Critic’s Notebook: At the New York African Film Festival, Pondering the Past, Present and Future of a Continent’s Cinema
The film opens in 2020. A woman paints her lips crimson while staring at her reflection in the mirror, studying the details of her wavy blonde wig and firetruck-red skirt. Satisfied with her examination, she relaxes her shoulders and turns to the other side of the room. The camera follows and lands on a child sleeping peacefully. The woman covers the slumbering body with a blanket, gingerly plants a kiss and leaves. Outside, in the dimly lit streets of Dakar, she is followed by a chorus of men wearing complementary red djellabas. “When a drop of water falls on Earth / it’s no longer Earth,” they sing as she walks down the street, “How life is full of surprises.”
The chorus, a staple in Moussa Sène Absa’s films, is particularly useful in Xalé, the director’s passionate thriller about gender violence and retribution. It’s the last installment in the Senegalese filmmaker’s trilogy about women that includes Tableau Ferraille (1997) and the comedic drama Madame Brouette (2002). Their guidance orders the narrative and eases the tension of the film’s formal surprises; shifts in tone, time jumps and breaks in the fourth wall operate more smoothly because of them.
It’s fitting that Xalé, which leans into narrative twists and unconventional storytelling methods, will open the 30th anniversary edition of the New York African Film Festival, which kicks off on May 10 and runs through June 1. The program, which was founded in 1993 by Mahen Bonetti, has always showcased eclectic offerings from the continent, but this year, with the theme “free-form,” it’s making this value a particular priority: The more than 50 films — from over 25 countries — featured in the lineup are connected by their unorthodox subjects and forms.
Hyperlink, the edition’s centerpiece film, is an anthology of four shorts, directed by South African filmmakers Mzonke Maloney, Nolitha Mkulisi, Julie Nxadi and Evan Wigdorowitz, which examine the risks and perils of the internet and surveillance culture. In one, a man gone missing — and declared dead by his daughter on social media — reemerges with a renewed sense of faith. In another, an afternoon with two schoolgirls takes an astonishing turn when a conflict is broadcast to their entire community through Instagram live. That short, titled NSFW and directed by Mkulisi, makes Absa’s experiments in Xalé look tame in comparison. Mkulisi toys with aspect ratio, shrinking and enlarging our sense of her characters’ world, to chilling and menacing effect. The camera, mimicking CCTV technology, becomes its own character, shrewdly observing the consequences of white lies and omissions.
Angela Wanjiku Wamai’s crisp and bracing debut Shimoni is quieter and more formally conventional than Hyperlink, but no less powerful. The Kenyan editor and director renders the struggle of Geoffrey, a recently incarcerated man (played with quiet devastation by Justin Mirichii), to repent in a slow-burn drama that unfolds at a relaxed pace, steeping us in the ebbs and flows of the protagonist’s trauma. How can the former English teacher reintegrate into his home village of Shimoni while facing demons from a bygone era?
The past is a strong thematic thread throughout this year’s festival, which features documentary projects focused on excavating and honoring African histories. Among them are Alain Kassanda’s Colette and Justin, whose subjects save the film from the usual melodramatic pitfalls of youth diaspora identity inquiries, and Fatou Cissé’s A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father: Souleymane Cissé, a wide-ranging portrait of the prolific Malian filmmaker.
Kassanda, who was born in Kinshasa and lives in Paris, interviews his maternal grandparents about the realities of Belgium’s apartheid rule in Democratic Republic of Congo. The elders recount a range of stories, from segregated education — Congolese boys were taught French and girls were taught in Tshiluba and Lingala because, it was assumed, they would never work alongside white people — to demoralizing employment prospects. Brief forays into more pleasant territory add a balancing joy to this anecdotally driven documentary. There’s something delightful about watching Colette, especially, speak with humor and verve about local dance parties and her sartorial sensibilities, and lovingly chuckle at her grandson’s probing questions about seemingly quotidian happenings.
In A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father, Cissé examines the storied legacy of her father, Souleymane Cissé. The result flirts with hagiography but slyly avoids it through candid interviews with the subject’s friends and family, who freely discuss his personal shortcomings alongside his professional success. To complement the U.S. premiere of Cissé’s documentary, Bonetti’s team has programmed retrospective screenings of the elder Cissé’s Den Muso and still mesmerizing Yeelen, which screened at the inaugural African Film Festival.
The festival has come a long way since Bonetti (who previously worked in advertising), eager to bring African films to a broader audience, founded it in the early 90s. Her determination and sheer will stemmed from a deep love of films (she spent lunch hours at The Paris Theater) and a desire to represent the boldness of the continent’s cinematic offerings. The festival has since grown into an international and year-round operation: A traveling segment founded in 1995 allows the team to bring the festival across the United States, and collaborations with programs in other countries, like the Lights, Camera, Africa! Film Festival in Nigeria, is a core part of their mission.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 accelerated efforts to make the festival’s programming more accessible. Cinema Awujo is the event’s screening platform, allowing viewers anywhere around the world to pay what they wish to watch select films. Its success — as well as the organization’s growing index of films and directors — not only highlights past work, but underscores the need for more initiatives to protect and expand access to African cinema.
Access is indeed the most pressing question at the heart of African cinema, in addition to matters of restoration and preservation. How can we speak of its present or wonder about its future without critically engaging its past? What does a cinematic future on the continent look like if its heirs can’t see all they have inherited? Although a cadre of directors — Ousmane Sembène, of course, as well as Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Abderrahmane Sissako, Sarah Maldoror, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Safi Faye, Med Hondo and Haile Gerima among others — have gained international recognition, streaming some of their most famous works remains a challenge. These auteurs are celebrated for their keen and distinctive visions, and yet rare, still, are the conversations about the structural and financial obstacles they, as artists, and their works faced or still face.
Then there are the films by those whom we’ve yet to discover: Africa, a continent made up of 54 countries, has a rich, varied film history that has only been partially uncovered. A boon of Cissé’s documentary is how she focuses on the efforts made by her father to promote film on the continent and help preserve known archives.
Martin Scorsese, who will be in conversation with the elder Cissé at this year’s African Film Festival, has also been part of these efforts. In 2019, the director’s Film Foundation partnered with its affiliate archive Cineteca di Bologna, Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO to form The African Film Heritage project. Their goal is to restore 50 African films of “historical, cultural and artistic significance” and make them accessible to people on the continent.
There’s also The June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, which includes more than 10,000 items — films, television programs, audio recordings, books and other tactile objects — collected by Givanni, a British film programmer, and her friends the director Imruh Bakari and the academic Emma Sandon. A curated selection of these works are showing at Raven Row gallery in London through June 4. The exhibition also includes a seven-week film program. Stateside, initiatives like Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY have increased access to past and contemporary films, including, most recently, a restoration of Gerima’s Sankofa.
To welcome another year of the African Film Festival is to celebrate and meditate on the value and urgency of these interventions. Bonetti and others within and adjacent to her community of filmmakers, programmers and cinephiles have gifted us with these archival treasures. It’s up to us to ask ourselves now, tomorrow and in the future: What will we do to maintain them?
Credit: Hollywood Reporter