There are larger festivals, and there are festivals with glossier “industry” profiles, but aside from the every-other-year FESPACO in Burkina Faso, there’s no better way to take an accurate temperature of the black independent film world than at New York’s own African Diaspora Film Festival, and this installment’s 52 features from 25 nations cover all the ADFF’s bases.
Ill-fated love seems to be in the air this year, with the strongest films concerning romances that seem not so much forbidden as unlucky. Opening the festival is legendary Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues’s Orfeu, a slickly contemporary retelling of Black Orpheus. This Orfeu is a famous samba composer who refuses to abandon the hilltop ghetto of his youth and Eurydice is a socially conscious small-town girl; their love is complicated by a street war between police and the local drug lord. Combining action-flick gunplay, half-naked Ipanema-type lovelies, and the local version of the slammin’ soundtrack, Orfeu was the highest-grossing local film in Brazil in 1997. Along vaguely similar lines, Algeria’s Desert’s Ark, directed by Mohamed Chouikh, recasts Romeo and Juliet against a quasi-biblical backdrop; the romance threatens to end not with suicide but with a fiery, arid apocalypse.
In Fernando D’Almeida e Silva’s Earth Storm, a black Mozambican servant’s lifelong friendship with the Portuguese girl in the big house takes on new significance when she disappears.Refusing the “jungle fever” route, Earth Storm works itself into an almost epic historical lather, the last 40 years of Angolan history represented by a long near-miss kiss. Simon Cellan-Jones’s Storm Damage takes up a familiar theme: the black man made good who returns to his old stomping grounds. Set in the multiculti ghettos of England, Damage follows a do-gooder-ish teacher who comes home after an encounter with violence and finds that he’s not the only one who’s changed. With powerful performances, the old tales of conflicting generations andclasses have new life breathed into them. Among other features are a mini-retro of black indie pioneer Ayoka Chenzira’s work, a slate of “FESPACO Greats” (award-winning flicks from the last 10 years), and the yearly series of African children’s films and animation.