New York African Film Festival 2012: Documentary Overview

The 19th New York African Film Festival kicks off this Wednesday, bringing New York audiences a concise cross-section of new and retrospective film from all over Africa. Reflecting a desire to serve a diverse potential audience, aside from a couple of satellite events, the festival takes place at multiple venues over three different periods of time: The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre between April 11-17, Harlem’s Maysles Cinema between May 4-6, and Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinemas between May 25-28.

Documentaries outnumber the fiction films at the festival, perhaps speaking to one of the goals of the event – educating the public about the African continent and its widely distinct peoples, upending the stereotypes many viewers might have of a monolithic, “primitive” culture. Correcting these reductive notions, the non-fiction on display at the event instead represents an expansive, vibrant multiplicity of backgrounds and concerns. By my count there are eighteen feature-length documentaries or documentary series – almost entirely new work, with a few retrospective programs highlighting South Africa’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress.

Among the latter are two films worth noting: COME BACK, AFRICA (pictured), a 1959 docudrama about black life under apartheid rule by Lionel Rogosin (director of 1956′s Academy Award-nominated ON THE BOWERY) and IN DARKEST HOLLYWOOD: CINEMA & APARTHEID, PT I & II, Peter Davis and Daniel Riesenfeld’s 1994 look at the impact of film on South Africa – both in supporting and criticizing apartheid.

It’s notable that both of the above feature Miriam Makeba, the subject of the festival’s opening night film, MAMA AFRICA (pictured). Mika Kaurism√§ki’s portrait details the celebrated career of the South African musician and human rights activist, who actively campaigned against apartheid, forcing her into exile until its end. Two other strong women, both Kenyan, are profiled in docs at the festival: Jane Munene’s MONICA WANGU WAMWERE: THE UNBROKEN SPIRIT focuses on Mama Koigi, the mother of political prisoner Koigi wa Wamwere; and Branwen Okpako’s THE EDUCATION OF AUMA OBAMA, about President Obama’s half-sister. I wrote about the latter film out of Toronto here.

Clemente Bicocchi’s BLACK AFRICA WHITE MARBLE (pictured), investigating a controversy around the transfer of the remains of a 19th century explorer from Algiers to the Congo, sounds intriguing, as does Moussa Sene Absa’s YOOLE, THE SACRIFICE, in which the director seeks information about eleven Senegalese found dead on a boat in Barbados. The issue of migrants seeking better lives is also at the heart of AFRICA SHAFTED: UNDER ONE ROOF, Ingrid Martens’ observational portrait of Africa’s tallest residential apartment building, located in South Africa and home to more than 4000 people from all over the continent.

Finally, rounding out the program on what sounds like a lighter note is Sieh Mchawala’s AYEN’S COOKING SCHOOL FOR AFRICAN MEN. While domestic duties are very much the exclusive domain of women in the Sudan, a number of refugees in Australia face a challenge to tradition when a Sudanese woman starts a cooking school geared to Sudanese men who otherwise would have no idea how to fend for themselves.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Overviews, Recommendations

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