Black August Filmmakers Take to the Skies

Drone Cinematography Hands Power to the People


I’d love to tell you that a high percentage of entries from five continents submitted to the 2023 Black August Film Festival celebrate the tremendous strides in social justice mankind has made over the past year.

Spoiler alert: this year’s shorts, feature films, and documentaries, screening August 19-20 at Pasadena’s Flintridge Center, reflect just as much racism as ever before, if not more … just as much hatred as ever before, if not more … and just as much repression as ever before, if not more.

So, should everyone just stay home, crack open a cold one, and chill to American Soul on Black Entertainment Television instead? Nah, not those two days! Isn’t that exactly what politicians hellbent on thwarting minority voting want you to do? When it’s springtime for white nationalism, and well-funded anti-democratic forces are actively looking to strip away every last inalienable right you have left, there’s more incentive than ever to support independent filmmakers un-beholden to corporate interests. This movie making militia is out there right now, going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that next year’s 2024 festival commemorates the type of progress anyone with a heart and a soul has been longing for ever since the illusion took hold that civil rights for all was a done deal back in the sixties.

What is Black August?

According to Rachel Herzing, author of Black Liberation and the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex:

Black August is a call for reflection, study, and action to promote Black liberation. Its roots go back to California prisons in the 1970s, during a period of sustained struggle and resistance against racialized violence against Black imprisoned people, especially those calling for Black liberation and challenging state power. Ignited by the deaths of Jonathan and George Jackson in August 1970 and August 1971, and honoring others who gave their lives including Khatari Gualden, William Christmas and James McClain, a group of imprisoned people came together to develop a means of honoring that sacrifice and promoting Black liberation. While August is significant because of the deaths of the Jackson brothers, it is also a month with many other significant moments in Black history in the United States including the formation of the Underground Railroad, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the March on Washington, and the Watts uprising, to name just a few.

How did the Black August Film Festival Wind Up in a City Known for its Rose Parade?

It’s activist, film producer, and Editor/Publisher of Pasadena Black Pages Dennis Haywood’s brainchild. The festival combines his greatest passions.

Why Get Off Your Couch and Go?

Turning out en masse for black film festivals like the one named after his movement is precisely the type of activism prison philosopher George “1 to life” Jackson espoused when he declared, “Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.” As Jackson infers, when the forces of oppression grow strong, the forces of resistance must grow stronger still — whether that’s through organized nonviolent confrontation as advocated by Gandhi and MLK or by stockpiling whatever weapons of mass persuasion they can get their hands on.

Hint: Available armaments include lights, cameras and boom mics … and sometimes the drone is mightier than the sword!

Ascension of the Drones

Speaking of all that talent lugging film making kit all over cityscapes and countrysides, is there any new and different technology that’s come down the pike which enables these fierce resistance filmmakers to capture racist, misogynistic, and homophobic threats from previously unavailable vantage points? Why yes, as a matter of fact there is — it’s called drone cinematography, it’s more economical than it’s ever been, and it’s filtered down to the masses — including your average guerilla cinephiles.

For the first time, filmmakers with little to pay but plenty to say have the wherewithal to compete stylistically with Hollywood’s big boys. Reduced to a simple equation: drone videography = power to the people. That enduring catch phrase, whether it’s stuck in your memory banks or it’s new to you, encapsulates the essence of Black August.

As they’ve vividly demonstrated this past year, drones have a way of leveling the playing field, whether the terrain is Ukraine’s grasslands or Pasadena’s screening rooms.

Less Claustrophobic, Easier to Light

It’s Liberation Day for filmmakers on low budgets (or no budgets) who are no longer constrained to cutting directly from one claustrophobic, hard-to-light indoor scene to the next.
Imagine this: you’re shooting a gritty flick based around the aftereffects of police roughing up and arresting a random black shopper for a senseless murder at a convenience store he didn’t commit. Even if it weren’t a nighttime shoot, lighting it under a bevy of cheap fluorescents would be a significant challenge. You do your best with what you’ve got to work with, then it’s on to the next scene. Let’s see, you could cut immediately to the victim’s family huddled around the dinner table focusing on a conspicuously empty chair, or maybe you could show the real killer regrouping at his low-rent crash pad that’s equally hard to light. But, seeing as how it’s 2023 and a perfectly capable camera-equipped drone like the DJI Mini 3 Pro can be obtained for under a grand — or readily rented for $50 per day on sharegrid.com — an amateur auteur is suddenly emboldened by possibilities like these:

  • That trusty drone, which requires nothing but natural lighting easily enhanced during editing, can zoom up to a bird’s-eye view of the actual killer walking the mean streets alone, giving your audience a sense of his isolated existence in an urban hellscape, establishing that an unforgiving environment drives his desperation. 
  • For contrast, you could fly your camera-equipped drone over the river to the cozy suburban home where the victim lived, establishing that her relatively lavish lifestyle is so near … yet so far away. 
  • Or you could slowly zoom up and over the nighttime cityscape till you’re hovering outside an imposing metropolitan police station, just in time to observe a detective picking up a phone and learning he’s been assigned to the case, establishing that the chase is on.

