The American dream?

Screenwriter and first time director Veronica McKenzie knocked it out of the park when she won the prestigious Pan African Film Festival Best Narrative Feature Award 2019 for her debut film Nine Nights. Since that accolade the film received multiple nominations at the Screen Nation Film and Television Awards 2019. McKenzie reflects on her experience and what it means for Black British film.

The notification that my film Nine Nights had been accepted into the Pan African Film Festival popped into my inbox on Christmas Day 2018. As the largest and most prestigious black film festival in America, PAFF has premiered and hosted special screenings of top black films including Black Panther and Think Like a Man, so I both was surprised and honoured.

Going to the festival was made easier with the support of women, including Lorna Holder. I travelled with actor and producer Paulette Harris German, a supporting artist in the film, to fly the flag for Black British talent.

When we arrived, LA was wet and cold, but our enthusiasm undiminished. At the welcome brunch at the Directors Guild of America we heard DGA director-members Danny Glover (Just a Dream) and Michael Schultz (Black Lightning) speak about the advantages of Guild membership for black filmmakers.

I also got festival tips from PAFF executive director Ayuko Babu and we were encouraged to introduce ourselves, and speak about our films, with filmmakers from all over the world.

The scale of the festival was amazing. Imagine the Odeon Leicester Square with every screen showing a black film, and 140 films screened over 12 days and nights. There were parties, networking events and good food.

I walked the red carpet (didn’t trip) and was even interviewed by the lovely Gayle Anderson of KTLA News. A highlight was the opening night film Amazing Grace featuring Aretha Franklin’s previously unseen performance of the album, which as you now know is a must see.

Nine Nights was screened three times, and it was interesting to see how a Black British story resonated with African American audiences. They were full of questions about the Nine Night tradition, and eager to learn more about Black Britons generally.

There was a real connection to the universality of grief and loss in this coming of age story, and many people asked about if there will be a part two, which is a great sign.

On the final morning at the Filmmakers Awards buffet, when the film’s name was called, my mind went blank. I was shocked and surprised that Nine Nights had won the PAFF Narrative Feature Award.

As I stumbled through my thanks yous, it was a surreal moment I will always remember. I am grateful to PAFF for their hospitality and longstanding dedication to films about the black experience, and thankful that the world premiere of Nine Nights was so supported.

Since my return the film was nominated for the Screen Nation Film and Television Award 2019 (T’Nia Miller and Jo Martin for Best Female Performance in a Film and Nine Nights for Independent Spirit Film Production Award). This is a promising start, but despite the PAFF accolade, in Britain there is still a long way to go in promoting and distributing Black British feature films, a situation I hope will change soon. Until then, America is calling.

Watch the Nine Nights trailer.