It began with pulsing drums and an unmistakable voice.
“You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated,” said Maya Angelou, acclaimed American poet and civil rights activist. “In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so that you know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
A large crowd gathered in Spatz Theatre at Citadel High School to watch the documentary. Many attendees also stayed for a discussion about diversity with the film’s co-director, Rita Coburn Whack, and the festival’s founder, Fabienne Colas.
“As an independent director, we go to festivals and people like you come out,” said Whack, a native of Chicago. “It means that you want to learn because you’re coming to see a documentary.”
Whack said it’s important for people to celebrate diversity in visual stories. Given the long history of Halifax’s black community, she hopes that the festival will thrive.
Colas, who has helped establish several film festivals across Canada, spoke passionately about growing the event. She urged the audience to spread the word about inclusiveness, citing the importance of embracing Canada’s diversity.
This year’s festival only had one film, but Colas is confident that there will be more next year.
A universal story
For Whack, it was important to tell a story that was universal.
“It was all about telling the big story, telling a heartfelt story, a story that was for everybody,” said Whack. “Black women love to claim Maya Angelou, but so can white men and Asian people.”
And I Still Rise has been screened in festivals all over Canada, Europe and Africa. Whack said that the film’s popularity confirms her belief that people can all live together.
“You see all these people who can claim a truth,” she said.
It took Whack, and co-director Bob Hercules, five years to complete the project. They sifted through thousands of photos, videos and articles about Angelou to show her life in a new light.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is the first documentary about Angelou’s life.
“I like complicated things,” said Whack with a smile.
Nova Scotian stories
Mayann Francis, former lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, was present at the festival. She was the first African-Nova Scotian to serve in that position.
She said it is important for events like the Black Film Festival to make their way to Halifax.
“It’s very difficult for just one festival to show the diversity of a population. I think it’s important to show the enormity and the complexity of our society,” said Francis during an interview. “Nova Scotians have a lot of stories to tell.”