Local meets global at the 2020 Houston Cinema Arts Festival
Houstonian movie lovers haven’t been able to gather in front of the city’s silver screens for a while now. But this month, over 40 documentary and narrative films, short film blocks, Q&As, dance performances, DJ sets and workshops will be available to stream right to computer screens — and a select few will light up the night at local drive-ins — from Nov. 12-22 at the 2020 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.
The Houston Cinema Arts Society will kick off its 12th annual festival this Thursday with the Texas premiere of “Mogul Mowgli,” the debut feature film from Houston native Bassam Tariq, both virtually and in person at the Moonstruck Drive-In. The film follows a British-Pakistani rapper named Zed (Riz Ahmed) who encounters both physical and emotional strife when he is struck by an autoimmune disease while visiting home, while also confronting generational trauma stemming from his family’s experience during the partition of India and Pakistan. Tariq’s film about cultural repression, transnationalism, family and the power of art to overcome represents a culmination of the 2020 festival’s central themes: music, borders, cultural exchange and the ever-dynamic artistic milieu that makes Houston home for so many.
“We like to talk about this idea of ‘around the corner, around the world,’ and Houston completely embodies that,” said Jessica Green, Houston Cinema Arts Society artistic director. “We just want to reflect on all the experiences that are encompassed in this great city — literally the most diverse city in the world.”
This year’s festival seeks to capture the spirit of Houston through the theme of Urbana, as in musica urbana: a transnational genre of music that is rooted historically in the cultural exchanges that occurred in the Americas and the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade. As a result, urbana acknowledges and celebrates the profound impact of African, Latin and Indigenous American culture on art and music.
Green says she has long been intrigued by the globality of Latin music, from hearing Beyonce’s remix of J Balvin’s smash hit “Mi Gente” to seeing Shakira perform an African style dance break alongside Jennifer Lopez at Super Bowl LIV, to hearing majority Spanish language music on a pop radio station all the way in Switzerland.
Films in the urbana category, including “Mogul Mowgli” are international in scope and, though quite disparate in subject matter, are all connected by representations of powerful transnational cultural interaction. From a documentary about post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico (“Landfall”) to a film based on the true story of the all-Black 24th United States Infantry Regiment and the Houston Riot of 1917 (“The 24th”) to the 40th-anniversary screening of cult classic “Shogun Assassin,” this year’s urbana programming is as diverse as the city it seeks to entertain.
Houston’s homegrown brand of musica urbana will be celebrated with tributes to two Texas titans: Houston hip-hop legend DJ Screw and Selena Quintanilla, famously known as “The Queen of Tejano Music.” This year marks the 25th anniversary of Quintanilla’s tragic murder as well as the 20th anniversary of Screw’s untimely death, so in remembrance, the festival will present a host of events in honor of each late artist including Q&As with local musicians and music historians, free live streamed DJ sets hosted by Houston DJs and documentary films.
“You would be hard-pressed to find two artists that really reflect this kind of influence intermingling, and presence within this idea of urbana,” said Green. “These artists have such a strong connection to Houston … and their legacies are so great that they have gone on to have such a huge influence on global culture.”
In the same vein of celebrating Houston’s unique cultural landscape, Houston Cinema Arts Festival will host its inaugural “Borders No Borders” short film competition, which will feature documentary and narrative works from emerging regional filmmakers. Ten narrative films and 11 documentaries will compete for two $1,000 grand prizes and two $500 jury prizes, awarded by a panel of accomplished filmmakers, actors and artists. Submissions poured in from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico and Mexico earlier this year, with subjects ranging from immigration to transgender people’s relationships with doctors as told through puppetry.
Houston Cinema Arts Society Executive Director Laurence Unger says she and her team didn’t want to impose too much thematic or stylistic coherency, but rather emphasize the influence of regional experiences on Houston, a sort of geographic center for Texas’ many neighbors. Unger said she recognized how much filmmakers are struggling this year, and wanted to create a meaningful opportunity for them to win monetary prizes and gain exposure.
“For festivals to be truly relevant, they need to combine really excellent curated content from international creators, national creators and local creators who are emerging,” said Unger. “I feel like Houston is just so underrepresented in the national cinematic consciousness, and I would love to help in any small way to help Houston stories, and these regional stories, find their way to being told on the national level.”
Green says pivoting the festival to most effectively deliver an authentic cinema experience while implementing COVID-19 safety practices has involved constant communication with community partners like the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Aurora Picture Show and Rice Cinema, among many others.
Our campus cinema has served as a co-presenting venue and partner since the festival’s inception in 2008. Rice Cinema director and Houston Cinema Arts Society board member Charles Dove has cultivated the relationship between the two entities over the past 12 years, heightening Rice students’ opportunities to experience experimental and international films and bolstering Rice’s significance in the fabric of Houston’s film scene.
Along with Houston Ballet, Rice Cinema will co-present the festival’s closing night screening of “Night of the Kings,” a genre defying narrative from the Ivory Coast that is part prison drama, part dance film which is also part of the urbana programming. Dove said he wanted this film in the lineup due to a general lack of African cinema throughout the festival’s history, a trend also being combated by the inclusion of the Lesothian experimental documentary “Mother I Am Suffocating. This is My Last Film About You” and “Eyimofe (This is My Desire),” the first Nigerian film to be shown at the festival.
For Rice alumnus Michael Robinson (McMurtry College ’17), the long-standing collaborative relationship between Rice Cinema and the Houston Cinema Arts Society was an invaluable foundation for his current position as the society’s marketing and communications manager.
In true Rice fashion, Robinson switched majors from chemical engineering to anthropology and visual and dramatic arts with a film concentration after his sophomore year, and then went on to produce his own documentary film on Israeli-Palestinian relations through the lens of Jewish women living in Jerusalem in 2016. Now a prominent voice in Houston’s film scene, Robinson says his time as a projectionist at Rice Cinema was a launchpad for diving into Houston’s rich film scene.
“Rice Cinema is rooted in partnerships,” Robinson said. “It has this history of being a really community driven space for much of Houston, and I think what Houston Cinema Arts Society is trying to capture is a mantra that Rice Cinema has adopted for many many years … which is to reflect Houston back to itself. For Rice students who haven't broken out of the Rice bubble or who are really virtually experiencing Houston right now, there's a lot of great moments in here to really explore Houston's history.”
To view the full festival schedule and details on restrictions such as geoblocking, audience cap, and rental periods, visit www.cinemahtx.org/hcaf/. Virtual all-access passes are $50, and individual film tickets range from $10-$30.
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