Uplifting BIPOC Women-identifying Filmmakers, An Interview of Vici Howard

Recently, PrideIndex interviewed Vici Howard, the Director and Founder of Black and Brown Femme Films (BBFF), an inclusive, submission-free film fest for BIPOC women-identifying filmmakers.

Vici started the BBFF after receiving rejection letters for her short film “The Singles” in twenty festivals. She shared why she started BBFF, her obstacles, how she overcame them, and more.

PrideIndex (PI): I am speaking with Vici Howard of Black and Brown Femme Films today. I’ll start by asking you to introduce yourself and briefly tell us how you came to be where you are today.

Vici Howard (VH): My name is Vici Howard, and I am the Director and Founder of Black and Brown Femme Films. It is an inclusive Film Festival for BIPOC women-identifying filmmakers. We provide them with a free venue to showcase their films. Most film festivals are submission fee-based, but our festival is free to submit because we want our filmmakers to put their money back into their films and not have to pay any submission fees to us. To submit a film, filmmakers can visit our website and follow the instructions on the ‘Submit Your Film’ page. We accept films of all genres as long as they meet our criteria of elevating the stories and voices of women-identifying individuals of color.

PI: When did you start Black and Brown Femme Films?

VH: Our first film festival took place on October 7, 2023. I am also a filmmaker and wrote, directed, and produced a 20-minute short film called “The Singles.” Despite being rejected by all twenty film festivals I submitted to; I didn’t let it discourage me. I wanted a venue to showcase my film, so I took matters into my own hands. I decided to rent The Music Box Theater in Chicago and invited five other women of color filmmakers to screen with me. It was such a success, and it has grown since then.

PI: How many films have you screened thus far?

VH: We screened six films out of eleven submissions in our initial film festival last year. For our upcoming film festival on July 13, we’ve had over six hundred and eighty film submissions and are currently in the judging and selection phase. Our selection process is rigorous and fair. We have a diverse panel of judges who review each film based on its artistic merit, storytelling, and adherence to our festival’s mission. We are narrowing it down to at least twenty films, with two showcased or highlighted films.

PI: You are not only giving BIPOC women-identifying filmmakers a platform but also a free space to showcase their work. You’re Chicago-based, so are you only accepting local submissions, or do you accept submissions from around the country?

VH: Oh, no. We have submissions from all over the world. We only ask that the films elevate the stories and voices of women identifying as individuals of color. So, it has to be about a woman of color or identifying as a person of color. We are committed to showcasing a diverse range of stories and experiences.

PI: Does that include both cisgender and trans-identifying?

VH: Yes, anyone who is femininely identified and of color. We want their films and stories. We want to showcase those stories because they’re not told enough.

PI: You mentioned earlier that you submitted to and were rejected by several film festivals and were inspired to create your own thing with Black and Brown Femme Films. It is a considerable feat to go from submission and rejection to starting your film festival to showcase your work and the work of others. Most people would tweak their film and resubmit the following year. Why did you decide it was better to start your own?

VH: You know who is a true inspiration to me? Some people might be turned off when I say this, but Tyler Perry. Not everyone may agree with his content, but I am inspired by his vision, his story as a businessperson, and how he created his empire. Tyler Perry, as we know it, did everything himself. When those twenty film festivals rejected me, I got in my feelings and said, “I’m about to Tyler Perry the hell out of “The Singles.” If anyone knows his story, they realize he rented out his theaters and put them up in his own place. That’s where my inspiration came from. I decided that I wouldn’t wait for the gatekeeper and would be my own gatekeeper. I’m going to do this myself. This is my film, and I’m not depending on anyone to do anything for me. I want to do this and will get my film out there as best I can. I’m going to do it myself. I didn’t expect or realize that it would become an altruistic endeavor. So many other filmmakers feel the same way and have the same stories I had as a filmmaker. I applied to so many of these film festivals that they took my $50 and $70 fees, and I didn’t get in. Now, where am I supposed to show my film? The need was definitely there. Getting women to identify filmmakers’ stories out there is really important. Our festival plays a crucial role in providing a platform for these underrepresented voices.

PI: Beyond being femme-identified, what other criteria do you use regarding your submission process?

VH: Do you mean in terms of storyline or film length?

PI: Yes. Regarding the storyline and film length, are there any limitations on how old the film can be?

