The New Director of the SF Black Film Festival Speaks on this Year’s Festivities and Her Father’s Passing

By JR Valrey, The Minister of Information

The San Francisco Black Film Festival is one of the most anticipated, social, and cultural events that happens annually, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Every year, hundreds of movie-goers, filmmakers, actors, actresses, and industry professionals gather at the SFBFF to watch what has been recently created, as well as to hang out and network, at some of Frisco’s most posh theaters and bars. 

Last year was one of the most difficult years that the SF Black Film Fest has ever encountered, because for the first time in the festival’s history, all of the events surrounding the festival were canceled, and the selected films had to be screened virtually, because of the Covid pandemic’s shelter-in place mandate, closing down the state. Secondly and most importantly, Kali O’Ray, the director of the SFBFF passed away, after leading the festival for over a decade, after the death of his mother, Ave Montague, the founding director. Now Cree Ray, the only daughter of Kali O’Ray, is at the helm of directing the SFBFF, with this being her inaugural year.

JR Valrey: What has your first year been like as the director of the San Francisco Black Film Fest, after the passing of your father Kali O’Ray, last year?

Cree Ray: Insane, challenging, fun and eye-opening. Growing up with my grandmother (aka Nana) Ave Montague, who is the founder of the San Francisco Black Festival, I was always around it. I saw the hard work that was put into it, first hand. When she passed in 2009, my father immediately moved back from Atlanta to continue that legacy. I still remember it, very vividly in my head. With his era of directing the SFBFF, I saw the same efforts. For my dad, he saw how she started AM Video, and how it led to her love of Black film, and her starting the SFBFF. He knew no matter what, this was always something bigger than him. For me, when he passed, I saw the importance of keeping a family legacy, such as this, alive; it’s to honor the memory of those who came before me and upkeep their dreams and goals, through my eyes. There wasn’t a question about it, I just knew it had to happen, and that it was my turn to continue the legacy. With the partnership of my younger brothers Kali Jr. and Jairri Earring, we just knew we had to keep it going. So here we are. I miss him everyday, especially in the thick of planning this festival, but as they say, the show must go on. In this case, the show must always continue on.

JR Valrey: Can you explain the mixed nature of this year’s SF Black Film Fest, with some of it being live and some being virtual? Can you talk about what can be attended in-person?

Cree Ray: This year’s SFBFF is unique to the fact that it will be one of the first festivals to happen in San Francisco, during a pandemic world. We have to not only remain fluid, but be able to pivot at any given moment. This year if you’re able to attend in-person, you will be able to not only see films from our amazing chosen filmmaker submissions, but also enjoy safe and socially responsible events; from a kick-off night to a tight knit close-out gathering full of fun and joy. Following tradition, we partner with the San Francisco Juneteenth Festival and those events are something you don’t want to miss.

JR Valrey: What are some of your favorite shorts as well as feature films in this year’s line-up?

Cree Ray: Some of my favorite shorts include: “Little Drummer Boy”, “HBCU Homecoming Tour”, “2003”, “Superstar”, “Blackness is Everything”, and “Last Summer on Bainbridge Street”. Some of my favorite features include: “Subjects of Desire”, and “Thorns on a Rose: Black Abuse, Corruption, and the Pasadena Police”.

JR Valrey: How has the Covid pandemic affected the SF Black Film fest?

Cree Ray: The Covid pandemic has affected the SFBFF because we are extremely community based. We have not only film makers that fly down for the festival, but attendees as well. More than the effect Covid has had on the SFBFF, it has had more of an effect on the way the Black community within San Francisco gets to celebrate our heritage and love for our culture. There is also the added decrease in tourism, within San Francisco. 

JR Valrey: When and where is opening night, and what are some of the other festivities surrounding the festival this year?

Cree Ray: Opening night will consist of our opening screening at Cinemark downtown, followed by our Kick-Off Night Party, at Dapper Down Barber Shop, all located downtown in the thick of the City’s magical lights. The other festivities surrounding the SFBFF would of course be the San Francisco Juneteenth with performances from Digital Underground, San Quinn, Stunnaman02, Mo Betta, Keidra On Stage, Fillmore Mikela, and other local Bay Area artists, as well as the Big Black Brunch, and the SFBFF closeout night. Be sure to be on the lookout for tickets to all of these events, you do not want to miss out.

JR Valrey: How do you and the committee decide what films make the cut, and which ones end up in the line-up? What do you look for?

Cree Ray: We have a very structured system when it comes to watching and judging films. This year we had over 160 film submissions, and looked for not only relevance to what is happening in the world right now, but also relevance to our culture; from documentaries, to shorts, comedies, animation and dance films. There is no right or wrong genre, but we always want it to not only speak to us, but to what is happening in the world. How does it tell the story of how being Black is beautiful, in all its struggles and all its glory.

JR Valrey: What do you hope SF Black Film Festival goers get from this year’s experience?

Cree Ray: A strong sense of importance and relevance as to how the Festival is important to keeping the SF Black community uplifted. Our number one priority is our community, and their support of the San Francisco Black Film Festival, especially within the Fillmore district. The Fillmore was once the number one Jazz district in the city. There is a short film documentary based on the Fillmore and it’s heritage, in the festival, that speaks to our community. The Fillmore, like many other ethnic areas in the city, have been through a lot of change and gentrification. In these changes, it is important that we have a sense of familiarity and consistency such as the SFBFF. It’s not just the family legacy, it’s always number one, the community legacy, 

JR Valrey: How can people buy tickets and review the films?

Cree Ray: Stay in touch with SFBFF.ORG for all social media platforms. Watch as the site transforms every-day closer to the festival with updates on films, trailers, programs and events. We will be offering all-access tickets as well as single day, single showing ad event tickets. 

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