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New York African Film Festival

April 16, 2009

Sex, Okra and Salted Butter, 2008

sex_okra.gifSimilar to Pierre Yameogo's Me and My White Pal, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's crisp, lighthearted satire Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter reflects on the challenges posed by dislocation, estrangement, and cultural assimilation. For old-fashioned family patriarch and Malian expatriate, Malik (Marius Yelolo), the belated culture shock of immigrating to Bordeaux comes when his attractive, much younger wife, Hortense (Mata Gabin) decides to run away with one of her patients - an oyster farmer (a not so subtle reference to her sexual awakening after a passionless marriage) named Jean-Paul (Manuel Blanc) and, in the process of enlisting his eldest son, Dani's (Dioucounda Koma) help to help find her, discovers that Dani has not been harboring his mother in his apartment, but rather, a gay lover. Meanwhile, having neglected his younger sons in pursuit of his wayward wife - in a hopeless display of romanticism that included surprising her at work and serenading her with a kora from her hospital window (followed by a swift ejection from the grounds by security) - the boys have begun to search for their own surrogate caretaker, first, in the genial, if repressed, widowed neighbor, Madame Myriam (Lorella Cravotta), and subsequently, in Dani's troubled friend, Amina (Aïssa Maïga). Resigned to a life of dodging questions from his ever-disapproving, busybody elders, and tolerable, if unconventional living arrangement with Amina, Malik finds a glimmer of hope for reconciliation with the arrival of Hortense's aunt, Tatie Afoué (Marie-Philomène Nga) from Africa, only to find that the headstrong Afoué has her own ideas about tradition. As in Yameogo's film, the comedy of errors in Sex, Gumbo and Salted Butter stems from misperceptions of identity - gender, familial, and racial roles that, rather than upholding culture, ends up distorting it in its rigidity and exclusion.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 16, 2009 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 15, 2009

Sacred Places, 2009

sacred_places.gifDuring the Q&A, Jean-Marie Téno remarked that he was inspired to shoot Sacred Places as a result of seeing dramatic changes to the format of the 2009 FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso, where the practice of holding open-air simulcasts of featured films for public viewing around the festival grounds in Ouagadougou - often, their only means of seeing these native films on their first run - had been essentially discontinued, and the proliferation of marketing agreements had resulted in the wholesale inclusion of too many officially sponsored films that diluted the overall representation of African films and, more importantly, abandoned the spirit of the festival's founding principle to host a worldwide showcase for Pan-African cinema. For Téno, the displacement of native films to accommodate the interests of multinational corporate sponsors is a reminder that, with ever-encroaching globalism, African culture itself is at stake, and its salvation lies in creating novel, sustainable paradigms that reflect the realities of a developing economy. Examining the interrelation between globalism and cultural crisis from a grassroots level, Téno visits the working class district of St. Leon, a town that had been suggested by a local audience member as proof of the changing face of cinephilia that, in their limited access to big city venues and high-profile international festivals, has been largely ignored, even by native filmmakers. The first of these enterprising cultural warriors is Bouba, a cinephile and local businessman (granted, a tenuous label given that his business barely breaks even each month) who runs the humbly named Votre Ciné Club with a DVD player, a VCR, and modest television set, screening a different feature program each evening - complete with marquis-styled, home-made movie posters - to an appreciative crowd. For Bouba, the murky business model of using pirated DVDs is a necessary evil, explaining that his customers would prefer to see more African films but, at a retail cost of $25 for each home video - coupled with the limited popularity of the films abroad that makes them less desirable for piracy (and its significantly lower street price) - he is forced to compromise by programming more affordable Bollywood and martial arts films. Another is Jules César, a musical instrument craftsman who literally drums up support for the ciné club by announcing the evening's slate of films with his djembe. Preferring to continue making handcrafted instruments even as mass production becomes an increasingly popular alternative, he sees his role as a guardian of the griot tradition - a conduit between the ancient tale-tellers and modern ones (filmmakers). Paralleling the age of African cinema to the average lifespan of an African - 50 years - Téno presents a sobering assessment of a native film industry in crisis, struggling to communicate the story of - and communicate with - its people. It is this integral connection that is insightfully reflected in the portrait of an eccentric engineer turned public writer who posts literary passages and assorted musings on an outdoor chalkboard each day, a fleeting act of cultural reinforcement and assertion of identity in the face of erasure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 14, 2009

The Prodigal Son, 2008

prodigal_son.gifLike Katrina Browne's earnest and impassioned essay film, Traces of the Trade, South African filmmaker Kurt Orderson's The Prodigal Son is less a journey to find ancestral roots - albeit from the other side of the slave trade - than an invitation for an open dialogue on race and reconciliation. Having lived his youth in the waning days of apartheid in Cape Flats, a designated "Coloured Labour Preference Area" (a transplanted community in Cape Town that, a generation earlier, had been forcibly uprooted from a once integrated District Six that was being converted to a whites-only area during the government's implemented segregation in the late 1960s), Orderson embarks on a journey to trace the origins of his heritage beyond the adopted notions of home that the Cape Flats resettlement community represents. Researching the family lineage back to his great-grandfather, Joseph, a merchant sailor who had apparently jumped ship and decided to forge a new life in South Africa, Orderson soon discovers that his great-grandfather did not come directly from West Africa as the family commonly believed, but rather, from Barbados where, as a descendent of emancipated slaves who had been brought to the island to work in the sugar cane plantations, he had sought work in the transport ships in order to seek a better - if equally racially problematic - life away from the cycle of indentured service on the islands. But rather than finding long lost members of an extended family, Orderson's visit to the island instead leads to more ambiguity as his seemingly personal link to his ancestry - his surname - proves to have been an arbitrary identification by former slaves to convey their association with the plantations from which they were emancipated. At the core of Orderson's unresolved quest is an exploration of African diasporic identity, where national and cultural roots serve as convenient signifiers that sidestep engagement with broader issues of race and identification. This evasion is trenchantly illustrated during Orderson's conversation with a pair of older generation Barbadians - one of whom bristles at the comment that his race is African - implicitly revealing not only ingrained ideas about racial hierarchy (measured by degrees of separation from one's continental roots), but also the perception that identity is binary and exclusive, contributing to divisions that continue to undermine Africa's transcendence from a corrosive legacy of colonialism and exploitation.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

The Fighting Spirit, 2007

fightingspirit.gifIn an episode in George Amponsah's insightful and compassionate documentary The Fighting Spirit, a boxing trainer from the Ghanian fishing village of Bukom, having arrived with his protégée to England for an international competition, marvels at the technological achievement behind the gleaming urban landscape, commenting that the problem of African stagnation does not stem from a lack of ingenuity to build such impressive structures, but rather, a collective failure to nurture a "culture of maintenance". It is a change in mindset that he also strives to instill among the young boxers in his gym who, like homegrown hero, world champion, and hall of fame inductee Azumah Nelson, see professional boxing as a means of improving the quality of their lives and giving back to the impoverished community. For 22 year old boxer George, the UK match represents the first step towards building name recognition and legitimacy as a contender in Europe with an eye towards the title fight circuit (and their high payouts) of US boxing championships, as well as his own maturity, enabling him to earn enough money to build a house so he can marry his girlfriend. Across the Atlantic, Joshua now occupies the role of unofficial ambassador and standard bearer for Ghanian boxing, having left friends and family back home for a modest life in New York City to train for a highly anticipated contender match that will pave the way for a title fight in Las Vegas. For thirty-something female boxer, Yarkor, international boxing represents her best shot at breaking free from traditional roles to forge her own identity and financial independence, but struggles to launch her career after running into red tape in obtaining a passport, where an age discrepancy could render her too old to compete. By capturing the everyday lives of the three boxers away from the ring, Amponsah frames their personal stories within the context of the community's broader struggle for dignity and survival, where losses provide opportunity for character-building and soul searching - a re-alignment of priorities that is reflected in George's reconciliation with his girlfriend after his ego-inflating trip abroad (and subsequently deflating homecoming) following his first professional fight.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 14, 2009 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2009, New York African Film Festival

April 12, 2007

Max and Mona, 2004

Max_Mona.gifDuring the introductory remarks for Max and Mona, filmmaker Teddy Mattera indicated that the inspiration for the film came from two parallel thoughts: a romanticization of death stemming from the traditional belief that the souls of the recently deceased are not able to cross over to the spiritual realm unless their passing has been properly grieved on earth, as well as an autobiographical context over his own family's ancestral heritage as village mourners who were often called upon to assist in funerals (especially for those who left few, if any, surviving relatives). What unexpectedly emerges from this droll and eccentric concoction of interconnected ideas is an idiosyncratically offbeat, charming, if slight comedy that subverts deeply cherished, old-world traditions into a modern-day confidence game - exploiting the resigned certainty of death into a lucrative specialty service of ushering the souls of the all-too-humanly flawed and not-quite-so-virtuous for transcendence into the hereafter. At the heart of the popular (and profitable) enterprise is the naïve, village son and aspiring medical student, Max (Mpho Lovinga), a sensitive young man with a natural ability for turning on the emotional waterworks during funerals... a talent so unparalleled throughout the country that the he has served as the town's official mourner for several years, and who, in gratitude, has been sponsored by the villagers to go to Johannesburg and fulfill his lifelong dream of studying medicine, enabling him to retire from his ancestral trade. However, when Max is forced to spend the evening at the home of his layabout uncle, Norman (Jerry Mofokeng) after arriving late to the university for matriculation (a delay inadvertently caused by an errant sacrificial goat - the titular Mona - that he has agreed to transport for an upcoming wedding), he is soon forced to once again tap into his former career as a professional mourner in order to set things right. Alternating humor and pathos, over-the-top situations and understated moments of connection and humanity, Max and Mona is a good-natured and delightfully unassuming tale of community, familial obligation, and inescapable destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 12, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

April 11, 2007

NYAFF Short Films: Women of Zimbabwe

Spell My Name, 2005

In the opening sequence of Tawanda Gunda Mupengo's Spell My Name, a self-assured schoolteacher from the city, newly arrived into the village school and appearing immediately out of place in the rural farming community in her sharply tailored dress, encounters an introverted girl under a tree who ignores her request for directions and continues to busily sketch in her notebook. Immediately put off by the girl's apparent disrespect and the relatively primitive conditions of the school, the teacher is quick to articulate her displeasure to the schoolmaster, and requests an immediate transfer to another district - a transfer that will take a month to process. Resigned to the immediate task of fostering the children's education during her abbreviated tenure, the teacher continues to be frustrated by the girl's impenetrable aloofness and increasingly distractive, troubled drawings, often sending her to the schoolmaster's office for discipline, until the girl's desperate, tale-tell gesture betrays the cause of her inarticulable torment. Shot in episodic ellipses that create a distilled, yet essential framework for the evolution of teacher and student's relationship from resigned frustration to profound empathy, Spell My Name is an intelligently conceived cautionary tale on the perils of stereotype, silence, denial, and blind obedience.

