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Bust a movie
Keeping it reel at Allston’s Hip-Hop Film Festival

Kevin Fitzgerald, a Los-Angeles-via-New-York filmmaker and DJ, has been working since 1993 on a documentary tracing the evolution of improvisational hip-hop called Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme. "I’ve shot over 400 hours of footage," he says over the phone from LA. "It’s been this work-in-progress that in a way is a sort of freestyle in itself."

Starting in 2000, his film screened in sundry small film festivals worldwide, evolving continually at each showing as new material was worked in. Its electrifying footage of quick-witted, acid-tongued MCs having at each other in street-side rap battles has made it a minor underground hit, one spoken of in the same breath with seminal hip-hop artifacts like the graffiti-sprayed 1982 docudrama Wild Style. But, says Fitzgerald, "we had some problems with people [at film festivals] not accepting us as having a ‘real’ film because we come from the hip-hop community." In response, he created the Hip-Hop Film Festival, a traveling testament to the DIY vibrancy of hip-hop culture that will be at the Allston Theatre next weekend. And he says, "We’re hoping to sell out all the screenings, like we usually do."

A line-up this good deserves nothing less. Fitzgerald’s own film is superb, tracing freestyle from its nascence in the frenzied rhythmic cadences of Baptist preachers to the stages of NYC’s Lyricist Lounge. Joey Garfield’s Breath Control: History of the Human Beatbox is similarly winning, an exhaustive exploration of the frequently astounding "fifth element" of hip-hop culture (after MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti) as mastered by Doug E. Fresh, Buff from the Fat Boys, and the Roots’ Rahzel. Tony Greer’s Word focuses on the indie hip-hop scene, from the trailblazing spoken word of the Last Poets to the apotheosis of Eminem. Jocelyn Rose Lyons’s Soundz of Spirit talks with Talib Kweli and KRS-One (who performs and speaks in Boston this week; see "Arts News," on page 4) about consciousness and spirituality in hip-hop. In Street Legends, Todd Hickey and Corey Johnson chronicle the hard-won success of the sprawling Bay Area Living Legends Crew. Each screening will be preceded by live performances and open mikes and followed by discussions.

"We’re trying to create a community of hip-hop filmmakers, to provide a platform for getting your film made, getting it promoted, showing it, selling it," Fitzgerald says. To those ends, he’s founded the Center for Hip-Hop Education, a loosely defined organization of which the film festival is only the most conspicuous aspect. "We’re non-profit. We’re basically interested in getting filmmakers’ messages out there, letting their voices be heard. We’re here to tell people that this is art, this is culture, this is history. We have something to teach people and hopefully share with them. And then they can be inspired to make their own projects as well."

One of the CHHE’s specific goals, he says, is to create a fund that aspiring auteurs can draw on to help defray the high cost of clearing the usage of stock footage and song samples. Still another is to build up and maintain an archive of film and video. "One of the roadblocks we came up against as we tried to look for stock footage of hip-hop stuff is there’s no place you can go [to find it]. There’s thousands of companies that have jazz stuff, they have country stuff, but there’s no one archive that has specifically hip-hop stuff."

It’s all part of the Center for Hip-Hop Education’s efforts to document a significant and often misunderstood cultural phenomenon in a voice not tempered or distorted by the mainstream media. "There are so many different stories in the hip-hop generation," Fitzgerald explains. "Breakdancing, beatboxing, graffiti, MCing. But there’s even more. Business, fashion . . . it’s just like jazz was a culture that had all sorts of aspects to it. All these movements have facets. And it’s not only the stuff you see on MTV or that gets promoted by these big corporations. We’re independent artists. We want people to know that it’s a culture and it’s art, and it’s worth caring about."

The Hip-Hop Film Festival screens next weekend, July 25 through July 27, at the Allston Theatre, 214 Harvard Avenue in Allston. Check next week’s "Film Listings" for showtimes, or call (617) 912-8626.

Issue Date: July 18 - 24, 2003
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