Festival Director and Curator Lana Garland offers some background on the 27-year-old festival and what’s on her must-watch list
Durham Magazine Can you briefly describe the Hayti Heritage Film Festival and its history?
Lana Garland The Hayti Heritage Film Festival encourages [artistic], historical and cultural awareness through the exhibition of Black films each year. As we prepare for our 27th anniversary, we will present an array of classic Black cinema, cutting-edge documentary and fictional shorts and features, panel discussions and more. With the current state of the world, we anticipate the 2021 season to be an opportunity to provide continuity to artistic development, to inspire filmmakers to tell the stories of the dueling pandemics –COVID-19 and systemic racism – and to provide a platform for diversity within the Black community in Durham (LGBTQ+, trans, Muslim, Christian, Afro-Carribean, Afro-Latinx and intergenerational).
DM The event is dubbed one of the nation’s longest-running film festivals. What do you think keeps people coming back to this festival year after year? Why is it especially important to tune in this year?
LG To be quite honest, there have been some years when the festival did not live up to the expectations of the community, so people stopped coming. It is one of the longest-running festivals because of the dedication of people in this community during good times and bad. Now Hayti Heritage Film Festival brings together the creative community in an environment that exudes energy, excellence and audience/participant engagement. The HHFF is not simply a festival, it is also an immersive experience. We tell volunteers that it is akin to the African American experience of the family reunion, where everyone is your cousin!
Our festival begins first and foremost with the artists. It is important to bring successful filmmakers who were born in the South into the fold, making the statement that you don’t have to leave [the region] in order to have a career. Bruce Francis Cole (award-winning cinematographer of “Farewell Amor” and “Jinn”) and Kevin Wilson (nominated for the live action short “My Nephew Emmett” at the Academy Awards) are just two examples of Durhamites we “re-introduced” to the filmmaking community. They both work around the world, yet many in our community had not heard about them and their work. We created programming around them, and now they are committed to supporting HHFF year after year. This year, we’ve invited Cara Hagan to showcase her groundbreaking work in dance films. She lives [in Durham] and works here. It’s important to hold up the brilliance that exists in the state of North Carolina.
DM Tell us about your relationship with the festival and why it’s important to you.
LG I came aboard as the festival director and curator in 2018. Since then we’ve grown our audience three-fold, and that growth will continue. This is important to me because it became clear once I moved here 10 years ago that there were and continue to be stories that haven’t been told about Black folks in the South. It’s as big of a story as the Great Migration that took our families away from here generations ago. What did we leave behind? How did that affect the families who stayed? How did they transcend oppression and white supremacy? And now that we’re moving back to the South, are newcomers welcomed when they get here? To answer these questions and more, we need both art and scholarship to document this experience.
DM How has the event operated in the past? What will be different about this year’s experience?
LG The festival is usually an in-person event, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of it is online. The virtual festival takes place at haytiheritagefilmfest.eventive.org, yet there will be two drive-in experiences located at Heritage Square that people can partake in.
DM What are you looking forward to most this year? What films are you looking forward to sharing with audiences?
LG This is like asking me to talk about my favorite child! There’s a strong dance theme with films about iconic dancers throughout the festival. I’m also excited about Ashley O’Shay’s “Unapologetic,” a documentary about Black, queer, millennial activists in Chicago. I’m also excited about showing Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” with a forward from this award-winning director specifically directed to the Hayti community. But it is my opinion that excellent shorts make or break a festival. This is the training ground for most filmmakers.
Other non-film fare that people are excited about include the panel discussions. Everyone is already talking about “Lovecraft Country” meets the “Black Girls Guide to Surviving Menopause.” We have “Lovecraft” actress Aunjanue Ellis and writer Shannon Houston in conversation with the beloved Omisade Burney Scott of “BGG2SM.” Also, [James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies] Mark Anthony Neal leads a conversation with Charles Burnett, Terence Nance and Kevin Wilson Jr. on the [topic of] Black Male Image in the South. You won’t get conversations like this anywhere else!
DM What do you hope guests will take away from the festival?
LG My biggest hope is that guests will experience good film. It is one of the most popular contemporary art forms for a reason. The ability to see film and be transformed is necessary because storytelling is foundational to the human condition. Right now, we need relief. We need to be heard. We need to figure out how to get through this thing called life. That’s what films and filmmaking offer.