Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mixed Media and Mixed Meanings

The Newark Black Film Festival, which just wrapped up its 2008 series in Newark, Trenton and Asbury Park and moves on to Camden for an encore run in Septmeber, handed out its annual Paul Robeson Awards from July 31 - Aug. 1. "Birthmarks," an experimental, non fiction work by Philadelphia artist Naima Lowe, stood out among the winners.
By R. Kurt Osenlund

After five weeks of showing the finest in independent African American cinema on screens at The Newark Museum, Trenton's New Jersey State Museum, and Asbury Park High School, the Newark Black Film Festival concluded its 34th year with the 2008 Paul Robeson Awards at all three locations from July 30 – August 1.

Named after the politically controversial, Princeton-born actor and singer who, arguably, rivals Sidney Poitier as the most influential black figure in American motion picture history, the awards were given out at the Trenton venue on Thursday, July 31. In the categories of Documentary, Long Narrative, Short Narrative, and Experimental, the winners included Andrea Kalin's “Prince Among Slaves,” Andrew Burroughs' “Algeny: The Genetic Factor,” Keyana Ray's “Reflections” and Naima Lowe's “Birthmarks,” respectively.

A banner advertises the festival outside the New Jersey State Museum. (Photo: R. Kurt Osenlund)

“Film is certainly an art form,” says New Jersey State Museum Curator of Fine Arts, Margaret O'Reilly, who's been involved with the festival for all of the five years it's been making its Trenton stop. “[The festival] is a great series and a lot of work goes into it.”

“Birthmarks,” which, along with the other award recipients, was screened at the Trenton reception, was the standout. Composed of a multitude of mixed media, including 16mm film, 35 mm film, archival footage, still photography, interviews and original writing, the 28-minute, non-fiction short recounts and muses over the involvement of director/producer/editor Naima's father, Bill Lowe, in the 1967 Newark Riots, where police brutality turned a peaceful protest into five days of inner-city turmoil.

Bill witnessed these events while working as a reporter for the Trentonian at the age of 21. Initially sent to cover the protests, he was beaten by police at the scene because he was black. Shards of broken bottles that cut into his flesh left a series of small, spot-like scars down his back. Naima, who's seen the marks for as long as she can remember, uses them not only for titular inspiration, but to ground her story on an unbreakable father-daughter bond and a 20-year quest for understanding. They are, in many ways, the driving force of her film and, ultimately, thanks to some strategic foreshadowing, its climax and big reveal.

A scene from "Birthmarks." (Photo: Naima Lowe)

“I was originally adverse to the idea of the build-up [of revealing the scars],” Naima says. “It seemed a little exploitative. But I had [my father's] permission and his blessing to do it. As it developed, and as I understood it more, I started to think that using that story convention could work very well. It came fairly late in the process...when I chose to re-edit it that way.”

Naima's editing process also consisted of literally overlapping layers, with various forms of media repeatedly superimposed over others. Throughout “Birthmarks,” photos often appear on top of the film, then newspaper clippings on top of the photos, then text on top of the newspaper clippings and so on, sometimes producing five layers at a time. The outermost layer of typed words, which is intermittently paired with audio of Naima reading additional original prose, express the filmmaker's innermost feelings, while all the layers beneath it suggest a single meaning or truth just waiting to be uncovered.

“What I wanted to get across was a cyclical meaning through repetition,” Naima says. “It may seem complex and layered at first, with a singular meaning, but, through repetition, you can get at multiple meanings. The event and the story have really evolved over time, as well as the meaning.”

Philadelphia filmmaker Naima Lowe. (Photo: Naima Lowe)

A Philadelphia native, Brown University graduate and writer at heart, Naima is currently an MFA candidate and Future Faculty Fellow at Temple University in its Film and Media Arts program. In addition to the honor claimed at the Newark Black Film Festival, “Birthmarks,” her first film, has received recognition from the Student Academy Awards as a Regional Finalist, was given the award for Best Sound Design by the NextFrame International Student Film Festival, and has also been shown at the Black Lily Film and Music Festival, the Athens Film and Video Festival and the Anthology Film Archive.

“There have been some very nice surprises,” Naima says. “I've been very pleased with the way it's been shown and I've learned a lot since I've made it. Getting the [Newark] award was particularly gratifying given the place and context of the film.”

From September 11 – 26, the Newark Black Film Festival's entire 2008 series, including Naima's inventive meditation on history, racism and family, moves to the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts for one last run. If the viewers there are anything like their Trenton neighbors, according to O'Reilly, the free event (made possible by a grant from Bank of America) will be met with open arms and open minds.

“When we started five years ago [at the State Museum], we weren't sure of how audiences would embrace [the festival],” she says. “But the community has really claimed ownership of it. They love it and they love that it's in their backyard.”

For more on the 2008 Newark Black Film Festival, visit: http://www.newarkmuseum.org/museum_pages.aspx?id=240
For more on Naima Lowe, visit: http://www.naimalowe.com/

*This has been reprinted by the author from an article published in Inter-County News Media Group's Pennington Post.

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