If it initially seems lacking in veteran auteurs—no Mambety, Sissoko, Sembene, Chahine, or Van Peebles, not even retrospectively—the ninth annual African Diaspora Film Festival more than makes up for that with youthful enthusiasm and historical savvy. Some of your better choices from the grab bag (over 50 films from 26 countries): a bluesy yet buoyant gay comedy about a half-shirted singer who dithers with a bartender in East Berlin (Return to Go!) and an anachronistic kidnapping farce that might have sported Peter Sellers (Caribbean in Paris, with “French Eddie Murphy” Pascal Légitimus).
Both a barn-broad crowdstroker and comic nightmare, the London-set opening-night film Room to Rent quilts itself with ethnic confetti—Mexican landlords, Tunisian chiselers, white Anglo waifs, and Turkish gigolos all put their two cents in. Mostly they give ravishing, naive Egyptian expat Ali (Said Taghmaoui) fodder for lurid short stories and screenplays while he works three jobs. Denied a visa, he shacks up with a run of characters—flinty photog Rupert Graves, fragile starlet Juliette Lewis, and a blind woman (Anna Massey) who’s convinced he’s the reincarnation of an old lover—and is forced by circumstance into belly-dancing lessons and exotic modeling. Directed by Khaled El Hagar, the movie has been banned in his native Egypt, mostly due to the brushes with queerness and race-smelting. Though pleasing enough, particularly in Lewis’s creepy Marilyn Monroe impersonation, Room to Rent is ultimately the sum of its coarsely melded coincidences.
Kicking off with a Jean Cocteau quote, Dani Kouyate’s Sia, the Dream of the Python is a political allegory from Burkina Faso dressed in timeless, legendary threads. Packed with poetic flourishes—two kids trying to get a kite aloft in the baking sun, a protracted clash between the town tyrant and the town fool—Sia follows an eponymous heroine who flees into the night when the town priests mark her as a sacrificial victim. She ends up hiding out with Kerfa, the local cat-eating loon, who gets the film’s best lines, particularly when he goes toe-to-toe with the emperor who covets his dreams. Its sure sense of landscape and myth, and elliptical, nigh slapstick violence owes something to John Ford.
Denying Brazil, Joel Zito Araujo’s double take on blacks in Brazilian TV, is probably the standout documentary of the fest. Mixing essay, autobiography, and a historical tutorial scrawled in kitsch, Denying first outlines the sad tale of Isaura Buro, a prime mammy figure in the first successful Brazilian soap opera who later ended up selling candy on the streets. Just seeing the shards of the shows’ mingling narratives—a Butterfly McQueen-ish maid wins a variety show and her boss lady gets the credit; pretend crazies bait and blackmail lovers—furnishes a peculiar, shrill kick all its own. Working the same pro-miscegenation turf as Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s funky masterpiece, Tent of Miracles, Denying Brazil weaves soap squiggles into legit tragedy.