Notes from the 23rd New York African Film Festival

Each year, attending the African Film Festival feels like embarking on a journey across the heart of Africa. I am a comfortable traveler though, and from my seat at Lincoln Center, it is the eternal magic of the moving image that I submit to. I dream, I am amazed, I am angry, I am moved – I visit stunning places, meet extraordinary people, and discover the complexity and beauty of Africa and its Diaspora.

The 23rd edition was no exception with more than 50 works from 25 different countries. Ironically though, opening night brought a full house, not to Africa but to a more distant, idyllic, unexpected place: Vanuatu, a Melanesian Archipelago in the South Pacific! There in the small village of Yakel on the island of Tanna, one of the few remaining tribes in the world, a story of how arranged marriages led to tragedy is told, which made the tribe reconsider their ancestral custom. The landscape is stunningly beautiful. A pinkish, bluish haze and a roaring, belching volcano give a mesmerizing energy and dreamlike quality to the plot. The choice of Tanna to open the festival is less puzzling than it sounds though. First, it is obvious that the protagonists have dark skin and Afro-textured hair but there is more, for they actually describe themselves as the original blacks, some of their distant ancestors having left for what is today Africa! The fact that some words in their language are also found in Swahili or Yoruba has started to intrigue scholars.

Of course there is a little bit of provocation in the choice of a non-African film to open the African Film Festival, but it fits into the mission of the festival and is one of its most constant and endearing features over the years: to challenge viewers, take them out of their comfort zones, subvert stereotypes and traditional notions, and provoke and open minds to unconventional views. I remember Viva Riva a few years back, who took the audience by surprise on opening night with a beautiful erotic scene and graphic violence, which many resented as “non-African,” although some marveled at the ability of African filmmakers to fit into the genre and create a compelling action movie — with depth and a social conscience, I would say. Coming back to opening night, Tanna was unanimously well received (“It could have been worse” was the most severe comment I overheard by someone who saw it as another anthropological movie). I think most people liked the unusual and yet familiar tragic romance, so beautifully enacted. Some also felt that we should listen to the Tanna, for we have lost our ways, lost what is humane in us. The Tanna have wisdom, and dignity and tolerance. As someone in the audience pointed out: they are more civilized than we are.

Tanna Director Bentley Dean with AFF Executive Director, Mahen Bonetti at Opening Night of the 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Lindsey Seide
Tanna Director Bentley Dean with AFF Executive Director, Mahen Bonetti at Opening Night of the 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Lindsey Seide

Under the banner “Modern Days, Ancient Nights: Fifty Years of African Filmmaking”, the 23rd edition paid tribute to its most revered master, Ousmane Sembène, and offered a possibility to reflect about the changes and meaningful shifts that have marked African cinema in the course of those fifty years. A great number of filmmakers programmed this year were women. It reminded me that in 1993, the first edition, there was only one woman in a sea of distinguished males: Safi Faye, who deserves recognition as a pioneer. The Senegalese director went on to make Mossane, highlight of the 4th edition, winner in Cannes in 1996, and a true classic. Watching Hermon Hailay’s beautiful film, Price of Love, centerpiece of the 23rd edition, and the films of many other promising young female directors, I could not help thinking not only about the determination it took for women to embrace a career fiercely guarded by males, but also about the thematic evolution from Mossane, set in a traditional peasant village with its natural aesthetic beauty, gorgeous setting, ancestral rites and customs, to Price of Love set in an urban, bustling, modern city where a taxi driver unwillingly gets entangled with a prostitute. Modern Days, Ancient Nights – both stories are beautiful and end tragically. Both films represent two widely different images of Africa, two different epochs in filmmaking.

I liked Price of Love, and Lamb and Red Leaves also shown this year, because I still want to be told a story, be charmed, and drawn into the lives and adventures of fictional characters who touch me. But documentaries inform, and they are getting more attention today than before, as they are the work of creative, original filmmakers who explore the amazing complexity and depth of real life in a compelling and personal way. And they also tell stories, but differently. The fact that on a beautiful sunny warm Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock—after five days of cold unrelenting rain—screenings were sold out for two documentaries, shows that the audience shares that interest. Both the film Queen Nanny, which explores the legend of the Jamaican warrior who defeated the British and Yemanjá, which investigates the origin of Candomblé in Brazil, are attractive and well researched. They seek to retrieve clues into the past from the present. They recover priceless facts, gather fragile testimonies and put them together to reconstruct stories that have long been lost, suppressed or distorted, told by others or never told before.

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Guests attend the screenings of Queen Nanny and Yemanjá at The 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Victoria Trentacoste

Let us not forget that it is also the festival that brought to New York the first documentaries by African filmmakers, especially Jean-Marie Téno’s Afrique je te plumerai (Africa I Will Fleece You, 1st edition of the festival). At a time when fiction was overwhelmingly the choice of filmmakers, he realized the potential of documentaries to help change the negative representations suffered by Africans and empowered them to reclaim the past and tell their own stories. His very personal and direct approach to documentaries influenced generations of filmmakers after him. Many favorites of the public this year were documentaries, for instance Martha & Niki, the poignant story told, with so much empathy, of two successful female hip-hop dancers whose very different outlooks on life tears them apart. I noticed lots of teary eyes after the screening.

