To kick off this year’s program, the 23rd New York African Film Festival hosted the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow on May 1st at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. DDFR is the companion transmedia project to Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People—a documentary, directed by Thomas Allen Harris, tracing 170 years of African-Americans in photography.
DDFR grew out of Harris’s personal work, mining his family’s photo archives to understand his journey in a global context. The event featured live interactions with audience members sharing their stories and family photographs projected on a large screen. In the process of sharing these images and stories, participants created a living historical narrative, making connections—like one woman, photographer Adama Delpine Fawundu, who met her long lost cousin who happened to attend the event—and linkages that underscored our shared humanity.
I got a chance to share some family photos, and speak about my family’s migration from Southeastern Nigeria to the United States, finding the experience deeply personal, global, and historical.
The DDFR event concluded with a panel discussion, featuring Harris, Fawundu, and musician Ayoinmotion, discussing the arts and activism.
The festival program began on May 4 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, continued at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, and will culminate on May 30th at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here are the highlights of this year’s program.
“Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai”
“Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai” played to a sold-out audience followed by a Q&A with director Christopher Kirkley and lead actor and musician Mdou Moctar. The film tells the story of a motorcycle-riding self-taught guitarist trying to make a name for himself in the Nigerien city of Agadez.
The title of the film is a Tuareg phrase that translates to “rain the color of blue with a little red in it,” a play on Prince’s “Purple Rain” that loosely inspired the film. Mdou must battle fierce competition from jealous musicians and overcome resistance from his family to win the battle of the bands. It’s the first feature film ever made in Tamashek—the native language of the Tuareg, a semi-nomadic Berber group in Northern Africa.
While living in Mauritania, Portland-born ethnomusicologist Kirkley spent years studying the region’s music, before coming up with the idea for the movie and launching a Kickstarter to make it happen. He had come across Mdou’s music online and tracked him down on Facebook, recording an album with him before asking him to star in the film.
Fresh off Prince’s death, this was a feel good movie for a captive audience—waiting patiently when glitches forced the projectionist to pause the film to troubleshoot technical problems, five minutes before the ending. Tall, handsome, charismatic, and talented, Mdou is wonderful to watch onscreen and in person. And the theme of the struggling artist, misunderstood and thwarted by his family, rang true and familiar.
But what was rather obvious, watching the film, was Kirkley’s fascination with the music over and above filmmaking. The movie featured a series of long jam sessions, some of which gave rise to pacing and synch issues. (It’s unlikely these lessened the audience’s enjoyment, and I suspect that Tuareg audiences love it, since many Agadez residents collaborated in the writing, acting, and filming process.)
At the Q&A, Moctar revealed that, since he was already famous back home, the film didn’t change his life much, although it has given him more exposure in the Western world. In the end, Mdou is the real star, one that shines brightly despite some of the film’s technical issues.
“Martha & Niki”
“Martha & Niki” is a documentary about a popular Swedish women’s hip-hop duo directed by Tora Mkandawire Mårtens. The film depicts the friendship and creative partnership between two African women—Martha Nabwire, a Ugandan who emigrated to Sweden at the age of 14; and Niki Tsappos, an Ethiopian adopted by a white Swedish family.
In 2010, when Martha and Niki won Juste Debout, the biggest international street dance competition in Paris, they made history as the first female world champions in hip-hop. “Martha & Niki” depicts their journey navigating new fame, putting their friendship to the test as each finds her own voice as a dancer.
This was a wonderful film. Beautifully shot and executed, with electrifying dance sequences and insightful commentary on the obstacles of being black in Sweden—and African, and immigrant, and female, and a hip hop dancer. Deftly edited by Therese Elfström and Mårtens herself, it takes us on a world tour from Paris to Cuba to the Czech Republic to Brooklyn to Soweto to Sweden, offering up a poignant meditation on how much hip-hop unites us globally.
Most fascinating of all is Martha herself—longing for Uganda, grateful for the opportunities she’s had abroad, but desperate to feel at home. “All of this has been positive to me—my dance, career, getting to know Niki and all my other [Swedish] friends. But my heart does not belong in Sweden,” she says. “It’s only through dance that I can express myself and show who I really am. I hold on to my culture. I dance to express myself, to feel free.”
In the end, it is this freedom through dance that prevails, moving far beyond a mere performance, of gravity-defying moves, to a platform for two African women charting a global path to greatness.
“Price of Love”
In “Price of Love,” a young taxi driver in Addis Ababa tries to free a prostitute from the life, losing his taxi in the process. When he ends up broke and stuck in a relationship with her, he must confront his past to discover what is the price of love.
This is the third feature and first theatrical run for Hermon Hailay, one of Ethiopia’s leading female directors. Hailay collaborated with UK-born writer and producer Max Conil on “Price of Love,” which won an award at the 2015 Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).