At the Water, 2005

zimbabwe_water.gifA collaborative film from the Women Filmmakers of the Zimbabwe Production Skills Workshop, At the Water is an acute and poetic allegory for the often colliding moral dilemma between imposed religion and entrenched superstitions in seemingly progressive, yet still deeply traditional cultures. Opening to the image of a devout Christian woman, Netsai who, as the film begins, accompanies her husband to the main road one morning as he goes off to work and who, along the way, crosses path with an enigmatic stranger dressed in a dark suit only moments before witnessing her husband's sudden death in an automobile accident, the film chronicles Netsai's emotional - and psychological - descent in the aftermath of the tragedy. Withdrawing from the community, Netsai and her young son retreat into a life of insular, if devoted quotidian ritual, until one day when her son vanishes without a trace near the riverbank. Unable to find solace in her faith, she turns to the village spiritual healer, who reveals that the river god exacts an inhuman price in exchange for the child's safe return. Filmed in digital video, the striking, high contrast color palette of At the Water proves ideally suited to the film's overarching themes of testing faith, divine silence, and moral absolutes in a time of spiritual crisis and profound desolation.

Growing Stronger, 2005

Framed as an inspiring and provocative collage on the changing face of HIV and AIDS, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Growing Stronger presents an illuminating (and empowering) profile of two remarkably courageous Zimbabwean women living with HIV from opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder who defy the stereotypical image of HIV infection and AIDS, and use their first hand experiences with the disease as a forum for public education and awareness. The documentary primarily focuses on well known celebrity, Tendayi Westerhof, a former fashion model and businesswoman (and ex-wife of former Zimbabwean professional football manager, Clemens Westerhof) who, in 2002, broke the commonly held silence among sufferers of HIV and AIDS (whose deaths were often nebulously attributed to secondary, AIDS-related illnesses or simply euphemized as succumbing to death "after a long illness") and publicly disclosed her HIV positive status. Founding the organization, Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust (PPAAT), Westerhof now devotes much of her time to erasing the stigma of the disease, not only through personal projects such as Models against AIDS which seeks to bring awareness to the younger generations, but also through living by example, constantly emphasizing the importance of nutrition, exercise, and regular medical monitoring in her public and personal life. A similar message of healthy living is also articulated by Pamela Kanjenzana, a working class HIV positive woman who comments on her occasional difficulty in obtaining proper nutrition and medication with her limited income, but nevertheless, copes as best as she can, and who, unlike previous generations, is able to see a real future, even living with HIV. It is interesting to note that by focusing on Westerhof over Kanjenzana, the film also reinforces the idea of HIV as an indiscriminate, cross-cultural disease. Ironically, it is through this relative subordination of Kanjenzana's story over Westerhof's that Dangarembga illustrates, not a preferential treatment of celebrity, but rather, the paradoxical collapse of socioeconomic boundaries in the constant threat - and everyday reality - of HIV and AIDS.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 11, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga

April 10, 2007

Rostov-Luanda, 1997

rostov_luanda.gifSomething of a cross between an autobiographical road trip and a personal essay on the untold, residual legacy of Angola's turbulent twentieth century history as the country continues to struggle to recover from Portuguese colonization and a protracted civil war, Abderrahmane Sissako's Rostov-Luanda is an understated, yet pensive and illuminating rumination on the pervasive state of political and economic (and moral) stagnation that continues to shape the collective psyche of modern day African countries. A well worn, decades old class photograph composed of multi-ethnic students studying abroad in Soviet-era Moscow that has been obtained from a Russian friend provides the indeterminate, organic roadmap for Sissako's cross-country journey into the sublime, yet desolate landscape of postwar Angola. Recalling his shared hopes and youthful idealism for the cultural resurgence of a post-colonial African continent with fellow African student Alfonso Baribanga, Sissako embarks on a trip to his colleague's homeland in the aftermath of a devastating, Cold War-fueled, civil war. Encountering a series of strangers from the country's rich and diverse spectrum of ethnic and economic social strata who collectively define the face of modern Angola, Sissako's informal interviews with local residents inevitably take on the form of personal reflections and human testimonies that illustrate the country's deeply factional (and fractured) contemporary history even as it successfully cultivated a color blind, heterogeneous, assimilated society between Portuguese settlers and indigenous people (enabling a literal cultural interrogation that anticipates Khalo Matabane's own "road movie" approach to capturing the sentimental landscape of post-apartheid South Africa in Story of a Beautiful Country) - a resigned intellectual and former student radical who punctuates the intrinsic irony of her former comrades' patriotism and impassioned politics by noting their emigration from the country (a comment that also alludes to Africa's chronic "brain drain" of highly skilled and well educated workers); a gregarious barfly who watches the world go by peripherally from an outdoor bench near the entrance of Biker's, Luanda's most popular bar and tourist hotspot, having been thrown out for disorderly conduct; an orphan who once preferred to survive in the streets, but is now content to live with his uncle and attend school; a taxi driver who once received a house and automobile from his Portuguese benefactor, then gave away his legacy in the uncertainty of civil war; a mixed race businessman who fled to Portugal during the war and has now returned in order to contribute to its rebuilding; a genial patriarch of a large, extended family who is deeply moved by Sissako's interest in their humble stories, and sees the filmmaker's arrival as a greater sign towards endowing a voice to the marginalized; an elderly couple, originally immigrating from Brazil in order to seek out opportunities in the construction of their town's infrastructure, recounts the painful decision to send their children abroad during the war, and their own determination to remain in their beloved adopted village despite personal risk. But perhaps the most symbolic testimony of the country's resilience is reflected in an elderly woman's humorous account of her friends and family's mistaken belief that, often seen sitting on the front porch of her house, she must have been maimed by a landmine (an all too common scenario that is also depicted in Zézé Gamboa's The Hero) before subverting their expectation and breaking out into her fancy footwork. Far from a defeated, impoverished nation, what inevitably emerges from Sissako's reverent and compassionate gaze is a people ennobled by struggle, determined to rise from the ashes of war and colonialism through tolerance, hard work, resilience, and community.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 10, 2007 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2007, Abderrahmane Sissako, New York African Film Festival

April 9, 2007

NYAFF Short Films: Fanta Régina Nacro

Un Certain Matin, 1991

A farmer named Tiga's seemingly uneventful trip to the woods sets the stage for an unexpected collision between truth and fiction, reality and celluloid, that is illustrated to wry, comic effect in Fanta Régina Nacro's first feature, Un Certain Matin. Setting out one morning from his native village on the Mossi plateau in Burkina Faso to the tranquility of nearby woods in order to build a chair in peace, away from his children's calls for attention and other villagers' solicitations for gardening advice, Tiga's relaxing pastime is soon interrupted by the chaotic sight of a woman crying for help as she is chased through the plains by a machete-wielding man, and who, in the midst of a struggle, appear to reconcile and walk away together. However, when Tiga again encounters the woman frantically running away from her pursuer, his well-intentioned attempt to come to the aid of the damsel in distress leads to unforeseen consequences. During the Q&A for the program, Nacro commented that she had intentionally used an all female crew for the film in order to reinforce the idea that women are capable of working in technical capacities in Burkina Faso's almost exclusively male film industry. In creating an implicit parallel between the fictional metafilm and the reality of the film's production, Nacro subverts the notion of a male-dominated industry into an equally fascinating behind-the-scenes realization of solidarity and empowerment.

Puknini, 1995

The coincidental intersection of a beautiful Senegalese woman's taxicab ride arrival into Ouagadougou, and a happily married professional couple's public display of affection in front of an appliance store display window while shopping for a new washing machine (a seemingly indecorous act that inadvertently causes the traffic to stop) sets the symbolic stage for Nacro's humorous and ironic satire on the seven year itch and the elusive nature of seduction and desire in Puknini. Chronicling Salif 's indiscretions through Isa's increasing suspicions (and curious observations) over her husband's fidelity, Nacro subverts the hackneyed cinematic convention of scandalous confrontation (a thwarted scenario that is suggested in a mob's aggressive behavior towards the woman) and ménage à trios complicity through an anticlimactic encounter, mutual respect, and unexpected solidarity.

