Hip Hop Odyssey International Film Festival

Hip Hop Odyssey International Film Festival

Established in 2002, the Hip Hop Odyssey International Film Festival—H20IFF for short—has evolved into the largest hip-hop film festival in the world, spanning a full two weeks in New York City. Providing filmmakers an opportunity to showcase films that represent hip-hop culture, facilitating panels on the role of hip-hop film and other hip-hop media, an awards show, and a number of other events, are all a part of the H20IFF which fills the void in exposing one of the many “fifth elements” in hip-hop culture. Format recently spoke with co-organizer Martha Diaz about the evolution of the festival, and why it’s important to expose hip-hop film.

“There’s a lot of love and soul in it, it’s very colorful and expressive; it’s like another element of expression for us.”

Format: When and why was the Hip Hop Odyssey Film Festival developed?
Martha: The film festival was developed in January 2002. It was founded because I was struggling with finding platforms that cultivated my work as a hip-hop filmmaker and I ran across a situation where I needed to create my own platform, because I was running into people who had R&B film festivals. I wanted to create something specifically to our genre that would be owned by us.

Format: How has the festival grown since 2002?
Martha: Well, together with a dozen other activists, filmmakers, educators, industry executives, we got together and we just put the film festival together. We had 45 submissions the first year, the second year we had 65, third year 90, and it just grew and grew, and now we have over 100 pieces this year. And so it’s grown substantially. We incorporate a lot of community dialogue, so we bring in experts in the field, scholars, historians, to talk about some of the issues that are being addressed in these movies. And we figure out ways we can create an intergenerational bridge, so that people can take control of their images that are being portrayed, and for us to have our own platform to tell our stories. It’s also grown from three days to three weekends.

Format: You mentioned that you got over 100 submissions this year. What is the process like when choosing the films that you’ll screen?
Martha: We have specific criteria, in which we ask that the film has one of the aesthetics of hip-hop such as b-boying, graffiti, MCing, or DJing, and also, the fifth element of overstanding knowledge of self. And we select them based on quality, whether it has the right content, whether it’s dynamic. We get a lot of submissions. We don’t turn down to many because there is a variety of styles when they’re submitted. We get so much cool stuff. Sometimes it’s not the best quality, but the content is really good. And so we let those slide and we work with the filmmakers to help them improve their work, and so we meet with them and we go over the film and we tell them where they could improve.


Format: In 2007, the film festival is “celebrating five years of hip-hop cinema, education, art, and culture.” How do you feel that education manifests itself within hip-hop cinema?
Martha: You could use the imagery to critically analyze what is being portrayed. You can dissect it and learn many lessons. You can teach media literacy, you know, what are these messages saying? Are they advertising, are they feeling it from their heart? We dissect the image. And so that’s one way. But hip-hop can be used in many ways to teach. You can connect the media with entrepreneurship and artistic development, leadership development. You could address issues affecting our community, like some of the themes we have are addressing like the war, poverty, violence in the communities, many social ills that we’re facing, that we have the youth really telling us what is going on through these stories, and so we’re able to use that to process and analyze and learn.

Format: Can you give any specific examples of films that you feel have done a really good job of educating through hip-hop cinema?
Martha: One of our films is “Reading Between The Rhymes.” It actually won our film festival. It’s a short documentary on how hip-hop is being used and what kind of impact it’s making in the classroom as well as the community, but more the classroom, and it really highlights some of the better practices, and it has also sent a message of urgency that we must be open to using hip-hop for education, because that’s what the kids are listening to and are engaged in.

Format: The film festival includes films from over 10 countries. What, if any, do you feel is the difference between hip-hop films outside of North America, to those within North America?
Martha: The thing is they’re quite the same. We all have a history, so most of the films we get internationally are telling their story, and how hip-hop started in their country or their region. And they have stars like we have stars. Sometimes you’ll see really good films that come out and you’re like wow, how’d they do that. And then you see that it’s being produced by a channel, so you can tell who’s really in the indie, and who’s got some support. That’s the different really. But the stories are the same.


Format: One of panels you are hosting is entitled “The Revolution is Being Digitized: The Future of Distribution.” What effect do you feel the Internet has had on hip-hop cinema?
Martha: The revolution for hip-hop cinema has just begun, because we haven’t really had our own organized Hollywood union, where we could determine that this person is going to open a chain of theatres, or they’ll be 10 distribution companies instead of two or three, and they’ll be owned by hip-hop artists, hip-hip entrepreneurs. We haven’t done that at all, and it’s not going to be possible in the future, and so, this Internet opportunity gives us a chance to establish those things, establish many opportunities to create distribution, and they’ll be cross-platform, so what’s on the Internet will be connected to mobile devices, and so it’s going to go hand in hand. It’s very interesting how communication is about to change completely and that will allow us to create more outlets, and disseminate information much quicker, much more organized, and more self-contained and controlled.

Format: Hip Hop Odyssey focuses primarily on independent films. What is your opinion of Hollywood hip-hop films, both past and present?
Martha: Well we incorporate Hollywood films, because this is the best of hip-hop cinema and obviously some of the films coming out of Hollywood are better quality, not necessarily the best content, but they’re entertaining, and so we include them. And they tell the history of hip-hop from Wild Style to Beat Street to Krush Groove. These are all films that tell our history, like break-dancing, those films, they’re cheesy, but they show us what it was like back then.

Format: What are the common, or defining aesthetic components of hip-hop cinema?
Martha: I want to answer it right because I want to give justice to all the work that these filmmakers have put into their projects. There’s a lot of love and soul in it, it’s very colorful and expressive; it’s like another element of expression for us. There will be like graffiti, DJing, and then there’s filmmaking as well. It just tells another perspective, another story, it’s just like how Scorsese started to do films about New York City and he has a certain style; it’s the same way with our filmmakers. You can see that they’re talking about their neighborhood as authentic as possible.


Shane Ward

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