Celebrating the March on Washington Film Festival, An Interview with Isisara Bey

   Isisara Bey serves as Artistic Director of the March on Washington Film Festival (MOWFF). The annual, week-long festival, which is held in the nation’s capital, features Civil Rights-themed short, documentary and narrative films, first-person accounts, panels, performing arts and sponsors student filmmaker and journalist competitions. The MOWFF was established in 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The festival’s mission is to unearth the forgotten or untold stories of the Civil Rights movement; to impact the way that history is taught, and to connect the movement’s aims and strategies to present-day, social justice activism, past and present, in this country and abroad.

I have known Isisara for close to 20 years. During that time, we both adopted daughters, enjoyed lots of theater, collaborated on projects, and have shared a spiritual journey of continuous self-discovery. I wanted to talk about her work with the MOWFF because this event celebrates the Civil Rights movement from both an historical perspective and its continued relevance. This year, the festival will be held July 12-20 in Washington, D.C.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: I’m excited about the March on Washington Film Festival and feel its significance is tremendous. As a lover of history and culture, thank you for helping this festival expand during the last four years. How did you begin your work in the arts?

Isisara Bey: I’m a first generation American whose parents are from Guyana (formerly British Guiana). We visited often throughout my childhood and early teen years and I was enthralled by the fact that there was no television and only two radio stations. My mother had a friend, whom I called Uncle Basil, with a radio program, a jazz show, and he invited me to join him on air. At the time, I traveled everywhere with my 45-RPM records. Uncle Basil would alternate playing my records with his and we critiqued each other’s music. I remember playing the song “ABC” by The Jackson 5, and he predicted that although the group sounded good, the band wouldn’t get very far. I relished I going back a couple of years later to tell him how wrong he was.

Watching how powerful radio was in a country with only radio and newspapers was amazing. The radio programs included soap operas from Great Britain, Caribbean music, folk storytelling, farm reports, on-air classes, weather, news and even death announcements. I saw how radio brought the country together. At one of my visits to the station I met a female engineer and I was hooked; intrigued by the medium of radio and the impact of the arts.

Donna: How did you get involved with MOWFF?

Isisara: The founder of MOWFF, Robert Raben, runs a public policy and strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C., called The Raben Group. I was working for Sony Music Entertainment at the time, as head of Corporate Affairs. Robert was hired as part of our D.C. lobbying team. When we were introduced, I was also representing the company as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation board. Robert and I worked together on helping to form the Congressional Tri-Caucus and we produced their first three retreats. I left Sony Music in 2007. Four years ago, Robert contacted me to share that he had launched a film festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (2013) and it went well. He said he planned to make it an annual event and wanted to know if I would be willing to help run it. I agreed.

The first year I participated, I curated a few panels, in D.C., and New York. The second year, I became producer. We focused on building it into an 8-10 day festival as an annual summer destination event.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?

Isisara: In 1974, there was a play in New York’s Lincoln Center by the late playwright and actor Miguel Pinero called “Short Eyes.” It’s about a child molester in prison and how the other prisoners reacted to him. Miguel developed and wrote the script by interviewing and workshopping it with prison inmates. I loved that model.

As an undergraduate, I decided to try this process. I enrolled in a class called Institutional Analysis that looked at the prison system. There was an experimental therapeutic program in the Baltimore City Jail that housed about 30 male inmates awaiting trial who had addiction issues. I arranged to do a practicum with the inmates in this program to see how theater might be used as therapy.

I remember going to my first session at the prison, accompanied (to my surprise) by my instructor, the department head, and the dean of the school. There was a prison guard with me at all times. The session opened with physical warm ups and tumbling, then improvisational theater games to help the participants work through their challenges and supplement their group therapy. That was a three-credit course, but I received 10-credits that semester for the work I did with those prisoners.

Many times as a producer, I work with people for an event, conference, workshop or music tour, who don’t fully understand the producing process. Producing is a series of very small tasks that have to be thoroughly completed, while keeping sight of the overall project. It’s asking the right questions up front to insure success at the end.  In many ways, it’s like building a pyramid; each brick must be sound before it is stacked on top of the others in order for it all to work.

Producing is an art and science mixed together. It relies upon intuition and psychology and the ability to work with artists to help them bring out their best. To be a good producer, you must be a combination of an artist; a stickler for detail; a developer of process, and a coordinator of timing. In addition, you are responsible for the audience’s experience—from what is on the stage, the sound, lighting and sight lines, to such things as transportation to the venue, parking, the ticketing process, and the proximity of restrooms.

Donna: Who is the audience for MOWFF?

Isisara: The goal of the festival is to tell the untold stories and herald the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement. However, if you ask anyone under age 45 to tell you what they know, they will cite Martin Luther King, Jr.; the “I Have a Dream” speech; Rosa Parks was tired and refused to give up her seat on the bus; the Selma march, and that’s about it. But there is so much more: years of grass roots work in many different cities; designing different movement strategies, as well as the extraordinary acts of courage by unknown people long before Dr. King became involved with the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dr. King was just 26 years-old at the time of the boycott. There were so many young people—college-age, high school and even elementary students—who also were vanguards of the movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were college students who pioneered this movement. What they were doing was dangerous—to register to vote or sit at a lunch counter; having their houses burned and churches bombed; being arrested; fired from their jobs; run out of town by the sheriff, or lynched. We want people to know this is not only your Mama’s civil rights movement. We believe it’s important for people to see the continuum, draw from it and understand how the past continues to fuel the present and the future.

Some of the purported history of the Civil Rights movement is based on myths; certain people were placed on pedestals making them unreachable, or their personal history was distorted. For example, some people think Rosa Parks was a little old lady, who independently decided not to give up her seat. But Mrs. Parks was raised as an activist from a little girl; she trained to be an activist. As a matter of fact, she traveled throughout the south helping people fight discrimination long before she got on that bus in Montgomery.

We use the festival to highlight those things and set the record straight. Our audience is 65-percent African American; others are white, Latinx and Asian. Our audience includes people who remember the movement, as well as Millennials and Gen-Xers, who are engaged in some kind of activism and want to learn more. We want to bring forward all of the stories of the Civil Rights movement in a compelling way. Robert’s goal is to record all of these stories so that schools and libraries can share the real history of what happened during the Civil Rights movement.

Donna: What does success look like?

Isisara: For me, it includes expanding our understanding of what constitutes Civil Rights and social justice; significantly increasing our marketing, including social media activity; more national media coverage; standing-room only houses; unearthing more of the unknown history, and making an international connection. Many boomers come with children and grandchildren. When I see a multigenerational audience, that is very powerful for me.

Success also means raising more money and receiving more support to grow and produce more events and expand our offerings.

Donna: What do you envision for the future of the festival?

Isisara: One thing we are doing for MOWFF 2018 is a day-long symposium for academicians during the festival, providing opportunities for them to deliver scholarly papers on critical aspects of social justice and the necessity of informed activism.

I envision creating more festival events that connect the US movement to the international arena. The Civil Rights movement was an inspiration to people in other countries around the world, and we continue to see that influence today. Most recently, we have the example of Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist and filmmaker, who was removed from a French government-sponsored advisory panel because of her public denunciation of institutional racism in France. Her removal prompted the entire advisory panel to resign and was condemned by the French Human Rights League. It is a reminder that although France was seen as liberal bastion of freedom and racial tolerance during the World Wars and Civil Rights movement, today’s African and Muslim residents in France are experiencing the same type of racism, discrimination and police violence experienced here in the U.S. Ms. Diallo is at the forefront of pushing back and exposing those truths.

We have shown both of her films at the Schomburg Center in New York City; at the ACLU Summer Student Institute, and during the MOWFF in D.C. We also presented Rokhaya at the Apollo Theater’s Martin Luther King Day event. People in the audience were shocked to learn about the similarities between the struggle there and here. The Civil Rights movement in France began in the 1980s; it started with a march from the south of France with under 100 people that ended in Paris a few weeks later with over 100,000. However, that march is not discussed or taught, there or here. We also know the American Civil Rights movement was an inspiration to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and other regions of the world.

Dr. King’s attorney and advisor, Dr. Clarence Jones, tells the story of being at an international gathering where he was introduced to a Polish union leader. That leader told Dr. Jones that he knew their strike for solidarity would win when he saw thousands of workers standing outside the factory singing the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Not long after that, the union’s demands were met, and the labor activist with whom Dr. Jones met—Lech Walesa—became President of Poland.

The arts are not separate from social justice—we continue to witness the cultural influence of African-American artists around the world. The arts are here for inspiration, self-expression, motivation and enrichment. They also have historically provided a foundation for confrontation and organizing. That’s why, whenever there is a conflict in society, it’s the artists and teachers who are silenced first. The writers, singers, performers and visual artists—their messages are life-affirming, sustaining and transformative.

Everyone is creative; everything we do is a creative act. We live in a universe that is ever-evolving and creating. Contrary to what we may have learned, what we do impacts others; we do not lead separate lives. To know that is to know and comprehend what binds us together. The MOWFF provides a gateway for us to witness, understand and move into action. 

Donna: Thank you, Isisara, for your vision and leadership as producer of the March on Washington Film Festival. It is a wonderful example of the intersection of the arts and social justice. We need the arts as a vehicle for telling our stories of injustice and triumphs over adversity. By doing so creates a bridge of access to these stories for people throughout the world. The MOWFF also highlights the impact of the African American Civil Rights movement and demonstrates that is not a relic of history, but rather is part of the continuum that now extends to Time’s Up and #MeToo.