Konaté’s Gift, 1998

In Konaté's Gift, a profoundly relevant and contemporary social issue - AIDS awareness - comes in the unexpected form of a traditional, tale-teller styled, lyrical adventure. Upon returning from the city after a visit, Konaté's second wife, Djénéba receives a package from her brother that, as he subsequently explains, is a life-saving gift for her husband: a box of condoms. Arguing that the threat of AIDS is only a myth created by Westerners, and egged on to refuse to succumb to his wife's entreaties by the men of the village who, baffled by the application of the curious object, are convinced that such an alien contraption could only diminish his virility, Konaté refuses to yield to Djénéba's request and instead, makes an out of turn visit to the home of his first wife. Rebuffed by the women in his life, Konaté desperately turns to the village healer. Advised to return to the origin of the object that had caused such personal turmoil and touch the roots of the tree that had borne the strange fruit in order to make peace with it, Konaté embarks on a long and enlightening cross-country journey, where he becomes a first-hand witness to the ravages of ignorance and disease that have rended families and decimated villages. Told with humor and pathos, Nacro's thoughtful, yet humorous modern day fable idiosyncratically channels the effervescent, yet droll spirit of Jamie Uys' The Gods Must Be Crazy in its whimsical tale of human absurdity, and infuses a sobering dose of social realism to create an engaging, yet potent public discourse on AIDS education.

Bintou, 2000

bintou.gifThe age-old struggle between gender roles, rigid (yet inevitably shifting) traditions, and women's liberation plays out as a light-hearted, yet astute domestic comedy in Nacro's Bintou, the 2001 Best Short Film Prize award winner at FESPACO. Unfolding through the eyes of a village housewife, Bintou's efforts as she resolves to start her own business - and persevere against overwhelming odds - despite her husband Abel's petty attempts at sabotaging her fledgling sprouted millet cottage industry (invariably fueled by the villagers' implicit insecurities over their own domestic dispensability) and her mother-in-law's strenuous objections over the rightful place of women in the home, the film is also an insightful universal tale of the everyday cultural struggles between tradition and modernity and the often slippery process of gender equality that characterize contemporary society. At the heart of Bintou's seemingly insurmountable task is her determination to single-handedly raise money for her daughter's education after her husband, a gainfully employed carpenter, decides to only provide school tuition for their two sons. Chronicling Bintou's evolution from desperate mother, to resourceful businesswoman, to reliable marketer, and finally, to inspirational leader, the film is a refreshingly light-handed exposition on community, family, and women's empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

Death of Two Sons, 2006

death_2sons.gifThe coincidental, near parallel deaths of unarmed Guinean immigrant (and innocent victim), Amadou Diallo in the hallway of his apartment building at the hands of over-aggressive police officers in 1999, and American Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne on the treacherous rural roads of Guinea en route back to Diallo's ancestral village, serve as a potent and thought provoking framework for Micah Schaffer's trenchant, impassioned, and deeply moving social interrogation on the nature of economic imperialism, racial privilege, marginalization, and cultural arrogance in Death of Two Sons. Far from the terse, tabloid encapsulation of Diallo's tragically cut short life as a common West African street peddler, the film traces Diallo's often under-emphasized privileged upbringing, globetrotting, and enrollment in some of the finest schools as the son of an international businessman who, rather than stay in Guinea where he would have undoubtedly coasted through a high ranking career and become one of the nation's emerging leaders, went against his family's wishes to instead forge a new life in the U.S., seeing his struggle as building the rudiments of an instilled work ethic that would build character and ensure his future success I his adopted country. Similarly, Jesse Thyne, the adopted son of a California pastor, lived a life of middle-class comfortability, an uneventful upbringing that, as his parents surmise, may have been deeply marked by his childhood experience with abandonment in the early years before his adoption into their family. Unable to find his birth mother, Jesse would later join the Peace Corps, perhaps as a means of embracing all of humanity as his interconnected identity, where he was assigned to work in Diallo's ancestral village as a teacher, often dining with Diallo's extended family, and subsequently, was invited to attend to his funeral. A few months later, as a passenger on a taxi hired to transport several Peace Corps volunteer back to their villages after a holiday outing, Thyne and a fellow volunteer, Justin Bhansali would also perish, this time, at the scene of a high impact vehicle collision. However, as Schaffer incisively captures, what inevitably characterizes the uncanny coincidence of Diallo and Thyne's proximal deaths is not the eerily karmic connection between these two young men who have never met, but rather, the profound disparity in the way that justice was carried out in the aftermath of their deaths. Contrasting the acquittal of the four New York City police officers on all charges - including the lesser included offense of reckless endangerment - with the three year prison sentence handed out by the Guinean court to the taxi driver as punishment for an analogous vehicular offense for speeding (and subsequently led to a nationwide road safety campaign in memory of the Peace Corps victims), the inescapable sentiment of inequitable justice is precisely articulated in a comment by Thyne's father that, while "Jesse's death was a tragedy, Amadou's death was a tragedy and a travesty."

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

April 8, 2007

Teranga Blues, 2007

teranga.gifMoussa Sene Absa's epic and sprawling urban tale Teranga Blues appropriately opens to the shot of a Senegalese musician, Madiké "Dick" Diop (Lord Alajiman) being escorted by French authorities in handcuffs before a brief, procedural handover with local immigration officials releases him into their custody, and back out to freedom into the streets of Dakar with little more than a 20 Euro note in his pocket. The image of the deported, down and out musician in restraints would prove to be a prescient metaphor for Dick's figurative bondage upon returning to his native land. Reluctant to return home with unrealized dreams of wealth and fame, Dick falls into the nefarious company of a childhood friend, Maxu (Ibrahima Mbaye), an ambitious gangster and low level toadie to a well connected black market arms dealer named Zéka (Zéka La Plaine), who arranges to furnish him with a lavish loan in order to project an image of success for the native son's triumphant homecoming to his mother, Soukèye (Yakhara Deme) and sister, Rokhaya's (Rokhaya Niang) shantytown home. Borrowing heavily from his newfound underworld associates in order to endow his family with the financial means to leave the impoverished village and build a new home in a more affluent community, and persuaded into an unholy alliance with promises to help establish his music career, Dick invariably becomes indebted to the pragmatic and enterprising Zéka who, in turn, sees in Dick's directness and integrity a veritable potential to move up in the ranks as his trusted lieutenant. In its elemental fusion of universal, cautionary tale on the lure of easy money with a compassionate social commentary on the endemic cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement, Teranga Blues transforms from seemingly idiosyncratic amalgam of lyrical romance, carnivalesque (sur)realism, gangster film, slice-of-life portrait, and portentous tragedy into a sincere and impassioned, larger-than-life contemporary urban opera on star-crossed fate and inescapable destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

Clouds Over Conakry, 2007

conakry.gifFollowing 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.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

NYAFF Short Films: Young Rebels

The Train, 2005

A chance encounter between a young student, Giusseppe and a recently paroled ex-convict, Ahmed provides the framework for Brahim Fritah's distilled and muted, yet thoughtful existential allegory on humanity and modern day cultural identity in The Train. Set against the backdrop of a transcontinental train compartment that curiously resembles an apartment living room (perhaps a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's The End), an unexpected connection develops between the two travelers when the studious Giusseppe offers to read the letters for the illiterate Ahmed, whose wife had continued to send his letters throughout his eight year imprisonment, and one day, had inexplicably stopped. An awkward situation resulting from Giusseppe's seeming inability to read Arabic, coupled by a subsequent embarrassing transaction with the train's café attendant (played by Bamako actress, Aïssa Maïga) when Giuseppe attempts to pay for his order with francs, and a missed train stop perhaps best encapsulate Fritah's understated illustration of the indigenous problems of globalization, homogeneity, and cultural assimilation in the aftermath of colonialism and the borderless, Schengen Zone European Union.

Mama Put, 2006

In an unassuming neighborhood in Angola, an impoverished young family headed by an pious and indomitable widowed mother, already struggling to make ends meet and obtain proper medical attention for her sickly, youngest child, receives an unexpected visit from a band of armed bandits one evening. Placated into letting them go and leaving the children unharmed by cooking a meal for them, the family soon finds itself receiving tacit protection and a share of ill-gotten gains from the robbers who begin to make nightly visits to the apartment for their customary meal, unable to extricate themselves from the burden of harboring the presumptuous fugitives. Ever teetering between compassionate humor and dark satire, Seke Somolu's Mama Put is a thoughtful and infectious exposition on the amorphous nature of obligation, charity, and consequence.

Meokgo and the Stick Fighter, 2006

meokgo.gifTeboho Mahlatsi's sumptuous, atmospheric, and gorgeously shot contribution for the New Crowned Hope festival, Meokgo and the Stick Fighter, recounts the tale of Kgotso, a reclusive rancher, lone wolf stick fighter, and virtuous nomad who wanders the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. Orphaned since infancy, Kgotso was cared for by a village elder and traditional healer, inheriting her treasured concertina upon her death. Watching over his adopted village, and often coming to the aid of poor, defenseless shepherds who are constantly being terrorized by a roving band of ruthless cattle thieves, Kgotso leads an idyllic pastoral life pursuing the art of combat and music until he encounters a beautiful, enigmatic noble woman who, enchanted by the vibrant melodies of his concertina, begins to haunt his solitude. Mahlatsi's evocative, poetic fable sublimely fuses the rich, ancient traditional of indigenous African tale-telling with the universality of expressionist imagery to create a timeless and transcendent tale of longing, connection, and destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