VH: The films should have been made in 2017. They should be less than 10 minutes long. Although only some read directions, we got some that were longer than that. We’re asking for 10 minutes or less. The film cannot be centered on a man. The film can’t be just about the theme of a boyfriend leaving, and the female character is so sad. There has to be a more extensive agenda. The main character or characters must be femme-identifying, and all have to be of color. The character or characters have to elevate by the end of the story or the film. We’re not looking for victimization. We don’t want films where the characters are suffering with no way out. There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

PI: Could a film have been shown elsewhere or submitted to other film festivals?

VH: Oh, yeah. It’s not required that we be the premiere. That is not a requirement. Just as long as it’s a great story, good quality, and elevates the stories of women of color. Because some films have gone to film festivals, and they probably only had one audience. They may have been locked away in a filmmaker’s laptop for the past ten years, and this festival allows them to premiere or show their film again.

PI: That sets you apart from many other film festivals. I have been a big follower of Reeling and Black Harvest for years. Many film festivals are very territorial. They typically want their festival to be the first time you’re screening in Chicago. They won’t allow you to submit it if you’ve screened it anywhere in the city.

VH: I’ve heard that and don’t think it’s fair to a perfect film. I love good cinema and good storytelling. I am not territorial. I want to share beautiful stories of women of color with whoever is interested in sitting down and watching it. Just give me a good movie.

PI: By only accepting films that are 10 minutes or less, does that limit you or your festival?

VH: Actually, I don’t find it limiting at all. Again, we’ve received over six hundred and eighty submissions, and I would love to have a more extended program, but with the resources we’re working with, we only have one day. We’ve partnered with the Logan Centers for the Arts at the University of Chicago. This is where our film festival will take place on July 13. We have one day, and we have five hours. That’s it. Many of the other film festivals don’t have that time constraint. They can do weeklong and weekend festivals. We aim to elevate our festival to the point where we can do a whole weekend and add more films with longer formats. We could make feature-length films or even animation series. We could do so much more when we have more time. But for now, we have one day that’s five hours. I wanted to get as many films in there as I could. That brings us to around twenty films at a little over three and a half hours or more of screening time. That leaves time for intermissions and mingling. We had a long program because some excellent films passed our ten-minute limit. We curated a lengthy program to present three or four excellent films in the 15-minute range. I have an hour for four really good movies, about 15 minutes long. I need more time and more days. I need a weekend or even a week. There are so many good films out there.

PI: Okay. You see room for expansion somewhere down the road when you get to the point of having the funding.

VH: Yeah, everything always goes back to money. We are so thankful that the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago gave us this one day. I am not complaining by any means. I am so grateful. But we want growth. My goal is to do a weekend by next year. Then, with another grant, we can do an entire week; it breaks my heart to watch fantastic films and limit the festival’s content due to budget. Now we’re doing our process of elimination, and it’s come down to looking for the most minor, minute little mistakes. I need more time to make these movies and make this festival longer.

PI: Have you considered expanding into a virtual type event? COVID made many festivals and movie theaters rethink everything. The virtual component is now a way of life for many businesses and how they operate. Is that something that you have considered?

VH: I have considered that, especially for the films that didn’t quite make the cut but are still good quality. Yeah, I would like to expand into a virtual format. It could be any time of the year if we did it virtually. It doesn’t have to be just during a set festival season. It can be offered at any time. That would give these filmmakers another avenue to showcase their films. However, I have yet to work on that specifically because I am working on the current iteration of the festival. So many things go into getting this festival going for July 13. But the virtual thing is something that I would reevaluate. It breaks my heart that some of my favorite films didn’t cut. Virtual is a great idea.

PI: Besides your partnership with The Logan Center for the Arts and your film premiere at the Music Box Theater, are you working with other organizations? Have you done anything about networking with Chicago Filmmakers, the Black Alphabet Film Festival, or other Chicago film organizations?

VH: I have been networking with Chicago Filmmakers. We had received numerous animation submissions, so I contacted them to see if we could collaborate on an animation series for women of color animators. Some excellent stuff has been submitted. I am working with Chicago Filmmakers to find a date and time because they’re not open on weekends. So, we’re currently sorting through scheduling conflicts. I did reach out to Black Alphabet. They are wonderful. They have been mentoring me, and I appreciate them. I’m working with both Chicago Filmmakers and Black Alphabet right now.

