By Yolande Brener
As I entered the Poet’s Den Gallery, a chandelier glittered above my head while a white Persian cat ran to nuzzle my ankle. Entrepreneur, Raphael Benavides (pictured), does every project full on, from environment to content to ambience. As well as organizing the East Harlem Film Festival, Raphael is a founding member of East Harlem Presents and East Harlem Restaurant Week. He also runs the Poet’s Den Gallery and Theater, and owns two popular restaurants, Ricardo’s Steak House and Ceviche Tapas Bar.
“To accomplish your dreams, be passionate about what you do,” said Raphael. “It’s not easy. People say oh wow you’ve accomplished so much. But on a daily basis it’s so much work and if you’re not passionate about it, it won’t last.”
The theme of the East Harlem International Film Festival is “The World Comes to East Harlem.” There are forty films in the program from diverse origins including China, India, South Africa, South America and East Harlem.
The Film Festival runs from June 1st to June 5th. The kick off event on May 31st will be an outdoor screening of Tito Puente, King of Latin Music.
“It’s such a beautiful, well done documentary,” said Raphael. “I would advise people to go to the EHFF website, because you will want to see all the movies.”
The movies range from documentaries like Raul, about a 75-year-old who wants to win the decathlon, to the Bollywood drama, Right Yaaa Wrong and String Caesar, a South African drama that compares Julius Caesar’s Rome to prison life, with inmates acting in many of the roles.
Raphael showed me through the gallery to the Poet’s Den Theater, decorated with angels, stucco and a sweeping red curtain. He plans to turn the theater into an uptown version of the Angelika Film Center, showcasing independent films six to seven nights a week.
“The original idea was just to do the Film Festival here in the theater,” said Raphael. “But then I realized we have some great theaters in the neighborhood, which is something that is very unique to us because these are community theaters. They are gorgeous theaters.”
Screenings for the festival will take place at the New York Academy of Medicine, the Museum of the City of New York and the Museo del Barrio. Next year, the upcoming African Museum of Art will also participate.
“Little by little, we’re going to keep adding more layers to it,” said Raphael. “My goal is to show the world what we are able to do.”
“Robert DeNiro has nothing on us. He might have the money and the fame but we have the name of Harlem. Let me ask you a question. What is more famous: Robert de Niro or Harlem?”
“Tribeca, watch out,” concluded Raphael. “We are the new kids in town.”
Got to the EHIFF website for more information.