Diaries from an African Film Addict

Hi, my name is Rumbidzai Bwerinofa, and I am an African film addict. How big an addict? Well, I live in Brooklyn, I am one of the laziest folks you will ever meet, and I still went up to Harlem for the Historical Harlem Parks Film Festival. I went as far as 150th Street — from Brooklyn! In 2001, after I had just moved to New York, an old friend from Nigeria called me up. We had connected, after almost 10 years, via email and had spoken on the phone several times. However, we both decided that it was too cold for us to leave our homes to see each other. But she called me and told me that this would be worth my while — the New York African Film Festival, in Harlem! So, I went up to 125th Street, to the Magic Johnson Theater, to watch two Nigerian films: Out of Bounds and Thunderbolt. I was so excited that day, I did not need the sweater I usually wear to counter the air-conditioned theatre. There was no looking back.

There are no words I have been able to come up with that can describe how African film moves me, how important it is for us to have this voice through this accessible medium, how amazing it is to share the experience and feel the electric emotion in the audience as we see everything “Through African Eyes.” So when I found out that the African Film Festival was doing an outdoor series in Harlem, you know I had to attend every screening!

Thursday, July 10

It rained on and off all day. Not a lot, just what we would call spitting. Mahen Bonetti, the director of the New York African Film Festival (AFF), was praying all afternoon and throughout the evening — please no rain, no rain. You see, last year the opening night of the Historic Harlem Parks Film Festival had been rainy and few people had pitched up. Like I was Mother Nature’s best friend, I promised Mahen that she had nothing to fear — it would not rain and many would attend. There was some seriously good karma hanging over this festival because it was dry all evening. The film screen was up and, next to it, a banner from one of our sponsors, JPMorganChase banner. The representatives from CarePlus came by, handing out the cutest bunny ears (I have a couple, ready for my next fancy dress party) and free insurance for children. The evening opened with a performance from Imani Uzuri. Wow, what a voice! Her music was infectious and a couple of kids jumped on stage to dance. The audience was not sure whether or not they were back-up dancers, but they were good so we applauded. Imani was very talented and had incredible range. She had us warmed up and ready for the show but the sun was still stubbornly up. Luckily for us, Jeremy James (who was due to perform on Friday) was on hand and gave us a prelude to his upcoming show.

By now, it was dark enough to show the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. I had not seen it before and was moved by the stories told in this documentary. You know, a lot of movies come out where someone has to sit down and try to put appropriate music to what is going on in the film. This is a documentary about how the struggle against apartheid created its own soundtrack. In a lighter moment, Hugh Masekela spoke about how Africans are always singing, no matter what they are doing. This, he claimed, was how the Zulus lost to the British. They would always sing before going into combat, thus giving away their position to the enemy. Prisoners sang as they were taken to their executions, soldiers sang when they were out in the field, white ex-riot police spoke about the terrifying songs and toying masses of black demonstrators; the songs are unforgotten, ten years on. The struggle and the music are inseparable — a group of ex-combatants get into a heated debate, during the film, about what came first, the music or the struggle. At the end of the day, undeniably, the two are one.

What a great night and what an uplifting film. It was a great beginning to a fantastic film festival.

Friday, July 11

The film at Jackie Robinson Park, the northern-most park in this series, was Mansour Sora Wade’s The Price of Forgiveness. The opening act was emerging musician Jeremy James, whom we had heard a sampling from the night before, so we were looking forward to hearing him again. Having heard the raves, a friend of mine dashed over from New Jersey to catch his show. and it was well worth the battles with traffic. From the multi-faceted music of Jeremy James, whose music is described as a mix of gospel, R&B and jazz, we settled down to watch the lyrical epic. This film is in Wolof, the main language of Senegal, and is an epic based on a classic, timeless tale. What struck me in this film was the use of color to convey the mood of those in the story and the state of affairs of the island on which the story takes place. A friend mentioned something about the great use of filters, but that is a little over my head.

I do know that The Price of Forgiveness is an incredibly beautiful story of love and loss. Two men, who are the best of friends, and a woman are caught in a love triangle. The tale begins with a grey island that is covered in fog. The handsome Mbanick (who would give Denzel a run for his money) dispels the fog and brings color to the island while winning the love of the lovely Maxoye. Yatma, Mbanick’s good friend, yearns for the love of the flirtatious Maxoye and is envious of the adoration Mbanick is getting from the islanders and his lady love. In a fit of jealousy, he kills Mbanick and marries the pregnant Maxoye. The rest of the film deals with the paradoxical way Yatma must pay for his crime. The film is breathtakingly beautiful; the tale is timeless. The traditional method of storytelling and the music of the renowned Youssou N’dour made this film a perfect way to end a stressful work week.

