meokgoMeokgo and the Stick Fighter, 2006. Teboho Mahlatsi’s sumptuous, atmospheric, and gorgeously shot contribution for the New Crowned Hope festival, Meokgo and the Stick Fighter recounts the tale of Kgotso, a reclusive rancher, lone wolf stick fighter, and virtuous nomad who wanders the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. Orphaned since infancy, Kgotso was cared for by a village elder and traditional healer, inheriting her treasured concertina upon her death. Watching over his adopted village, and often coming to the aid of poor, defenseless shepherds who are constantly being terrorized by a roving band of ruthless cattle thieves, Kgotso leads an idyllic pastoral life pursuing the art of combat and music until he encounters a beautiful, enigmatic noble woman who, enchanted by the vibrant melodies of his concertina, begins to haunt his solitude. Mahlatsi’s evocative, poetic fable sublimely fuses the rich, ancient traditional of indigenous African tale-telling with the universality of expressionist imagery to create a timeless and transcendent tale of longing, connection, and destiny.

The Train, 2005. A chance encounter between a young student, Giusseppe and a recently paroled ex-convict, Ahmed provides the framework for Brahim Fritah’s distilled and muted, yet thoughtful existential allegory on humanity and modern day cultural identity in The Train. Set against the backdrop of a transcontinental train compartment that curiously resembles an apartment living room (perhaps a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The End), an unexpected connection develops between the two travelers when the studious Giusseppe offers to read the letters for the illiterate Ahmed, whose wife had continued to send his letters throughout his eight year imprisonment, and one day, had inexplicably stopped. An awkward situation resulting from Giusseppe’s seeming inability to read Arabic, coupled by a subsequent embarrassing transaction with the train’s café attendant (played by Bamako actress, Aïssa Maïga) when Giuseppe attempts to pay for his order with francs, and a missed train stop perhaps best encapsulate Fritah’s understated illustration of the indigenous problems of globalization, homogeneity, and cultural assimilation in the aftermath of colonialism and the borderless, Schengen Zone European Union.

Mama Put, 2006. In an unassuming neighborhood in Angola, an impoverished young family headed by an pious and indomitable widowed mother, already struggling to make ends meet and obtain proper medical attention for her sickly, youngest child, receives an unexpected visit from a band of armed bandits one evening. Placated into letting them go and leaving the children unharmed by cooking a meal for them, the family soon finds itself receiving tacit protection and a share of ill-gotten gains from the robbers who begin to make nightly visits to the apartment for their customary meal, unable to extricate themselves from the burden of harboring the presumptuous fugitives. Ever teetering between compassionate humor and dark satire, Seke Somolu’s film is a thoughtful and infectious exposition on the amorphous nature of obligation, charity, and consequence.

Max_MonaMax and Mona, 2004. During the introductory remarks for Max and Mona, filmmaker Teddy Mattera indicated that the inspiration for the film came from two parallel thoughts: a romanticization of death stemming from the traditional belief that the souls of the recently deceased are not able to cross over to the spiritual realm unless their passing has been properly grieved on earth, as well as an autobiographical context over his own family’s ancestral heritage as village mourners who were often called upon to assist in funerals (especially for those who left few, if any, surviving relatives). What unexpectedly emerges from this droll and eccentric concoction of interconnected ideas is an idiosyncratically offbeat, charming, if slight comedy that subverts deeply cherished, old-world traditions into a modern-day confidence game – exploiting the resigned certainty of death into a lucrative specialty service of ushering the souls of the all-too-humanly flawed and not-quite-so-virtuous for transcendence into the hereafter. At the heart of the popular (and profitable) enterprise is the naïve, village son and aspiring medical student, Max (Mpho Lovinga), a sensitive young man with a natural ability for turning on the emotional waterworks during funerals… a talent so unparalleled throughout the country that the he has served as the town’s official mourner for several years, and who, in gratitude, has been sponsored by the villagers to go to Johannesburg and fulfill his lifelong dream of studying medicine, enabling him to retire from his ancestral trade. However, when Max is forced to spend the evening at the home of his layabout uncle, Norman (Jerry Mofokeng) after arriving late to the university for matriculation (a delay inadvertently caused by an errant sacrificial goat – the titular Mona – that he has agreed to transport for an upcoming wedding), he is soon forced to once again tap into his former career as a professional mourner in order to set things right. Alternating humor and pathos, over-the-top situations and understated moments of connection and humanity, Max and Mona is a good-natured and delightfully unassuming tale of community, familial obligation, and inescapable destiny.