The film’s leading and supporting characters delivered solid performances, exposing the personal struggles of women in a dangerous business. Hailay manages to do so without exploiting the violence and brutality of the life, owing to her personal experiences meeting sex workers in Addis who, but for economic hardship, might otherwise lead normal lives.
The 23rd New York African Film Festival’s opening night film, “Tanna,” was a story about star-crossed lovers in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Co-directed by documentarians Bentley Dean and Martin Butler—who had never made a narrative feature before— the film beautifully depicted the true story of how two of the last remaining indigenous tribes incorporated love into their ancient tradition of arranged marriage.
The synopsis reads: “‘Tanna’ is set in the South Pacific where Wawa, a young girl from one of the last traditional tribes, falls in love with her chief’s grandson, Dain. When an inter-tribal war escalates, Wawa is unknowingly betrothed as part of a peace deal. The young lovers run away, but are pursued by enemy warriors intent on killing them. They must choose between their hearts and the future of the tribe.”
Although the Romeo and Juliet-esque story has been done before, what distinguished Tanna was the setting—in Yakel village, near a live volcano—the cinematography—lush, picturesque forests and shooting lava—and the characters—a cast of non-actors, from Yakel, some of whom played the same roles in the film as they do in life.
The documentary style of filming also served to capture and preserve Yakel culture, called kastom, on film, with breathtaking imagery. All this the filmmakers achieved with a two-person crew—Dean on camera and Butler on sound.
The Q&A was perhaps even more interesting than the film itself. Co-director Bentley Dean was joined by distributor Arnie Holland, Ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Vanuatu to the UN Odo Tevi, former US Ambassador to Vanuatu Robert Van Lierop, and moderator Malika Lee Whitney.
Tanna is the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu. Dean—who first lived there as a foreign correspondent, and moved back with his family to make the film—spoke about the collaborative process between the community and the filmmakers. He stressed that the Tannese, while knowledgeable about the world, believe they have a unique—and, according to them, superior—culture to offer the world.
Given the nation’s strategic role in WWII, as the largest U.S. army supply base in the South Pacific, the rejection of Western values and lifestyles is a decidedly political choice. (At the end of the war, American troops bulldozed hospitals and supply centers over cliffs rather than leave them behind for the Vanuatans.)
Vanuatu was the only country in the region to support independence and political freedom for East Timor, even when faced with threats of cessation of foreign aid. Its support of other movements, such as Namibian independence and South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, has largely been ascribed to a strong indigenous culture.
The film was acquired by Lightyear Entertainment, and will be released in New York and Los Angeles in September 2016.
Throughout the festival, it was rare for the majority of key film crew positions to be held by Africans. Either the money came from elsewhere, or the writers, or the directors, some of whom used their films as a way to immortalize their fascination with certain cultures, countries, and customs.
This trend could either be the luck of the festival draw, a sign of tough financial times for African cinema, or a full on “Scramble for Africa,” in which Westerners are increasingly capitalizing on the burgeoning African film movement and the growing global appetite for African content. (This was certainly the case for “The Cursed Ones,” shot in Ghana, starring Haitian actor Jimmy Jean Louis, which the producers hoped would appeal to an international audience.)
Still another possibility: Africa and Africans are so thoroughly globalized that the traditional concept of an African film—as exemplified by the late Ousmane Sembene, who worked independently of the European system—is a thing of the past. It’s a worrisome idea, given that many African cinemas are still in their infancy.
There’s certainly a lot of African cinema happening locally that stays local. But those that gain international awareness and acclaim, which often means that they play in non-African-specific film festivals in parts of Europe and the USA, tend to reflect that same international make-up behind the camera.
A handful of elder statesmen of African cinema, like Mahamet Saleh Haroun and Abderrahmane Sissako, have managed to establish themselves overseas, and will likely always be guaranteed a seat at the table. But they get their funding outside the continent, primarily from France anyway.
It’s vitally important that the limited resources allocated for African films help to build fledgling industries on the continent. In this regard, partnerships forged between the New York African Film Festival and festivals on the continent—like Lights, Camera, Africa!!! in Lagos and Nairobi-based Docubox—meet a critical need.
All in all, NYAFF23 showed an engaging slate of films this year, and will round up this season’s programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in conjunction with the DanceAfrica celebration. There you can check out Yared Zeleke’s debut feature, “Lamb,” as well as Bazi Gete’s “Red Leaves,” which we reviewed last year, and “Under the Starry Sky,” Dyana Gaye’s award-winning transcontinental film tracing the stories of three immigrants living in the diaspora.
Iquo B. Essien is a Nigerian-American writer and director. She attended the Graduate Film Program at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. Her short film, “New York, I Love You,” screened in the 23rd New York African Film Festival and the New Voices in Black Cinema Festival at BAM. She is currently adapting the short into a feature film while writing a memoir, Elizabeth’s Daughter, about losing her mother to cancer. You can find her on Twitter @alligatorlegs.