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By The Editors
The Quail Bell Magazine Crew is thrilled that the very busy Adrienne Whaley, founder of the innovative Queens Underground Film Festivals in New York City, could spare some time to to tell us about the Black and Brown Film Festival kicking off this month. After all, the first event, both virtual and in-person, is taking place this Saturday, February 20th! Find out how you can enjoy the festival and, perhaps, submit your own work, too, while also hearing more about this creative leader's inspiring path:
Could you talk a little bit about your business and creative background and why you founded this festival?
We’re also known as Queens Center Of The Arts, a 501c3 Charity corporation. We do love the name, but it doesn't fully reflect the heart of who we are. We are creatives, minorities, women, dreamers, visionaries and grass-roots roll-up-your-sleeves, get-it-done-not-matter-what types. A small, but powerful group gaining traction simply because we tapped into the hidden gem of a niche. As the founder, I was that creative child who wrote poetry and short stories, made clothes for my dolls, and then produced numerous fashion shows as a youth. I attended the High School of Art & Design, but went on to major in business. My first business in the neighborhood was a video store. From there life took hold and I worked corporate and state jobs while raising my son.
I didn’t like being a secretary and wasn’t very good at it, so I returned to college again, earned an MBA, and upon graduation, was offered a position as a special education teacher, which I thoroughly enjoyed. To keep the job, I had to go back to college for a dual Master’s degree in general and special education and, a few years later, I went back to college yet again to earn a school administrator’s license and became a school director for special education private schools and a special education teacher supervisor and evaluator. I found that I really enjoyed facilitating professional development classes for teachers, TAs, and admin staff, along with workshops for parents. That led me to apply for a position as an adjunct and I worked at Long Island Business Institute in the Business Department. But none of that was “creative” and with work and a son, there was little time to do anything creative or attend creative activities. Educators bring a lot of work home and special education is that much more demanding, even in the summer.
One day, something clicked and I decided that my son and I would open up an art studio in our neighborhood. While it didn’t take off, we gained traction with open mic nights, sip-and-paints, jazz nights, poetry showcases and slams, sewing classes, a monthly pop-up shop, movie nights, and renting the space out. Since that was still not enough to cover the overhead, we segued into a film festival organization, bringing all of those components together as one unit as an all-inclusive, multi-faceted event for all categories, genres, community groups, vendors, and with a red carpet and live performances.
What would you like readers to know about past festivals?
That, much to my own surprise, from the first one in October 2019—a three-day festival on Supthin Blvd.—we’re gaining traction and average submissions from 12 countries each festival, though most filmmakers, video submitters, and web series producers are homegrown. I knew there was a lack of and limited similar platforms for minorities, underrepresented groups, underserved creatives, first-timers, and newcomers, I have come to appreciate and am humbled that we are able to serve so many during one event.
In February 2020, we rented the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, a gorgeous event space. We sold out, had to turn people away, and people came dressed for the red carpet. Community group leaders volunteered to help out. Our local Senator Comrie sponsored the 6 Community Awards. We filled three floors with attendees from all of the boroughs, all around the country and the 15 vendors did well and the 10 live performers had a full house to perform for during the event. The 103rd Precinct treated us like royalty by closing off the street. Movie studios, newspapers and talk show hosts attended. But we did run out of time and could not screen all of the submissions, so we did that later virtually. Once again, I hadn’t expected such a turnout and our small team did a fantastic job, going above and beyond.
Who knew that it would take me this many decades to find the right combination, fill the niche that I love the most? For me the message is, don’t give up your dreams and learn every single thing that you can along the way, you’re going to need it. I am the staff with 1 day a week assistance from my son and three to five team members who come in to help with everything a few months before the upcoming festival.
We are completely self-funded. Two best friends, mother and son, make sure that we have the finances to rent the venue, do promotion, get supplies, etc. Dreams aren’t free and they can be worth it, but exhausting with twelve hour days, eleven months per year.
How have you adapted Queens Underground Film Festivals for the pandemic?
The pandemic shut us down right after the 1st International Black and Brown
History Month Film Festival, but there was no way we were not going to continue. Because we have filmmakers from all over the world, I had already started looking for a virtual platform to accommodate our needs. By October, we decided to try one while simultaneously holding the three-day film festival utilizing my front and backyard and driveway for the red carpet. Surprise again, a lot of people showed up: filmmakers, vendors, audience members, and local leaders. Senator Comrie not only stopped by; he stayed for a long time and spoke with everyone. Brandon Levy, the Business Development Officer for the Queens Chamber Of Commerce, attended and spoke as well. Several of the team helped me set up the room, tents, red carpet tent, etc., working on the yard for months to create the film festival experience. We had a comedic host, DJ, dancers, singers, poets, and food, beverage and dessert vendors. All went well until I blew a fuse, though, fortunately, once again, the show went on.
What excites you about this month's in-person event?
It’s the energy! People are happy, excited to meet each other, watch the screenings. This is our “Black and Brown” Hollywood in Jamaica, Queens, NY. This year only, the February 20th Open Day, will have to be online due to restrictions from the pandemic. But, it will be free and virtual (email to register: Queensunderground718@gmail.com) to show off this season's trailers, personal videos from many of the filmmakers (14 countries so far, most local), and a few of the winners from the October 2020 Festival. October is a competitive film festival while the February/April Black and Brown History Month Festival days are a “Showcase of Real Talent.”