Spell My Name, 2005. In the opening sequence of Tawanda Gunda Mupengo’s film, a self-assured schoolteacher from the city, newly arrived into the village school and appearing immediately out of place in the rural farming community in her sharply tailored dress, encounters an introverted girl under a tree who ignores her request for directions and continues to busily sketch in her notebook. Immediately put off by the girl’s apparent disrespect and the relatively primitive conditions of the school, the teacher is quick to articulate her displeasure to the schoolmaster, and requests an immediate transfer to another district – a transfer that will take a month to process. Resigned to the immediate task of fostering the children’s education during her abbreviated tenure, the teacher continues to be frustrated by the girl’s impenetrable aloofness and increasingly distractive, troubled drawings, often sending her to the schoolmaster’s office for discipline, until the girl’s desperate, tale-tell gesture betrays the cause of her inarticulable torment. Shot in episodic ellipses that create a distilled, yet essential framework for the evolution of teacher and student’s relationship from resigned frustration to profound empathy, Spell My Name is an intelligently conceived cautionary tale on the perils of stereotype, silence, denial, and blind obedience.

zimbabwe_waterAt the Water, 2005. A collaborative film from the Women Filmmakers of the Zimbabwe Production Skills Workshop, the film is an acute and poetic allegory for the often colliding moral dilemma between imposed religion and entrenched superstitions in seemingly progressive, yet still deeply traditional cultures. Opening to the image of a devout Christian woman, Netsai who, as the film begins, accompanies her husband to the main road one morning as he goes off to work and who, along the way, crosses path with an enigmatic stranger dressed in a dark suit only moments before witnessing her husband’s sudden death in an automobile accident, the film chronicles Netsai’s emotional – and psychological – descent in the aftermath of the tragedy. Withdrawing from the community, Netsai and her young son retreat into a life of insular, if devoted quotidian ritual, until one day when her son vanishes without a trace near the riverbank. Unable to find solace in her faith, she turns to the village spiritual healer, who reveals that the river god exacts an inhuman price in exchange for the child’s safe return. Filmed in digital video, the striking, high contrast color palette of At the Water proves ideally suited to the film’s overarching themes of testing faith, divine silence, and moral absolutes in a time of spiritual crisis and profound desolation.

Growing Stronger, 2005. Framed as an inspiring and provocative collage on the changing face of HIV and AIDS, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s film presents an illuminating (and empowering) profile of two remarkably courageous Zimbabwean women living with HIV from opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder who defy the stereotypical image of HIV infection and AIDS, and use their first hand experiences with the disease as a forum for public education and awareness. The documentary primarily focuses on well known celebrity, Tendayi Westerhof, a former fashion model and businesswoman (and ex-wife of former Zimbabwean professional football manager, Clemens Westerhof) who, in 2002, broke the commonly held silence among sufferers of HIV and AIDS (whose deaths were often nebulously attributed to secondary, AIDS-related illnesses or simply euphemized as succumbing to death “after a long illness”) and publicly disclosed her HIV positive status. Founding the organization, Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust (PPAAT), Westerhof now devotes much of her time to erasing the stigma of the disease, not only through personal projects such as Models against AIDS which seeks to bring awareness to the younger generations, but also through living by example, constantly emphasizing the importance of nutrition, exercise, and regular medical monitoring in her public and personal life. A similar message of healthy living is also articulated by Pamela Kanjenzana, a working class HIV positive woman who comments on her occasional difficulty in obtaining proper nutrition and medication with her limited income, but nevertheless, copes as best as she can, and who, unlike previous generations, is able to see a real future, even living with HIV. It is interesting to note that by focusing on Westerhof over Kanjenzana, the film also reinforces the idea of HIV as an indiscriminate, cross-cultural disease. Ironically, it is through this relative subordination of Kanjenzana’s story over Westerhof’s that Dangarembga illustrates, not a preferential treatment of celebrity, but rather, the paradoxical collapse of socioeconomic boundaries in the constant threat – and everyday reality – of HIV and AIDS.

