This week the Honolulu African American Film Festival returns to the Doris Duke Theatre for two weeks of films, guest performances, a comedy act, and an acting workshop. Now in its fourth year, the event is driven by a dedicated festival committee, which includes museum docent—and retired judge—Sandra Simms. “It’s a very passionate group,” says Simms, sitting in the museum’s Palm Courtyard sipping tea. “Everybody feels very strongly about the importance of the images that we are putting out. In terms of selection and breadth, this is the best we’ve done.”
The festival’s strong lineup includes the documentary Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, about black Americans as photographers and as photographic subjects. Sandra and her husband, Hank Simms, are sponsoring the film, which she calls “a visual feast” that she thinks everyone can learn from. Following a year of tumult stemming from cross-cultural misunderstandings in this country, Simms sees cultural events like the film festival as “essential for our understanding of each other and the contributions we all make for the betterment of our world. The more we understand each group’s triumphs and struggles the better we are as human beings.” Her role on the festival committee is her personal way of contributing. “I am fortunate to have had a wide variety of life experiences, and it is important to me to share where I can,” she says.
A lawyer by profession, Simms was Hawai‘i’s first African American woman judge, serving in the position for 14 years. “I moved here from Chicago in 1979 with my husband, and I did all of my legal career here, first at the City with the corporation counsel’s office,” she explains. “I did a brief stint as a law clerk, then spent a little time with the attorney general’s office. From there I went to the district court in 1991, and I was on the bench until I retired in 2004.” She recounts her experiences as a judge in her 2013 memoir Tales from the Bench: Essays on Life and Justice.
Throughout her judicial career, Simms cultivated a strong side interest in art, and volunteered at the museum from time to time through organizations like the Hawai‘i chapter of The Links Incorporated. “I always enjoyed it,” Simms says, “so I teased Karen Thompson, the curator of education at the time, that when I retired I would like to be a docent. So when I retired, Karen said, ‘Okay, it’s time,’ so I enrolled in the class, and finished in 2008. The course was two years then; so I feel like I got an A.A. in Art History.”
Simms, who often gives private tours for groups she is associated with, like the Mililani YMCA and The Links, gravitates toward Western art, though she’s hard-pressed to name a favorite artwork. “It depends on the frame of mind that I am in. I always like the post-Impressionist era. It’s exciting, and I tend to take people there for the Picasso, the Matisse, and the Diego Rivera. I like that era.” But in the end, she enjoys all of the collection, and is particularly pleased with the new gallery of African art.
Simms thanks museum director Stephan Jost for instigating the process of getting her on the film festival committee. For the past four years, she has met with the committee and film curator Abbie Algar in October to begin the intensive selection process, which starts with a huge list of films—approximately 50 films in this year’s pool. “We do three or four sessions of narrowing it down, because you have to get down to seven or eight films,” Simms says. “It has evolved over time to bring into focus the range of cultural, social, historical, and demographic perspective we want to have. And then of course we want to have films that will be of interest to our larger community, because in Hawai‘i everyone wants to know about each others’ cultures.”
The perpetually busy Simms, whose schedule includes teaching, among other things, still manages to make the museum part of her life. “I’m involved in a lot of projects,” she says, “so I feel like I don’t spend enough time here. This is really the thing I’d like to do more of…this is my respite. This is my oasis.”
Honolulu African American Film Festival: Feb 7-22
See the full schedule.