Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival Marks Ya'Ke Smith's Cincinnati Debut

The filmmaker, Taft Museum of Art's 2019 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, will arrive in the Queen City just before the Over-the-Rhine Film Festival for screenings, discussions and more

click to enlarge Filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith - Courtesy of Taft Museum of Art
Courtesy of Taft Museum of Art
Filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith

The Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival that runs Oct. 2-6 serves as the Cincinnati debut for filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith, Taft Museum of Art’s 2019 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence. 

The residency program, established in 1986, honors the fact that arts patron Nicholas Longworth in the mid-1800s commissioned the African-American painter Robert S. Duncanson to create murals for his home, which is now the Taft Museum. The residency has been for contemporary African-American artists. 

The Over-the-Rhine Film Festival, which features over 80 films in various genres, will present Smith’s five-episode web series The Beginning and Ending of Everything twice — at 3 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and at 3:45 p.m. Oct. 5 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater. (Additionally, Smith will appear at a Freedom Center workshop, “Realities of Micro-Budget Filmmaking,” at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 5. He is also a jurist for the film festival’s awards, to be announced at a 7 p.m. ceremony on Oct. 5 at 3 Points Brewery.) 

Beginning and Ending, made in 2017, is an expansion of Smith’s 2014 short, dawn. It’s the kind of realistic narrative film that he wants to make as an independent filmmaker — ones with topical issues relevant to contemporary American society.

“It centers around a woman released from prison, and deals with her struggles to adjust to life on the outside while also searching for a child she had while in prison,” he says. “Both it and dawn. are loosely based on the experiences of my sister and other people I’ve known who have struggled to put their lives back together when released (from incarceration).”

It is rare for a filmmaker to be the recipient of the Duncanson honor — documentarian William Greaves received it in 1991. According to Elise Solomon, the Taft’s director of learning and engagement, the museum and the Duncanson Society decided to choose a filmmaker again this year in recognition of the growing presence of the film industry here. 

Smith, who teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to apply after seeing a posting, although he had not heard of Duncanson. 

“I did research and realized the man was working in a medium that African-Americans were excluded from,” he says via phone. “He was exhibiting in places that other African-Americans were not able to exhibit, and he was creating art traditionally made by white creators.

“So he broke down doors. We’re having artists today still breaking down these barriers. Duncanson 100 years ago was at the forefront of that.”

Breaking down barriers is what Smith’s own filmmaking art is about. At age 38, he already has a long string of independently made narrative features and shorts to his name and has won numerous awards. His newest work, Heavenly, just won for Best Short Film at the Frame4Frame Festival in Arlington, Texas.

Smith was always interested in storytelling and made his first film at age 15 after borrowing equipment from his San Antonio high school’s arts programs. “I made a movie over the weekend with friends, and I’ve been making movies ever since,” he says. 

One source of inspiration was seeing the late John Singleton’s groundbreaking 1991 Boyz n the Hood, a drama about the dreams and fears of the residents of historically black South Central Los Angeles.

“I saw it (while) living in San Antonio, where there were a lot of gangs,” he says. “When the film came out, I felt like I saw myself and a lot of other people I knew off-screen represented in a way that felt authentic,” he says. “It gave them back their humanity and allowed them to speak for themselves. When I saw that, I saw that these are the kind of films I want to make. It showed me for the first time how powerful films can be.” 

His first feature film, Wolf, took the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival and can be seen on Amazon Prime. 

“It’s the story of a family where the son has been molested by their pastor,” he says. “It deals with the fallout of that, the church cover-up, the family struggle. In many ways, the action was committed against the whole family by a pastor who married them, baptized the kid. They have to come to terms with their faith, decide how to continue on.”

African-Americans are at the center of much of his work, he continues, with the objective of allowing them to tell their own stories in a way that historically hasn’t been the case. When someone else is telling a story about black characters, he says one can sense “another’s gaze” looking into the African-American community.

“For me as a black man I want to be sure I’m telling a story that means something to me,” he says, “means something to the subject I’m featuring, and also attracts that particular audience because they see themselves on screen in a new and interesting way.

“I’m not just trying to create positive images or negative images, but I’m trying to create images that show the full spectrum of this full humanity of people of color. Our white counterparts have always been able to exist in all of those realms, but we have not.”

At the same time, he doesn’t want to exclude any audience from his work. 

“In telling those narratives, I would hope white audiences, black audiences, all audiences would be able to see themselves in those people I’m putting on screen,” Smith says. “Ultimately, it’s about creating characters that have some sort of universal quality to them. Yes, our experiences are different, and the experiences of African-Americans are very different from those of white people on a subject. But ultimately, we’re all humans and want and need the same things.”

Other events are as follows:

  • The Taft Museum (316 Pike St.) will hold a public reception for Smith from 6-8 p.m. on Oct. 6
  • Short film Heavenly will screen at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (108 W Central Pkwy) followed by a discussion
  • The Taft Museum will present a free artist talk, featuring clips from Smith’s movies, at Clifton’s Esquire Theatre on Oct. 16.
  • dawn. will show at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 17 at Thrive: Forward — a program sponsored by the Taft and Elementz at Woodward Theater

For tickets to Over-the-Rhine Film Festival events, visit otrfilmfest.org. For more info on Smith's residency, visit taftmuseum.org.

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