rostov_luandaRostov-Luanda, 1997. Something of a cross between an autobiographical road trip and a personal essay on the untold, residual legacy of Angola’s turbulent twentieth century history as the country continues to struggle to recover from Portuguese colonization and a protracted civil war, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Rostov-Luanda is an understated, yet pensive and illuminating rumination on the pervasive state of political and economic (and moral) stagnation that continues to shape the collective psyche of modern day African countries. A well worn, decades old class photograph composed of multi-ethnic students studying abroad in Soviet-era Moscow that has been obtained from a Russian friend provides the indeterminate, organic roadmap for Sissako’s cross-country journey into the sublime, yet desolate landscape of postwar Angola. Recalling his shared hopes and youthful idealism for the cultural resurgence of a post-colonial African continent with fellow African student Alfonso Baribanga, Sissako embarks on a trip to his colleague’s homeland in the aftermath of a devastating, Cold War-fueled, civil war. Encountering a series of strangers from the country’s rich and diverse spectrum of ethnic and economic social strata who collectively define the face of modern Angola, Sissako’s informal interviews with local residents inevitably take on the form of personal reflections and human testimonies that illustrate the country’s deeply factional (and fractured) contemporary history even as it successfully cultivated a color blind, heterogeneous, assimilated society between Portuguese settlers and indigenous people (enabling a literal cultural interrogation that anticipates Khalo Matabane’s own “road movie” approach to capturing the sentimental landscape of post-apartheid South Africa in Story of a Beautiful Country) – a resigned intellectual and former student radical who punctuates the intrinsic irony of her former comrades’ patriotism and impassioned politics by noting their emigration from the country (a comment that also alludes to Africa’s chronic “brain drain” of highly skilled and well educated workers); a gregarious barfly who watches the world go by peripherally from an outdoor bench near the entrance of Biker’s, Luanda’s most popular bar and tourist hotspot, having been thrown out for disorderly conduct; an orphan who once preferred to survive in the streets, but is now content to live with his uncle and attend school; a taxi driver who once received a house and automobile from his Portuguese benefactor, then gave away his legacy in the uncertainty of civil war; a mixed race businessman who fled to Portugal during the war and has now returned in order to contribute to its rebuilding; a genial patriarch of a large, extended family who is deeply moved by Sissako’s interest in their humble stories, and sees the filmmaker’s arrival as a greater sign towards endowing a voice to the marginalized; an elderly couple, originally immigrating from Brazil in order to seek out opportunities in the construction of their town’s infrastructure, recounts the painful decision to send their children abroad during the war, and their own determination to remain in their beloved adopted village despite personal risk. But perhaps the most symbolic testimony of the country’s resilience is reflected in an elderly woman’s humorous account of her friends and family’s mistaken belief that, often seen sitting on the front porch of her house, she must have been maimed by a landmine (an all too common scenario that is also depicted in Zézé Gamboa’s The Hero) before subverting their expectation and breaking out into her fancy footwork. Far from a defeated, impoverished nation, what inevitably emerges from Sissako’s reverent and compassionate gaze is a people ennobled by struggle, determined to rise from the ashes of war and colonialism through tolerance, hard work, resilience, and community.

Un Certain Matin, 1991. A farmer named Tiga’s seemingly uneventful trip to the woods sets the stage for an unexpected collision between truth and fiction, reality and celluloid, that is illustrated to wry, comic effect in Fanta Régina Nacro’s first feature. Setting out one morning from his native village on the Mossi plateau in Burkina Faso to the tranquility of nearby woods in order to build a chair in peace, away from his children’s calls for attention and other villagers’ solicitations for gardening advice, Tiga’s relaxing pastime is soon interrupted by the chaotic sight of a woman crying for help as she is chased through the plains by a machete-wielding man, and who, in the midst of a struggle, appear to reconcile and walk away together. However, when Tiga again encounters the woman frantically running away from her pursuer, his well-intentioned attempt to come to the aid of the damsel in distress leads to unforeseen consequences. During the Q&A for the program, Nacro commented that she had intentionally used an all female crew for the film in order to reinforce the idea that women are capable of working in technical capacities in Burkina Faso’s almost exclusively male film industry. In creating an implicit parallel between the fictional metafilm and the reality of the film’s production, Nacro subverts the notion of a male-dominated industry into an equally fascinating behind-the-scenes realization of solidarity and empowerment.

Puknini, 1995. The coincidental intersection of a beautiful Senegalese woman’s taxicab ride arrival into Ouagadougou, and a happily married professional couple’s public display of affection in front of an appliance store display window while shopping for a new washing machine (a seemingly indecorous act that inadvertently causes the traffic to stop) sets the symbolic stage for Nacro’s humorous and ironic satire on the seven year itch and the elusive nature of seduction and desire in Puknini. Chronicling Salif ‘s indiscretions through Isa’s increasing suspicions (and curious observations) over her husband’s fidelity, Nacro subverts the hackneyed cinematic convention of scandalous confrontation (a thwarted scenario that is suggested in a mob’s aggressive behavior towards the woman) and ménage à trios complicity through an anticlimactic encounter, mutual respect, and unexpected solidarity.