May 4, 2006

The Woman Alone, 2004

woman_alone.gifDuring the Q&A for The Woman Alone, Brahim Fritah explained that his original shooting strategy of concealing the subject, Akosse Legba's face by filming only fragments of her body along with the empty rooms of her (former) employer/owner's luxury apartment and images from her impoverished village in Togo, was designed after Legba had requested anonymity for her (perceived) shame and humiliation from her ordeal (a strategy similarly implemented by Tsai Ming-liang in the documentary, My New Friends). The strategy turns out not only to be artful, but also a particularly inspired one, as Legba's horrific first-hand testimony of subhuman treatment is reflected in the fractured shots, disembodied voice, and impressionistic photographs that acutely - and poignantly - articulate her captivity and systematic dehumanization at the hands of seemingly well-intentioned benefactors. A victim of modern slavery in France, Legba was brought into the country on a false passport by a French Togolese couple offering a chance for a better life abroad, only to be forced into a life of unpaid servitude. Denied any kind of autonomy even within the household, Legba was repeatedly abused by the couple until a near fatal beating finally compels neighbors to summon the police for help and inevitably sets her on the path to freedom. Concluding with the close-up shot of a photographic section that gradually pulls back to reveal the entire photograph of Legba, with her integrated movement finally captured through the continuity of her image on recorded video, the sequence becomes an indelible, metaphoric reconstitution of Legba's fractured and lost identity - a restoration of wholeness - in the face of dehumanization, exploitation, and inhumanity.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

My Lost House, 2001

lost_house.gifShot from the austere interiors of a disused housing project that has been scheduled for demolition on the outskirts of Paris, Kamal El Mahouti, returns to the "home"of his youth in My Lost House where, in 1970, at the age of six, his family had immigrated from Morocco to France and lived at the housing project for the next twenty years. Juxtaposing the cold, oppressive, graffiti-riddled hallways and crumbling, derelict walls against the filmmaker's collage of thoughtful, affectionate, and fond memories, photographs, and personal anecdotes from his childhood - his family's first celebration of Christmas (after nagging his non-Christian parents to celebrate the holiday like his European friends did), his traditional rite of passage by participating in the sacrifice of a goat (all from the confines of the tiny bathroom in their apartment), his family's unforgettable, non-stop, cross-country, "eight people crammed into a compact car" road trip for a Moroccan vacation - El Mahouti's lingering, yet clinical gaze is a complex and bittersweet human history of opportunity and disenfranchisement, social openness and exclusion, assimilation and cultural erasure.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Toi, Waguih, 2005

toi_waguih.gifComposed of a series of informal conversations between screenwriter Namir Abdel Messeeh and his reticent, introspective father, Waguih, a reformed Communist and former political prisoner during the early years of the Egyptian Republic, Toi, Waguih evokes Chantal Akerman's recurring theme of parental silence - a silence of personal history borne of unarticulated trauma (in the case of Akerman's mother, the Holocaust) that has resulted in their own children's sense of disconnected culture and uprooted heritage. Unfolding in fractured conversations, extended silence, and quotidian images (most notably, Waguih's retirement party where his colleagues equally comment on his reticence and fierce intelligence), Toi, Waguih is a poignant, all-too-familiar story of diaspora: a rupture in the continuity of ancestral memory, a first-generation cultural estrangement between traditional and assimilated culture, a silence of collective history.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Noura's Summer, 2005

noura.gifContinuing in the muted, expositional vein of Amal on the marginalization of women, Pascal Tessaud's The Summer of Noura is an examination of the outmoded, often conflicting traditions that perpetuate a generational culture clash between old world tradition and new world modernity, an ingrained culture that continues to perceive women, not as independent people, but as properties of their families (and subsequently, their husbands), even as they lead self-sustaining lives so that they can provide financial support to the family. At the center of the story is recent high school graduate, Noura, the youngest child of a Moroccan immigrant family who leads an outwardly contemporary life of cell phones, co-ed schools, and mixed socials - her parents expressing their genuine pride in her academic accomplishment even as they clandestinely make preparations for her arranged marriage without her consent during a planned, upcoming summer vacation to their native country. Discovering his parents' ulterior motive for the homecoming trip, she attempts to contact her best friend in vain, before succumbing to profound despair. As in recent films that correlate alienation with technology through the iconic image of the cell phone (most notably, Jeong Jae-eun's Take Care of My Cat and Jia Zhangke's The World), Noura's Summer illustrates the paradox of cultural isolation in an age of progressive societies and globalization.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Amal, 2005

amal.gifA frequently recurring theme in the NYAFF Shorts Program, Emerging Voices from the Maghreb - and perhaps, in the entire festival - is the history of culturally enabled marginalization of women in contemporary society, and this theme clearly resonates in Ali Benkirane's Amal, an understated portrait of a cheerful and precocious girl living in a farming village in the Moroccan countryside who, each morning, prods her drowsy, unmotivated brother out of bed so that they can walk to school together. A bright and conscientious student, she has already surpassed her parents' expectations by completing her intermediate school education and now dreams of becoming a doctor - a dream that her teacher nurtures by rewarding her with scientific books to study during summer vacation, with a promise that she return the favor by paying a surprise visit to his classroom after she has earned her diploma. However, when her parents decide that she is needed at home to help her mother manage the house and will no longer be returning to school, Amal finds a way to keep her dreams alive. Juxtaposing the idyllic pastoral images of rural Morocco with the crushing evaporation of Amal's childhood dreams, Benkirane creates a thoughtful exposition on social inequity and culturally fostered gender bias.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 3, 2006

Delwende, 2005

delwende.gifS. Pierre Yameogo returns from last year's NYAFF mid-career retrospective with perhaps his most mature, immediately relevant, and socially confrontational film to date, a provocative moral tale on the barbaric (and largely misogynistic) tribal custom of scapegoating through witch denunciation and exile - often of the most weak, disempowered, and vulnerable members of the village - in times of hardship, natural disasters, death, and unexplained crisis. The film opens to a seemingly idyllic rural village in Burkina Faso where the elders' divine gratitude for the year's bountiful harvest is tempered by the somber image of freshly buried graves in the village graveyard, and a tribal elder gathering to discuss conducting a witch hunt in an attempt to find and eradicate the source of the epidemic that causes victims, mostly children, to suffer and inevitably die in contorted agony. Ostensibly motivated by his desire to save his daughter Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo) from the seeming scourge of the fatal malady (but perhaps, more likely, to conceal a grave transgression or to divest himself of all parental responsibilities to provide for her), a village elder named Diahrra (Célestin Zongo) dispatches an emissary to bring Pougbila's promised husband for a meeting in an attempt to expedite their marriage so that she may leave the village. But Diahrra's strong willed wife Napoko (Blandine Yaméogo) disagrees with such a rash and selfish decision, arguing that Pougbila's fragile emotional state after an unspoken trauma leaves her emotional unprepared for the life-altering responsibilities of an arranged marriage. In openly challenging Diahrra's patriarchal authority over Pougbila's future, Napoko leaves herself vulnerable to denunciation when a holy man is summoned to root out the evildoer from the village. In its fabular, affirming, and profoundly humanist approach towards critical self-examination, Delwende favorably evokes the films of Ousmane Sembene and Idrissa Ouedraogo in its incisive social expositions of outmoded customs that contribute to the cultural stagnation of post-colonial Africa.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Hotel of Dreams, 2005

hotel_dreams.gifAs a poor, underprivileged Catholic boy growing up in Senegal, Jeannot fondly recalls his family's trips to the idyllic, coastal village of Popenguine where, on the day of the Pentecost, Senegalese Christians would descend en masse to the village on an annual pilgrimage to the site where the miracle of a Virgin Mary sighting had occurred - a childhood memory that would be tainted by a fateful encounter one year with a security guard who would turn him away from the grounds of a hotel as he tried to admire its luxurious splendor from afar. The episode would continue to haunt Jeannot even after leaving Senegal for a better life in Belgium at the age of eighteen, where he would, for the next 25 years, settle into a life of middle-class comfortability with his European wife and their daughter. Now recently divorced and their daughter now an independent, young woman, Jeannot has decided to leave his adoptive country and return to Popenguine to build his own hotel of dreams, an ambitious project that would not only pit him against European investors who have already carved out their own beachfront properties catering to exclusively European clientele, but also the distrustful local community who find Jeannot's introvertedness and transgressive self-reliance (particularly in his failure to consult with the village elders before starting the construction project) too alien to be immediately embraced into the community. At the heart of filmmaker Helle Toft Jensen lighthearted, yet probing, observant, and illuminating chronicle of Jeannot's professional - and personal - odyssey is the reality of an emigrant's cultural transformation, uprooting, and native estrangement that occur with his assimilation into an adopted culture (a recurring preoccupation that surfaces throughout Trinh T. Minh-ha's work). In the end, it is this erasure (and hybridity) of identity that would prove to be Jeannot's most formidable obstacle in his lifelong journey home: a personal struggle to re-assimilate into the culture of his native land.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

On Line Rendez-Vous, 2005

online.gifA short film on love in the age of internet, On Line Rendez-Vous chronicles the everyday rituals of a middle-aged couple, Franck and Myriam who continue to perform the empty rituals of their loveless marriage in resentful silence: passively trading barbs through uncivil personal messages scrawled on their bathroom mirror, spiking drinks at dinner time, demarcating their sleeping area of the bed with a stretch of rope, and flaunting their virtual infidelities in front of each other. Convinced that he has met the woman of his dreams, Franck arranges for a rendez-vous on Valentine's Day with unexpected - and inebriating - results. Adama Roamba presents a compact, yet effective and affectionate tale of an estranged couple at the crossroads of their relationship who search through all the proverbial corners of the world in order to find true love, only to find their way back to each other.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, 2005

U_Carmen.gifThe 13th New York African Film Festival's opening night selection is Mark Dornford-May and the Dimpho Di Kopane South African Film and Lyric Theatre Ensemble's gorgeous, sultry, bawdy, offbeat, and invigorating re-adaptation of Georges Bizet's iconic Sevillian gypsy opera Carmen set in a modern day cigarette factory in the South African industrial town of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. Sung entirely in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages of South African, the titular role of the luminous seductress Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is transformed into the beautiful, alluring, and confidently outspoken cigarette roller and member of the Gypsy cigarette company's all-ladies choir who catches the eye of a dashing, but insecure and weak-willed police sergeant named Jongi (Andile Tshoni) who abandons his socially (and morally) upstanding life in order to be with her, only to lose faith in their love and abandon her. The film remains faithful to the musical arrangement of the Bizet opera (with the exception of slightly abridged versions of the toreador's song, Votre toast je peu vous le render and Carmen's defiant silence during an interrogation, Tra-la-la...Attends un peu, Carmen) while infusing a unique African perspective to create a bold and infectiously bracing reinvention of Prosper Mérimée's timeless, tragic tale of seduction, jealousy, betrayal, star-crossed love, and moral ruin.