Many films also touched upon controversial social issues —prostitution, child witchcraft, integration of LGBT people and values, and the role that the creative arts can play in rebuilding a country after genocide. The festival is a forum where ideas are discussed, where the public meets filmmakers; filmmakers who hardly know of each other’s existence on the continent meet each other, and all have the rare opportunity to exchange views and mix in a relaxed atmosphere. The Q&As were well attended, more so it seems than in previous years, with a well-informed public, anxious to tackle real issues.

The conversation was also enhanced by the presence of distinguished historians and scholars who sometimes offer lectures in their area of expertise, as was the case when Professor Mamadou Diouf and Professor Clyde Taylor discussed Manthia Diawara’s imaginary conversation entitled Negritude: A Dialogue Between Wole Soyinka And Senghor. They provided additional facts and a broader frame of reference, so much so that the public quietly left the theater when asked, but resolutely sat in the amphitheater eager to hear more.

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Manthia Diawara’s Negritude: A Dialogue Between Wole Soyinka and Senghor post screening discussion with Professors Mamadou Diouf and Clyde Taylor. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez

The ethnocentric point of view of anthropological studies has often been condemned, but watching Pastor Paul, one can experience a sense of gleeful vindication as the situation unfolds and the observer becomes the observed. Pastor Paul tells the story of a Western scientist, clueless and candid, who comes to Africa to study drumming and the mathematical structure of rhythm. Only he ignores their spiritual power. He is hired to play a ghost in a Nollywood movie and becomes possessed – I particularly liked the reversal of roles. He is the object of uncomprehending looks and idle speculation. The rationalizing Westerner is even accused of being “unpredictable” by the African director who scrutinizes him and observes his erratic behavior with growing perplexity.

“Today male and female directors and actors are talented, enthusiastic and considerably younger.”

Africa in NY, a series of shorts, was a wonderful surprise. I was thrilled to see the line-up of young filmmakers come on stage for the Q&A: imaginative, talented and perceptive, comfortable on stage but slightly surprised to be in the spotlight, knowing that they represent the future of African film. In their films they are skilled at conveying strong emotions. They explore the creative freedom offered by technical innovation and they play a part in the evolution of narrative in cinema in general. The director of Reluctantly Queer, for instance, uses veiled black and white images to tell the story of a young man painfully torn between his beautifully fulfilling love story with a man and the pain he will cause his mother in Africa; or Olive, where juxtaposing two stories in black and white with sparse dialogue and striking cinematography, conveys the most harrowing story of love and betrayal; or Contained where the filmmaker uses simple, visual effects to bring the audience into the mind of a man held in complete isolation as he is suspected of having Ebola.

Xavier Coleman, Iquo Essien, MaameYaa Boafo, Hoji Fortuna, Alfonso Johnson, Ntare Mwine and Mamadou Dia at the 23rd NYAFF. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez
Xavier Coleman, Iquo Essien, MaameYaa Boafo, Hoji Fortuna, Alfonso Johnson, Ntare Mwine and Mamadou Dia at the 23rd NYAFF. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez

Watching the line-up, some of the earliest days of the New York African Film Festival came back to my mind — the “classic period”, I would say, when it was more solemn. The filmmakers on stage were prestigious, intimidating, sometimes demanding, overwhelmingly male and considerably older than us. Today male and female directors and actors are talented, enthusiastic and considerably younger. And they are attuned to the world in which they live in a wonderful way. And, yes, they certainly know how to tell a story.

I continued my journey up to Maysles Cinema in Harlem, the next venue of the festival. We had the leisure of attending a screening (among others equally interesting) of a three hour monumental exploration of contemporary Egypt: the various political, religious and social forces at play explaining the somewhat comparable paths of three subsequent rulers: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The filmmaker, Jihan El-Tahri, herself a powerful presence, charismatic and effervescent, made up for a twenty minute unexpected pause during the screening, substituting for image and sound, adding comments and her thoughts. After the screening, she answered questions with equal patience and competence. And with a most radiant infectious laugh, she admitted a preference for Nasser and declared that if she had to summarize her monumental work in one single sentence, she would call it “The failure of the post-colonial state”. In the festival, it had a more appealing title: Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs.

