Africa Speaks Print

N.Y. film fest challenges Western view of war-torn continent.

by Ed Gonzalez - The Village Voice - April 3, 2007

Fourteen years strong, the New York African Film Festival resonates as a rallying call. Flaunting grace and outrage, the films, shorts, and panel discussions organized for this year's program, a co-presentation between African Film Festival, Inc. and Film Society of Lincoln Center, reveal the multitudinous ways in which a continent of people insists on being heard.

More than 40 films, old and new, from 20 countries decorate this year's lineup, which includes the Bob Marley tribute Africa Unite, Abderrahmane Sissako's 1997 travelogue Rostov-Luanda, and a rare screening of the late Ossie Davis's Kongi's Harvest, an attack on political tyranny based on a play by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, introduced by Ruby Dee. These are not the most stylish films on the festival circuit, but they are welcome reminders of the blind eye the West has turned to African crisis and aesthetics.

Documentarian Osvalde Lewat-Hallade's recent work, A Love During the War, ineffectively blends its subjects (the crisis one family suffers after being separated during the 1996 Congo-Kinshasa war and the account of rape as a weapon of aggression), but is emboldened by its fierce desire to make known the horrors being committed against women in the Congo. The Forgotten Man similarly doubles as a chronicle of a family's separation anxiety and the disclosure of a particular social problem. Condemned to three years for making illegal identity cards, a Cameroon man sees his sentence extended time and time again until, after 33 years, Owono Pierre (also known as Léppé) emerges from jail a talented sculptor and something of a philosopher, entranced by the changes in the world and titillated by the idea of soon beholding "the nakedness of a woman." Lewat-Hallade illuminates the corruption that squelches prisoner rights, but what truly haunts is Léppé's painful sense of personal insignificance. He may consider himself a loser, but Lewat-Hallade's humane portrait of injustice gracefully disagrees.

Tradition is the subject of many of the films, and in The Narrow Path, dedicated to the women who serve as peacemakers in African society, a town is almost consumed by violence after a Yoruban man learns that his future wife isn't a virgin. The material is provocative but director Tunde Kelani renders it bloodless with an awkward televisual aesthetic and comic pitch. More insightful is Cheick Fantamady Camara's Clouds Over Conakry, the story of a cartoonist at a Guinean newspaper who impregnates his girlfriend out of wedlock, thus incurring the wrath of his imam father. Though crudely performed, Camara's sophisticated sense of montage leaves no room for excess narrative fat, ensuring that the story's inquiries into the relationship between ancient cultural customs and modernity cut deep.

Though set in a fictional African nation, Fanta Régina Nacro's The Night of Truth is a startling little fable that channels the tragedy of real-life civil wars that have ravaged Africa over the years. Forgiveness is deeply on the film's mind, but healthier still is Movement (R)evolution Africa, which summates all the riches and frustrations of Africa and the festival itself. Through interviews and performances from nine African choreographers, directors Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgan reveal how a community of artists has chosen to communicate the myriad passions and troubles of their homeland through dance. Revering the body as a form of fluid sculpture, these fierce artists from across the continent adapt conventional dance to their unique sense of self, hoping to engage with everyone—whites and the African diaspora alike—in order to challenge the West's stereotypical ideas of Africa. Movement is their voice and it screams in the film, "Africa must speak!"