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Arts & Culture

Cleveland International Film Festival Honors BIPOC Filmmakers with the Groundbreaker Award

"Unapologetic," Movie Poster
Ashley O'Shay
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"Unapologetic" received CIFF's Groundbreaker Award.

This year’s Cleveland International Film Festival includes a new honor, the Groundbreaker Award, celebrating the work of BIPOC filmmakers. This year’s award goes to Ashley O’Shay, for her film, “Unapologetic.”

The documentary tells the story of Janae and Bella, two Black, queer, women activists in Chicago fighting for police and justice reform in the aftermath of the police shootings of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd.

Two Chicago shootings by police, one off duty and one on duty police officer. O'Shay explained what she witnessed in the aftermath of both.

"Initially I was chronicling the organizing that was happening, specifically around Rekia Boyd because when the film started, it was the fall of 2015. And earlier that year, her killer Dante Servin, had basically deemed any sort of accountability via the court system," she said.

She explained how young black people would continuously organize to try to get Servin fired off of the police force, and try to hold him accountable in any possible way they could.

"It was just very present in the Chicago community. And so I started filming the police board hearings, and the different ways that Janae specifically was organizing with Black Youth Project 100. And then later that, a couple months later, the tape of the killing of Laquan McDonald came out. And so that really became a hallmark moment for the city," O'Shay said.

Many nights following the release of the tape, she explained how people took to the streets and protested, organized, and found ways to support the families.

When it comes to the screening of her film "Unapologetic," O'Shay said the responses have been generally positive.

"I think with the uprisings happening last summer around Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there was a lot of momentum that was being built beyond the typical organizing circles, and folks that I would think, to include in that," she said.

She believes that people can look at her film as a blueprint to many of the conversations our society is having right now, especially about defunding and abolishing the police.

"People here were setting the blueprint for that back in 2014, 2015, and so I think a lot of people are looking for ways to get involved to contribute their skills and their voice and it's been a pretty good reception."

"Unapologetic" is O'Shay's first feature length documentary. Following Janae and Bella's story and their activism, she explained her motive to make this film.

"I was firstly, just very energized by the fact that the people that are being centered in the organizing spaces in Chicago were people that I felt I could directly identify with, as a young Black woman. I grew up around Black women my whole life, you know, in my home at church, in my community and so I really just wanted to allow it to be an ode to that group."

She said she really wanted to portray a side of organizing that people don't often see in the media.

"I knew the warmth and the joy and just all of these elements that Black women bring to the movement beyond just being strategists, so with Janae and Bella and really leading it to their personal stories, I just felt like it was an ode to the Black women that have come before us and what their lives look like beyond the public space."

O'Shay said this is an important moment for people throughout the country.

"There's just a lot of work to be done right now, and I think a lot of people are looking for ways to get involved in that. So I encourage people when they watch the film...to definitely feel righteous rage and to respond to it as they may, but also to understand that there's an opportunity to mobilize that there's definitely room for many voices within that," she said.

Ashley O'Shay, winner of this year's Groundbreaker award at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The festival, which was entirely virtual this year because of the pandemic, wrapped up today.

Unapologetic Trailer