Restless City

Along with daffodils, sunshine, and graduations, a sure sign of spring is the arrival of the New York African Film Festival, founded and programmed by executive director Mahen Bonetti. The 19th edition arrived at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the hallmarks of the season: color, freshness, warmth, and variety, with hopes for renewal and contemplation of what’s past. As co-programmer Richard Pena remarks, African cinema was born in 1963 (the same year as the New York Film Festival), and for almost 20 years NYAFF has mapped the development of this (youngish) industry by showing classic and contemporary films of the African continent and of the diasporas. The vast scope of the festival, which screens work from dozens of countries, provides the rare opportunity to view a variety of African media and to meet filmmakers, uncovering aesthetic and cultural commonalities and regional particularities across the continent, and situating African production within the context of international cinema.

I’ve attended the NYAFF for 16 or 17 years (missing it once when I was actually in Africa) and continue to be fascinated by the multitude of selections including features of all genres, documentaries, shorts, experimental works, archival footage, and, more recently, explorations of new media and transmedia. My history with the festival spans years spent sitting in the Walter Reade Theater—watching both the screen and the shifting audiences from New York's diasporic communities in amazing African, Afrocentric, and Afro-eccentric outfits and hairstyles; sampling different moviegoing behaviors and snacks; and hearing numerous languages. Sometimes a movie would feature several tongues, dialects, and tribal idioms, with English and French subtitles piled on top of one another. (The first time I attended was at the invitation of my French sister-in-law who worked for the UN.)

In the initial years of the festival there was a large francophone audience, reflecting France’s ongoing cinematic relationship with her ex-colonies through the production of classic West African films such as Black Girl and Xala by Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene, Yeelen by Mali's Souleymane Cissé, and Yaaba, by Burkina Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo. I’ve always been curious about the presence (or often absence) of African-Americans in the audience and recall infuriating but poignant Q&A confrontations between African filmmakers and African-American audience members that were fraught with cross-cultural expectations. Projections about Africa, slavery, blackness, and ancestry that are important to black Americans were, depending on the artist, thoughtfully entertained or sometimes painfully rejected.

Each edition of the festival is tightly curated around a theme—this year it is “21st Century: The Homecoming”—and is synchronous with African independence anniversaries. The imaging of sovereignty movements and of political and social struggles on the continent and in the diasporas is an enduring concern of the festival. The 2012 festival recognizes the 50th anniversary of the liberations of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, and Jamaica.

In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema & Apartheid, Pt I & II

It also marks the centennial of the South African National Congress. As always, the lineup featured examples from the country's prolific and diverse output and included an old favorite of mine, In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema & Apartheid, Pt I & II (1994). Directed by Peter Davis and Daniel Riesenfeld, the straightforward but intriguing archival documentary traces early film images of South Africa and the attempts to establish an African cinema inclusive of blacks in the late 1950s (starting with the film African Joe aka Jim Comes to Jo’burg, featuring actress and singer Dolly Rathebe).

Davis and Riesenfeld's film examines the complicated roles these images played in the definition and reinforcement of, as well as the resistance to, apartheid. Hollywood’s influence was double-edged, offering a world of escape and freedom beyond the cinema and beyond Africa (one Joburg theater was intriguingly named “Harlem”). Local black audiences emulated the styles of American stars, from Richard Widmark’s fedoras to African-American performer Cab Calloway’s zoot suits. Yet Hollywood failed to depict black actors as central figures in apartheid dramas like Cry Freedom, privileging white protagonists. The bizarre intertwining of colonial stereotypes and racial misidentification is summarized by a disturbing excerpt from the 1950 film Zonk!: a black South African singer wearing a circle of white minstrel lips mimics blackface performer Al Jolson—”a darkie impersonating a very famous European who impersonates the darkie,” as the documentary puts it. In a prior year NYAFF programmed both Zonk! and African Jim, providing a singular chance to see these extraordinary antiques.

South Africa's vital youth culture is explored in the short documentary Stocktown X: South Africa (2011), directed by Teddy Goitom and Benjamin Taft. The filmmakers chronicle a kind of urban cultural production that could be found on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Across South Africa, Western subcultural forms are adapted with uniquely African inflections by graffiti writers, afro-hipster/DIY fashion designers, metal bands, spoken-word artists, and photographers and filmmakers industriously crafting their own images.

