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Helping Hands Enlist in Showing of Black Movies

Scores of volunteers play roles as the Pan African Film Festival helps to destroy stereotypes and explore the black experience.

February 08, 2004|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

These men and women are not actors, producers or directors. They are ordinary people, who live ordinary lives, whose names will not appear among the credits of any film.

Yet to the staff of the nonprofit Pan African Film Festival, this group of volunteers plays a crucial role in their effort to promote movies that destroy stereotypes and challenge notions of what it means to be a person of African descent.

"You are the heartbeat of the festival," volunteer coordinator Katrina Hasan Hamilton tells the group.

Ayuko Babu, festival founder and executive director, likens the volunteers' role to those who participated in the movements of the 1950s and 1960s: giving rides during the bus boycott, registering voters, organizing marches -- pushing for transformation.

Scores of volunteers "help us mobilize these audiences so filmmakers like Charles Burnett can say, 'There's an audience for this,' " Babu said. "That's how you get change. We can't do that unless we get volunteers who are the backbone of the event."

By the time the volunteers leave a recent Saturday meeting held at the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza, they know that their ideas are respected, their time is appreciated and, most of all, that they are needed.

During the festival, which started Thursday and runs through Feb. 16, thousands of people will converge on the Magic Johnson Theatres for the 12th Pan African Film & Arts Festival. They will watch movies depicting the lives of people of African descent, then head over to the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza where 60 artists will display their art for sale. They might attend workshops on film or scriptwriting.

The festival includes star-studded events -- with invitees such as Jamie Foxx or legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. But behind the scenes, the volunteers will keep it all running smoothly, Hamilton said. They will answer questions about the movies, direct filmgoers to the right theater, pick up filmmakers from the airport, sweep floors, mount posters.

Some volunteers have opened their homes to filmmakers from other countries who need a place to stay during the festival. Others, such as Linda Richardson -- who has volunteered with the festival since its birth -- do a little of everything, including maintaining a 300-entry database of volunteers. They also maintain the festival's website,

"There are so many different opportunities for volunteerism," said Hamilton, who worked on the film "Bilalian," which explores the lives of Muslims.

The still young festival--one of more than two dozen in Los Angeles -- lacks the budget of a Cannes or the name recognition of a Sundance, so it relies on what it does possess: a growing stature as an answer to a community's need. The festival presents a diverse view of black life, one that reaches far beyond the simplistic and negative images that mainstream films and video tend to offer.

"The cultural fight is for what gets on the big screen," Babu said. "That's where people's ideas and understanding about the world are going to come from."

The festival allows distributors a chance to see the movies and see audiences' reactions. Some may decide to distribute films which come from all over -- the U.S., Brazil, Cuba, New Zealand, South Africa -- and explore a range of experiences.

The goal of the festival is what draws many to volunteer. Georgina Agyekum came to the film festival, then returned as a volunteer "just to do my part to make sure a festival like this continues," she said.

Tash Moseley volunteers "because I believe in the movies," he said. "I was a French major, and I traveled to France and Martinique. I got a really diverse view of what I consider to be black life; the films reflect that view, just the spectrum of it, black genius."

One recent Saturday before the start of the festival, volunteers packed a room listening as staff explained duties and offered advice on how to do their jobs well.

Be polite. Smile. Learn as much about the films as possible. Expect a hectic pace. Have fun. Understand how to manage the crowds that gather in the lobby to discuss films after a showing.

"One of the ways is moving the queen bee," said Osayande Sekani, describing the person at the center of the discussion. "You've got to get the queen bee out."

But volunteering also is about relying on one's resourcefulness, Sekani said. If there is a problem and you see a solution, do it.

"This is your festival," he tells the group. "This is like production work. Be creative."

The reward for volunteers is a hearty thank-you, the opportunity to earn a chance to see films for free, and the chance, for those who are interested in the movie industry, to network.

For many such as Jasmyne Cannick, who started as a volunteer and now is on staff, the reward is being a part of a solution.

"I've seen how it enriches and brings so much to our community and not blacks, everybody," Cannick said. "The festival is not exclusive; it's inclusive.... I wanted to be a part of bringing something good to the community."

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