The seventeenth edition of the New York African Film Festival is almost over. Opening on April 7 at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, the festival concludes at BAM Cinematek on Memorial Day weekend. In between, organizers Richard Pena and Mahen Bonetti preside over a mix of films, q and a’s, receptions, panel discussions, an art exhibit and even, this year, a proclamation by the celebrated griot, storyteller and artist, Fifi Dalla Kouyate.
Every year, the festival has a theme which is suggested by the films available a given historical moment. This year’s banner is “Independent Africa”, since 17 African nations are observing 50 years of independence from colonial rule. This year’s films were either produced in, or had performers from, a baker’s dozen of these, a tour de force of programming: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. The other African nations represented in the festival were Algeria, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, and South Africa, plus the usual diaspora countries (Belgium, France, and United States).
NYAFF always distinguishes itself not only by the stunning variety of films offered, but also by its supportive audiences and thoughtful discussions. A panel discussion on April 14 at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, moderated by Mamadou Diouf, zeroed in on “Independent Art: 50 Years in the Making”. The question hanging in the air was: from the point of view of film, were these fifty years a waste? African musicians and novelists have found a way to impose themselves. How about the filmmakers?
A young filmmaker, Wanuri Kahiu, dispelled any doubt about wasting time: “This”, she said, “is a new, not old, generation of filmmakers, treating cosmopolitan, not traditional Africa. I give praise to Nollywood (Nigerian cinema), because it has given rise to grassroots distribution methods. African cinema is not a genre; it is Africans making films.”
Even a partial account of some of the films from this year’s NYAFF shows the skill and seriousness of “Africans making films” about themes as varied as the brain drain, football, and science fiction.
(For more information, go to www.africanfilmny.org.)
Focusing on “A History of Independence” by Daouda Coulibaly (email@example.com), Professor Diouf named the feeling of “disgruntlement” conjured up by this short, with dialogue in Bambara and vintage political recordings in French and English. (Films shown at NYAFF are subtitled in English.)
It is the early 1960’s, and Nama and Sire have just gotten married. Nama decides to make his home in a cave, where he will lead a hermit’s life and devote himself to God. On day, God sends an angel to Nama to thank him for being so devoted… Be careful what you wish for! Alternating with the story of Nama and Siri’s personal turmoil when the angel grants Nama three wishes, is the turmoil writ large on the African continent after independence. Speeches heard over the radio are hopeful and courageous at first, then agitated; Nkrumah speaks of treason. Newly urbanized young people dance in a nightclub in Dakar; exploitation and lies prevail; “if you can stand the smoke, you will like the fire.” In the end, Nama uses his last wish to restore order in the home, as the narrator ruefully concludes, “like Nama and Siri, we’ve all made mistakes.”
Disgruntlement, or even despair, is the theme of “Has God Forsaken Africa?”, an hour-long documentary by Senegalese vocalist Musa Dieng Kala (firstname.lastname@example.org). It shows five young men who try to emigrate at any cost. Kader, 22, makes it to Spain as an undocumented migrant; Omar, 24, loses $6,000 to swindlers who promised him a fake visa; and Djiby, Ahmadou, and Ibrahima, all 21, are still sitting on a bench in Dakar. Musa Kala makes the historical point that the ancestors of these young men left Goree in slave ships: “their sons are willing to cross the same seas to work like slaves.”
By far the most pessimistic of this group of problem films is “The Absence”, the latest feature from Mama Keita (email@example.com), a Guinean-Vietnamese director who was born in Senegal and grew up in France. An award winner at the 2009 Tarifa African Film Festival, it had the most buzz of any film at NYAFF. Its theme is the brain drain of Senegal’s most accomplished young people, who find excellent opportunities abroad but suffer agonies of remorse because they have abandoned their country to its corrupt fate. The agonies are acted out in excruciating detail in this melodrama, which concerns a super- successful executive living in France, his deaf sister who inexplicably turns to prostitution in Dakar, her terrifying pimp, and bystanders who are variously broken-hearted, falling-down drunk, or dead. A thieving dwarf provides one of the film’s lighter moments, and a reminder of Sembene’s Dakar. Sembene allowed us some hope; Keita is plain and simply taking us to task.
