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Roxbury International Film Festival enters its 16th season

Colette Greenstein | 6/19/2014, 6 a.m.
Interview with Roxbury International Film Festival Director Lisa Simmons
“The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” The directors — Matthew Pond, Kirk Marcolina (r) with Doris Payne. (Treehouse Moving Images photo)

The annual Roxbury International Film Festival (RIFF) begins its 16th season on Wednesday, June 25, with the real-life story of international jewel thief Doris Payne in the documentary, “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” The festival runs four days, with all screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts. The “throwback-themed” finale on Sunday, June 29 will be a screening of the 2001 film “Lift” from Boston directors Khari Street and DeMane Davis, followed by a “Where are they now?” Q&A with several of the film’s participants.

RIFF started in 1999 as a $5,000 grant to ACT Roxbury (Arts, Culture & Trade Roxbury) to showcase local African American filmmakers and their stories. First known as the Dudley Film Festival (because of its location in Dudley Square at the time), the festival morphed into the annual Roxbury Film Festival, adding the “international” in 2010 to become RIFF.

The festival has become, “a much more multicultural and international festival, with filmmakers that span the globe,” says Lisa Simmons, RIFF director and programmer. “It just makes sense. As our world becomes more global, what better way to share your stories than through the power of film?”

In 1999, Simmons and Michael Trent were doing a series of film-related programs under the Roxbury-based nonprofit The Color of Film Collaborative (TCOF) when ACT Roxbury and Candelaria Silva Collins contacted TCOF to help plan the first festival. “

“TCOF was attracted to the fest,” Simmons recalls, “because it was something that we had wanted to do but didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. There were so many filmmakers of color from the Boston and Roxbury area who were not getting in to other film festivals.” ACT Roxbury and TCOF produced the festival together up until 2009, when TCOF became its sole producer.

Simmons has been a witness to the growth and impact of the festival over the years. She has seen firsthand how the festival adds to the richness of cultural offerings in the city, she says.

“I think it helps shine a positive spotlight on the Roxbury area,” she says. “There are so many amazing things going on in Roxbury — not just now, but throughout its history — and it needs to be celebrated.”

In its first year, the Dudley Film Festival showcased about 10 films with directors who had ties to Massachusetts; in 2012, more than 65 films were shown. In the past two years, the festival has scaled down to a more manageable combination of approximately 30 feature films, documentaries and shorts.

Lisa recently spoke with the Banner about the importance of the annual festival, its impact, and her fondest memories over the past 16 years.

Why is the festival so important to you?

It is important to me because I think that filmmakers of color and people making movies that celebrate or tell a different story of people of color do not get to share their work with larger audiences. When the fest started there were so many films that told great stories, so many filmmakers who were producing quality films but there wasn’t an audience and there were not that many “black” film festivals. So, people were creating work, showing it in small venues or in homes and then shelving it. Film festivals give filmmakers the opportunity to share their stories, their vision with audiences that have an interest in, and have been affected by, the subject matter of the film. It is so important to see films that reflect a wider array of images of people of color, and not just those images that Hollywood portrays of the African American experience of crime and urban decay. These were the films that were gracing the megaplexes when the Film Festival was started, so there needed to be a place where the stories that connected to different aspects of the African American experience could be seen.