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Urban cinema comes home 

Reel Soul Film Festival gives back to the community

Under the aegis of Reel Soul Cinema, entrepreneur and self-described cineaste Dennis Darrell (an executive recruiter and former regional marketing director of Kraft Foods, who counts among his close cohorts a number of influential film folk), has been responsible for bringing the work of black filmmakers to light in a highly lauded series of screenings across the South for the last 10 years.

"What I'm doing is providing a platform for independent filmmakers; providing a stage for their voices," Darrell says. "A lot of these films are very good, but they don't get seen. One of the reasons I started this was to get a balanced picture of the urban story. That means there are teachers and drug dealers and comedians -- not just one type. Hollywood [tends to stereotype]. The true depiction is that we are all those things, and black filmmakers typically show that balance better than others."

Darrell has been kicking around the idea of bringing an urban film festival to the Queen City since he came here 10 years ago. "After a decade of growing what has become the premiere urban movie series in the Southeast," he says with a laugh, "creating a festival was either a logical next step -- or the result of not ducking when someone yelled, 'Fore!' at the golf course." So, along with Reel Soul's National Director Sagg Torrence, this year Darrell finally took the plunge.

Of course, there was a learning curve. Initially open-submission, Darrell quickly realized that to secure the kind of work he wanted, he'd need to make this festival invitation-only.

"I know from the festival circuit what films are really hot," he says. "At ABFF [American Black Film Festival], six of the films may be bad, but they have to fill 12 slots. I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to pick the best five or six films on the circuit and screen them. Now, am I going to miss a film or two? Probably. But I know I am going to get good films."

Darrell felt it would be unfair to take fees from filmmakers whose work would never be screened publicly, so he returned the entries and entry fees and started from scratch.

Sponsored by The Blumenthal Center for the Performing Arts, Tanqueray Gin, Blockbuster, RushmoreDrive.com, Faith Filmworks, Center City Partners, and The Light Factory, The Charlotte Reel Soul Film Festival will showcase five short subjects, four features and three documentaries.

Darrell's close friend and protégé Ryan Walker's film, Jury of His Peers (shot in Charlotte) will have its East Coast debut at the festival. The balance of the program has yet to be announced (Darrell is holding a few slots open pending the buzz at ABFF and another major upcoming urban festival), but prizes will be awarded.

The judges include Michael and Christine Swanson (whose Faith Filmworks produced All About Us with Ruby Dee and Morgan Freeman), actor Attika Torrence and producer/director Doug McHenry. In addition to accolades and monetary awards, the cream of the festival crop will be featured on an upcoming Reel Soul Cinema Tour. "And that," says Darrell, "is something other festivals don't have the ability to do."

The Reel Soul Film Festival rolls Oct. 2-4 at Spirit Square. $75 will get you a weekend pass; single film tickets run $12. For information, visit www.reelsoulfilmfest.com/filmmakers.php or www.blumenthalcenter.org.

Other film festivals this fall

Sept. 18-20: Charlotte African-American Film Festival; www.mvaaff.com

Sept. 19-21: American Zombie: George A. Romero's Film Revolution;

www.zombiestakecharlotte.com

Sept. 25-28: Charlotte Film Festival;

www.charlottefilmfestival.org

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