New York moviegoers may still be suffering political-doc fatigue, but the nonfiction-heavy 12th annual African Diaspora Film Festival provides a bounty of good reasons to stop your sobbing and get back out there. There’s plenty of rhythmic, politically charged music in the Cuban ANC: Hip Hop Revolución, even if the film necessarily never quite lives up to its title; indeed, the Castro regime comes across as only slightly more bothersome to freedom of expression than Clear Channel. Wearing its politics more proudly on its sleeve, the Belgian Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death assaults the legacy of King Leopold II, who ran the Congo as his personal fiefdom from 1885 until 1908, transforming the region into a forced-labor camp for rubber production. A formal hodgepodge, Congo uneasily mixes traditional voice-over with stilted re-enactments and editing techniques cribbed from Errol Morris, but succeeds on the strength of its shocking subject matter, including stories of soldiers ordered to cut off workers’ hands to account for used ammunition.
Closer to home, The Letter examines simmering racial tensions in Lewiston, Maine, which became the center of an international media firestorm in 2002 when its mayor wrote a letter asking Somali immigrants to stop moving to the town. The mayoral missive eventually prompted a day of simultaneous rallies by white-supremacist groups and counterprotesters that provides the doc with its cross-cutting climax. While pro-Somali residents frequently appeal to America’s immigrant past, one “pro-white” leader employs far more recent rhetoric, denouncing the newcomers in the name of the “global” war on terrorism.
Fiction filmmaking is well represented by the opening-night Malian drama Kabala, about a tradition-versus-modernity conflict sparked by a dried-up sacred well in a Mande village. With its bright colors, disregard for realism, and emphasis on strong women, the film can hardly avoid comparison with the recent Moolaadé, and while Kabala never achieves the stately pageantry of Sembene’s film, it does strike a blow of its own against patriarchy.