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Harry Belafonte Waxes Historic at the First Time Film Festival

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"This is a competition disguised as a film festival," said First Time Film Festival co-founder Johanna Bennett, before introducing a panel featuring Harry Belafonte on Saturday morning at The Players Club. Twelve first films are screening and a winner will get distribution. Just when you thought the world had enough film festivals! But in addition to discovering new talent, the festival celebrates the old in a unique way. Successful filmmakers love their first films, and so, as a unique feature of this festival, Darren Aronofsky, Barbara Kopple, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nancy Savoca, Hal Hartley, Christine Vachon, Melvin van Peeples, and Todd Solonz will show their debut work. On Friday night, Sofia Coppola screened The Virgin Suicides, with a Q&A that lasted twice the allotted time, illustrating that passion, First Fest co-founder Mandy Ward pointed out, surprised at how well this venture is going -- after only one day. (The festival ends with an awards ceremony on Monday night at the Players Club, with Johanna Bennett's father Tony, Ellen Burstyn, Martin Scorsese, and others.)

The panel in question, with Jenny Lumet, Frida Torresblanco, and Harry Belafonte, was supposed to be about Women and Diversity in Film, but stayed closest to the subject of race. Jenny Lumet, a granddaughter of Lena Horne and daughter of Sidney Lumet, described her place in Hollywood: Subversive is a positive word and I am happy to do it any way I can. Frida Torresblanco, producer of Pan's Labyrinth, talked about the demographics of Latinos attending movies, and wanting to carve out a niche in Latin themed horror movies. The conversation quickly went to what might be called the history of optimism in America -- and what has led to some disillusionment. Elegant, eloquent, and wise at 86, Belafonte spoke about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., the importance of Sidney Poitier's vision to Hollywood, and how inspiring missions become mainstream, commodified, and commercial. His speech, impromptu and focused on the need for active commitment to justice, was a breathtaking history, and it also had the feel of a historic moment.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.