Thursday, July 17

At Morningside Park, right next to Little Senegal, it was only fitting that the night’s entertainment would be Senegalese. Things started with the world-class talent of Sing Sing Rhythm’s drummers who had people on the street stopping to look in from the balcony overlooking the performance stage. There was a man dancing his heart out up there and a young boy trying to copy the beats being pounded out on the drums below. Then the dancers came out in their first costumes for the first routine. The four dancers, three women and one man, treated us to at least three different rhythms and dances and two different outfits. They danced into the crowd and returned to the stage, followed by audience members who, carried away by the music, threw down on the stage. Children danced, couples danced, I clapped and screamed like I was at a concert. All too soon, it was over and it was time to watch the film.

The film was introduced by Danny Glover. I am ashamed to say, even though I have been attending AFF events since 2001, I have never seen a film by the Father of the African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. After this, I want to watch them all. And even then, I doubt I will have seen enough. The film was Faat Kiné, an ode to the single mother, the strong female, the independent African woman. After the film, a man said that the film was about feminism ten years ago. Perhaps for him, but I know that this story is as pertinent now as it would have been then. Faat Kiné, the heroine of the film,is a single mother of two children and owner of a gas station. After she has succeeded in raising two confident, disciplined and educated children, their absentee fathers come crawling out of the woodwork to try to take credit for the achievements of the children and woo Mlle. Kiné and her wealth. Maybe they thought she had Alzheimer’s and would not remember their unconscionable past behavior. Or perhaps they thought she was desperate to have a man, any man, in her life. Well, she and her children gave those men what for. Throughout the film, Kiné is supported by her equally independent, strong and beautiful ice-cream loving girlfriends. During the screening there was a lot of clapping and cheering for Faat Kiné going on.

I can’t say enough about this film but I will say that it is a must for any Women’s Studies, African Studies, or Film Studies class. Heck, I would push to have this film as part of an English course (the film is in Wolof and French); it’s that good. Sembene’s title, Father of African Film, is well-deserved, and I hope I am forgiven for taking so long to see Sembene’s work.

Friday, July 18

As I made my way to St. Nicholas Park, it never crossed my mind that this night might not happen. I was just hoping I would not get lost. The street sign said Manhattan Avenue; I was looking for St. Nicholas Avenue. However, I could see people congregated on a hill in the park ahead.

There were a couple of people giving out trash bags as I walked in. My curiosity was satisfied when I was told that the grass was a little damp from light rain that had fallen earlier. I must have missed it, or not noticed, what with all the rain the city has been getting. I spotted some friends and went over to say hello. We decided to wait until the opening act was over, before we sat down – a smart decision, I must add.

As though they had been awaiting my arrival, the Guinean drummers began. Their throbbing rhythms served to lead the lost and the unaware to the park. Once the music starts, you don’t even have to think about it — you start clapping, you start moving, the music moves you. The dancers came on and mesmerized us with their moves. I wondered if my feet could ever move that quickly. An audience member could not hold himself back any longer — he jumped in and entertained us with a solo. We did not notice the setting sun but, by the time the dancing and drumming was over, it was dark enough to begin the film.

As we went to sit down, the first drops of rain started falling, catching me totally by surprise. It was as though the drumming had kept the rain at bay and now that the drumming had ended, the heavens were threatening. It was the second outdoor screening of Lee Hirsch’s documentary about apartheid and its music, Amandla!, but the film was no less gripping. About half an hour into the film the heavens really opened – lightning lit up the sky and thunder rumbled. You could see the rain on the movie screen. Some people stood up, only to wrap themselves in a trash bag or scramble under tarpaulin and keep watching the film. A woman sitting behind us offered my friends an umbrella and continued to sit and watch the film, getting completely drenched. Some stood up to take flimsy shelter under the trees and others opened up their umbrellas and kept on watching. A few people did leave, but most of the people stayed, perhaps out of deference to the fact that it was Mandela’s birthday.

Alonzo Speight, AFF’s Community Coordinator, announced that as long as we sat there, the film would carry on – the projectionist had covered his equipment in plastic and was ready to sit it out and that is what we did, watching Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba speak about their exile and listening to ex-combatants talk about life in the bush and comrades dying, the words of an executioner, the speeches at funerals, the debates in homes and on radio about the struggle. We were moved to tears by the singing of “Senzenina,” and a little more moisture was barely noticed as we heard about the losses of family, comrades and friends and watched the painful funerals of youths. We wanted to jump up and toyi-toyi with the demonstrating oppressed in the streets of Soweto. We were so captivated we did not notice that the rain had stopped until the film ended. The crowd was so moved by what they had watched that they closed the evening with an impromptu singing of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” What a way to end the African Film series. It could not have been better if we had planned it.

Watch this spot for news of the next festival and hunt me down when you get there. When you find me, I will be sure to give you a contact card for African Film Addicts Anonymous — you will need it. I can’t wait for next year and the next, and the next…

About the Director

Rumbidzai Bwerinofa

Rumbi Bwerinofa is a essayist who is always writing on the website thefstudent.com. Her topics mainly deal with financial issues of people living in Africa, interspersed with some personal anecdotes. She grew up and lived in Zimbabwe, until she moved to New York where she currently lives, though she visits Zimbabwe frequently.