Lisa Simmons, director of the Roxbury International Film Festival, discusses the event’s unique purpose as it marks its 20th anniversary
For 20 years, the Roxbury International Film Festival (RoxFilm) has been screening movies that celebrate people of color from around the world. The festival’s director Lisa Simmons, “a Bostonian, born and raised,” has been involved in the event since its beginning. Simmons was running a non-profit called The Color of Film Collaborative when she was approached by ACT Roxbury (a now-defunct cultural development program) about co-organizing a film festival that would “give independent filmmakers of color a place to be shown at a time when other film festivals weren’t selecting their work.”
RoxFilm quickly became known as a “filmmaker’s festival”—a venue beloved by creators for the enthusiastic feedback they would get from the audience and the dedicated volunteer staff. “When they come in to present their films, there’s this great dialogue in Boston that they don’t necessarily get from other audiences. It’s really interesting,” says Simmons. The festival has also drawn celebrities from the black filmmaking community. One of Simmon’s highlights as the festival director was hiring a limo to drive the revered actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee straight from her New York home to the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where festival screenings are held. “It was just a lark.…It was a highlight for everybody.”
In its history, RoxFilm has screened as many as 80 films over five days, yet with fruitful audience feedback, this year it shows closer to 60 spaced over 10 days, with no screenings overlapping. Occurring June 20–30, the festival celebrates the transformative power of storytelling with its opening film, Liyana, which “gives me chills,” says Simmons. In the feature, children in Swaziland create a storytelling character, Liyana, to help them share events from their own lives. From the trauma of war to mourning lost parents and experiencing AIDS, these stories are presented in a mix of beautiful animation and documentary footage.
“If you want to understand the power of storytelling, and if you want to experience a community that deeply engages in filmmaking, then you should come to the Roxbury festival,” says Simmons. “You’re going to learn, you’re going to laugh and you’re going to be inspired by the films that you see.”