From April 26th to May 4th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is showcasing a variety of recent and classic African films as part of the 13th New York African Film Festival, a citywide celebration that includes both screenings and panel discussions and runs, in total, from April 20th to May 29th at various Manhattan and Brooklyn locations. For specific venue details and screening times please visit the festival’s official site.
Of the works Lincoln Center screened for press, only one feature, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes, and one short, Rachid Bouchareb’s The Colonial Friend, struck me as unqualified masterpieces. This was my first encounter with the cinema of Bekolo, a Cameroon-based maverick whose work in Les Saignantes (which translates as The Bloodettes) will surely go unappreciated and undistributed, due in no small part to its quite intentionally cheap-looking and stylized DV aesthetic, a confrontational mix of Dr. Who-like video interiors and eye-popping, color-coded décor straight out of Vincente Minnelli. It follows the ribald adventures of Majolie (Adèle Ado) and Chouchou (Dorylia Calmel), two female friends who take on the outwardly patriarchal government of a futuristic African nation after Majolie kills one of its high-ranking officials, and the ensuing street talk philosophizing and low-fi martial arts hijinks—no fist-to-gut sound effects here—are the stuff of profound, politically minded slapstick. Ado and Calmel make for a visually striking pair (whether scantily clad or fully clothed, whether rolling around drunk or confidently strutting along a bourgeois red carpet, they’re kick-ass “girl power” personified), while a purring Chris Marker-esque voiceover, which consistently invokes a quasi-feminist spirit named “Mevoungou,” acts as this unchained melody’s sexual/spiritual counterpoint and matriarchal conscience. Yet what separates Les Saignantes from any number of amateurish imitators is Bekolo’s editing, a hyperactive mélange of multilayered cuts, dissolves and superimpositions that create an astonishing, thematically rich aural/visual tapestry (Godard on an enthused day could hardly do better).
Walter Reade is also screening Bekolo’s two earlier features, Quartier Mozart and Aristotle’s Plot. Based solely on the thrilling evidence of Les Saignantes, I wouldn’t dream of missing them. Bouchareb’s The Colonial Friend is a nine-minute animation dealing with the 1944 murder of numerous Senegalese veterans of the French Army, who were gunned down by their employers after they demanded to be paid for their services during World War II. It’s a nearly silent film, the images suggesting matchbook drawings come to life, and the sense of horror and righteous anger conveyed is comparable to Winsor McKay’s superb animated short The Sinking of the Lusitania. Like that film, The Colonial Friend’s contextualizing end title scrawl treads perilously close to off-putting propaganda, but it’s not enough to dilute the resonant power of what precedes it. The image of the film’s Senegalese protagonist Aby, trapped within the barbed-wire confines of a Nazi concentration camp, is particularly haunting—it reminds one of just how indiscriminate discrimination can be.
The other short program selections are a mixed bag, with the standout being Kamal El Mahouti’s My Lost House, a 19-minute documentary composed entirely of static video compositions of the Moroccan filmmaker’s childhood home, a French housing project now scheduled for demolition. A nicely mixed narration, composed of Mahouti and several others’ voices, counterpoints the desolation on screen and explores, through a memory-laden perspective, the complex political relations between France and Morocco and the challenges of being an immigrant in an unfamiliar land.
Toi, Waguih documents several conversations between the Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh and his father Waguih as they attempt to come to terms with Waguih’s 1964 incarceration for being a practicing Communist. Messeeh drops his viewers into this situation with little initial contextualization, though the grainy black-and-white cinematography creates an appropriately hypnotic mood that carries us through; by the end it’s as if we’ve come to understand this multifaceted father/son bond through a kind of present tense, cinematic osmosis.
Helle Toft Jensen’s Hotel of Dreams is the worst of the shorts, a facile document of a Belgian-immigrated African, Jeannot, who returns to his birth village of Popenguine to open a hotel and meets with much unexpected resistance. What starts off promisingly as a look into cultural identity and globalization becomes, by the end, a simplistic statement about the importance of interpersonal relations in business dealings.
Zanele Muholi’s Enraged by a Picture and Fanny Tsimong’s ...Silenced, both selections from the gay-themed “Out in Africa” program, are unmemorable mediocrities, the former dealing with the lesbian Muholi’s controversial photo exhibition in Johannesburg, the latter exploring the taboo issue of male rape in South African society. Heavily reliant on talking heads and possessed of a dour solemnity, both works are further evidence that the oft-invoked “We’re Here! We’re Queer!” refrain has become a pose adopted by most as a shock-laden affectation as opposed to an activist’s call to arms.
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival, Mark Dornford-May’s feature U-Carmen eKhayelitsha transposes the setting of Georges Bizet’s famed opera Carmen from 19th Century Seville, Spain to present day Cape Town, South Africa. It includes topical references to apartheid and is sung and spoken in Xhosa, an African dialect heavy on tongue clicks and clacks that, befitting my tragically pop-Westerner persona, I’ve only previously experienced through South Park and which lends itself surprisingly well to Bizet’s musical compositions and to Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s libretto, as adapted by Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama and lead actress Pauline Malefane. Malefane, as has been noted elsewhere, comes on like a force of nature in the title role and Dornford-May brilliantly stages her renowned introductory number, “L’amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle (Habanera),” using the teasing, sensual lyrics as his guide (“The bird you thought you had caught spreads its wings and flies away…”), yet this is, for the most part, a poorly directed adaptation. The shakily held long shots and frequently stage-bound compositions betray Dornford-May’s theater roots (this is his first film), but there is also a sense (evidenced not only here, but in several of the other festival offerings authored by persons of the Caucasian persuasion) that he’s using the South African locale as exoticized, Third World chic window dressing. Certainly similar accusations have been lobbed against any number of artists who’ve dared to tread outside their own culture, with Jean Renoir and his sublime India excursion The River being perhaps the most recognized targets of criticism. Though I think it’s safe to say, for posterity’s sake, that Mr. Dornford-May is no Renoir.
And neither, for that matter, is Jason Filardi, screenwriter of the Queen Latifah/Steve Martin race comedy Bringing Down the House who now, in one of those hysterical twists of fate that suggests God woke up one morning and fancied himself a practical jokester, brings us Drum, an anti-apartheid biopic that feels like it was written by a white man with Hollywood paydays on his mind. No surprise that this is the festival’s centerpiece screening, what with the admittedly delicious countenance of Taye Diggs gracing every bit of promotional material: the plight of racism sells, but only if it’s fuckable. Diggs plays Henry Nxumalo, a reporter for the sleazy Drum magazine who, with the aid of his German photographer Jurgen Schadeberg (Gabriel Mann) and his English editor Jim Bailey (Jason Flemyng), works to expose the problems of apartheid in 1950s South Africa. It’s a film at war with itself because director Zola Maseko (a black South African credited on IMDb, but not on screen, with the initial version of the script) clearly has passion for his subject. Sophiatown, the run-down cultural center around which much of the film’s action takes place, is vividly realized, and all of the actors are more or less credible in their roles, eschewing histrionics for an emotionally identifiable camaraderie. Yet Filardi’s condescending narrative structure trumps everyone’s efforts, relying on silly iconographic cameos (“Hello, Mr. Mandela!”) and replacing observational complexities with easy moralizing. How completely unsurprising that the steppin’-out-on-his-family man Nxumalo renounces his philandering ways right before the film turns him into a poster child martyr for a cause, and a cinema, deserving of infinitely superior representation.