Posted by acquarello on May 03, 2006 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 2, 2006

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, 2005

conversations.gifKhalo Matabane expounds on the cross-cultural interrogations of post-apartheid society in his previous film, Story of a Beautiful Country with Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, a thoughtful, insightful, and articulate melding of fiction and documentary on the changing landscape of new South African society as a result of continental (and international) immigration, refugeeism, and exile. Told from the perspective of an eccentric, aimless man biding his time at a local park reading Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's novel, Links who becomes inspired to write a story based on his chance encounter one day with a lonely, introverted Somali refugee named Fatima, the film examines the multifaceted nature of African diaspora, the meaning of South African identity, and the looming potential for social - and humanitarian - crisis caused by the large influx of new immigrants into the country: a woman from the former Yugoslavia recounts her heartbreaking decision to leave her homeland after years of seemingly unending, devastating Balkan Wars; an Asian woman who immigrated to the country during the years of oppressive military rule of a nascent South Korea encounters bigotry from both white and black communities; young women described their flight from their native country to escape female genital mutilation; a Catholic young woman describes her family's exile from Ethiopia for religious and political reasons as a child, and now feels as though she is a stranger in her own homeland; a British intellectual who immigrated to the country for a more sympathetic quality of life; a secret service agent (or perhaps, more appropriately, a hired thug) once employed by a now-deposed dictator who sees South Africa as a tabula rasa land of opportunity; a group of detained illegal immigrants awaiting deportation back to their impoverished countries express their purely economic motivations for wanting to stay in the country. In the end, what emerges from Matabane's elegantly rendered cultural tapestry is not only an indigenous phenomenon brought about by the free society of a new South Africa, but a broader, global paradigm for inevitable social transformation in the wake of migration, displacement, and multiculturalism.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

All About Darfur, 2005

darfur.gifIncited by increasingly prophetic remarks from the international community that the Darfur crisis is reaching the level of genocide, Sudanese native and British immigrant Taghreed Elsanhouri returns to her beloved homeland to create the provocative, insightful, and illuminating documentary, All About Darfur. Consisting of a series of interviews with ordinary citizens, government officials, displaced, often unemployed villagers from other regions who have migrated northward towards more stable communities, academians, and human rights activists as they discuss their lives, hopes, dreams, and opinions on the nature of the conflict, what emerges is an indigenous crisis borne of ingrained, centuries old tribal factionalism that continue to exist in the western and southern regions of Sudan that has been exacerbated in recent years by a large-scale nomadic migration from neighboring, drought-stricken countries such as Chad. As Elsanhouri subsequently reinforces during the Q&A, the notion of Sudan as a country is, in itself, an artificial creation - an amalgam of disparate (and often opposing) tribes artificially bounded by colonial-era territorialism. In essence, Elsanhouri refutes the international consensus that the crisis of Darfur is reducible to simplified conclusions of ethnic cleaning, racial intolerance, government impotence, and tribal anarchy, but rather, a complex dynamic of tribal hierarchy and the unforeseen consequence of government-empowered militias whose allegiance to the government is superseded by their allegiance to their tribes (most notably, in the operations of the Janjaweed militia). It is this cultural insight that also fuels the sense of reluctance by the Sudanese population towards foreign intervention as a solution to the crisis (and particularly, intervention in a post Iraq War environment), a resignation to the idea that, like the former Yugoslavia, the notion of one united country is a colonially fabricated, vestigial myth that perhaps was not meant to be.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Little Senegal, 2001

little_senegal.gifAn aging museum curator named Alloune (Sotigui Kouyaté) conducts walking tours of a historical internment and transfer port in Goree Island used during the slave trade, a vocation that often makes him a first-hand witness to the tourists' emotionally wrenching experience. Haunted by recurring dreams of his ancestors, he becomes convinced that at the root of his unsettled conscience is their invocation for him to reconnect with the descendants of his tribal elders who were once taken from the village and sold into slavery in South Carolina. Embarking on a transcontinental journey that traces the route of a family sold into the slave trade from Senegal through a network of South Carolina plantations and eventually to their emancipation, Alloune's research brings him to Harlem and the shared apartment of his newly immigrated nephew, Hassan (Karim Traoré) and his roommate Karim (Roschdy Zem) in search of a tribal relative named Ida Robinson (Sharon Hope), the determined and fiercely independent owner of a newspaper and sundry store. But Alloune's idealized hopes for an ancestrally fated reunion is immediately quashed when Ida misconstrues Alloune's willingness to help her with her shop and her search for estranged, troubled granddaughter as an all-too-frequent overture by impoverished immigrants seeking to curry favor in order to get a job. Rachid Bouchareb creates a sophisticated, affectionate, and thoughtful examination of social prejudice, division, otherness, and community in Little Senegal. Anticipating the muted, offbeat slice-of-life stories of Eastern European cinema, Bouchareb elegantly interweaves incisive social commentary and compassionate human comedy to create an understated, yet indelible meditation on human interconnectedness.

Posted by acquarello on May 02, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 1, 2006

The Colonial Friend, 2004

colonial_friend.gifRachid Bouchareb's indelible and haunting short film The Colonial Friend is a muted, yet thoughtful and compelling true historical account of the 1944 massacre by the French army of indigenous African soldiers who sought to collect wages for their military service. Centered on a Cameroonian farmer, Abi, who, like many able-bodied indigenous men from colonized territories, leaves his family to heed the patriotic call for conscription into the French armed forces during the early 1940s as part of the nation's war campaign against the Germans, he serves with distinction during the war, fighting - and often dying - alongside French and colonized soldiers in the battlefield until he is captured and interned when France falls into the hands of the Germans. Eventually repatriated at the end of the war, Abi briefly returns to his family before rejoining his fellow Senegalese veterans to demand their unpaid wages at Camp de Thiaroye, a peaceful protest that soon turns deadly when the French army turns its armaments towards its own soldiers to force their evacuation from the military installation. Elegantly (and incisively) rendered in two-tone (black and red), pencil sketch animation, Bouchareb understatedly, but effectively presents a pervasive image of subtle, yet omnipresent division and differentiation that continues to surface despite the perpetuated myth of colonial assimilation and enlightened occupation.

Note: The Colonial Friend is viewable online from Tadrart Films.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

Quartier Mozart, 1992

quartier_mozart.gifJean-Pierre Bekolo channels the manic freeverse, urban culture, and confrontational humor of Spike Lee's early films in Quartier Mozart, an eccentric, socially incisive fable on a schoolgirl known as Queen of the 'Hood who, with the aid of the village witch, Maman Thekla, asks to experience life as a man in Yaounde's working class district of Mozart. Metamorphosed into a handsome, young man named My Guy, the metaphoric New Man emerges from a desolate field where he immediately catches the eye of Saturday, the virginal daughter of the police chief, Mad Dog. Accompanied by Maman Thekla, now transformed into a modern day folkloric comic figure, Panka who emasculates those who unwittingly shake his hand, he becomes My Guy's guide and protector to the social and sexual politics of the quarter: a self-made man who reinforces his stature by taking on a second wife, the subtle inculcation of Christianity into daily life, even as the people continue to practice traditional - often conflicting - customs, the marginalized role and maltreatment of women that sharply contrasts with their real roles as family nurturers and community builders (and, as in the case of Mad Dog's exiled first wife, literally feeds society when she sets up a vending stand near a high traffic street). As in Lee's films, Bekolo uses archetypal characters, informal fourth wall address, jaunty camerawork, and integral incorporation of pop music to illustrate the paradox of social and gender inequity and anachronism of contemporary life in post-colonial Cameroon.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York African Film Festival

May 1, 2005

Keita, The Heritage of the Griot, 1995

keita.gifOne day, in the rural village of Wagadu, a slumbering griot (traditional tale-teller) named Djéliba is visited by the spirit of an ancient hunter and oracle as he recounts in his dreams the legend of a tribesman on the dawn of civilization who rose up and proclaimed himself king of Mandé with the neutral consent of his village, assuming the name Konaté after their collective response, "konaté" ("No one hates you"), to his declaration of self-empowerment. Awakening with a sense of inexorable destiny and divine purpose, Djéliba decides to undertake a long journey into the city in order to begin the indoctrination of the king's descendant, a young boy named Mabo Keita who, upon his initial encounter, is sitting on the front porch of his home reading the sterile and impersonal explanation of humanity's evolution provided by Darwin's Theory. Providing Mabo with a tantalizing glimpse of his ancestral history as a descendant, not that of apes, but of an ancient king named Sundjata, the son of Konaté and his second wife, an outcast hunchback who possesses mystical powers of natural transformation (nyama) named Sogolon, Mabo is immediately taken with the griot's fanciful and exotic story that provides the contextual background for the origin of his name that, as Djéliba cautiously explains, would take nearly a lifetime to tell in its entirety. Soon, as Mabo becomes increasingly obsessed with the ancient tale on the meaning of his ancestral name, he begins to forgo his studies, daydream, and skip classes, creating a conflict within the Keita household between his traditionally-minded father who encourages Djéliba's cultural initiation through oral history and his progressive-minded mother who believes that Mabo's successful future rests on his ability to master a Western education. Interweaving episodes of the thirteenth century poem, The Sundjata Epic into the contemporary, cautionary tale of cultural marginalization in the face of increasing Westernization in Burkina Faso, Keita, The Heritage of the Griot is an evocative, elegantly conceived, and understatedly insightful articulation of the dilemma confronting many African countries at the turn of the century as they struggle to reconcile the influences of their post-colonial past and their pre-colonial history in their (inevitable) social mobilization towards industrialization, technological progress, and modernization. Filmmaker Dani Kouyaté elegantly (and ingeniously) structures the film to reflect the overarching theme on the virtues of an ethnocentric education as a means of preserving cultural heritage in an age of impersonalized globalization (note the film's reference to Mabo's traditional studies as a lifelong quest to know the meaning of his name, in essence, his identity). It is this innate search for reconciliation and preservation of indigenous history that is reflected in Mabo's enlightened quest to know the origin of his name - the need for cultural integration as a means of cultivating and preserving native identity in a national climate of inevitable change, redefinition, and transformation.

