Interview | Zac Manuel (15th Patois NOLA Film Fest)

It's a film festival with a mission. It's a collective of our local best & brightest in cinema. It's an effort to instigate change and enlighten minds.

The Patois New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival enters its 15th year with their 2019 event, from March 21st to the 24th at The Broad Theater in Mid-City. For a city with so few movie venues, we certainly make up for it with productions as well as fostering a film culture - something many of us have worried about sustaining since the inception of Hollywood South. Now, what might a "film culture" in a city like New Orleans be? More than entertainment and blockbusters, we hope.

Filmmaker, cinematographer, and Patois Collective member Zac Manuel was kind enough to answer a few questions I had as the festivities approach. You can see showtimes and purchase tickets here:

Bill Arceneaux: What makes New Orleans the best place to host Patois, both politically and culturally?

Zac Manuel: New Orleans is probably the most culturally rich city in America, and I think where we are in American society, the culture that we’ve built and maintained is becoming more and more visible. Our culture is Black, our culture is queer, our culture has been victimized and commoditized for years and years. And yet, we’ve been able to create so much beauty and individuality as a culture, and through our culture comes our collective identity and the truth of our history. For me, Patois is New Orleans, and New Orleans is Patois. I couldn’t see this festival taking place anywhere else in the country.

BA: Each year, the fest is able to find some surprising and previously unknown selections for programming (Mr. Gay Syria being one such pick). How do you sift through the noise and clutter to find the best movies that will represent the Patois mission? Is there criteria for films to meet? Are documentaries easier to discover in this field than narrative features?

Zac: True, there are a lot of films out there, and even a lot that fit into the social justice category. I think that we like to be a bit more discerning in how we choose our films, and thus we do have a criteria for curating our lineup. Of course, we’re looking for films that have social justice or civil rights angle, and we want to show films that engage with contemporary issues and can add to current political and social dialogues. But we take it a step further and prioritize films that are made and produced by people of color, women, and LGBTQ filmmakers. We want the work we show to mesh with our collective politic, which is hard left-leaning, progressive, and maybe what some people might call radical.

BA: The concept behind The Infiltrators - people deliberately getting caught at the U.S. / Mexico border to investigate what happens next - fascinates me to no end, especially given the potential danger involved in such a project. As festival organizers, is there fear of retaliation from those with opposing views and interests?

Zac: There’s always an inherent danger in exposing a truth, but that’s a risk I think the filmmakers and the subjects of the film have taken the brunt of. As organizers, I don’t feel so much we are in danger, but rather we have a responsibility to show work that exposes these important truths about the ways in which our country unjustly operating. I welcome those who don’t agree with the ideals of the film to buy a ticket, watch it, and have a conversation with the filmmakers afterward. Maybe then they can start to empathize immigrants going through detention centers.

BA: Critic Matt Zoller Seitz likes to say that all films are political in one way or another. If this statement is to be believed, does it mean that cinema is potentially made up of propaganda? Is this a bad thing?

Zac: I think in order to be propaganda, you have to be skewing the truth, or like in the case of Confederate monuments, purporting an alternate truth entirely. There’s a monolithic nature to propaganda that, to me, communicates an inherent falseness, or a simplification of a narrative. So, no I don’t think film is propaganda, at least not the kinds of films that we show. I guess I could say that a Marvel tentpole film is propaganda for heteronormative, patriarchal social politics and American imperialism, then made successful by its ubiquity. The films we are showing prioritize the discovery of truth, often times a messy, nuanced truth, and are meant to correct and add to the over-simplified conversations we find in mainstream media.

BA: What does Patois hope to accomplish this year specifically, as we head into the early stages of Presidential campaigning against Trump?

Zac: It’s Patois’ 15th year, and we’re also just coming out of the 300th anniversary year of the founding of New Orleans. More than fighting against Trump and his politics explicitly, it’s more important now than ever before to provide a platform for people of different experiences, people historically and currently maligned and persecuted - women and femme identifying peoples, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people. In the short amount of time that we have to do this festival, the hope is to contribute to the empowerment of a greater and totally inclusive and empathetic consciousness. To me, it feels like we’re a small part of a larger societal shift, and we’ll continue to do the work so that eventually this movement is just the new norm.