Liberation Songs


The hope and the temptation of a festival drawing on films from the African diaspora is that it will provide insights on the connections between communities from Mississippi to Brazil. The sad part is encountering the pervasiveness and permanence of racism. The joys are often in two kinds of performance—unrehearsed rituals of surprising intensity, and exuberant communal improvisation.

The 10th incarnation of the African Diaspora Film Festival (details at offers several films with a timely take on volatile changes in Islamic societies. Despite an awkward beginning, Algerian writer-director Yamina Bachir’s Rachida (2002) is a spare and moving tale of a community—and particularly its women—under threat from terrorists. In this world, women are shot, kidnapped, or raped, and still face condemnation within the family and village for bringing shame. A single woman with a gunshot wound cannot go to the baths for fear her scar will make people think she’s had a cesarean section—inappropriate for the unmarried. The film deftly dispenses the ordinary terror for anyone walking home on a starless night, and how they simply face it.

The similar courage of two African American farmers in Mississippi hits home in MacArthur winner Stanley Nelson’s The Murder of Emmett Till (2002), which examines the infamous murder of a black 14-year-old and the trial of his two known killers. For the uninitiated to get the harsh flavor of 1950s Mississippi, Nelson employs tabloid-style newsreel as well as one sensational clip promoting segregation as a solution to the “problem” of a majority-black population. Most of Nelson’s work has compressed a lot of information into PBS formats, but the tight focus of this subject allows for a riveting, in-depth look at Till’s articulate mother and her decision to expose his mutilated corpse to the world, along with the choices faced by the witnesses.

The African American work includes the New York premiere of Charles Burnett’s 1999 The Annihilation of Fish, and a revival of Raoul Peck’s Lumumba (2001), but the field is dominated by love stories. One is plugged with the line “Some Brothers just don’t know much about Sisters.” Joy (2002), directed by Jackie Alexander as a vehicle for himself, is billed as a tale of family and community helping a man through tragedy, but this light film could also be called Some Brothers Just Don’t Know How Many Women Are Taking Care of Their Butts. The central character enjoys a buppie life enabled by parents, exes, assistants, friends, and his lover, but the utilitarian script never reveals or explodes, and the characters remain opaque.

Royal Bonbon (2002), a French-Canadian-Haitian production directed by Charles Najman, and starring Dominic Batraville, is an epic poem, shouted out by a madman of the streets who fancies himself Henri Christophe, Haiti’s liberator turned king, and filmed with no concern for the lines between history, myth, and delusion. There are flashes of Paul Robeson’s Emperor Jones in Batraville’s work. The Yoruba-based vodun tradition of Haiti has been filmed a lot since Maya Deren and Katherine Dunham, and it’s refreshing to see it used without telegraphing anthropology or melodrama.

Yoruba ritual has a Cuban counterpart documented in Gloria Rolando’s two festival films, Oggun: An Eternal Presence (1992) and the Havana carnival doc The Scorpion (El Alacrán) (1999). David Turnley’s La Tropical (2001)—modeled on The Buena Vista Social Club—visits a hot, working-class, and very black dance hall in Havana. The camera exits the club to follow a few Tropical regulars home, but sometimes it rambles and the music gets lost. Still, the salsa’s fast, and the retro clothes tight. The undulating bodies will empower women with big everything to think saucy.