Posted by acquarello on May 01, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 30, 2005

Story of a Beautiful Country, 2004

beautifulcountry.gifDuring the post-screening Q&A of Story of a Beautiful Country, filmmaker Khalo Matabane stated that his inspiration for his self-described road movie indirectly came from the daily television broadcasts of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, observing that many of the witnesses to the struggle - the human testimonies that not only chronicled national history under apartheid, but also ushered the emergence of a new South Africa - were predominantly given by women. Evoking the familiar African expression, "Truth is a woman", Matabane then sought to capture the complexity of his native country by interviewing a socially, culturally, intellectually, and economically diverse cross-section of South Africans, mostly women, through a multi-city journey using a familiar, South African mode of transportation: the minibus (that, as the filmmaker subsequently explains, was selected primarily because the vehicle provided a large, panoramic rear window with which to appropriately frame the majestic, native landscape). It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that film recalls the transcendent nomadism, intimacy, and cultural insight of the women passengers (and divorced, middle-class driver) in Abbas Kiarostami's Ten.

Presenting a series of interviews (and performances) from a varied demographic of ordinary citizens, sight-seers, professionals, artists, and students, and interwoven through a radio talk show broadcast that intermittently conducts and engages discussion on opinion polls that attempt to gauge the state of racial relations within the nation, the film serves as an insightful, contemplative, and impassioned open invitation to cross-cultural dialogue on contemporary social issues in South Africa: a militant Boer farmer eager to reclaim the government to a whites-only rule; a young woman who questions the reality of true reconciliation in such a short period of time; an interracial couple who ponders the idea of starting a family; an ethnically multiracial young woman who proudly identifies herself using the socially discouraged, apartheid-era term "colored" to describe her mixed race heritage; a young, Afrikaaner woman who derives energy and inspiration from her newfound access to the nation's diverse cultures; a silent, middle-aged woman who visits the grave of her son (a victim of post-apartheid racial violence by right-wing extremists); a privileged young woman of native African descent who (not surprisingly) foresees a bright future for the new South Africa even as she acknowledges that Johannesburg still remains largely segregated because of continued economic disparity. In expressing his gravitation in the final editing of the film towards episodes in which the interviewees exhibited moments of silence, incoherence, or prolonged deliberativeness in their responses, Matabane reflects, not only the inherently personal, indefinable process of reconciliation and closure, but also the ephemeral, inarticulable beauty of his beloved homeland.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Born into Struggle, 2004

bornintostruggle.gifPart first-hand historical testament on South African anti-apartheid movement and part essay confessional (or perhaps even emotional exorcism) on the filmmaker and activist, Rehad Desai's absence during the formative years of his own son's life, Born into Struggle is an intimate and provocative examination of the personal legacy and intangible familial toll caused by the patriarch, Barney Desai's political activism and consuming obsession towards the struggle for freedom in his beloved homeland. A leading figure in the South African Coloured People's Congress during the 1960s (and subsequent leader in the Pan-Africanist Congress in the 1990s), Barney Desai would continue his campaign for equal justice even while in exile in England, working as an advocate for minority clients who found themselves running afoul with the police (most notably, during the labor strikes of the 1970s) and documenting the torture and death of West Cape activist and Muslim elder Imam Haron while under police detention in 1969 through the publication of the book, The Killing of the Imam: South African Tyranny Defied by Courage and Faith. However, Barney Desai's exacting and tireless dedication would have repercussions on the Desai family: a daughter conceals her childhood molestation by a family friend from her parents for fear that her father's already demoralized emotional state following his exile would sink him further into depression (a subconscious suppression that would lead to an abusive relationship in her adult life); an older son has completely estranged himself from his family and politics, rejecting his father's academic intellectualism by refraining from obtaining a college education against his father's advice; a younger son redirects his rage and sense of emotional abandonment through escalating drug addiction and the harassment and brutalization of other ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast to the affirming portrait of familial solidarity and commitment to the national struggle presented in A South African Love Story: Walter and Albertine Sisulu, what emerges in Rehad Desai's sincere and articulate exposition is a portrait of conflicted emotion, haunted memory, and residual estrangement. In this respect, the Desai children's sentiment towards their father's conscious estrangement from his family in the final months of his life during the formation of the transitional post-apartheid government recalls the lingering ambivalence of Miklòs Gimes and his mother, Lucy in the personal documentary, Mutter, in which the patriarch's image as a national hero becomes equally difficult to reconcile with his own personal failings as a husband and father (Barney Desai's wife similarly alludes to the possibility of his extramarital affairs during his many trips away from home). In the end, what emerges in Born into Struggle is not only a fascinating tale of one family's decades long, multinational campaign for equal rights, but more importantly, a provocative and insightful portrait of personal reconciliation and the intangible, human cost of freedom.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 30, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 29, 2005

The Hero, 2004

hero.gifEach day, a decorated war veteran and landmine victim named Vitório, having been discharged from the military after the government issued troop demobilization orders at the end of the 30 year civil war, waits in the wings of an overcrowded, physical rehabilitation hospital to see if his petition for a prosthetic leg has finally been granted. Earning the sympathy of a staff physician, Vitório is placed at the head of the waiting list, outfitted with a new prosthesis, and expediently sent away with the qualification that this would be the only gesture that the doctor can offer to help him in his new life. With his newfound mobility (and freedom), Vitório leaves the hospital to return to civilian life after a 20-year forcible conscription, only to find that widespread unemployment, minimal government transition assistance, and his physical disability leave him with few opportunities to rebuild his life in the chaotic social climate of postwar Angola. Resorting to living in the streets, the disillusioned Vitório begins to spend his aimless evenings at a seedy bar where he meets a hostess named Judite who, several years earlier, had lost custody of her son. In another part of the city, a troubled adolescent boy named Manu, already prone to mischief and petty theft, is sent home along with the rest of his classmates after their teacher announces that the teacher's union has declared a strike and is suspending classes indefinitely. Involuntarily separated from his parents during the war, young Manu lives with his elderly grandmother who still cherishes the (perhaps elusive) hope that his father would one day return to them. In the meantime, Manu's teacher Joana, the privileged daughter of a Portuguese expatriate, attempts to provide some semblance of stability to Manu's tumultuous life by visiting his grandmother's home and encouraging Manu to study during the hiatus. Nevertheless, despite their attempts to instill a sense of discipline in the young boy, Manu continues to commit petty crimes in the hopes of securing enough money to embark on a cross-country trip to search for his missing father. Inevitably, the paths of Vitorio, Judite, and Manu would converge on an actual "other side of the tracks" in the city of Luanda and, in the process, reveal the tragedy of displacement and a lost generation rended by a protracted and devastating war. A thoughtful and compassionate exposition on the process of reconciliation and human resilience, The Hero incisively captures the travails of ordinary people as they struggle to find their place in the amorphous and rapidly transforming socio-economic landscape of a new Angola. From the opening sequence depicting Vitório's daily hospital ritual, filmmaker Zézé Gamboa introduces the film's recurring theme of replacement and surrogacy that is subsequently reflected in the characters' forging of makeshift families as a human imperative towards healing and closure. It is within this deeply humanist message of surrogacy, interdependence, and connection that Gamboa illustrates that true national recovery is achieved, not with the laying down of arms at the end of the conflict, but with the restoration of communality, human dignity, and inner peace.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Waiting for Valdez, 2002

valdez.gifIn an unnamed section of 1970s Johannesburg, a cheerful, inquisitive schoolboy named Sharky stares transfixedly at a billboard poster promoting the screening of the Burt Lancaster film, Valdez is Coming at a local theater. Living under the custody and supervision of his grandmother after his parents were forcibly uprooted and relocated to distant parts of Johannesburg during the implementation of apartheid segregation, young Sharky's childhood, nevertheless, retains a semblance of normalcy in spite of the political turmoil surrounding his country: an idyllic childhood filled with doting affection, playground misadventures, and curious bewilderment (in particular, from an eccentric relative whose ambition is to pass for a white person and, perhaps implicitly, avoid the mandated segregation). Unable to raise enough money to watch the film first-hand, he instead buys admission into the narrated installments of the story that his friends re-enact nightly around a bonfire. However, when his grandmother unexpectedly falls ill, Sharky ends up missing the end of the film. Filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi presents an understated and evocative quotidian portrait of life in 1970s apartheid-era segregation in Waiting for Valdez. Through the intrinsic correlation with Valdez is Coming - a film that, uncoincidentally, centers on a David and Goliath-styled retribution for a transgression that can never truly be set right - Phakathi presents Sharky's truncated story as an allegory for the broader national struggle sweeping South Africa as the turmoil and uncertainty of the times is revealed within the context of human history to merely serve as a delayed moment of inevitable reckoning.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 28, 2005

