Actress Aunjanue Ellis, a star of the hit film "The Help," will be on hand for the opening night of the 10th annual Western New York Black Film Festival on Saturday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre.

Ellis will give opening remarks and be part of a post-film roundtable for "The Tested," in which she plays the mother of a teen killed in a shooting. The movie will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

It's part of a 10th anniversary celebration of the festival, which, in addition to showing films by independent filmmakers of color, provides talking points on issues affecting the black community.

"We want to provide an entertaining way of discussing the issues African-Americans face," says Jayme Smith, the festival's chairperson and co-founder. "We've had great discussions that have gone on for hours about things portrayed in the films and finding solutions to many of those issues."

The festival also brings in agencies and organizations that can provide information on topics addressed in the movies. For last year's screening of "Shuga," a film dealing with HIV and AIDS, mobile units were on site to provide testing and organizations were there to answer questions.

Saturday's event will feature a red carpet, along with a reception following the movie. It's all included in the $5 admission. "We want to make it an affordable event," Smith says. "If we could make it free, we would. We want people to come and support this. We want to entertain and educate at the same time."

The festival began in April 2002 as the Delta Film Series, a partnership between the Buffalo Alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and then-Erie County Legislator Demone Smith. Later, the series was renamed the Western New York Black Film Festival and moved to February, Black History Month. The relationship between the sorority and Smith, now Masten District council member, has continued.

"We wanted to broaden our horizons and include the greater Buffalo and Niagara regions," Smith says of the name change. "The mission is still to provide a positive event for the community and to also provide a platform for independent filmmakers."

Saturday's film, "The Tested" by Russell Costanzo, is especially relevant for Buffalo, says Smith, who first saw the movie at the American Black Film Festival last summer in Miami. "I thought it was a very, very powerful movie. It deals with so many issues -- mental health, police brutality, gang violence. You may not know it, but all of these are connected.

"It felt like it was something that was needed here in Buffalo," Smith says of the film. "We deal with a lot of the issues that this film deals with it and I thought it would be great for people to see. It will spark some really good discussions."

The film also begs certain questions, Smith says, including "How can we stop the destruction? What role do we play in making the community better?" As part of the festival's outreach to young audiences, those are questions considered in the fest's essay contest, open to students in grades 9 through 12. Winners will be announced Saturday.

The festival concludes Feb. 26 with a showcase of 10 short films that deal with topics such as teen pregnancies, gang violence, health care and single-parent households. "We cover it all," Smith says. "It's funny, in the past, most of the short films were somber and dealing with serious issues. This year, we actually have quite a few on a lighter side with a little humor to them. I thought that was great. We can still educate without it being so serious."

Two of the films have Buffalo ties: "Fly Sista Fly," a documentary from local filmmaker Lakeshia Ford about nontraditional female students who overcame obstacles to earn their degrees at Spelman College in Atlanta; and "Dandelion," a romantic drama written and produced by University at Buffalo graduate Dorcell Harris.

Ford, a native of Newark, N.J., who is a marketing analyst at M&T Bank here, is one of three people -- along with Pamela Stegall and Mychael Bond -- who wrote, produced and directed "Fly Sista Fly." The film was inspired by Ford's time as a Spelman student where "nontraditional," i.e. "older," female students were often seen on campus.

"Spelman College is a historically black college so you look around and there are multiple women who are just like you. But these women, because they were older, stuck out," Ford says. "We were having the same experiences, but our backgrounds are different. We knew where they were going, but where were they from? The mystery of their past had us look a little bit deeper at how they got to Spelman and what obstacles they faced.

"We learned some women were out of academia realm for well over 20 to 30 years. Some were single mothers, some were ex-convicts, some were strippers and substance abusers, but they found a way to turn their lives around and continue their education," Ford says.

Other shorts being shown are: "Underground," a slave story told through song; "The Package," about a guy who has everything; plus "Bathroom Vanities," "Mission Mom-Possible," "The Interview," "The Lost One," "The Raw" and "Wake."




WHAT: The 10th annual Western New York Black Film Festival

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Feb. 26

WHERE: Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre, 639 Main St.

TICKETS: $5 per day INFO:, 851-5145

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