Viewers of the documentary “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” won’t see a traditional film about the poet's life.
“I think that traditionally, everybody thinks that documentary is usually a bunch of talking heads and interviews. And a film like 'Going to Mars' is a kaleidoscope, if you will, of just visual imagery that illustrates Nikki Giovanni's poetry,” said Sabrina Aviles, founder and executive director of Cinefest Latino Boston, screening the film this weekend. “So those are the types of films I like to present. Things that leave people, strike them, and they walk away from the theater sort of with the experience that stays with them.”
Cinefest Latino Boston, the annual festival that highlights films by and about Latinos, partnered with the Roxbury Film Festival to screen "Going to Mars." The documentary that examines the life of the poet and the revolutionary times through which she lives. It includes footage of Giovanni, then and now, as well as recitations of her work, like the 1968 poem “Adulthood.”
Michèle Stephenson directed "Going to Mars" with her spouse and filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster.
“Poetry came as part of a brainstorming session we were having, and Nikki sort of popped into Joe's brain,” Stephenson said. “And it triggered my also sort of love for her work from my college days, and realized kind of the impact that poetry can have.”
Throughout the film, audiences not only hear Giovanni’s words but see many provoking, close-up shots of her eyes. They're expressive. They hold wonder, they hold reflection. And in some instances, they hold a little bit of sorrow.
It was a symbolic way to enter into the mind of an artist, Stephenson said.
“In some ways, we saw this as the entire biopic,” Stephenson said. “The eyes are such a great window into that. It was a symbolic way of getting the audience to enter this mind space that was so rich in creativity, but also rich in understanding sometimes the lived, painful experience that drives the work of an artist.”
The collaboration between Cinefest Latino Boston and the Roxbury Film Festival, which celebrates films by people of color, is a poignant one, Aviles said.
“It just felt like a very natural fit,” Aviles said. “Michèle being of Panamanian and Haitian descent, there is a back story, if you will, around the Black American experience, which is not 100% similar to the African experience or Afro-Caribbean experience. But there are commonalities.”
Giovanni and her work speak to what Stephenson called the “Black Atlantic experience.”
“The theme of the film is that the people who can lead us to Mars are are Black Americans who went through Middle Passage,” she said. “For me, that speaks to not only people of the United States, but our Afro Atlantic roots across this hemisphere. We went through Middle Passage as well, those of us from the Caribbean and Panama. We have to grapple with [what] Saidiya Hartman calls the afterlives of slavery that we have not reckoned with yet in Latin America, or as a LatinX community here in the United States.”
"Going to Mars: the Nikki Giovanni Project" screens Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theater as part of Cinefest Latino Boston. Tickets and the full festival schedule can be found at Cinefestlatino.com.