Konaté’s Gift, 1998. In Konaté’s Gift, a profoundly relevant and contemporary social issue – AIDS awareness – comes in the unexpected form of a traditional, tale-teller styled, lyrical adventure. Upon returning from the city after a visit, Konaté’s second wife, Djénéba receives a package from her brother that, as he subsequently explains, is a life-saving gift for her husband: a box of condoms. Arguing that the threat of AIDS is only a myth created by Westerners, and egged on to refuse to succumb to his wife’s entreaties by the men of the village who, baffled by the application of the curious object, are convinced that such an alien contraption could only diminish his virility, Konaté refuses to yield to Djénéba’s request and instead, makes an out of turn visit to the home of his first wife. Rebuffed by the women in his life, Konaté desperately turns to the village healer. Advised to return to the origin of the object that had caused such personal turmoil and touch the roots of the tree that had borne the strange fruit in order to make peace with it, Konaté embarks on a long and enlightening cross-country journey, where he becomes a first-hand witness to the ravages of ignorance and disease that have rended families and decimated villages. Told with humor and pathos, Nacro’s thoughtful, yet humorous modern day fable idiosyncratically channels the effervescent, yet droll spirit of Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy in its whimsical tale of human absurdity, and infuses a sobering dose of social realism to create an engaging, yet potent public discourse on AIDS education.

bintouBintou, 2000. The age-old struggle between gender roles, rigid (yet inevitably shifting) traditions, and women’s liberation plays out as a light-hearted, yet astute domestic comedy in Nacro’s Bintou, the 2001 Best Short Film Prize award winner at FESPACO. Unfolding through the eyes of a village housewife, Bintou’s efforts as she resolves to start her own business – and persevere against overwhelming odds – despite her husband Abel’s petty attempts at sabotaging her fledgling sprouted millet cottage industry (invariably fueled by the villagers’ implicit insecurities over their own domestic dispensability) and her mother-in-law’s strenuous objections over the rightful place of women in the home, the film is also an insightful universal tale of the everyday cultural struggles between tradition and modernity and the often slippery process of gender equality that characterize contemporary society. At the heart of Bintou’s seemingly insurmountable task is her determination to single-handedly raise money for her daughter’s education after her husband, a gainfully employed carpenter, decides to only provide school tuition for their two sons. Chronicling Bintou’s evolution from desperate mother, to resourceful businesswoman, to reliable marketer, and finally, to inspirational leader, the film is a refreshingly light-handed exposition on community, family, and women’s empowerment.

death_2sonsDeath of Two Sons, 2006. The coincidental, near parallel deaths of unarmed Guinean immigrant (and innocent victim), Amadou Diallo in the hallway of his apartment building at the hands of over-aggressive police officers in 1999, and American Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne on the treacherous rural roads of Guinea en route back to Diallo’s ancestral village, serve as a potent and thought provoking framework for Micah Schaffer’s trenchant, impassioned, and deeply moving social interrogation on the nature of economic imperialism, racial privilege, marginalization, and cultural arrogance. Far from the terse, tabloid encapsulation of Diallo’s tragically cut short life as a common West African street peddler, the film traces Diallo’s often under-emphasized privileged upbringing, globetrotting, and enrollment in some of the finest schools as the son of an international businessman who, rather than stay in Guinea where he would have undoubtedly coasted through a high ranking career and become one of the nation’s emerging leaders, went against his family’s wishes to instead forge a new life in the U.S., seeing his struggle as building the rudiments of an instilled work ethic that would build character and ensure his future success I his adopted country. Similarly, Jesse Thyne, the adopted son of a California pastor, lived a life of middle-class comfortability, an uneventful upbringing that, as his parents surmise, may have been deeply marked by his childhood experience with abandonment in the early years before his adoption into their family. Unable to find his birth mother, Jesse would later join the Peace Corps, perhaps as a means of embracing all of humanity as his interconnected identity, where he was assigned to work in Diallo’s ancestral village as a teacher, often dining with Diallo’s extended family, and subsequently, was invited to attend to his funeral. A few months later, as a passenger on a taxi hired to transport several Peace Corps volunteer back to their villages after a holiday outing, Thyne and a fellow volunteer, Justin Bhansali would also perish, this time, at the scene of a high impact vehicle collision. However, as Schaffer incisively captures, what inevitably characterizes the uncanny coincidence of Diallo and Thyne’s proximal deaths is not the eerily karmic connection between these two young men who have never met, but rather, the profound disparity in the way that justice was carried out in the aftermath of their deaths. Contrasting the acquittal of the four New York City police officers on all charges – including the lesser included offense of reckless endangerment – with the three year prison sentence handed out by the Guinean court to the taxi driver as punishment for an analogous vehicular offense for speeding (and subsequently led to a nationwide road safety campaign in memory of the Peace Corps victims), the inescapable sentiment of inequitable justice is precisely articulated in a comment by Thyne’s father that, while “Jesse’s death was a tragedy, Amadou’s death was a tragedy and a travesty.”