Post-screening discussion of Egypt's Modern Pharaoh's with Malika Lee Whitney and director Jihan El-Tahri. Photo: Dara Ojugbele
Post-screening discussion of Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs with Malika Lee Whitney and director Jihan El-Tahri. Photo: Dara Ojugbele

Then, at the end of May, I took the train to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), to an equally comfortable seat in a comfortable theater for the last part of my journey and the last five days of the festival. Most films here were dedicated to Senegal (complementing DanceAfrica’s spotlight this year on the country). Fabrice Monteiro’s photos have a clear message: we must save the planet. To reach out to young generations the photographer becomes a contemporary storyteller. In his tale, the earth Gaia is suffering from the abuse that humans wield on her. So she sends messengers who represent different wounds with scientific names: depletion, air pollution, toxic wastes, land over-exploitation and desertification. Only here they are embodied by traditional ominous spirits, the jinns – gigantic, aesthetically beautiful figures made of recycled material with the collaboration of the creative Senegalese designer Jah Gal. They are asking humans to change their ways. The film The Prophecy aptly chronicles the making of the photos, showing how tradition and art intertwine to send a hopeful message to those who have a role to play in the future. And there are solutions, says Fabrice Monteiro. Young people must realize they have the power to make changes.

Moussa Touré’s TGV shown at BAM, with the passengers of a Dakar bus en route for the border of Guinea, embarked on a hazardous journey in a lush, desolate landscape, reminded me of the classic Western: Stagecoach. Except here, danger did not come from Indians but from the imaginary “Bijagos.” Moussa Touré clearly intended to pay tribute to the classic Western movie, but his luminous social satire, incisive and funny, is a free adaptation of the conventions of the genre. One recognizes the atmosphere of impending doom, the long close-ups, diffident stares, the suspense, ominous signs, the breathtaking landscapes, etc., but the plot and the characters — the polygamist, the rainmaker, the marabout, the politician – are decidedly Africans. Another interesting departure is the fact that one night as all the passengers look for a place to sleep, the three women band together… mischievously, as if they were not impressed by their men playing cowboys. The film was made in 1997, but it remains vividly modern and the dialogues are subtle and full of biting humor.

I wonder whether today’s young filmmakers know that all African filmmakers once upon a time wanted to make a Western, not unlike Italians with their passion for spaghetti Westerns. They did more than an imitation though, they wanted to add their own voice to the general fascination for Western movies and the myth of the hero, and pay tribute to a genre they grew up with. As Cheik Fantamady Camara thus summarized: in the 70’s we dressed up as cowboys and filmed with a fake camera. When they had real cameras, they went beyond the boundaries of the genre, as brilliantly shown by Moussa Touré. It is interesting to trace this fascination for Western movies in African cinema. Think of Mambety’s Hyenas. Even though his film is based on a play by Swiss author Dürrenmatt, he cannot help giving a Far West flavor to his set – remember the station in the middle of nowhere, the sort of saloon where idle men hang around all day, the train that never comes but keeps whistling in the distance. And even Abderrahmane Sissako with his brilliant film Bamako, in which he stages the trial of the World Bank, makes a totally unexpected cameo appearance in the film as “Cowboy 2”, alongside Danny Glover as “Cowboy 3”. In the 60’s, some African filmmakers actually dreamed of making a “real” Western, as shown by Rahmatou Keita in her wonderful film Al’leesi (2004) that documents the birth of cinema in Niger in the 60’s. I remember a filmmaker excessively annoyed when a giraffe suddenly appeared in the distance ruining his take of the presumed American West.

“Some of Sembène’s Pan-African vision and his vision of women taking their fate in their own hands had come true.”

The audience at BAM gave a warm welcome to Samba Gadjigo’s film SEMBENE! and appreciated the presence of Samba Gadjigo, who engaged audience members in a post-screening Q&A. Samba is the official biographer of Ousmane Sembène and was also a close friend of the director. Their closeness, which covers a span of many years, allows for a more intimate portrait of the fierce “rebel who used his camera as a weapon.” The film also documents Sembene’s long career and shows excerpts from his films, which makes it a fascinating retrospective and homage to the master. A striking image stays with me: a very old man with failing eyesight, shakily moving around the set and yet handling, for the first time, an international cast and crew, working 12 hours a day in a remote place plagued by unbearable heat and no electricity. And making Moolaadé his last and most optimistic film about a most controversial topic: female genital mutilation. I can imagine the glee he felt when coming to the 2005 festival, his last visit, he sat one evening surrounded by young female filmmakers from east Africa, and guests of the festival, vehemently discussing genital mutilation. He had been heard. The old rebel had a smile on his face and remained silent. Some of his Pan-African vision and his vision of women taking their fate into their own hands had come true.

Here ended this year’s journey, but I would like to add a word on how it began. It was a town hall event three days before opening night, quite an experience and a huge success! As part of Thomas Allen Harris’ Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, some guests and participants’ cherished photos from their family albums were projected on a large screen. As their owners shared memories, the audience felt drawn into the lives of people they did not know and who became strangely familiar. Just like African films tell us a different story than the ones portrayed for too many decades by others, photos do the same, they reclaim and enrich the past.  A digital display of DDFRR photos —some stunningly beautiful – ran in the amphitheater at Lincoln Center during the festival, a perfect companion to fifty years of African filmmaking.

Historian Leonard Davis sharing family photos at the 23rd NYAFF Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow event. Photo: Lindsey Seide
Historian Leonard Davis sharing family photos at the 23rd NYAFF Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow event. Photo: Lindsey Seide