Africa is producing many films these days; sadly, few reach audiences in Europe or, especially, the U.S., where visions of Africa usually come packaged for Westerners. The 16th New York African Film Festival is the exception, presenting Africa as seen by Africans, and while that used to mean leisurely paced variations on the theme of traditional village living versus big city survival, this year’s 35 selections reflect an eclectic mix of issues, points of view, and styles. Most of the films are as reflective of their parent culture as the sensibilities of their individual filmmakers, and the focus is on exploring what it means to be an African with a loving, sometimes cynical, always questioning eye.
For In My Genes, documentarian Lupita Nyong’o steps back and allows her subjects—albinos from various Kenyan social strata—to describe their painful dilemma: being “white” yet “black” in Africa, where they are objects of superstition and prejudice. In contrast, director Jean-Marie Teno provides strong voice-over narration that occasionally shades into portentousness in Sacred Places as he addresses the challenges faced by Africa’s filmmakers and viewers. Set in a village near Ouagadougou, Burkino Faso, the site of the Pan-African Film Festival, Teno argues persuasively for the African filmmaker’s emerging role as 21st-century griot by focusing on the hardscrabble existence of tiny thatched-roofed cine-clubs sprouting like weeds across the continent to meet a growing demand. Yet the dime that buys entry gets residents pirated American DVDs on an old-fashioned TV, not African films.
Ostensibly fiction, Wrestling Grounds uses its slight coming-of-age plot as a vehicle for director Cheick Ndiaye’s exhilaratingly gorgeous documentary sequences, including traditional Senegalese wrestling matches—spectacular orgies of drumming, dancing, and glistening beefcakes—as well as a lengthy trancelike scene in which a canoe floats down a river, past landscapes untouched for millennia.
Much like the vivid cinematography, the soundtracks are particularly evocative in two feature standouts, both from South Africa. Michael Raeburn’s Triomf follows the disintegration of an addled Afrikaner family living in surreal squalor in a Johannesburg shantytown to piercingly remind us of the nagging legacy of the country’s dysfunctional Apartheid past. Ralph Ziman’s thrilling and provocative Jerusalema presents the flipside of the new South Africa’s emotionally devastated, winner-take-all society. Bursting with energy as it tracks a young township rebel who turns petty criminal and then major “Joburg” playa, the film reveals how community activism can be manipulated into an individual’s wildly profitable business.
Fifteen years away from Apartheid, with South Africa’s national elections taking place just days after the festival opens here, the timeliest entry, Jihan El-Tahri’s carefully balanced Behind the Rainbow, provides the real-life background details alluded to in Triomf and Jerusalema. Working through a maze of interviews and archival footage, El-Tahri unravels intra-fraternal quarrels over doctrine and graft among the former freedom fighters that make up South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, and neatly links that party’s internal dissension to the nation’s current crises.