Black Mama Sable screens as part of the "Voices of Our Time" shorts program.

When David Weathersby’s Thee Debauchery Ball premiered at the Black Harvest Film Festival last year, it was followed by a party—a house music party, one that was a fitting reception for the documentary about Black music, community, art, and sexuality.

And Weathersby didn’t have to come up with the idea or do it alone.

“We had the DJs from the documentary there, they spun fun for a few hours, and people partied and they basically kind of recreated what was on the screen at the event in the lobby,” Weathersby says. “And that was just something that Black Harvest took upon themselves; they wanted to do it and they were so helpful in bringing that about.”

This year is the Black Harvest Film Festival’s 26th year and the fourth year Weathersby has been a part of the festival’s community. It’s that community, he says, that helped spark his documentary career.

“I always say that I don’t feel like I’m a filmmaker without Black Harvest,” he says. “They were the first festival I ever submitted anything to and got a response . . . The first project that I did, it changed everything for me: It showed me how to interact and it gave me a whole new world of people to kind of talk to, a community.”

But this year’s festival will look and feel different as Gene Siskel Film Center staff were forced to rework plans after COVID-19 hit in March. Like many organizations and businesses, the center thought it’d likely open again in a month. That didn’t happen, and festival plans needed to be altered.

“It didn’t take long for us to realize that there wasn’t going to be any real thing anytime soon,” says Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Siskel. “And that we were going to have to really change our expectations, not only with regard to Black Harvest, but with regard to everything we do program-wise.”

So the staff pushed the event from its usual summer date and gave filmmakers more time to finish their works. This year’s festival opens November 6 completely online, with most programs remaining online for two weeks and with geo-blocked access, for local audiences only, to keep filmmakers eligible to apply for festivals in other cities. It will end with a closing night celebration on November 30 that includes a tribute to Chadwick Boseman and a showing of Mischa Webley’s The Kill Hole—the first feature film Boseman starred in. The film originally screened at the festival in 2012.

The depth of the festival remains with ten feature films, more than 30 short films, a Chicago youth showcase, virtual conversations with filmmakers and film talent, and a mix of workshops and discussions with industry insiders. Of the films, many, like those included in a new shorts program called “Voices of Our Time,” confront the very real issues of today.

“This year, we noticed that certainly that there’s a concern among many filmmakers to address some of the burning questions of our time having to do with activism, with racism,” Scharres says. “All of those films in different ways—whether satirically or very seriously—addressed some of those questions, and I think it’s a really provocative program, because you get so many different perspectives on those questions within this one compact, short film program.”

Weathersby’s film is included in that shorts program. His entry this year is an animated documentary titled The District, Part 1 and is about two retired Chicago police officers recalling their memories of a divided force and how they worked to reimagine how they policed the community.

“When Harold Washington was elected mayor [in 1983], there was a ton of white flight out of the district, and they basically left the district for dead but it became a predominantly Black police district,” Weathersby says. “A lot of the topics that we’re talking today about police reform, [the Black officers that remained] were doing in the mid-80s on their own after they had been kind of abandoned by the police department as a whole.”

Also in true Black Harvest form, panels take the conversation from the screen to the filmmaking community. NK Gutiérrez, filmmaker and cochair of the Black Harvest Community Council, moderates the discussion “How Culture and Film Move Movements,” which includes Weathersby as well as Pemon Rami, Michelle Boone, Lonnie Edwards, and Ashley O’Shay.

“Movement and change happens through art,” Gutiérrez says. “And so it’s up to us to use our platform and our voice and as we continue to rise, and our platform expands, that you utilize that power to speak for those who cannot.”

The Black Harvest Community Council plays a critical role in supporting the festival’s programming and is comprised of filmmakers, artists, actors, producers, and more advocates of film and the arts.

“What we do is, we really sit as an advisory board and support system to the film festival itself,” Gutiérrez says. “Staff will bring different ideas to us and bounce them off of us, they also look to us for ideas, and then we figure out how to support making those ideas happen.”

This year, the council has planned a creative way to give back to the Chicago community and incorporate social justice initiatives into the festival’s planning. Along with filmmaker and council member Alessandra Pinkston, Gutiérrez came up with the idea to hire Black artists to create merchandise to sell for charity.

“So we at the Film Center had to look at: How do we leverage our privilege to give back to the Black community?,” Gutiérrez says. “We’ve always given back to the Black community, but how do we stretch ourselves and do it even more? Where can we be better?”

The merchandise is called the Black Harvest 26 Collection, and 100 percent of proceeds will go to Sista Afya Community Mental Wellness, which is based on the city’s south side and provides accessible and affordable care to Black women.

“If you want to change community, you want to change spaces, show up and support women, and most specifically, Black women,” she says.

ILA Creative Studio founder Rachel Gadson is the artist behind the collection, which pays homage to the films that have shown at the festival over the past 26 years.

“Not only is this a celebration of such an impactful organization but also a celebration of elevating the voice of Black creators, which is something I am constantly driven to pursue,” Gadson says. “It was such a warm and gratifying experience working with NK and the team in developing a visual depiction of what this 26th year of representation means: constant movement, regardless of its pace, toward the plight of inclusion of our stories, being seen, scene by scene.”  v