A very exciting Oakland International Film Festival spotlights Roots’ 40th anniversary

by Wanda Sabir

The Oakland International Film Festival is an opportunity for Oakland to shine – its artists the polish and vehicle. From its inception 15 years ago, when the City of Oakland was one of the only cities in the nation with a film office, sadly eliminated an administration ago, this festival has maintained its focus – on Oakland and its diversity of talent: directors, writers, actors, technicians – famous and up and coming.

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Click to enlarge, and for more information and tickets for Roots, go to https://oaklandroots40th.info/ and for more information and tickets to the rest of the festival, go to http://www.oiff.org/.

In keeping with this tradition, OIFF has scheduled a daylong series of screenings of new work called “The Pitch,” a part of the Made in Oakland programming. Directors are invited to screen an excerpt of their work, speak for one minute about the film and what their needs are to move forward, and third, get feedback from audience present. What a great opportunity for the director and for novices and industry professionals to get in on the ground floor to get a scoop on new work. The Pitch, on Friday, April 7, 1-7 p.m., will be in the City of Oakland’s Hearing Room 1. Each of the sessions is one hour and forty-five minutes long.

With 40-plus films from 33 countries, OIFF is still bringing it for the people. This time for “Black Roots” in Oakland, which are holding on, even as social and political structures want to rock Oakland’s Black foundation.

Alex Haley’s vision was televised 40 years ago this year with a miniseries called “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” based on the historic novel (1976). It was the bicentennial of this nation’s birth, and “Roots” ripped to shreds the idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life … Life at a time when the U.S. government’s eugenics has significantly reduced populations it deems unsuitable for reproduction: Black people, people with IQs 70 and below, the incorrigible or prisoners, immigrants, poor people and single parents.

Roots tells the story of Haley’s and by extension Black America’s ancestors, which expanded the popular idea that Black Americans had no history or past beyond the plantation. In the tradition of Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee,” Haley, well-known for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” shared the story of a family of Africans transported to this country and the brutality of the institution of slavery. Yet, it is also the story of survival, redemption and transcendence, which comes from the collective and personal stories Haley remembered. Clues he used to trace his legacy back to Juffure – a town where Haley traced his paternal ancestry. The town had a museum, a school and fort. We took a ferry to the island nearby where African captives from throughout the region were brought and traded. Right on the northern bank of the River Gambia, we easily traveled to Kunta Kinteh Island, formerly James Island. James Fort is there.

With 40-plus films from 33 countries, OIFF is still bringing it for the people. This time for “Black Roots” in Oakland, which are holding on, even as social and political structures want to rock Oakland’s Black foundation.

When I traveled to Gambia, it was during President Obama’s first term. As we sat in an outdoor covered patio for the chief to arrive and welcome us, a woman came in and sat down. When she learned I was American, she gave me a big smile and threw up her fist and said: Obama! There I also met Alex Haley’s cousin, a school teacher, and he showed me photos of Haley’s visit to the town. There is a mosque named after Haley and in the preschool, I saw photos of President Obama and the First Lady on multiple walls (smile).

Of all the slave dungeons I’d visited up to that point – Goree one of them – I really felt the ancestral energies on the Kunta Kinteh Island. There were huge baobab trees in blossom – the Gambian men piloting the boats climbed the tree and got fruit for us. It was lovely. It tasted like clouds—cotton candy without the excessive sweetness.

The island is sinking into the sea, and no one was trying to save it. Soon I was told, if erosion continued at the rate it was proceeding, the island would be gone from sight.

“Roots at 40” is the closing event at Oakland International Film Festival 15. Actors will be present from the first series and the more recent series in 2016. Together with directors for the series, they will discuss “Roots” and its impact on American consciousness 40 years later. How did Roots shape our perceptions of being Black in America and by extension how Blackness was perceived then and now?

“We’re in the middle of it. We kick off April the 4th,” Oakland International Film Festival founder and director David Roach began, when I reached him for our interview. “We are highlighting our legacy, 40 years since ‘Roots.’ This is our 15th year, so we wanted to do something a little different. Also, 2017 is 50 years since the writing of Dr. King’s last book, ‘Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.’ He was actually assassinated on April 4, which is the opening [day] of the festival. There is a section in the book, ‘Getting Our Due,’ where [King] talks about how people who have been denied certain things or certain justices need to receive them to get them back [into the race].’”

