Decent images of black life are always hard to come by, but you almost forget that there was once a time when educated film types questioned with a straight face the material existence of African or African American films. Today, between glossy Hollywood-centric black film fests and events like Artmattan's annual African Diaspora Film Festival, it's possible to imagine a world of screens filled with people of color. Now in its sixth year, the Diaspora Festival has played an important role in creating that sense of possibility, each installment providing difficult-to-find foreign films, panel discussions, and meet-and-greet sessions with filmmakers from across the fest's neatly ecumenical diasporic map.
This year's slate of over 40 films from 25 countries includes the festival's signature selection of fanciful children's flicks, as well as a retrospective of black British cinema pioneer Menelik Shabaz and an overarching look at films by and about women. Strong documentaries like Stanley Nelson's upstanding historical survey of African American newspapers, The Black Press: Soldier Without Swords, sit side by side with amiable culture-clash comedies like A Man in Trouble, a broadly jokey but aware riff on a polygamist's misadventures in France.
Keynoting the women's flick theme, the opening-night film, Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, hails from Mali and looks at one troublesome day in the life of a poor rural woman. Forced to care for an ailing husband and three children, Zamiatou seems helpless and overwhelmed, her only recourse hoped-for but unseen heavenly succor and personal resolve. Rachel Perkins's unabashedly melodramatic Radiance focuses on Australian aboriginal women, but its three angry sisters contend with some of the same issues of family alienation and lost tradition that mark many women's films from the African continent.
Similarly, Sister, I'm Sorry beams in from what seems like a bizarre foreign land: the Oprah self-help circuit. Although I personally found the film plenty smug and soft-headed, this documentary about African American men attempting to heal the wounds of black-on-black abuse by apologizing to black women (any black women) is still a good example of what the Diaspora Fest does best as an institution, fostering connections and dialogue along geographic and personal lines.
A better example is Rachida Krim's Where Women Tread. A stylishly understated and elegiac fictionalized remembrance of one woman's part in the Algerian freedom struggle, Tread is a gorgeous and brave film, full of mourning for the ideals of the '60s revolutionary generation and thoughtful opprobrium for the current, oppressive Algerian reality. Besides its high-end historical goals, the film also manages to deliver a lushly sudsy romance and a curious bit of casting: aging Italian diva Claudia Cardinale as a "Europeanized" Algerian ex-rebel. There were probably plenty of more politically correct choices, but, like the best of the festival, the film proves that black identity is never quite what it seems.
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