Ms. U. Ebony Johnson: The Vancouver Pan African Film & Arts Festival, Society is a BC registered non-profit organization that aims to educate the inquiring mind. We wish to enhance current events in the Vancouver and surrounding communities by promoting inter-cultural dialogue through Art. Our Mandate encompasses the commitment to present films of historical and political intrigue that reflect the moral dilemmas of our times under the segment “Human Rights Conscience.” We wish to showcase a broad range of creative artworks by Africans in the global Diaspora, and to address living history on tape.

VPAFF 2007 marks the inaugural launch of a series of arts events committed to showcasing the perspectives and talents of the world’s African/“Black” Diaspora for a Canadian audience. A Black History Month (February) 2008 film festival and a Traveling Pan-African Film Festival (TPAFF) are also planned to build on the success of VPAFF 2007.
Cast yourself under the protective shade of the majestic Baobab tree!


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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