A Day at Lights. Camera. Help. 2013

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Balkan Band plays after the Brasslands screening

By Christina Bryant

The fifth annual Lights. Camera. Help Film Festival at Alamo Drafthouse Village was quite a whirlwind trip around the world and back in time. On opening night, I excitedly sat in the packed theater for A Film About Kids and Music: Sant Andreu Jazz Band. The documentary followed a talented jazz band of students ranging from age 6 to 18 in Spain, led by their fierce conductor Joan Chamorro. It was amazing to see these kids mastering jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong that were written decades before they were born. If a six-year old named Elsa can play a mean trumpet to a packed concert stadium, maybe it's time I dust off my grade-school violin.

Director/producer Ramon Tort and Joan Chamorro received a standing ovation as the credits rolled. Later, I wasn't surprised to learn the film went on to win Best Feature at the festival. I'd like to thank the translator on stage after the screening, as Tort and Chamorro were most informative in their native language. A person in the audience asked why the children sang in English. Chamorro simply replied, "It's American music. We learn through the models and the models are American."

Friday night's screening took audiences back to 1956 when The University of Texas at Austin began accepting undergraduate students of all races. When I Rise, directed by Mat Hames, was the compelling story of Barbara Conrad, a black music student who made headline news when she was pressured to step down from a lead romantic role in an opera opposite a white male student. As a recent Austin transplant, the film shed light on a history I definitely wasn't familiar with, right in my own backyard. As a twenty-something black woman, it was surreal to see footage of the KKK marching down North Congress and hearing Conrad's own county representative say the decision was for her well being.

The star of When I Rise is, of course, the captivating Conrad but the film also features a great supporting cast: poetic landscape shots of her hometown in East Texas and interviews with those who knew Conrad during her time at UT (including Mr. Harry Belafonte). I can only hope to have an ounce of the grace she possessed in the face of such adversity.

Are you familiar with Balkan Brass? I certainly wasn't before taking a seat at the closing-night film, Brasslands, directed by the Meerkat Media Collective. The documentary spotlights three different bands (American, Serbian and Roma Gypsy) all vying for top prize at the world's largest trumpet competition in a tiny village in Guča, Serbia. Brasslands focuses a very specific lens on cultural appropriation and racism toward the originators of the music, Roma Gypsies.

During the festival, Lights. Camera. Help. executive director Aaron Bramley would ask each filmmaker what made their project a cause-driven film. Members of the Meerkat Media Collective answered that this story shows the "power of music to transcend a lot of boundaries." It couldn't have been more perfectly timed during the Q&A when a voice from the crowd asked if there were Balkan Brass groups in Austin -- suddenly a live band began to play and escorted ticketholders to the nearby after-party.

All in all, the festival was a great reminder that film can be a great instrument for social change.

[Photo credit: Balkan Brass Band by C. Bryant]

Christina Bryant is an Austin Film Society intern.