“Interestingly enough, one of the films we are showcasing this year is called ‘Forgiveness,’ by Satie Gossett, the son of Louis Gossett Jr., who will actually be here for a part of our ‘Roots’ theme (Saturday, April 8, 6 p.m., at the Scottish Rite Center). ‘Forgiveness’ is a narrative short, about a young boy who is given an assignment. His teacher suggests he participate in an essay contest on why America hasn’t apologized for slavery.

“Our festival has a lot of rootsy themes. For example, Regina Mason’s “Gina’s Journey: In Search of William Grimes,” who wrote a narrative before Frederick Douglass about the horrors of slavery. She shows how a question raised when she was a child about her ancestors and her heritage took many years before it was resolved. Mason learns how to do genealogy research and finds out that she has an heir, and that his name is William Grimes.

“Roots at 40” is the closing event at Oakland International Film Festival 15. How did Roots shape our perceptions of being Black in America and by extension how Blackness was perceived then and now?

Wanda Sabir: As you were speaking, I was thinking that you are a Morehouse Man, and so was Martin King, right?

David Roach: Yes.

Wanda Sabir: I was also really impressed as you spoke about the amount of research that goes into the programming of the OIFF. You are looking at the historical moment(s), such as April 4, the 49th anniversary of King’s killing. It is also the end of what is called the Season of Peace. It starts in January when Mahatma Gandhi was killed, then into February when Malcolm X dies, the Kennedys and ends with Dr. King. It is a really perfect time to be looking at roots: the roots of a tree, the roots of a people … and with Sankofa, we are mining those ancestral roots.

What did our ancestors do when faced with adversity? We need to draw on all our resources. And then I was thinking about your local filmmakers like Regina Mason, who is a woman director and Donna Roberts, director of “Yemanja,” who is also a woman director.

David Roach: We want to tie in the Roots of Oakland, so that it also promotes the filmmakers of Oakland. We are opening at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, which is a major destination in Oakland. Chinatown in Oakland is older than the Chinatown in San Francisco. [Chinatown in Oakland used to be a Black community.]

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“Yemanja” screens April 5, 7:30 p.m., at Holy Names University.

We will also be at Holy Names University Center for the Performing Arts which is where “Yemanja: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil” screens, Wednesday, April 5. There is a pre-film program beginning at 6:30 p.m. Reception with pop-up photography exhibit, “Goddesses of Nature,” 7:30 p.m.; “Masters of Rhythm” short film about Afro-Peruvian drumming at 8:05 p.m.; Libation offered by Iya Wanda Blake, priestess of Yemaya. We’re screening “Yemanja: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil” at 9:00 p.m. and there is a panel discussion, the movie count with great picture from the great cameras for video as other they used for the recording, they even had one of the best 360 camera for capture wide angles. For tickets, visit http://oiff.org/yemanja and information on Day 2.

We will also be at the Grand Lake Theatre once again this year. We are hosting free screenings for a day there. We are having our closing party at the legendary Geoffrey’s Inner Circle on Friday night, which is also First Friday. Then [the next afternoon] we will be at the Scottish Rite Center for a Roots Celebration. Participating are original cast members Lawrence Hilton Jacobs (“Coolie High,” “Welcome Back Carter”). He plays the character of Noah in “Roots” and Louis Gossett Jr. was Fiddler. Mario Van Peebles directed two episodes of “Roots” (2016 series) and his son, Mandela, who is in those episodes will be here as well.

Two fathers and sons: Satie Gossett with Louis Gossett Jr. and Mandela and Mario Van Peebles.

Terri Vaughn from San Francisco, also Mark Wolper, who is executive producer of “Roots,” as well will be at the closing event. We call it a Fireside Chat hosted by Danny Glover.

The Oakland Film Society and Councilmember Lynette McElhaney are excited to host The 40th Anniversary of Roots – An Evening with the Stars, in Oakland’s Black Arts Movement and Business District as part of the 15th Annual Oakland International Film Festival. The non-televised 40th Anniversary Celebration of the TV Miniseries “Roots” will take place on Saturday, April 8, at the Scottish Rite Center.

