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Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival Celebrates 25th With Invite To One and All

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The documentary Invisible Beauty follows fashion revolutionary Bethann Hardison and her journey as a Black model, modeling agent, and activist fighting for racial diversity in the fashion industry. See the film at this year’s Sidewalk Film Festival as part of the festival’s Black Lens track. (PROVIDED)
By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times

As Sidewalk Film Festival presented by Regions Bank prepares for its 25th anniversary the event has garnered plenty of accolades, being recognized by MovieMaker magazine as one of “the coolest film festivals in the world.”

But as the festival prepares to mark its milestone, the Sidewalk team – from the staff to the volunteers – remain committed to making it more than “cool.” They also want the festival to be as diverse as the communities of the Birmingham area.

Hiring a diverse staff has been a top priority for Chloe Cook, who serves as executive director and has been with Sidewalk for nearly 15 years. A diverse group of volunteers is also essential, said Cook, who understands why some people think Sidewalk Film Festival isn’t for them, she said.

When a friend suggested she apply to work for the festival she resisted because, as much as she loved watching movies, she had no idea how to make one. And she didn’t study film in college. But it was her background in marketing that made her perfect for the Sidewalk team. Today Cook uses her marketing skills to get out the message that Sidewalk is for all.

“I think the more diverse our team, the more likely we are to be aware of what issues and barriers might exist for people that are interested in what we do on a certain level, but don’t feel like it’s quite for them,” Cook said.

None of this matters, however, if a diverse group of people don’t know about the festival.

Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk Film Festival. (PROVIDED)

That’s why part of Cook’s job is to make sure marketing efforts reach far and wide. She believes the festival has always intended to attract a diverse audience. “But I think having that intent is often not good enough,” Cook said.  “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and have good advertising.”

That means expanding marketing efforts to include media outlets such as the Birmingham Times and radio stations 95.7 JAMZ and 98.7 Kiss FM. That means posting signs, posters, and fliers in neighborhoods, coffee shops, and even on church bulletin boards in areas beyond downtown and into places like Bessemer, Hoover, Irondale, and Trussville.

“I think there has been a pretty solid history of diverse programming, but not a very solid history of diverse marketing,” Cook said. “And that’s not unique to Sidewalk or unique to the South. That’s pretty much the entire film festival universe. I think well intentioned people who are oftentimes very progressive are preaching to their own choir.”

“Incredible New Voices”

Creating a festival that’s welcoming to all means that programmers at Sidewalk must be intentional about including a wide range of perspectives.

“I find that the most exciting thing about programming is finding incredible new voices and stories from perspectives and points of view that are considerably different from my own,” said Lead Features Programmer Corey Craft. “I’m a straight white guy who is pretty used to movies being made for people like me, so when I see something that comes from a different perspective, I get the thrill of discovery on a personal level, and I know that’s a voice that’s going to really connect with somebody out there in our audience.”

T. Marie King, a Birmingham community activist, committed to improving race relations and quality of life for people of color in Alabama and beyond, has been dedicated to ensuring that Sidewalk offers films for everybody. She helped launch Sidewalk’s Black Lens track which features films centered on Black characters and Black culture and made by Black creators.

King is excited about Black Lens Spotlight Night set for August 24. There will be happy hour at 5 p.m., a screening of several Black Lens shorts at 7 p.m. and Black Lens bingo at 9 p.m.

“I wanted to see different stories from the Black community highlighted,” King said, explaining that she wanted to see a variety of Black films including comedy, horror, and love stories.

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Along with Black Lens, Sidewalk also highlights LGBTQ+ cinema with its SHOUT track and showcases films focused on human rights with its Life & Liberty track.

Art Imitates Life

Sidewalk Creative Director and Lead Programmer Rachel Morgan is also committed to making the festival inclusive. “When we look out into the crowd, I like to see an audience that doesn’t all look the same,” Morgan said. And she wants an audience full of people with diverse background experiences too. The way to make that happen, she said, is to have a diverse group of programmers.

And if the folks at Sidewalk want to keep a diverse group of people coming back year after year, they know they need a wide variety of content.

“Not everybody wants to come here and cry during a movie,” Morgan said. “Maybe they want to come and laugh. They’ve had a crappy week, and they want to just have a good time. And so, we want to represent that too.”

Each year the Sidewalk Film Festival has documentaries for people looking to learn something new. But if horror movies are your thing, you’ll find those too.

“Some people just got dumped, and they want to come watch a relationship film they can relate to,” Morgan said. The festival has you covered there too.

But art imitates life. So, while the festival offers a variety of different types of films each year, the lineup will always reflect what’s going on in life beyond the screen, Morgan explained.

“There’s definitely a lot of films that we’ve been looking at this year that feel very chaos driven,” she said. “They feel like they reflect an environment that is in turmoil. We’re still coming out of a pandemic. We’re still coming out of a very tumultuous election and heading towards another potentially tumultuous election. So that chaos that we’re experiencing in the world is definitely being reflected in film.”

Something For Everybody

Sidewalk receives about 1,500 film submissions that programmers and volunteer reviewers must whittle down to the 250 selections that make the festival. In other words, the programmer’s job is not an easy one.

“We comb through thousands of submitted films and consider each not only based on our own taste and preferences, but how each film adds to the balance of the entire festival program,” Craft explained. “The result of a lot of time and thought put into the acceptance of each movie, though, is a lineup that we are proud to say caters to hardcore movie fans, first-time festivalgoers and casual viewers who might walk in off the street.”

Simply put, their goal is to have something for everybody. “No matter what your taste in movies might be, you can probably find something you’ll like,” Craft said. “We’ve got movies you could take your mom to and movies you would never want to take your mom to in a million years.”

Sidewalk boasts plenty of success stories, too. Birmingham native Daniel Scheinert, who won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay at the 2023 Oscars for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, was once a Sidewalk intern. Barbie director Greta Gerwig, who recently made history as the first solo female director to have a movie top the billion-dollar mark, also has ties to Sidewalk.

For a complete schedule and to purchase tickets visit sidewalkfest.com.

The 25th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival presented by Regions Bank is set for August 21-27 in downtown Birmingham’s historic theatre district. For tickets and a complete schedule, visit sidewalkfest.com. For more updates, follow Sidewalk on social media @sidewalkfiilm.