Following a lively introductory performance by a traditional African griot, the 14th annual New York African Film Festival officially opened with the film, Clouds Over Conakry from Guinean filmmaker Cheick Fantamady Camara, a selection that seems ideally suited to the festival’s commemoration of Africa’s 50 years of independence and (indigenous) cinema – a humorous, lyrical, and engaging, yet thoughtful and impassioned cautionary tale on the intractable social dichotomies between tradition and modernity – the personal (and cultural) struggle to find moral balance between upholding indigenous customs and embracing progressive ideals – that continue to shape contemporary African society. At the heart of the conflict is a talented political cartoonist and artist, Bangali, affectionately known as BB (a homonymous nickname that alludes to the film’s catalytic cultural collision, an out of wedlock baby) who pseudonymously signs his newspaper with a rudimentary glyph in order to conceal his life’s vocation (and passion) from his father, a superstitious, and deeply old fashioned marabout. In love with his mentor and editor’s beautiful daughter, Kesso, a web designer who, on a whim, entered the audition for the Miss Guinea pageant and now unexpectedly finds herself competing for the title, BB’s hopes for a life together with his beloved Kesso and a professional career as an artist is soon dimmed when his father, having experienced a dream that he believes was guided by the spirit of their village ancestors, decides to bypass his religious, older son’s wishes to study abroad and become an imam, and instead, chooses his visibly disinterested younger son, BB, to succeed him in their ancestral vocation. But when his father is summoned by a government official to lead a prayer service on a pre-appointed day and time to help end the city’s unseasonable drought – a divine invocation that seems all too conveniently effective – BB begins to question the integrity of the often conflicting advice offered by well-intentioned people around him. Beyond the often explored territory of cultural contradiction, perhaps what makes Clouds Over Conakry particularly insightful is Camara’s ability to capture the moral nuances and shades of grey that appropriately – and relevantly – capture the complexity of contemporary existence: the father’s infusion of tribal fetishism with Islamic worship is confronted through the older son’s orthodox scholarship of the Qur’an, and who, in turn, is confronted with the inhumanity intrinsic in his more fundamentalist views towards the (mis)treatment of women; a woman’s reproductive rights paradoxically brings tragedy to both sides of the ideological debate; the idea of a free press is compromised by the editor’s self-censorship approach to the reporting (and suppression) of information in order to avoid controversy and maintain the paper’s access to influential leaders (and implicitly, uphold the status quo); the separation of church and state is blurred by the political cultivation of alliances with influential spiritual leaders in an attempt to rein in loyal, faith-based voters into their political campaigns.
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