WILMINGTON — The Cucalorus Film Festival is fully embracing the theme of racial justice this year in its Connect conference, turning away from the entrepreneurship and tech focus that has steered the seminar since its inception five years ago.
As it has been for much of 2020, the issue of race will be at the forefront of the conversation. The series of 90-minute facilitated discussions and corresponding film showings kicks off Monday and continues throughout the week.
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Dan Brawley, chief instigating officer of the festival, said organizers are re-evaluating what Connect is. “It’s a blank canvas now,” he said. “We are rebuilding it.”
While Cucalorous is still using the container of Connect, the fresh slate presents an opportunity for the festival to encourage more progressive ideas than it has in the past when social issues had to be presented in connection with the tech industry.
“When we first started doing Connect, my position was, ‘We’re an organization that encourages radical ideas; this sounds radical, let’s try it,’” Brawley said. “And so I think it never was really radical until now: And now it’s all about undoing racism.”
Throughout six events held via Zoom, moderators and panelists will dive into pressing matters – from accountable storytelling to multi-generational trauma, from housing justice to voting rights. It will employ film as a catalyst for those conversations about race and discrimination.
“New Hanover County has a serious problem with race,” said program curator Rebecca Trammel. “It is not up for debate. We have a problem and we need to talk about it.”
Trammel advises deniers of that fact to take a look at the Cape Fear Collective equity dashboard. Its data reveals evidence of systemic racism such as the fact that the densest minority populations live in areas with the highest levels of housing burden.
“When you start to see these trends in which African Americans come up on the short end of the stick predictably for poor outcomes, you can’t possibly believe that we have inherently, genetically inferior intelligence, talent, health,” Trammel said. “You have to begin to think — what’s wrong with our environment?”
That’s the question moderators, special guests and attendees will ask themselves in this year’s Connect programming.
The conference builds off the work of the Community Conversations series, which Trammel spearheaded last year. The well-attended forums raised awareness of racial bias and discrimination in New Hanover County classrooms.
On Friday, Trammel and curator Kevin Maurer, director of community engagement at Cape Fear Collective, will revisit these issues, both in schools and other sectors. Through their session “Impolite Conversations about race, education, justice and health,” the organizers hope to challenge the notion that racism is a taboo topic.
“White people have to get beyond being shocked,” Brawley said.
The panelists include government and nonprofit leaders with the power to steer equitable change in public health, criminal justice and education. Attendees will hear from the speakers on their ideas for progress while also learning what they can do on their own to contribute to a more inclusive society.
“Now, instead of having some fancy white dude standing in front of the room, talking to 200 people, we actually want people to talk to each other,” Brawley said. “And we want to be intentional about that: make time for everyone to share. And that’s how you make progress.”
Several events throughout the week include breakout sessions via Zoom.
On Friday, New Hanover County Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Linda Thompson and activist Lily Nicole will join in a separate room with Maurer and other interested attendees. The union of Thompson, a government official hired in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, and Nicole, the face of the lowercase leaders who protested all summer long, should create a compelling juxtaposition.
“I view both women as strong leaders in the same space that are trying to do the same thing but from different ways,” Maurer said, “and my hope there is we can leave that breakout room with at least a common understanding of goals.”
Maurer adds he hopes the session will set the foundation for the work ahead in 2021.
In another Zoom room, NHC Board of Education Chair Stefanie Adams and Superintendent Charles Foust will converse with one of the district’s biggest yet most constructive critics: Trammel.
“It shouldn’t be missed,” Maurer said. “That three-way conversation with Rebecca, I think, will probably answer some questions.”
Both relatively new leaders of New Hanover County Schools, Adams and Foust inherited a system with deep racial disparities that Trammel has shone a spotlight on through her position in the community as a well-known activist. Just this week, it was revealed the district’s students of color are falling behind at disproportionate levels due to remote learning challenges, with close to 50% of the Hispanic and Black populations failing courses in secondary schools.
RELATED: New Hanover County students failing in record numbers, still unknown when schools will fully reopen
Leading Into New Communities Executive Director Frankie Roberts and New Hanover Regional Medical Center Director of Health Equity and Human Experience Joe Conway will join in a third room to tackle larger questions of equity and discuss Conway’s knowledge on health disparities and Robert’s work with empowering youth and assisting men and women after prison release.
People are encouraged to take part in multiple events throughout the week, leading up to the Friday event.
“You will really get a panoramic view and a more complete experience by coming on this journey with us throughout the week,” Trammel said.
All events, listed below, are free. To request entry, register on the Cucalorus website.
Cucalorus Connect Schedule
StoryShift: Accountability in Documentary
Monday, Nov. 9, 2 p.m.
Working Films’ Natalie Bullock Brown will speak on documentary filmmakers’ power to portray narratives and subjects – and the accountability that comes with it. Anyone who considers themselves a storyteller is encouraged to attend and reflect on their own practices.
Attendees will see clips from filmmakers Bree Newsome Bass and Sherard Duvall, the two participants of the 2020 Cucalorus Works-In-Progress Lab, a residency for Black documentarians to receive support on their social issue-related projects.
“Every film being featured, the filmmaker through our time in the Works-In-Progress residency really emphasized their desire to respect and accurately depict the people who were in their films,” Molly Murphy, co-director at Working Films, said.
“Leadership: 7 days, 7 generations.”
Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2 p.m.
The thought-provoking film “Future Ancestors” follows Lyla June, an Indigenous scholar and poet who is an unlikely candidate in the race for a New Mexico House of Representatives seat.
Kim Pevia, director of the Lumbee Film Festival in Pembroke, will lead a discussion following the showing.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker
Tuesday, Nov. 17, 7 p.m
One of the most anticipated events, “What Doesn’t Kill You, Makes You Blacker,” features special guest Damon Young and host Michelle Materre.
Young will read excerpts from his award-winning memoir, and four short films are shown based on the themes in his book. The documentaries and narratives hit subjects such as athlete protests, police intimidation and Black culture. The filmmakers will be taking questions, as well.
From Hardship to Hope
Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2 p.m.
Artist-scholar-organizer Ebony Golden of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative will lead a discussion after the viewing of Dorian Emerson’s “Negros.”
The film follows a 14-year-old in Miami as he overcomes traumas, eventually making an impact on the neighborhood and rediscovering adolescent joy. Themes of education, activism, youth, police brutality and gentrification will guide the post-showing discourse.
“It’s worth your time,” Maurer said. “It’s one of those stories, everything about it is so well done. I talk about that film quite a bit.”
The Stories of Land and Home
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2 p.m.
This event will showcase the Rise-Home Stories Project, a collaboration of multimedia storytellers and housing, land and racial justice advocates. Anna Lee, Paige Wood and Luisa Dantas host.
The panelists will introduce five 2021 projects, all aimed at transforming harmful narratives about Black and brown neighborhoods to rather envision communities that flourish and control their own destinies. The panel members will share lessons learned through the creative processes.
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