The Reeler


April 4, 2007

"Making These Films Ourselves"

Continually growing NY African Film Festival celebrates independence in its 14th year

A performance from Africa Unite, one of nearly four dozen selections at this year's New York African Film Festival (Photo: Stephanie Black)

"In essence, you can say cinema was born with independence," Mahen Bonetti, executive director of the New York African Film Festival, told The Reeler last weekend. "So we are celebrating! Because prior to that it was always propaganda creating the image the world had of Africa. And now we have the cameras in our hands -- so what have we done with that?"

The answer, steeped in a storied merging of oral tradition and innovative artistry, can likely be found at the 14th annual NYAFF, which opens today at Lincoln Center. Comprising 47 films from 20 countries, the 2007 event will also see the debut of archival newsreels and colonial propaganda films such as those in the opening-night program "Ghana's Political Experiments" -- some of which have never been screened outside their original contexts. The festival ends on May 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Underscoring the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence from colonial rule, this year's lineup contains two shorts programs focusing on female African filmmakers ("Women in the Diaspora" and "Women of Zimbabwe"), a special "bling-free" director's-cut screening of Bling: A Planet Rock, Death of Two Sons (Micah Schaffer's documentary about the deaths of Amadou Diallo and Jesse Thyne), and a "Hope in the Time of Crisis" program which features the U.S. premieres of two Osvalde Lewat-Hallade documentaries paired with newsreel footage.

Bonetti noted the integration of documentaries that she finds push the boundaries of conventional storytelling, as with films such as Movement (R)evolution Africa. "One would expect we would have a documentary on Rwanda," she said. "No, we don't. Instead we have this film that presents an interpretation through dance to talk about the Rwanda issue -- to talk about the healing. The film brings all of these modern African choreographers together to create a piece on Rwanda, so it shows all these different mediums coming together."

Many of the screenings will be accented by the presence of African directors, local experts and other guest speakers. Additionally, the April 9 panel discussion, "Celebrating 50 Years of Independence and Cinema," will provide filmmakers with more time to speak with audiences about current African issues, both cinematic and political. Other highlights include the U.S. premiere of Clouds Over Conakry (winner of this year's People's Choice Award at FESPACO, the largest African film festival) and a preview of Stephanie Black's documentary Africa Unite, which features performances and appearances by Danny Glover and Lauryn Hill in a tribute concert to Bob Marley.

The screening offers both a sneak glimpse at Black's work-in-progress, plus, as festival co-director and Film Society programming chief Richard Peña described it, the promise of surprise guests in attendance. "This brings together footage of a concert that was done in Ethiopia with a lot of reggae artists," he said. "We'll be having some of great reggae artists there, and I think it's going to be really quite a wild night. It's a screening, but there will be some more things happening as well."

Peña has worked with Bonetti (who also founded the festival) on programming the fest since its inception in 1993, and in an interview last week he noted the vast growth and changes in their quest to represent African film. "The first festival we did was a little bit retrospective in the sense that we really looked back from the very beginning, and we had a lot of works from the '70s and '80s," he told me. "Since then, each year the accent has been very much on what's just been made. We try to give an as up-to-date picture of African filmmaking as possible. Certainly the first edition heavily concentrated on the feature films from francophone West African countries. Now if you take a look at the program you see works from Ethiopia, from Zimbabwe, from Uganda -- really from all over."

Though the majority of screenings will be held at the Walter Reade Theater, the end of April will move the festival out to the Bronx Museum of the Arts for one weekend before it finally closes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the last week of May. "From the very beginning we've always had a Brooklyn location," Peña added, "because we know that many members of the African-American and African communities live there and we thought it would be a great way to reach out to them. You know, access is the name of the game. We really want these films to be seen as widely as possible."

Reflecting on her original vision of an African film festival in New York, Bonetti echoed her co-director's desire to reach a broader audience. "I knew a film festival was the answer," she said. "Because this medium is so powerful, because this is the same medium that has created these impressions of who we are, because this is the same medium that reaches so many people at one time, and most of all -- what is the sweetest -- is that we are making these films ourselves."

The 14th New York African Film Festival runs April4-May 28 at Lincoln Center, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and BAM. For additional ticket and program information, visit the festival's Web site.

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