By Abby Weingarten
Inspiring cultural dialogue was the goal and cinema was the medium as the second annual “Visions of the Black Experience” film series returned to New College this fall.
From November 12 to 29, the free virtual festival showcased 30 selections (including both local and international features and shorts) that illuminated historical, social and cultural aspects of Black life. Organizers hosted 13 dialogue sessions and drew more than 1,500 unique viewers from 10 countries. This year, the overarching themes included social justice, youth engagement and activism, and healthcare in the Black community—all issues that have been at the forefront of the collective conversation throughout 2020.
“With many of the selections this year, we wanted to reflect on our history—where our country has been—and to understand the power young people have when they use their voices to stand up and make a difference,” said Bill Woodson, Ph.D., an event organizer, and New College’s chief diversity officer and dean of outreach.
One of the selected films emphatically made Woodson’s point—a documentary entitled Into the Storm, which students at Sarasota’s Booker High School produced last year. It is a true story about young activists who fought to keep their cherished, predominantly Black Newtown institution open at a time when court-ordered desegregation led to mass closings of Black schools countrywide. The story is particularly poignant, as it takes place in the same year that Booker’s dominant men’s basketball team ascended to win the state championship.
“Today’s political environment has caused many young people to question whether their voice matters,” Woodson said. “Well, this film provides strong evidence that it does.”
To delve further into this discussion, festival organizers invited students from Booker, Sarasota High School and Southeast High School (among other institutions) to join a live post-film talk via Zoom. “Visions” sponsors also funded a major gift to benefit Booker’s Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) program—a gesture that spoke to the community-building component of the festival itself.
The inaugural “Visions” series was in-person and on-campus, and event organizers on the New College side included Woodson; adjunct professor Dr. Lisa Merritt; Stacey Campo, Ph.D., director of community outreach in the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence; and Queen Zabriskie, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology.
The series was also a local collaboration led by the Sarasota Film Festival, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County (lead financial sponsor), the New College Foundation, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, the Boxser Diversity Initiative, The Ringling museum, the Multicultural Health Institute, and the Manasota Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).
“The festival became a chance for others to learn about our community, our impressive local talent and our complex history,” Campo said.
The film lineup included a retrospective of late actor Chadwick Boseman (with the screenings of 42 and Get On Up, and a panel discussion with Howard University alumni); locally-made films like 9/11 Kids and Sincerely, The Black Kids (the latter is by alum Miles Iton ’14, who also screened a short film in the series); and acclaimed festival selections such as Pahokee and American Trial: The Eric Garner Story.
“When we highlight films created by college and high school students, and films that center on their voices, it’s empowering. It shows that there are ways they can give their voice reach and power and permanency,” Woodson said. “It shows young people that, if they have passion and a story to tell, they can turn their vision into reality.”
The series offered corresponding panel discussions and live question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers, as well as pieces from the COVID-19 student PSA contest at New College. Some of the PSA winners were students from Ringling College of Art + Design and Riverview High School.
“During the festival, films like 9/11 Kids traced the lives of students at Booker Elementary after the president announced the attacks on the world trade tower from their school. These films were followed by talkback sessions with the filmmakers,” Campo said. “Students from Riverview, Booker and Southeast High Schools viewed Into the Storm in their classes, and generated questions to both the filmmakers and the Booker alumni who organized for social change for the dialogue session.”
There were also a number of short films addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. In the session entitled “Health in the Time of COVID,” local doctors and psychologists discussed the local response to the pandemic and identified key resources for Sarasota-Manatee, such as the Multicultural Health Institute (MHI).
“Visions” organizers are discussing a hybrid model for next year, depending on medical recommendations from key collaborators.
To watch the dialogue sessions and the student-created PSAs, visit watch.eventive.org/visionsoftheblackexperience
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.