In addition to the thematic articulations that annually help shape the NYAFF, there are overarching topics: African self-representation, shifts in media-making and distribution, the global markets and sustainability, and women’s empowerment. A few of particular interest to me involve storytelling, experimental techniques in narrative and documentaries, digital technology and access, style (film and otherwise), color, the urban context, comedy, and the pleasures of Nollywood. This year’s lineup exemplified many of these and supported the festival’s stated goals of showing populist cinema: “challenging the audience’s preconceptions, erasing the limits between popular and high art, and placing genres such as melodrama, comedy, and documentary at the center of the continent’s vibrant cinematographic production.”


Case in point: the hugely popular, dynamic and crazy Nigerian video movies known as Nollywood that ignore almost all (Western) cinematic expectations or standards. An entertaining and contested presence at the festival for years, Nollywood was well represented by Maami (2011), from NYAFF alum Tunde Kelani, who also made the amazing multi-generic/generational collaborative film Campus Queen (2004). Unconventional for Nollywood because of its RED Camera digital cinematography and high-quality production, Kelani's memory story features a mother more self-sacrificing than Stella Dallas. Maami takes place two days before the 2010 World Cup finals as an international football star, Kashi, considers leaving Britain’s Arsenal squad to join his national team. He reminisces about his impoverished mother’s resilience and love for him as a single parent, their story a reflection of Nigeria’s struggles. Though Maami is skillfully made, it retains the energy and characteristic elements of Nigerian videos with deus-ex-machina twists, bouncing emotional registers, compounded flashbacks, witchcraft (of course!), and a hyperbolic but affecting performance by star Funke Akindele.

The acts of storytelling and investigation are layered in the fascinating documentary Black Africa White Marble (2011), an addition to the several films programmed in previous years about the complicated history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since the country is still too dangerous and repressive for shooting a movie, director Clemente Bicocchi instead uses puppetry, archival footage, and photos to portray Italian explorer Pietro di Brazza (after whom Brazzaville is named) and his lifelong commitment to Africa. Descendant Idanna Pucci’s spoken personal account and a griot’s sung rendition together yield the immediacy of storytelling appropriate to this complex tale, which encompasses an ill-conceived mausoleum, political corruption, and the legacy of atrocities from the colonial period.

Playing Warriors

I was also struck by two New York–inspired films. The festival is traditionally supportive of women directors, and Rumbi Katedza was one of several with a narrative feature this year. Her charming Playing Warriors (2011) takes Sex and the City as a model: four young women navigate men and sex, parents and weddings, and whether a basketball career is an appropriate future for a woman, all against the backdrop of contemporary Zimbabwe and its offices, bars, clubs, and beauty shops . The atmosphere is literally colorful with interior sets painted and dressed in assorted primary hues, and characters sporting equally bright patterned outfits. Katedza makes decorative and narrative use of digital effects; cutaways and wipes highlight details like painted nails and hairdos, and allow brief humorous asides. She also shows the exotic fantasies of patriarchal village life and the oppressive traditional mores the characters must overcome as modern women. The tone is light and playful, and the two actresses who attended the screening, Kudzai Sevenzo and Tendai Musoniu, emphasized their desire to work on African films that weren’t heavy or moralizing. That’s why it was irksome to have an audience member inexplicably question them about the prevalence of polygamy and FGM (female genital mutilation). The actresses fielded the question with brio.

The acclaimed feature Restless City (2011), directed by Andrew Dosunmu, is set in Harlem, a first in my time attending the festival. Colorful and gorgeous in a very different way than Playing Warriors, the movie features a basically generic premise: a NYC émigré tries to get by through his music and to escape the insularity of an immigrant enclave. Still, the tale is refreshed by saturated, emotive color cinematography from Pariah DP Bradford Young; an elliptical and mysterious narrative structure; and a deft soundscape full of silences. The risks of romantic love on the run are evoked by Strauss’s melancholy “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) but the film also makes numerous African references: the villain wears the Persian lamb hat and wayfarers glasses worn by dictators in period newsreels, and the hero, Djibril, wraps his face in a nomad scarf and headphones. The two lovers wear stylish Sixties-influenced outfits (hers sport leopard patterns) and glide through a familiar yet foreign Harlem on a scooter that brings to mind the lovers in Djibril Diop Mambéty's ecstatic, fantastical Touki Bouki (1973)—a film that provoked changing perceptions of African cinema. Naturally, I first saw it at the New York African Film Festival.

I imagine sometimes that I’ve seen a whole continent’s geography mapped by celluloid from my various seats over the course of the NYAFF's history. I look forward to the festival’s 20th year and as always, to spring in New York.