The African griot culture is an ancient network of oral tradition. Griots were a societal class of traveling poets, musicians and storytellers from West Africa who preserved culture for future generations through the retelling of tales. For millennia, griots sat by firesides and shared proverbs, epics and adages passed down to them, like the all too familiar, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
If Africa is a land of stories, then it can be said that filmmakers are the young lions hunting them down. Cinema is the new griot tradition. The torch has been passed with the influx of the Internet and the advanced technology that allows African filmmakers to control the story and become masters of their own fabled universe.
“Young people in Africa are doing nuanced work on social political issues in their films. You tell the stories you know; they go out and resonate with anything in the world,” says the Sierra Leone-born Mahen Bonetti, founder and director of the New York African Film Festival. The film fest was founded in 1990 and is now enjoying 25 years of incorporation. For a quarter century, Bonetti has honored its mission to create diverse programs that aid and empower audiences alike. Her stars have aligned with the 22nd annual edition of the collection.
Over 25 feature titles and shorts from over 15 countries will be shown in New York during the May festival. In an ongoing partnership with the New York Film Society, Lincoln Center will host the festival May 6-12 before moving uptown to the historical Maysles Cinema in Harlem from May 14-17, finally jumping across the bridge to Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek May 22-25.
Mahen Bonetti says she was first introduced to the moving image as a child on a British military barracks in Sierra Leone before the liberation of her country. African children were subjected to cartoons of “gollywogs” and “Black savages” which she found upsetting to her childhood sensibilities. Perhaps in hindsight, it was the subliminal seed planted by those images that inspired her passion to see herself and her people in a more positive light.
This yearning to witness a more powerful perspective of herself and Africans in the diaspora subconsciously led to the founding of the New York African Film Festival. “I found that someone was speaking for me with no depth at all,” says Bonetti.
It’s no secret that the media has droned a very limited storyline when it comes to the African motherland. Images of emaciated children with flies on their faces and distended bellies have been updated by war-hungry military rebels who capture and rape their own women to create child soldiers, or fleeing immigrants marrying for citizenship or asylum papers. Yes, those stories exist, but that’s hardly everything the continent has to offer. Bonetti has borne the burden of creating a thriving and flourishing outlet for African storytelling for 25 years; this year’s festival speaks with the many voices of Africa.
Top film picks this year include:
100% Dakar: More Than Art
This Austrian-Senegalese documentary by director Sandra Krampelhuber highlights the art scene in Dakar and signals a call for African artists in the diaspora to return home, and for Senegalese artists to apply their talents to the continued struggle for change through the power of culture and diversity.
Plot for Peace
This is an off-the-books account of how Nelson Mandela was actually freed from jail and ended apartheid with the help of slight-of-hand by Jean-Yves Ollivier, a French-Algerian businessman.
This is the very first Côte d’Ivoirian film to screen at the Cannes film festival. Run assassinated the prime minister of the Ivory Coast; now he must take on the guise of a madman and flee for his life. What’s done is done, and now his life’s tale is told through dreamlike flashbacks.
A classic tragedy of a family ripped apart by the modern world. An Ethiopian man, portrayed by the exquisite rebel Debebe Eshetu, immigrates to Israel 28 years ago. Now 74, he struggles with the death of his wife and the realization that his values and traditional culture are lost in the hands of his children.
Fresh from portraying apartheid freedom fighter Walter Sisulu opposite Idris Elba in Long Walk to Freedom, Tony Kgoroge returns to the big screen as an undercover policeman struggling to keep his integrity in the midst of investigating the China-to-South African drug trade in Cape Town.
Love the One You Love
A dog handler, an IT engineer and a sex line operator in Cape Town begin to suspect something awry in their romantic lives, and that greater forces may play a role in who you love in the new South Africa.
For the full schedule, visit africanfilmny.org.
Suede has spent a decade between the America, South Africa and Tanzania creating content for print, TV, radio and digital media. His interests include photography, pop culture, social media and travel. Follow him on Twitter @iamsuede.