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For 19 years, the Roxbury International Film Festival (RIFF) has brought buried voices to the forefront to entertain, to educate and, whenever possible, to spur viewers into action. The festival — for, by and about people of color — boasts over 60 films from a variety of genres this year.
"We have so many films that tell stories that people don’t even know about. I love when people come out of a movie thinking, 'I had no idea,' " says Lisa Simmons, founder and president of the Color of Film Collaborative and director of RIFF.
She talks animatedly about the history of RIFF (which starts Thursday, June 22) and her passion for film, but it’s obvious that the festival’s audience holds a special place in her heart.
"They want to be entertained, but they also want to be moved and they want to, I think, be educated. They’re really passionate about things that they might learn from a particular film, which is what I think draws people to the festival," she says.
One film that does just that is "Mixed Match." An emotionally-charged, partially animated documentary written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, "Mixed Match" follows the lives of multiracial blood cancer patients in a desperate search to find mixed-race bone marrow or blood cell donors.
The idea for the film stems from Athena Asklipiadis who founded Mixed Marrow, a nonprofit dedicated to finding bone marrow and blood cell donors for patients of multiethnic descent, in 2009. In 2010, Asklipiadis reached out to Stearns via Facebook for help.
The two spent years meeting patients in need and interviewing medical experts to develop the illuminating film where viewers get a glimpse of the hope and heartache that comes along with searching for and sometimes finding a match, only for the donor to pull out or for the match to possibly be unsuccessful.
Typically, only 30 percent of all patients find a matching donor in their families. The other 70 percent must rely on a stranger to donate, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“When you realize they are waiting for a stranger to save them, it’s painful, but beautiful at the same time,” Asklipiadis shares.
Mixed Marrow has added thousands of people to the registry since its inception and the plan is to have a bone marrow drive on the day of the screening, Sunday, June 25.
“That’s the whole point of this movie. The filmmakers want to move it around the country so the bone marrow registry will be more plentiful for mixed race people. There’s an opportunity to save lives,” Simmons says.
Another RIFF selection sure to pull at the heartstrings is "City of Joy," directed by Madeleine Gavin.
In the film, the oft-ignored voices of rape and gender violence victims are raised high as the first class of women at a transformative leadership center, City of Joy, fight to be free of their pasts.
The center, which the film is named after, is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was founded by gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege, Eve Ensler, a playwright and activist best known for "The Vagina Monologues" and Christine Schuler-Deschryver, director of global activist movement V-Day in the Congo. The trio worked with Congolese women to find out what they envisioned.
“One of the most beautiful things about City of Joy is that it’s their decision, their dream,” Ensler says.
In the documentary, Jane Mukunilwa shares her horrific story of being raped and tortured. Her resulting injuries were so severe that she stayed at the hospital for seven years and had nine surgeries. Stories like hers make it difficult to envision any of the women reclaiming her old life. But, somehow, the women discover “a new part of them,” Schuler-Deschryver says.
Through training, friendship and laughter, the residents turn their pain to power and take control of their futures.
RIFF showcases stories about people of color from all over the world, but cinephiles looking for a little local flavor won’t be disappointed. Simmons and her small cadre of committed reviewers always make sure to include homegrown talent.
On opening day, first-time filmmaker Mike Mascoll will get his time in the Roxbury sun.
"This year, we have 'On the Line: Where Sacrifice Begins,' which is the documentary on the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, Inc. [METCO]. It’s a good film. It’s a local story, with local folks,” Simmons explains.
METCO, launched in 1966, is one of the nation’s longest running voluntary school desegregation programs. Each day, inner-city kids would board a bus to a suburban town in the hopes of getting a quality education.
Mascoll, a married father of two, was a METCO student who went to school in Lexington, Massachusetts. Through powerful photos, historical documents and interviews with students, parents, historians, founders and other champions of the movement, "On the Line" sheds lights on those impacted. Mascoll hopes the film will help advance the program. He says, “a child’s education is the blueprint for how they live their lives. It’s critical. Absolutely critical.”
Festivalgoers should also make time to see these films featuring local filmmakers, artists and athletes: "Out of Bounds" and "Take the ‘T’ Train" which will be screened together, "Boston2Philly” and "Footprints in the Concrete."
Most of RIFF's screenings will be at the Museum of Fine Arts between June 22 - July 1.