All three options are infinitely more engaging than just cutting directly from one dreary indoor scene to the next. Of course, utilizing aerial establishing shots to reveal supplemental information about your characters and their surroundings has always been an available option, or it has been with one unavoidable caveat: selecting it required shelling out some $35,000 a day to rent a chopper and a crew. Any Fellini-in-the-making operating on a shoestring budget had no prayer of hiring one.

True, learning to pilot camera-carrying drones is anything but a no-brainer. In the hands of anyone without ample practice operating a controller’s multiple joysticks, knobs, and buttons, these diminutive spies in the sky tend to get tangled up in brush or snagged by trees and wires. But once a pilot’s up to speed, drones become equal opportunity devices, stoking creativity for major studios and minor movie makers alike.

Uganda — Hotbed of Cinematography?

Not only have affordable drones upped the ante for American filmmakers of color, they’ve also empowered African directors hailing from countries generally regarded as least likely to take advantage of new technology — like effing Uganda! When it comes to off-the-charts production values, those wild and crazy Ugandans, whose luminously shot The Tale of the Times livens up the Black August festival, are, surprise, having themselves a little rumble in the jungle with the Bridgertons of the world. It’s two hours of one dazzling shot after another. All that sumptuous set and costume design is aided and abetted by sensational drone footage — strewn judiciously into the mix.

THE TALE OF OUR TIMES. A mysterious portal leads from Kampala to the kingdom of not Wakanda.

Closer to home, one USA short absolutely revels in the ascension of the drones, the eponymously named Broke Down Drone. Hey, when the rest of your world collapses, and there’s no dog or a cat around to console you, sometimes a broke down drone’s all that’s left.

BROKE DOWN DRONE. Hopelessness and drones in a rough ‘hood. (ALERT: violence, language)

Repression, Iranian style — Everything You Never Wanted to Know!

Anyone looking for a window into what social injustice looks like in “exotic lands” like India or Iran, your time is drawing nigh. Warning: if you prefer a smattering of optimism with your misery … let’s just say don’t get your hopes up. Watching a handful of Iranian shorts may give you the sneaking suspicion that as challenging as life can be for Americans who didn’t wriggle out of the birth chute as white males, being born in the USA is Club Med compared to The Iranian Experience. Sampling slices of life in the theocratic state brings up similar emotions to ones that wash over visitors after visiting civil war battlefields like Gettysburg or Antietam — surviving alive and in one piece feels almost euphoric.

Think your lot in life is rough? Hey, compared to existence under Islamic fundamentalism, every day you spend half a planet away is a day you’re the king of the world. The mere fact those courageous filmmakers are still there, and you’re not, is enough to make you savor the blessed few freedoms you have left.

The Republic of Iran isn’t the only hyper-repressed country represented in this year’s festival. Anthem For Kashmir, a short film from an equally toxic region of India, intersperses drone footage of exotic mountain locales, allowing viewers brief interludes to exhale after subjecting themselves to 10 frenzied minutes of systematic ethnic cleansing at its finest. Just don’t go in there expecting The Sound of Music.

ANTHEM FOR KASHMIR. It’s time to get away, with a slappin’ soundtrack.

Eye in the Sky

Drone shots look expensive. They cost nothing to light. Deploying them affords writers and directors fresh perspectives to establish characters and circumstances. Yeah, we have a pretty good idea that a 14-year-old pregnant girl from Luckenbach, Texas feels utterly outcast and abandoned; but a drone flying in orbit mode circling the boarded-up Planned Parenthood Center that can no longer provide her legal care and the hospital that may or may not be able to treat her if she develops complications without its physicians being charged with Murder One has a way of reinforcing that perception. Why not flyby the affluent homes and neighborhoods of the lawmakers that voted away her basic human right to an abortion call home for good measure? Or pop over to the fundamentalist churches that program their arrogance? These humming and hovering storytellers really excel at driving a point home.

And in Conclusion…

The Black August Film Festival is one function at the junction no caring person wants to miss. Tracing the ascension of the drones is one of the more novel reasons to attend. Then we get to the more existential ones — like maybe you’ve noticed that under-served voices still had to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in block letters on Pennsylvania Avenue to alert earthlings that, 50 years after George Jackson’s assassination, a good 35 percent of the country remains convinced that they don’t matter at all? Like it or not, that’s what is.

Abraham Lincoln almost got it right circa 1865. MLK, LBJ, and the civil rights movement almost reached the promised land in the sixties. Maybe these filmmakers don’t have big budgets. Maybe they’re from countries so oppressive that cameras are contraband and they have to fear for life and limb in the event they’re confiscated. But each and every one of them seemingly has something that flows directly from the lineage of George Jackson: all the motivation they’ll ever need to work tirelessly until this human rights thing gets hammered out once and for all.

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Lory Kohn

Lory is a corespondent for Local News Pasadena. He's the only active member of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association who's written a song for the cinematic classic Revenge of the Nerds, Pt II.

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