Nate Parker stars as civil rights activist Dr. Ben Chavis in "Blood… (Pan African Film & Arts Festival )
They are precisely the kind of searing yet heartfelt indie movies that would lend substance and depth to any number of progressive-minded film festivals -- the civil rights drama "Blood Done Sign My Name," the documentary "41st & Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers" and the anti-segregation nonfiction feature "Freedom Riders."
But by dint of their high-profile programming slots at the 18th annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival, the movies also serve a broader function. Together, they provide an overview of what festival director Ayuko Babu says thematically binds the fest's 100-some selections.
Call it a "get involved" ethos.
"We want people to go see our films and walk away having figured out some way to get involved in terms of transforming society," Babu said. "And these films all show how ordinary people were able to say, 'Let's stop, let's see what's going on and think about what we can do to change our lives.' How we can stand up and not be passive."
Important considerations especially at a time when the event -- billed as "America's largest & most prestigious black film festival" -- has had to scale back to one week from 11 days of film programming last year due to a drop in subsidized grants and corporate donations. (It kicks off Wednesday night at Culver City's Culver Plaza Theatres. Its companion arts and crafts festival will take place at the Westfield Culver Plaza from Friday to Feb. 15.)
Still, according to Babu, even in the down economy, the festival's operating principal remains the same: to broadly showcase the complexity and diversity of black life around the globe.
"Whether it's in Haiti, South Central L.A. or New Hebrides, our story is everywhere," Babu said. "The complex narrative that is our life is all over the world. And yet there are so few outlets for pan-African films. So wherever there's a black community, we try to showcase it."
Toward that end, the festival offers a willfully eclectic range of genres and subject matter -- romantic comedies, ripped-from-the-headlines dramas and rockumentaries -- attempting to cover the diasporic spread.
To single out but a few selections: The Kenyan drama "From a Whisper" make its American premiere after having cleaned up at last year's African Movie Academy Awards; it details the aftermath of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi from the perspective of both investigators and terrorists. " Cinderella, Wolves & One Prince Charming" shines a disturbing light on Brazil's sex tourism industry. And "Soul Power" presents the rollicking 1974 R&B concert at which James Brown, Hugh Masekela and Tito Puente (among others) performed in celebration of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's Zaire-set championship fight, the Rumble in the Jungle.
If festival organizers have it their way, 2010 will mark the year that the PAFF finally manages to shuck its stereotype as a "niche" showcase and moves into its own as a fully realized crossroads of international cinema.
As well, Babu hopes studio distribution heads will take notice.
"We want to show distributors that there's an audience for these films," Babu said. "Come out and see them with the audience they were intended for. You're not going to get that if you see them at Sundance, Toronto or Berlin."
For more information, about the festival, go to www.paff.org.