"Why isn't Africa blooming, with all of these degrees?" someone asks halfway through Pierre Yameogo's Moi et Mon Blanc (Me and My White Pal). It's phrased as an aside, but the idea of material stagnation, despite an abundance of talent, smarts, and resources, is the crux of the 12th New York African Film Festival. Yameogo, who's feted with a mini-retro at the fest, shows a light touch, stamping larger African problems onto Mamadi (Poitier-esque Serge Bayala), a goodly overachiever about to snag his doctorate at the Sorbonne. Still upbeat despite being stiffed on promised government grant money, he takes a parking-lot graveyard shift alongside slacker Franck (Pierre-Loup Rajot); stumbling onto a misplaced cocaine stash necessitates a flight to Mamadi's hometown. Hairline cracks in the buoyant buddy pic shell ("You might tone down the leftism in your IMF critique," his white prof advises Mamadi) have a political feel. The stash ends up a far more materially beneficial white pal than the somewhat louche Franck, as the movie trots from Paris to Burkina Faso.
The doc Al'leessi . . . an African Actress tracks the ordeal of earlier independent directors in Niger via the long, slow raw deal given to Zalika Souley, who was a ravishing, scar-cheeked, onscreen provocatress. Once, a very young Souley rode astride Niger's "Cagney, McQueen, and Reagan" in a marvelous-looking western. Now a tubby peasant mother ship, she notes how the multiple infractions of her charactersincluding cussing, saying her husband's name aloud, knowing how to kiss too wellspilled over into real life, as the public continually assumed she was a lout, a drunkard, a whore, or worse. After a coup d'état, the government sent her, unpaid, to film festivals, a signifier with empty pockets. Al'leessi finds her old directors hopeful while still struggling against the once reliable public TV funds, a shaky optimism sucker punched by the end title describing Souley's current whereabouts.
On similar turf, Kuxa Kanema: The Birth of Cinema reaches peaks with 1978 footage of a super-rumpled Godard, popping into the newly liberated Mozambique with a "crazy" plan to put cameras into the peasants' hands. A deflationary chronicle of the nation as seen through the Manichaean, Marxist lens of its state-sponsored newsreel series (also called Kuxa Kanema), Margarida Cardoso's doc follows the gradually faltering effort of ebullient president Samora Machel to feed the nation with ideology. What remains today is a fire-gutted national film studio, civil servants waiting for their pensions to kick in. But right after Portugal's 1975 eviction, Machel formed cultural alliances with Brazil and Cuba, with a revolutionary enthusiasm nowhere more palpable than in a bizarre leisure-suited chorus line inveighing against capitalism and apartheid (South Africa was Mozambique's belligerent neighbor). Cardoso suggests that Kuxa the series may have been the nation's premier cinematic event, but notes the tantalizing should-have-beens, such as Godard's barely begun The Birth (of the Image) of Nation, an "anti-television" jab, or the country's first fiction film, pitched as a fascinating Russ Meyer-meets-Che Yugoslavian co-production ("A nude guerrilla girl is running through the woods, chased by two soldiers. One is in love with her."). What brave Mozambican will continue this work? Stay tuned.
New York African Film Festival
April 20 through 28
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