terangaTeranga Blues, 2007. Moussa Sene Absa’s epic and sprawling urban tale, Teranga Blues appropriately opens to the shot of a Senegalese musician, Madiké “Dick” Diop (Lord Alajiman) being escorted by French authorities in handcuffs before a brief, procedural handover with local immigration officials releases him into their custody, and back out to freedom into the streets of Dakar with little more than a 20 Euro note in his pocket. The image of the deported, down and out musician in restraints would prove to be a prescient metaphor for Dick’s figurative bondage upon returning to his native land. Reluctant to return home with unrealized dreams of wealth and fame, Dick falls into the nefarious company of a childhood friend, Maxu (Ibrahima Mbaye), an ambitious gangster and low level toadie to a well connected black market arms dealer named Zéka (Zéka La Plaine), who arranges to furnish him with a lavish loan in order to project an image of success for the native son’s triumphant homecoming to his mother, Soukèye (Yakhara Deme) and sister, Rokhaya’s (Rokhaya Niang) shantytown home. Borrowing heavily from his newfound underworld associates in order to endow his family with the financial means to leave the impoverished village and build a new home in a more affluent community, and persuaded into an unholy alliance with promises to help establish his music career, Dick invariably becomes indebted to the pragmatic and enterprising Zéka who, in turn, sees in Dick’s directness and integrity a veritable potential to move up in the ranks as his trusted lieutenant. In its elemental fusion of universal, cautionary tale on the lure of easy money with a compassionate social commentary on the endemic cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement, Teranga Blues transforms from seemingly idiosyncratic amalgam of lyrical romance, carnivalesque (sur)realism, gangster film, slice-of-life portrait, and portentous tragedy into a sincere and impassioned, larger-than-life contemporary urban opera on star-crossed fate and inescapable destiny.

conakryClouds Over Conakry, 2007. Following a lively introductory performance by a traditional African griot, the 14th annual New York African Film Festival officially opened with the film, Clouds Over Conakry from Guinean filmmaker Cheick Fantamady Camara, a selection that seems ideally suited to the festival’s commemoration of Africa’s 50 years of independence and (indigenous) cinema – a humorous, lyrical, and engaging, yet thoughtful and impassioned cautionary tale on the intractable social dichotomies between tradition and modernity – the personal (and cultural) struggle to find moral balance between upholding indigenous customs and embracing progressive ideals – that continue to shape contemporary African society. At the heart of the conflict is a talented political cartoonist and artist, Bangali, affectionately known as BB (a homonymous nickname that alludes to the film’s catalytic cultural collision, an out of wedlock baby) who pseudonymously signs his newspaper with a rudimentary glyph in order to conceal his life’s vocation (and passion) from his father, a superstitious, and deeply old fashioned marabout. In love with his mentor and editor’s beautiful daughter, Kesso, a web designer who, on a whim, entered the audition for the Miss Guinea pageant and now unexpectedly finds herself competing for the title, BB’s hopes for a life together with his beloved Kesso and a professional career as an artist is soon dimmed when his father, having experienced a dream that he believes was guided by the spirit of their village ancestors, decides to bypass his religious, older son’s wishes to study abroad and become an imam, and instead, chooses his visibly disinterested younger son, BB, to succeed him in their ancestral vocation. But when his father is summoned by a government official to lead a prayer service on a pre-appointed day and time to help end the city’s unseasonable drought – a divine invocation that seems all too conveniently effective – BB begins to question the integrity of the often conflicting advice offered by well-intentioned people around him. Beyond the often explored territory of cultural contradiction, perhaps what makes the film particularly insightful is Camara’s ability to capture the moral nuances and shades of grey that appropriately – and relevantly – capture the complexity of contemporary existence: the father’s infusion of tribal fetishism with Islamic worship is confronted through the older son’s orthodox scholarship of the Qur’an, and who, in turn, is confronted with the inhumanity intrinsic in his more fundamentalist views towards the (mis)treatment of women; a woman’s reproductive rights paradoxically brings tragedy to both sides of the ideological debate; the idea of a free press is compromised by the editor’s self-censorship approach to the reporting (and suppression) of information in order to avoid controversy and maintain the paper’s access to influential leaders (and implicitly, uphold the status quo); the separation of church and state is blurred by the political cultivation of alliances with influential spiritual leaders in an attempt to rein in loyal, faith-based voters into their political campaigns.

Acquarello, 2007 [reprinted]