The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2004

colonial.gifIn an early episode of The Colonial Misunderstanding, a reverend from Cameroon who is working towards the restoration and proper attribution of a native Jamaican missionary, Joseph Merrick's historical importance in the Christianization of the country during the early half of the 1800s (a historical suppression that, in the light of colonialization in the latter half of the 1800s, instead became attributed to the British missionary, Alfred Saker) expounds on the fundamental difference between Merrick and Saker's approach to ministry, explaining that Merrick saw God within the souls of the native African as they were, and believed that his mission was to work from this level of intrinsic human commonality and elevate them through the Word of God, while Saker, in contrast, set western Christian ideals as the sole paradigm for successful conversion. Nevertheless, the legacy of either missionary's early groundwork towards the Christianization of West Africa would be destined to be further eroded and trivialized in the annals of (Western authored) history with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as European countries sought to carve up the continent for exploitation of raw materials - and subsequently, forced, unpaid labor - under the guise of "educating the savages" (many of whom had already been converted to Christianity before the advent of the "enlightened mandate"). It is this intrinsic correlation between colonialists and missionaries that a second reverend would later (appropriately) conclude as the historical conversion of West Africa, not to the Word of God, but to "the Word of Otto von Bismarck".

Perhaps the most egregious and morally reprehensible example of this (and provides the inferential context to the film's title) is Germany's historical mistreatment and marginalization of the Herero people. Noting that native Africans did not possess the concept of private land ownership (believing that God owned all the land, and the people are only its guardians), the film illustrates the grave "misunderstanding" that resulted when Germans arrived in the region and sought to buy land from the local tribal chiefs who, in turn, misinterpreted the gesture by the Westerners as seeking permission to use the land (After all, as a commenter lightheartedly muses, how can the Europeans take the land back with them?). When the settlers then transferred ownership among other non-native settlers, the chief of the Herero tribe (and converted Christian), Samuel Maherero, led an uprising to drive the new (and from the indigenous people's perspective, tribally unnegotiated and, therefore, trespassing) German settlers out, an act that would consequently escalate to war and lead to the attempted genocide of the Herero people through military orders to exterminate all Herero men in retaliation for the uprising, as well as to shoot "above the heads of women and children" in order to drive them deep into the desert where they would face certain death through starvation and disease. Furthermore, the surviving Herero people would later be interned in forced work camps to serve as free labor to feed the industries of the Industrial Revolution. As the film appropriately concludes, this early example of German colonialist policy of tribal extermination and forced internment towards the Herero people would provide the brutal paradigm - and ominously foreshadow - the tragedy of the Holocaust. Tracing the complex, often painful and inhumane trajectory of colonialization under the thinly veiled guise of divine, Western intervention, filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno presents a fascinating, intelligently constructed, and (personally) illuminating exposition on the history, evolution, and residual consequences of colonialism in Africa. By contrasting the impressive, architectural infrastructure and soulless, modernized landscape of Wuppertall, Germany against the subhuman conditions and tinderbox construction of an African resettlement camp as refugees, nevertheless, take the initiative to build a makeshift church in order to have a place to conduct their daily worship, the film serves as a thoughtful and profoundly articulate portrait of colonialism's unreconciled, bifurcated legacy.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 28, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 27, 2005

Keepers of Memory, 2004

keepersmemory.gifA Tutsi herdsman and genocide survivor sits atop a pastoral outpost on the side of a hill in Bisesero, reflects on the loss of his family and friends during the 100 day massacre, wistfully looks out into the horizon, and comments, "This place used to be beautiful. Now the only beauty is the skeletons on the mountains". In a subsequent train of thought, he criticizes the continued re-appearance (and opportunism) of international journalists in the area since the end of the genocide to conduct interviews with survivors, only to go away and effect little change in their situation since 1994: "Can't you see we're dying?" It is a sentiment of profound desolation, resignation, unreconciled grief, and impotence that would echo through the testimonials of several survivors at each of six major sites of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who have, in their own individual ways, become keepers of the dead by memorializing the massacre sites and serving as first-hand witnesses to articulate the depth of tragedy. A middle-aged woman (and sole survivor of her family) who was shot by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) in her own home recounts how she lay for days on the floor gravely wounded amidst the bodies of her family, unable to move and afraid to call out for fear that the gunmen would again return (as they had randomly done in the villages for several days to ensure that there were no survivors) and that, in her immobility and dire thirst, had resorted to drinking from a pool of blood that had collected near her in a (perceived) moment of weakness. Ten years later, she continues to regret her actions and feels forever destined to be haunted by her lost loved ones every time she takes a drink of water, eternally bound in the memory of their dying blood bond. Another woman who bears the physical scars from massive head wounds suffered during the massacre in her village expresses her strong objection to cover her with a head scarf as often suggested by well-intentioned people around her, arguing that her disfigurement serves as a constant, cautionary reminder to everyone on humankind's innate capacity for evil. At another site, a humble, religious man respectfully tends to a mass grave site and offers another explanation to the tragedy: "How can Christians kill other Christians? Surely they were possessed by Satan." At another site, a genial and reserved elderly woman on her way to church passes by a disused church that had been the site of another massacre and is being used to house the remains of genocide victims that still continue to be unearthed, and decides to pick some wild flowers to be placed among the skeletons, her countenance becoming increasingly impassioned and visibly distraught as she recounts her personal experience amidst the overwhelming quantity of skeletons neatly arranged before her, before apologizing to the off-screen interviewer (filmmaker Eric Kabera) for losing her composure. Keepers of Memory is a visceral, thoughtful, and deeply personal account of the human tragedy that continues to haunt its often forgotten, marginalized, and globally abandoned survivors. Contrasting the inarticulable, yet intimately heart-rending grief of the victims with the carefully wordsmithed, olive branch speeches from representatives of the international community eager to put its collective ignominious accountability behind (for callous and inhumanely reckless bureaucratic policies that exacerbated the tragedy) by acknowledging its failure to intervene, the film serves as a provocative and powerfully moving indictment of factionalism, moral complicity through abstention and inertia, and human indifference.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Mother's Day, 2004

mothersday.gifAn idiosyncratically offbeat, indelibly unique, and narratively incapsulable fusion of social satire, nursery rhyme, musical fantasy, and interpretive dance, Mother's Day is based on an ancient Zimbabwean cautionary folktale of a young, impoverished family driven to famine by a lazy, selfish husband. When the mother, reduced to collecting insects for her children's dinner, refuses to allow her husband to partake in their meager meal until he can provide food for the table, the father leaves home and devises a means to exact revenge on his wife and, in the process, bring home his next meal. During the Q&A with filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, a member of the audience had expressed trepidation over the film's plot with respect to how people - particularly Westerners - would receive such a barbaric depiction of Africans by Africans, commenting that the images, to some extent, seemed to prey on Western cultural stereotypes. (While I do not share the view that the film would necessarily reinforce racial stereotypes because of the obvious grotesqueness in the implementation and execution of the story, I can certainly understand this sense of apprehension.) Dangarembga responded that from her experience with previous international screenings, audiences who were familiar with the source of the ancient folktale have tended to find the innate humor in the absurdity of the story, while some members of the audience who were unfamiliar with the folktale expressed a similar ambivalence over the caricatured depiction. Rather than a specific view of a culture or a people, Dangarembga explained that she envisioned the film as a universal parable on greed and man's innate capacity for human cruelty. To this end, the primitive, atemporal empty landscape, stripped of identification, seems ideally suited to this eccentric, whimsical fable - demarcating, not the limits of the land, but the limits of the self and the limitlessness of human imagination.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Wound, 2004

wound.gifThe Wound (La Blessure) opens to an unhurried, long take, static shot of a man lying near motionless on the mattress on the floor of a cramped, dingy apartment, seemingly waiting for something to happen. The ringing of a telephone breaks the visual monotony of the frame as a man named Papi (Adama Doumbia) crosses in front of the camera to answer the call and upon hearing that his wife Blandine's plane has arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, leaves the apartment to meet her. Meanwhile, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) and several other non-native passengers have been detained by the police behind the locked doors of an undisclosed location within the back rooms of the airport for improper documentation. Pleading to no avail of their intention to file for asylum, the undocumented immigrants are held for hours at the holding facility, unable to contact their loved ones (and who, in turn, are cursorily driven away by officials claiming that there is no record of them having even arrived at the airport), withheld food, drink, and hygiene facilities, and subjected to humiliating strip searches, intrusive health examinations, and interrogations before being forcibly scuttled under the cloak of darkness into a crowded transportation van for placement into planes flying back to their native country. However, in the officers' barbaric haste to install the detainees surreptitiously into the van before the arrival of the airport travelers at the gate for boarding, Blandine's leg becomes trapped in the prematurely closed doors of the vehicle, aborting their attempts to load the passengers onto the plane for immediate deportation. Returned to their cramped holding facility, a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a routine spot-check of the airport observes the obvious mistreatment of the detainees and decides to intervene on their behalf, coaching them on the proper channels of contact to petition for asylum, insisting that Blandine be sent to a hospital for proper medical assistance, and filing a report to his superiors on the inhumane treatment of the asylum seekers that he has witnessed. The representative eventually succeeds in obtaining a last-minute faxed injunction to stop the deportation of the detainees (after receiving a blunt reproach from his supervisor not to continue to overstep his jurisdiction over the immigration office), and soon, Blandine and Papi are reunited. Nevertheless, the trauma of her detention continues to haunt Blandine in her new life as her optimism, geniality, and resolve give way to psychological inertia, estrangement, and enigmatic silence. Inviting favorable comparison to the overtly political, social realist films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Wound is an understatedly affecting, acutely observed, and profoundly sobering portrait of oppression, dehumanization, and exclusion. By incorporating organic, extended plan-sequences and using repeated images of interminable waiting - from Blandine's detention, to her self-confinement at a derelict tenement, to Papi's real-time ride through the countryside in the back of day laborer truck - Nicolas Klotz reflects the inherent inadequacy (if not outright failure) of immigration and asylum laws, lax procedural structure, and government-tolerated, often racially motivated policies (and undocumented, obstructive common practices) that willfully hinder or impede the integration and assimilation of immigrants into their adoptive countries. Using the treatment of Blandine's wound while in French custody as a metaphor for the authorities' repeated turning of a blind eye to the obvious, visible social problem, the film serves as a harrowing and trenchant exposition on intolerance and systematic marginalization.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 26, 2005