Oakland will be the only city in the country to host an evening with members from the original cast of “Roots” in 1977 and from the new series in 2016! Both are coming together on one stage for an unprecedented evening of entertainment and conversation about the series. What makes this event truly unique is the fact that the producers, directors and actors of film normally only come together at big syndicated shows.

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You are invited to join the discussion as these legends, Lou Gossett, Mario and Mandela Van Peebles, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Danny Glover and Terri J. Vaughn talk about “Roots” and bare their souls about the Black experience. It’s happening Saturday, the last day of the Oakland International Film Festival, at the elegant Scottish Rite Theater at 6 p.m. Be there!

OIFF and the City of Oakland will be the first and potentially the only showplace for the Roots 40th Anniversary. Questions about the impact of “Roots” and select questions from the public will be discussed. The fireside chat will be immediately followed by the Awards Ceremony of the Oakland International Film Festival participants.

Live musical performances will take place throughout the event from some of our prominent Bay Area entertainers like the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Oakland School for the Arts, SambaFunk! Funkquarians, Diamano Coura, John Santos and more. The program starts at 6:30 p.m. Doors open to a reception at 5:45 p.m. The Welcome is at 6:45 p.m.; Fireside Chat 7:00; Film Festival Award Ceremony is at 8:30 p.m. Closing Remarks & Musical Performances are at 9 p.m.

Wanda Sabir: How many filmmakers are from Oakland or live in Oakland?

David Roach: We are showing 40-plus films and about a third of them are Oakland filmmakers. About a third are feature films. Some of them are documentaries, shorts, narratives a couple animation films. We have submissions from 33 different countries, which is more than usual. This means that folks are seeing Oakland. We hope we can connect the Oakland filmmakers to those other markets as well as we continue trying to utilize this medium as a way to connect people and cultures to create more understanding.

When a person watches films from other places, like Saudi Arabia and Madrid, the first thought might be: “Those folks remind me of my cousins.” You’re like, dang, they are going through a lot of stuff, yet they still make that movie. It is really inspiring for a people who have gone through a lot … like the whole thing of water. We can turn on the faucet here, but elsewhere, it might take all day to fill a bucket. Because we’re so close with film, we have an opportunity to do more, because film closes the distance – geographically and philosophically.

Wanda Sabir: Do you have any children’s programming?

David Roach: We plan on hosting screenings in schools. We are working on something with Castlemont High School. Reaching out to School Board folks. On Monday from 3-4 at City Hall – the week of the film festival is also spring break – that’s where we are showing “Forgiveness” and Mario Van Peebles’s short film, “Making the A Game,” which is where he has artists and athletes talking about the obstacles young folks go through in education. That programming time is for young folks.

Most of the films are appropriate for kids. When compared to what is on TV today, they would pass, but I am a father and if I don’t like my kid to see some stuff, I don’t want other kids to see it either. I don’t like guns in films; I don’t like films where they show you how to do something illegal or dangerous. Why do they have to show you?

Wanda Sabir: Right, kids are smart. It’s like giving them a manual.

David Roach: Don’t show them how to build that. We do what we see. It is a very powerful medium, film. It can become a tutorial for many wrong things as well as good things, right?

Wanda Sabir: I love it that this is the 15th Annual Film Festival, just before the SFIFF which is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. I remember when OIFF was in the fall in October near the Mill Valley Film Festival. You have a great niche and I am always interested in seeing who you are partnering with each festival season.

David Roach: We are trying and we see more screens coming up. It is one thing to have a theory; it is another to manifest it. Oftentimes we talk about manufacturing products but we don’t value artists who also contribute to our economy and our lifestyle. We are trying to demonstrate that we do bring value and can bring it to commerce as well. We planning on hosting a number of screenings at restaurants and different places throughout the City of Oakland, but to also leverage our website for marketing potential for our artists. We are getting quite a bit of attention online.

It’s coming together. We have a long way to go.

Wanda Sabir: I am sure your background in economics comes in handy. You are a businessman and an artist, and the combination goes well together. (Listen to the rest of the interview online at wandaspicks.com/radio.)

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.