Celebrating its 14th year, the New York African Film Festival continues to exemplify the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s commitment to international cinema. Annually, programmer Mahen Bonetti expands perceptions of African people, culture and cinema, articulating the artistic commonalities of the continent while identifying regional distinctions.In this year’s festival, modernity versus tradition, African identity, immigration and exile, effects of war, and women’s empowerment were explored through 47 features, spanning sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and the Diaspora.
2007 commemorates the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence (the 1st sub-Saharan nation to gain sovereignty) by “reflecting back” on liberation struggles and the painful legacy of colonialism. Striking thematic use was made of French, British, Russian and African archival newsreels documenting the Pan-African quest for self-rule. Dating from the 1950s/60s, the fragments (many sequences are only 1–2 minutes long) are narrated in the voice of both empire and of travelogues. Viewed retrospectively, the paternalistic rhetoric (“Good luck to Kenya in her new role!”) and colorful descriptions are poignant. Named with such titles as “Africans Get Authority” (SA, 1959), “Africans Demand Liberation” (GH/GN, 1958), these films record optimistic, nascent liberation movements, many of which subsequently failed. Known players appear: the diminutive Haile Selassie in epaulettes; Mobutu, in his leopard hat; Kenyatta and the brutalized Patrice Lumumba over whose face is a haunting commentary: “ . . . feel that he is dead . . . failing of the UN forces . . . civil war that will go on for years.”
These colonial antiques were fascinating in relation to the self-representation in African-made films such as Testament (GH, 1988), John Akromfrah’s meditation on pessimism after the Nkrumah regime, which layers newsreel soundtrack over scenes of a returned exile negotiating an altered political landscape. The iconography of “independence”—briefcases, sunglasses, military pomp, “native” ceremony— resurfaces in two allegorical films: Kongi’s Harvest (GH/US, 1970) directed by Ossie Davis, adapted from Wole Soyinka’s play, and in Fanta Maria Nacro’s Shakespearean Night of Truth (BF, 2007). Made 37 years apart, both are set in fictional African countries where a crucial ceremony ignites conflict between the goal of unification and the maintenance of tribal identity. In Kongi’s Harvest, at the Celebration of the New Yam, a megalomaniac dictator, played by Soyinka (resembling Malcolm X and Lumumba), vows to coerce the people into unity. Lacking the poetry of the play, Kongi’s Harvest has a fun, retro, afromodernist style including patterned, animated titles by designers Chermayeff & Geismar. Night of Truth, conversely, critiques the peaceful, Pan-Africanist accord that sacrifices ancestral identity through an intense, theatrical story which builds to a violent conclusion.
A festival highlight was the retrospective of Nacro’s entertaining and socially conscious shorts: the seminal A Certain Morning (BF, 1991), a cinematic collision between Africa and Europe; Puknini (BF, 1995), a playful critique of infidelity; an AIDs fable, Konate’s Gift (BF, 1998); and Bintou (BF, 2000), which unfolds like a Lubitsch musical, propelled by a xalam as the abused Bintou, seeking to finance her daughter’s education, receives a friendly “micro-loan” to start a millet-sprouting business. Familial harmony prevails, with a happy ending of (women’s) economic independence. Clouds Over Conakry (Cheick Fantamady, GN, 2007) premiered, showing affluent Guineans grappling with both tradition and rising Islamic fundamentalism as a father pressures his son to become an imam. Paris Selon Moussa (GN/FR, 2003), starring director Cheik Doukouré, chronicled a resourceful villager detained in Paris who joins immigrants seeking sanctuary in a church. Both films are engaging but each ends with sudden tragedy that borders on melodrama. Also premiering was Max and Mona (Teddy Mattera, SA, 2004), a screwball comedy touching on soccer, transgender and the criminal underworld, whose quirky South African characters are never reduced to caricature. Daniel Taye Workou’s short, Menged (ET, 2007), based on a traditional folk tale, satirizes Ethiopian issues, including the paternalism of international aid, as a father and son travel by mule (and vice versa!) to market. Another short from an under-represented country was Meokgo & the Stickfighter (Teboho Malatshi, LS, 2006), an elegant, ghostly love story set in Lesotho’s Maluti mountains.
Documentaries included Death of Two Sons (US/GN, 2000) by American director Micah Schaffer, paralleling the life of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, gunned down by New York City police in 1999, and Jessie Thyne, a Peace Corps volunteer who lived and worked with Diallo’s family and was killed in a car accident months later. The two never met but both were lost to violence particular to their environments. In A Love During the War (Osvalde Lewat-Hallad, CG, 2005), a journalist is haunted by the pervasive impact of rape and separation during the Congo-Kinshasha war. Africans and African-Americans (Wairimu Kiambuthi, KE/US, 2006), although technically unsophisticated, covers the under-examined, complex relationship of Africans to Americans of African descent. Rostov-Luanda (ML, 1997) is another personal quest, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako (who made last year’s hit, Bamako), concerning his search through Angola for a lost friend.
Finally, one of the best films was choreographers Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgan’s beautiful Movement (R)evolution Africa (various countries/ US, 2007) which advanced notions of traditional African movement in modern dance that confronted issues of the body, identity, genocide and political ideologies. “My only true country is my body,” a dancer concludes. The packed, closing night feature, Bling, A Planet Rock (Raquel Cepeda, SL/US, 2007), links the eponymous hip-hop jewels to the mining of conflict diamonds that have fuelled Sierra Leone’s civil war. Cepeda crosscuts a contemporary mine director’s rationalization (mirroring statements in a 1960s BBC exposé) and conditions observed by Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, jeweler Paul Wall, and Tego Calderon. Yearly, the festival fills a simple and deep desire – to see black people on screen, portrayed in myriad ways. Go and see an African film.