A South African Love Story - Walter and Albertine Sisulu, 2004

sisulu.gifIn an interview conducted near the conclusion of the film, A South African Love Story - Walter and Albertine Sisulu, a journalist describes Walter Sisulu's deliberately low-key, but profoundly influential role in the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid and successfully lay the groundwork for multi-racial elections in the country as that "not of the king, but the kingmaker". It is a terse and enlightened observation that incisively encapsulates Sisulu's fiercely intelligent, tenacious, and determined, yet humble, self-effacing, and disarmingly affable personality. The son of an interracial relationship who achieved a considerable measure of success in his professional life at a time when apartheid was still deeply entrenched, Sisulu became a formidable and enduring influence in the shaping of the African National Congress resistance movement during the 1930s and who, in the early 1940s, recruited and mentored a fiery, young (and then more militant) charismatic radical named Nelson Mandela and instilled in him a more deliberative and grounded approach to diplomacy and activism. However, Sisulu's leadership and commitment to the anti-apartheid movement would also be matched by his equally resilient and determined wife, Albertine, a nurse by vocation whose innate capacity to nurture and instill hope led to a parallel women's movement that led to the historic march in Pretoria that ultimately ushered a more globalized, humanitarian movement towards a more encompassing social equality. Affectionately tracing the evolution of Walter and Albertine Sisulu's remarkable - and inspirational - life together, from their unusual courtship (Albertine had initially rejected Walter's proposal with the unexpected news that she already had children, having adopted her siblings when her father died), to their supportive marriage of equals (the couple cultivated each other's self-education and personal growth through substantive, everyday discourses on such diverse subjects as politics, philosophy, and culture), to Walter's solitary confinement on Robben Island for his key role in the plotting of the Rivonia Uprising (in a political round-up and life sentencing of several high-ranking ANC leaders designed to suppress the movement), to Albertine and the children's continued political activism and government harassment after Walter's incarceration, to the commutation of Sisulu and Mandela's life sentences and subsequent dismantling of apartheid, and finally, to the successful implementation of the first post-apartheid, multi-racial elections in South Africa, filmmaker Toni Strasburg presents an intimate, illuminating, and ennobled portrait of self-sacrifice, commitment, and enduring love in the face of oppression, inhumanity, interminable separation, and national struggle.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Black Sushi, 2003

blacksushi.gifA newly paroled Zulu man named Zama walks out of prison and into a waiting car driven by his best friend and former accomplice, Respect, who immediately recruits him as a hired muscle for a planned heist. Eager to rebuild his life and make a clean break from his criminal past, Zama walks away from his friend and into a sushi bar to inquire about a help wanted sign posted on the store window. Working in the backroom as the restaurant's dishwasher and janitor, Zama is intrigued by the sushi chef, Mi's skill and presentation and asks the skeptical proprietor to teach him his trade. However, when Mi expresses his skepticism on Zama's worthiness to become his apprentice, the disillusioned young man begins to fall back into his familiar, self-destructive routines. Whimsical and lighthearted, Black Sushi is a clever and engaging parable on perseverance, rehabilitation, and enlightenment. In the film's climactic episode, Zama peels the layers of gluten paste that have coated his hands at work, symbolically sloughing off the coarse, hardened skin that represents (and has bounded him to) his past, transforming them into delicate instruments necessary for his new found craft. It is in this image of transformation and tabula rasa that filmmaker Dean Blumberg allegorically reflects the image of new South Africa, a nation moving forward from its grievous history through atonement, creativity, hard work, open-mindedness, and cross-cultural respect.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

April 18, 2005

Forgiveness, 2004

"Having looked the beast of the past in the eyes, having asked and received forgiveness...let us shut the door on the past - not to forget it - but to allow it not to imprison us."

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

forgiveness.gifA haggard, visibly distracted, and apprehensive middle-aged man and former police officer named Tertius Coetzee, carrying only a suitcase and an ample assortment of prescription medication that have been haphazardly accumulated in the passenger seat of his cluttered automobile, drives mechanically through the dusty, isolated roads that lead to the rural South African fishing village of Paternoster (literally, Our Father) and checks into a hotel on the outskirts of town. With the reluctant assistance of the local parish priest, Coetzee has asked to meet the equally apprehensive Grootboom family whose eldest (and perhaps, favorite) son, a university student and apartheid-era activist named Daniel had been tortured and killed ten years earlier by Coetzee and his colleagues during interrogation, concealing his execution by staging his death as a random carjacking. The elder Grootbooms politely accept the stranger's presence in their home and offer of condolences, reluctant to ask questions on the unimaginable horror surrounding the circumstances of Daniel's death and, in their awkward, suffering silence, perhaps tacitly encouraging Coetzee to promptly leave, unable to bear the sight of their son's killer and the memory of their unreconciled tragedy. But the Grootboom's children seem less tolerant of the seemingly troubled and penitent Coetzee's presence in their humble community - their youngest son Ernst physically attacks him without provocation and their daughter Sannie ventures out to place a covert call to Daniel's best friend, alerting him of Coetzee's arrival at Paternoster and planting the idea that he assemble his band of former radicals to ambush Coetzee in retaliation for her brother's death. Receiving instruction to keep Coetzee in town until Daniel's friends arrive the next day, Sannie decides to invite Coetzee into their home against the strong objection of her still grieving parents, ostensibly under the pretense of hearing the explicit details of her brother's suppressed history of militant resistance (an involvement that included perpetrating acts of sabotage) that inevitably lead to his death. However, when Coetzee's assassins fail to show up at the appointed hour, the Grootboom children soon find themselves orchestrating additional meetings between Coetzee and their parents under the ruse of working towards reconciliation and finding common ground in order to keep him from leaving town and escaping retribution. Set in the aftermath of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Ian Gabriel's film is an articulate, provocative, and haunting examination of the complex and integrally soul-searching nature of forgiveness: both from the perspective from those who seek it, and from those of whom it is asked. Featuring a strong lead cast, a poignant and compelling script, and emotionally engaging, multi-dimensional characters, Forgiveness is a compassionate, elegantly humanist, and intrinsically spiritual portrait of guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and personal closure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival

Me and My White Pal, 2003

moietmonblanc.gifA graduate student from Burkina Faso named Mamadi, forced to find last-minute employment in order to cover his tuition and housing expenses after his educational grants fail to materialize at the local embassy, calls on a fellow countryman and distant cousin - a politically frustrated, self-exiled intellectual with a slew of unpracticed doctoral degrees hung on his wall - to help him obtain a job at his elder cousin's place of employment: the parking garage. Working in the uneventful tedium of the off-shift hours as a parking attendant, Mamadi occupies his time by working on his thesis, watching the surveillance cameras positioned throughout the facility through his auto-switching monitor, and chatting up personable, attractive young women, often in the presence of their lovers (alluding to stereotypes of African libido and expatriates who eagerly abandon their hometown sweethearts to embark on affairs with people outside of their race). One day, while watching an over-amorous couple from the surveillance monitor, Mamadi accidentally triggers the facility alarm. In the confusion, a pair of drug dealers who had been waiting inside the facility for a pre-arranged transaction is forced to abandon their plan, scurry their package into a dimly lit area for later retrieval, and nonchalantly drive off from the premises. Retrieving the curious package from its makeshift hiding place, the naïve Mamadi asks the assistance of his friend Franck to identify the contents and who, in turn, immediately realizes the nefarious (and undoubtedly fatal) implications of Mamadi's impulsive intervention. Now on the run from relentless (and ever-closing) thugs, Franck and Mamadi decide to hide out in Mamedi's native hometown, only to run into a different set of challenges in the bucolic paradise. Me and My White Pal is a wry, unassuming, and effervescent, but incisive and acutely observed satire on social stereotypes, implicit racism, and cultural perception. By presenting a cross-cultural perspective of what is means to be a foreigner - for both Mamadi in France and subsequently, Franck in Burkina Faso - Pierre Yameogo illustrates the folly of broad stroke, popular misconceptions of races and societies that contribute to an atmosphere of culturally fostered ignorance, propagation of cultural myths, and sense of isolating otherness: the unbridled riches of African expatriates living in (or returning from) the West (and by the same token, Westerners who visit the country), the rampancy of AIDS and famine in Africa, the superficial view of all foreigners as illegal aliens. Moreover, through Mamedi's frustrated efforts to study abroad so that he may return home and obtain a civil service position in order to effect change within his beloved country, Yameogo implicitly underscores the rampant corruption and propagandization of the international successes achieved by native scholars, intellectuals, and self-made expatriates endemic in many African countries that effectively serve to stifle progress and socio-economic change and reinforce the lopsided imbalance of power to a select, political elite.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 18, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival