Lensing a Troubled Continent

Lensing a Troubled Continent

New York African Film Festival offers introspection, insights from an indigenous angle

Making a movie is a complex adventure, and making a movie in Africa multiplies the challenges.

To tell the painful stories of colonial atrocities, genocides, apartheid and the subordinated condition of women in sub-Saharan Africa, filmmakers must deal with politics, the challenge of raising funds and the difficulties of continuing the storytelling traditions of the continent, but on film and while reaching for a global audience.

This year’s New York African Film Festival includes several themes, one of which looks at these filmmaking politics.

From Niger, there is “Al’lessi… An African Actress,” Rahmatou Keita’s look at Zalika Souley, the “bad girl” of that nation’s emerging cinema in the 1960s. The film juxtaposes her various roles as women who go against the grain while we see her today, at 60, still sweeping her own floor and pounding her own millet. The documentary also talks to directors of Niger’s early films.

Archival footage shows amazing scenes of Africans emulating the cowboys of the westerns they loved, but chasing giraffes rather than cattle. The fundamental tragedy of Souley’s story is that while she was sent abroad to represent Niger at film festivals, she received no compensation, and no respect either back home. Passersby on the street would sometimes call her “a poison in society.” “Al’lessi… An African Actress” offers a glimpse at a cinematic tradition most Americans have never seen.

“Kuxa Kanema” examines the high hopes that accompanied the establishment 11 years ago of Mozambique’s National Institute of Cinema, and how today it is moribund and rotting away. “The Making of Moolade” looks at how that 2004 Senegalese movie brought together a diverse group to tell the story of one woman’s rebellion against female circumcision.

The elucidating documentary “The Colonial Misunderstanding” provides an interesting take on the 1884 agreement in which the European powers carved up all of Africa for themselves, and argues that Germany’s atrocities in its African colonies laid the foundations for forced labor in both World Wars and the Holocaust as well. The term “concentration camp” first came about in Namibia when the Germans went after the Herrero people between 1904 and 1907 even though they had already been effectively subdued militarily.

The film also documents how missionaries in Germany’s colonies in Togo, Cameroun and South Africa “civilized” black Africans by treating them like second-class citizens without a valid cultural tradition.

“The Colonial Misunderstanding,” however, does not only call the European powers to task. It also notes the failure of the African kings and chiefs to look at Africa’s fate collectively, which facilitated their conquerors’ efforts in drawing arbitrary boundaries that led to incongruous nations, with tragic consequences that continue today.

Many films in the festival are devoted to South African themes. The short film “Waiting for Valdez” shows how a grandmother’s love and guidance helps a young man in Johannesburg navigate the turmoil of 1970s apartheid. Rehad Desai’s “Born into Struggle” documents the heroic profile of the filmmaker’s activist father, who was unable to also be emotionally present for his family.

Hollywood and European cinema have at times focused on African themes, but seeing the stories told entirely from an indigenous point of view is an opportunity most of us have never had. While the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle “In My Country” looked at the new South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” hearings, it’s good to see a film like “Forgiveness,” in which director Ian Gabriel tells the narrative tale of a man who, granted amnesty for his crimes, insists on visiting the family of one of his victims. Gabriel’s fictional feature uncovers tragedies on both sides of apartheid—the white man is seeking forgiveness, but the victim’s family continues to bear shame about their loved one’s shady background and associations. When the dead man’s sister tips off his old comrades to the white man’s visit, we learn that one of the three in fact betrayed her brother.

One of the more brutal, and riveting, offerings is Eric Kabera’s “Keepers of Memory.” Kabera visits six massacre sites from Rwanda’s 1994 genocidal civil war. Each locale features a “guardian” who tells their own extraordinary stories. One woman, exasperated at losing her whole family, says, “Only God can judge them.” Another woman refuses to cover up the scars of being hit in the head with machetes, preferring to make a point of them.

Because the Rwandan genocide led to one million deaths in about 100 days, the killing was not systematic enough to cover up the crimes. We see rooms full of skulls and bones, sometimes neatly on display, sometimes, as at one church, with the victims’ bones and clothes still in the place where their bodies fell. “Keepers” is raw and powerful, not just for showing us these difficult images, but for giving us first-hand testimonies from the survivors. The footage includes scenes of people being hunted down and killed by their neighbors, and many U.N. vehicles and tanks escorting Europeans out of Rwanda without paying any mind to the genocide surrounding them. The film takes us to places “Hotel Rwanda” never went near.

The festival also delves into more prosaic social issues. In “Laafi,” from Burkina Faso, a bright young man is denied the opportunity to study medicine, and persists in fighting the red tape. In the simply told “Wendemi,” also from Faso, we see the title character’s sad life as the unwanted son of a very young woman who abandons him after her own father banishes her for not revealing the name of the child’s father. At every stage, people in authority fail Wendemi.

“Silmande” shows how a Lebanese family takes refuge in Africa and prospers; but when the parents decide to return to Lebanon their children want to stay where they grew up. In “Me and My White Pal,” we see how an African student in Paris deals with waiting for scholarship money that ultimately never arrives.

The African Film Festival sheds light on one of the most bustling but also troubled continents in a comprehensive manner. New Yorkers have a range of opportunities for seeing these films, at Walter Reade, Eyebeam, and BAM, in schedules that run through the end of May. Visit africanfilmny.org for full schedule and for more information about screenings outside New York.