Since the Pandemic is still a challenge and we’re not sure if any venues will be open, we’ll be back outdoors for the rest of the film festival days in April. All of the days will be available on the virtual platform. As Senator Comrie stated during his October 2020 red Carpet interview—I’m paraphrasing—“True creativity doesn’t stop because there appear to be limitations.”
The submissions, the movies, videos, episodes, and business commercials for this season are the best yet. Many filmmakers, singers, and poets are returning and that’s the biggest compliment ever. Submissions are open through March 15th and can be accessed from our website: Queensunderground718.com. Vendors are already signing up as well as performers.
February 20th will be free and live on Zoom with some of the team just hanging out, eating, chatting, and watching the projects along with the audience.
What experience do you hope viewers will get attending the festival virtually?
Who doesn’t love “On Demand” second only after live in-person events. Put on your PJs, grab your favorite snacks, enjoy indie filmmakers, singers, dancers, poets, entrepreneurs, and web series. We’re still hoping for donations and sponsors so that we can add audience “Chat” and even “Voting.” The beauty of it is that no matter where you are, home, work, hospital, military or on vacation, you can still tune in regardless of the time zone. Filmmakers from other countries can invite friends over or just watch with family. For a filmmaker or producer, it’s about the audience. For most minorities and newbies, budgets are very tight, projects are self-funded and staffed by friends, family, and volunteers. They’ve taken an idea, molded it, planned, executed and got it done. That’s a labor of love and when you don’t have financial resources, have had film classes, and don’t have access to the $10,000+ for one camera and so on, professional anything, it’s that much harder, but does it mean the content or quality or story value is less? Answer: Most certainly not. I know that the next Tyler Perry, John Singleton, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, August Martin, etc. is one of our filmmakers. Most of our artists and filmmakers are self-taught. If you can read, you can learn. If you don’t fear making mistakes, you will grow. If you’re humble and receptive, help will show up.
People who submit to us are excellent storytellers, fully and obviously dedicated to their craft. I want people to see the underrepresented being represented, the underserved, serving it up with red carpet elegance. A few days later, the in-person footage, including interviews with vendors, guests and the live performances, will be uploaded to the virtual platform. The virtual platform will be available for a few days after the festival and viewers will hopefully be able to send comments, words of encouragement, and begin to follow filmmakers. They would love to hear from viewers and who doesn’t want more supportive followers?
What can audiences expect of the festival in April?
Firstly, there’s still time to submit because we’re carrying over into April for the warm weather. Submissions are open through March 15th. Filmmakers and artists can find the submission link on our website.
Both in-Person and virtual audiences can expect four (4!) days of incredible movies, music, dance, poetry videos, web series episodes, and business commercials/PSAs, live performances, filmmaker panels, guest speakers, and entrepreneurial interviews, with the red carpet on April 16th. Each day presents a new block of projects.
Both Virtual and In-Person tickets are on our websites:
Please follow us on IG: @queensundergroundfilmfest. In-person Tickets are very limited in number and available until sold out in Jamaica, Queens, NY.
Audiences can expect that on the 16th, 17th, 24th, and 25th, excitement will be in the air, especially after so much isolation and closed venues. Expect the opportunity to get dressed up, watch indie movies, videos, and episodes on the big screen, network, socialize, eat while maintaining social distancing. Of course masks are required and temperatures are checked, etc. Expect to be blown away, impressed, moved, and even more appreciative of what amazing storytellers, creatives, and determined folks that we have in our midst.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I’d like to see more web series episodes, sci fi shorts, animated, and virtual reality projects. Historical re-enactments would be great as well. Let’s show our trailblazers, our heroes, our firsts. I would love to see indie filmmakers start producing historical action and drama movies.
I’ll close with sharing that I’m truly honored and very grateful that running a film festival chose me. Now that I’m here, I can see that this is where the life path was leading. It’s wonderful to have such a strong and generous support system who help to finance (Yes, we are still hoping for grants, funding, and sponsors) and do the heavy lifting. We’re happy that so many others in and out of the U.S. can watch virtually. We’d like to connect with military bases, hospitals, veterans groups and youth detention centers. For too long, we have not had an all-inclusive celebratory platform which totally defies many of the negative images. Our film festival is the 3-D version of all of the textbook chapters that have and remain left out. “We did, we can and we will!” I’m also proud of the amount of talent that we have, especially within the New York City boroughs.
We offer something that creatives deserve, a platform catering to our unique style, frames of references, history, present and future without limitations. All categories and genres fit together well, right here as they are right now. We also want Southeast Queens, Jamaica, NY to become a destination again and we want to travel with the film festival to other boroughs and states. For me personally, it’s becoming a movement, a powerful energy where what you don’t have (or have access to) does not matter. It’s about intent, content, and finishing up by the submission deadlines, then attending to walk the red carpet and mix and mingle (in-person or virtually). Those “No’s” and “Not good enough” that sometimes echo in our heads throughout our lives don’t exist here. We are the “Yes” and the film festival laurel which selected filmmakers and artists receive (and 99% are selected) is the industry standard “Seal of Approval” and it’s given by peers who look the same as the submitters. While we are very humble, grassroots roll-up-your-sleeves team (Christian, B. Elise, Mai, Gina, Doris, my mom and Brandon), we do like to get dressed up on occasion as well.
Find out more about the festival at Queensunderground718.com.
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