A contrasting “feel-good” approach is employed by South African TV dramatist Jann Turner in her feature debut, “White Wedding”, and to good effect. Her road comedy knocked US product off the screen in South Africa, and was the South African nomination for Best Foreign Picture in the 2010 Oscars. Between gales of laughter you can tick off the problems: apartheid, Zulu-Xhosa ethnic tensions, false consciousness, bad credit. From Joburg to Durban, from Eastern Cape to Western Cape, the scenery is too beautiful to permit anything but a happy ending under the backyard wedding tent, where disbelief is suspended for an hour, just like at a real wedding (www.whiteweddingmovie.co.za).
It’s hard to overstate the hold of sports on the public imagination, and accordingly, NYAFF’s organizers rounded out their programming with films highlighting the first-ever World Cup in Africa.
Demetrius Wren’s “Streetball” punctures the big time bubble with a touching portrayal of eight homeless South African men who play in the Street Soccer League, a form of football that has its own World Cup (firstname.lastname@example.org). Youthful dreams of soccer stardom have worn well in “The Golden Ball”, Cheik Doukore’s 1992 tale of periphery and center (email@example.com). Its protagonist is Bandian, a boy wonder from the bush who makes his way to Conakry, with the help of friends, and to the brink of superstardom in France. The period details stand out: the village blacksmith shop, the kindly French “doctor without borders”, the Lebanese soccer patron (owner of fish and video businesses–somehow integrated into the plot), the rickety stadium in Conakry, radio, the Vietnamese taxi driver in Paris. Fast forward to Congo in 2006, where young drama students, as full of dreams as Bandian, are given their first crack at filmmaking by veteran documentarian Monique Mbeka Phoba (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Their assignment is to document Congo’s national football team, “The Leopards of Zaire”, which was the first black African soccer team to have taken part in a World Cup (1974, Germany). The result is “Between the Cup and the Election”, in which several aging Leopards are running for office in the first elections in Congo since independence. As one of them says, “We want footballers to defend us in Parliament.” These sublime athletes, whom Mobutu showered with victory gifts, are now just getting by. All were given new houses in a special “Leopard neighborhood” in Kinshasa, but only one has managed to hang on there; he is a mechanic and taximan, who now states, “many things became clear to me when I became a Jehovah’s Witness.” He reminisces about Germany; the German hosts were shocked when he ate smoked monkey meat; “Whites think monkeys are close to man–almost human, even.” Clarisse and Demato, the film students, must have had the time of their lives. In the event, the soccer players were not elected.
Wanuri Kahiu, quoted above, speaks for the emergence of Anglophone African cinema, which has become evident only in the last decade (although Kenya’s film industry built up its infrastructure while serving as a location for US production). Wanuri’s first feature, “Like a Whisper”, is based on real-life events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Her latest film, a science- fiction short called “Pumzi” (“Air”), is set in East Africa, 35 years after World War III, in a world with no water and with toxic soil (email@example.com). It’s no surprise that Goethe Institut would partially fund this topic; other funders were the Changa Moto Fund in Kenya, and Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal. Moreover, according to Vanuri, the BBC is actively seeking African film. Vanuri spoke to festival goers about the varied and changing distribution scene in Africa. In Tanzania, audiences watch films in video halls; and they favor the halls with the best live translators. Kenya still has movie theaters; Senegal no longer has a single one. Soon, we’ll be watching films on mobile phones. The point is that the model for film will have to take this into account.
As Wanuri pointed out, Nollywood has mastered grass-roots distribution of cassettes, and now discs, to the point where Nigerian actors have become celebrities in Brooklyn. But according to Kunle Afolayan, a second-generation Nigerian producer-director, Nollywood video is not making as much money as it used to. His answer is “The Figurine / Araromire”, a 125-minute, wide-screen drama, four years in the making, at an astronomical (for Nollywood) cost of $400,000 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Afolayan takes up the theme of religion, but gives it a twist. Two buddies discover a mysterious figurine, Araromire, said to bring seven years of good luck, followed by disaster. And indeed, the disasters follow most satisfyingly, in luxurious settings on Lagos’ Beach Road. But the question at the end is, what do you believe? Does causation lie with gods or devils, or with ourselves? “The Figurine” has set box office records worldwide, according to Afolayan. Whether it starts a trend is another matter.
For seventeen years, NYAFF has given New York something new to see and think about. In addition to the festival, this fine organization sponsors screenings in New York City parks, distributes some films, and publishes a series of “Dialogues with Directors”. NYAFF seeks collaborations that enhance understanding of Africa and appreciation of African film. The time to support NYAFF in its excellent endeavors is now.