Like many things filed under the heading of “African”—one talismanic word to contain a continent’s worth of history, language, culture, basic bodily morphology, and possibility—Lincoln Center’s 6th African Film Festival scans with disturbing ease as both ode and elegy. Besides the familiar array of fragile folkways wilting under the hot lamps of modernity, Africans telling stories on film is probably the main endangered local culture on view. Every year fewer movies are shot by Africans about Africa or Africans and less funding is devoted to the production of African film. Festivals like the AFF, much like the long-term survivors of disease, inspire mainly by just persisting.
Besides more than 40 features, documentaries, and shorts, this year’s AFF is anchored by a retrospective on the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety (whose hour-long Little Girl Who Sold the Sun played Film Forum last month). Mambety made a name for himself with 1973’s Touki-Bouki, the skittish tale of two Senegalese kids who’ll do anything to make it to Paris. Touki-Bouki does an ironic dance with the black love of all things white, scoring Mambety’s social comments to the rhythms of American noir and the French new wave. A tireless African cinema advocate, ambassador, and educator, Mambety completed just one other feature before he died: Hyenas tells the comic tale of a rich African expatriate who returns home and demands the execution of her errant first love in exchange for infusing the local economy with a much needed shot of capital (much like the World Bank). The movie’s exaggerated premise is a stark contrast to the sonorous lethargy of some African filmmaking.
This year’s AFF emphasizes filmmakers who, like Mambety, push formal or narrative boundaries while still making political points. Jean Odoutan’s Barbecue-Pejo follows the misadventures of a married couple in Benin: Dogged by bad luck on the farm, the husband decides to get deeper in debt by purchasing a used Peugeot in hopes of becoming a bush taxi driver. Hovering between black comedy and soap opera (the wife is prostituting herself on the local beach to make ends meet), Barbecue-Pejo is scattered, but it provides a refreshing break from most films about the rural poor. Its oddball mix of angry wives, broke farmers, and perm-sporting pimps is more suggestive of a woodsy Richard Pryor than Ousmane Sembene.
Even the one legit old-school African protest film on view, Lionel Rogosin’s 1960 Come Back, Africa, has unexpected cards up its sleeve. Starring Miriam Makeba (who will be attending the AFF), Africa follows the epic struggle of a rural Zulu family forced to relocate to the slums of Johannesburg; government restrictions on Rogosin forced him to shoot much of his film with hidden cameras. High points among films from today’s South Africa include Brian Tilley’s unnerving Lucky Day and Teboho Mahlatsi’s hallucinatory Portrait of a Young Man Drowning; reflecting South Africa’s status as an industrialized nation, these shorts have some of the best production values in the festival, but most of them are also reminiscent of Hollywood calling cards made by the crafty graduates of Western film schools.
Senegalese director Safi Faye’s Mossane is also a beautiful film in ways that are familiar to audiences schooled on “international” (read European) cinema. The magical tale of a preternaturally pretty girl who is promised to one man and falls in love with another, Mossane is bathed in an unexpected visual glow that turns the rote story line into mere background noise—Faye lavishes the kind of visual love on his lead usually reserved for Hollywood starlets. The film frays at the edges in disturbing, suggestive ways, from the sibling who lies wasting away in a dark room (one of contemporary African cinema’s rare nods to the AIDS epidemic) to a bona fide sex scene (another rarity). Though Mossane‘s reliance on a vaguely European softcore-meets-National Geographic vibe may leave an unpleasant taste, I’d venture that its director is less a fashion victim than an aesthetic provocateur.