Wednesday, February 04, 2009

PFA—AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL 2009

From the capacity audiences at San Francisco's Noir City, I've shifted to the sparse attendance at Pacific Film Archive's third annual African Film Festival National Touring Series; a sobering familiar reminder of the status of African cinemas in the United States. Echoing the sentiments voiced by Thomas J. Bikales in his unpublished 1997 dissertation "From 'Culture' to 'Commercialization': The Production and Packaging of an African Cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso", Jason Sanders offers by way of introduction to the series: "In a world that's seemingly becoming more interconnected every day, the chances to see new international cinema are paradoxically shrinking, with independent film distributors shutting down and theaters preferring to show the 'safest bets.' Into this void steps the touring program of the annual New York African Film Festival, which presents an opportunity to experience the vibrant voices and visions of recent cinema from across the African continent."

The mission statement for the New York African Film Festival says it all: "In the 1950s and 1960s, African film was born to combat decades of stereotypes depicting Africa as the 'dark continent.' With the camera as their tool, African filmmakers began to create new images of postcolonial Africa that promoted a nuanced understanding of African cultures and history. Slicing through stereotypes, African cinema became a unique blend of vibrant aesthetic experimentation and biting social critique. In the past 50 years, African filmmaking has become as diverse as the continent from which it springs. History and politics provide the impetus for themes such as previously suppressed critiques of colonialism, post-independence corruption, chronicles of tribal customs and visions of contemporary society. At the same time, African filmmakers draw on the wellspring of myth, fantasy, humor and magic in order to forge a unique visual and narrative sensibility where tradition and modernity encounter each other. This kind of cinema stands as a powerful intellectual and emotional force, making it one of the most effective educational tools and media for cross-cultural communication."

The PFA series began January 25 and continues through February 22, 2009. I took time out from Noir City to watch Congolese director José Zeka Laplaine's Kinshasa Palace (2006), a "provocative cinematic whatsit, a mix of family mystery, colonial exposé, and Chris Marker–style essay-poem." Following Kinshasa Palace was a program of short films from Africa ("Journeys") wherein Laplaine was likewise represented by an earlier film Le clandestin (1997). This pairing announced a through-line in this year's traveling series whereby directorial features are presaged by earlier shorts in an effort to gauge a filmmaker's evolution.

Surprisingly, in this first pairing Le clandestin redeemed Kinshasa Palace, which I had difficulty enjoying despite its enterprising premise and some thoroughly engrossing sequences. Framed as a documentary but failing to maintain veracity, Kinshasa Palace capsizes (purposely shifts?) into fiction. Early on, filmmaker Laplaine—narrating in the anagrammatic guise of "Kaze"—establishes a childhood bond with his brother Max fashioned from the loss of their siblings through the ruptures of internecine warfare. Once they become adults, however, Max mysteriously exiles himself from his brother and the rest of their family, inspiring Kaze to travel as far as Siem Reap, Cambodia in search of him. The Cambodian sequences are especially suspenseful as clues lead Kaze to Max's recently-inhabited bungalow, ever one step behind his elusive sibling.

In his quite fair review for
Variety, Jay Weissberg notes the uncertainty of whether these events are fact or construction, even as he qualifies that certain sequences are "too raw and honest to be invented from whole cloth." Thematically, the film is sound in its "powerful condemnation of the way Congo's wars have torn apart the fabric of family life" and its depiction of diasporic dispersal. I was fascinated by an interracial family dinner composed of black Congolese and white Portuguese; but, perhaps, that was due to the fact that I could actually see the people. Everywhere else, Laplaine purposely (Neil Young says "coyly") keeps himself and his subjects in silhouette. For me, this made them emotionally inscrutable, even as they were demonstratively emotional. As an audience member, I felt kept at a distance. Weissberg suggests "Laplaine has meticulously crafted a rough-hewn style to reinforce a sense of nonprofessional authenticity"; but, the question for me would be: why? In doing so he demonstrates video's worst faults and—though I recognize the video camera has become an efficient tool for African filmmakers—this muddy lighting and "juddering" imagery (again, Neil Young), "the limitations of unattractive digital lensing" (Weissberg), and the fact that one never quite knows if this story is true or not, serves to undermine the film's purported authenticity. Again, though the film's themes harbor a resonant relevance, I could have just as easily read about them in a text book than spend time watching (more truthfully, listening) to the narrator's essay. Neil Young infers that Laplaine has been influenced by the digital work of Pedro Costa, though clearly not enough to strive towards Costa's visual beauty.

By contrast, Laplaine's earlier film Le Clandestin was visually much more interesting and thoroughly entertaining in its comic portrayal of the diasporic experience. Through slapstick sequences and a hilarious use of animal noises replacing human voices, António Costa—fresh off the boat from Zaire—is continuously chased by a policeman (portrayed by Laplaine). The dilemma is clearly stated. The policeman wants to ship poor António back "home" because it's no good for Africans in Europe and António counters that Africa has no future as a home.

Comedy reigns as well in Ngozi Onwurah's splendid and amusing Shoot the Messenger (2006), a scathingly hilarious treatment of the diasporic experience in the United Kingdom. "Part Swiftian satire, part Shakespearean tragedy", Shoot the Messenger is anchored by an energized tour de force performance by David Oyelowo as Joe Pasquale, a well-meaning school teacher scapegoated by his own students. It reminded me a bit of Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs in that respect, though it dredges the turbulent waters of internalized racism much more than Cantet's venture. From its opening shot of a distraught Pasquale admitting that everything bad that has happened to him in his life has been because of Black people, the film's impolitic wit skewers the ambition to be better than we are rather than being comfortable with who we are. Onwurah's feature comes accompanied in the traveling series by his earlier short Coffee Colored Children (1988), which will play with Katy Lena Ndiaye's Awaiting for Men (2007), the next entry in the PFA series. Based on my experience of Shoot the Messenger, I highly anticipate Coffee Colored Children.

Cross-published on
Twitch.

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