We’ve also received some grants to help us with our endeavor. I’m so grateful for that. Without them, we couldn’t have gotten as far as we have. We received a micro-grant and a grant from the Illinois Humanities. The Humanities grant will help us open an exhibition in August celebrating women of color. We’re using film to show the progression of women of color and their contributions to pop culture. Everything has its legs in the cinema. We’re also working on that, and we’re so excited about it.

PI: Speaking of grants and fundraising, tell us a bit about the event that you’re having in June.

VH: Yes, fundraising is a big part of what we do. We must get money somewhere because we don’t charge film submission fees. We put on fundraisers to cover that gap. On June 8, we’re having a speakeasy with two wonderfully talented local artists. King Crybaby and Jazz Starr. King Crybaby is very bluesy; what she can do with a guitar is phenomenal. Jazz Starr has a very sexy, sultry Neo-Soul voice. There will be two shows at 5 pm and 7:30 pm on June 8 at 711 North Milwaukee Avenue. It’s a beautiful, intimate space. We are accommodating about 20 to 30 people per show. You can search BBFF at Eventbrite for The Grown & Sexy Speakeasy Fundraiser to purchase tickets. All the proceeds benefit Black and Brown Femme Films, expanding the film festival and inviting more filmmakers. We want to do whatever we can to get more women identified and women of color filmmaker’s stories out there.

PI: What’s on the horizon for Black and Brown Femme Films?

VH: Again, expanding the festival. We have this year’s festival on July 13, but we want that weekend next year. We need the weekend because there are too many excellent films that we’ve had to pass on. What’s next, along with the exhibition celebrating women of color? That will be three weekends in August. We want to be in a museum in Chicago. We would like to see it expand beyond three weeks. We want it to be a tourist attraction where people can participate in educational workshops and learn about women of color and their contributions. We have been afforded that opportunity through the Illinois Humanities grant. Our two initiatives are the festival and the exhibition celebrating women of color.

PI: What do you like to do when you’re not planning and running the film festival?

VH: Cooking. I love cooking. I am a huge foodie. It’s nothing for me to get up, put my speakers on full blast at 3 am, bake chocolate chip cookies, eat one cookie, and return to bed. I need help to do that. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do this lately because the Black and Brown Femme Films have consumed about eight to twelve hours of my days for the past year. Currently, it’s a one-woman show. I sometimes get volunteers who will come in and help out. But right now, this is what I do. This is my life right now. Outside of the festival, I love cooking when I do take a breather.

I do this at the end of the year because I am such a foodie; I do a Friend’s Appreciation Dinner. I invite all my friends who have stood by me throughout the year. The ones who picked up my 1 am phone calls, lent me money or invited three other people to attend an event. Whatever they may have for me throughout the year. I celebrate them with an appreciation dinner, which is a very intimate gathering, usually with no more than five or six people. I cook for them, praise them, and show my love to my soul tribe. I don’t want just acquaintances. My relationships with my friends and the people that I have in my life are significant. I celebrate them by preparing a beautiful dinner for them.

PI: So again, for the Black and Brown Femme Films Festival, you have a fundraising event on June 8, and then the festival is on July 13, correct?

VH: Yes. The fundraiser is on June 8, and the festival is on July 13.

PI: Where can we find you on socials?

VH: Instagram. I’m primarily on Instagram at black_brown_femme_films. That’s where you can find me.

PI: How much is an admission on July 13 at The Logan Center for the Arts?

VH: We currently still need to set our ticket prices. We do have our time blocked and set. The festival is at The Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, located at 915 East 60th Avenue, from 12 pm to 5 pm. There will be three programs. There will be two short programs and an extended program for the longer films screened. And there’ll be fifteen-minute intermissions between each program. You can do the entire five hours if you’re a film buff. However, once we establish our ticket pricing, you can choose which program you might be interested in attending. Hopefully, attendees will do the entire day. I am very excited about the festival, and I thank you for the opportunity to talk about it and get the word out.

Join us on June 8th for the Vibe: Grown & Sexy Speakeasy Fundraiser Event. Click here for more info bbffilms.org/events/the-vibe-grown-sexy-speakeasy-fundraiser/#trailer