The biggest and best news about this year’s Pan African Film & Arts Festival is that it has new digs: the Culver Plaza Theatres in Culver City. After years of suffering shoddy sound and degraded screens at the Magic Johnson Theaters, audiences and filmmakers alike will finally have the opportunity to experience PAFF’s world cinema offerings in a first-class setting. This year’s lineup is especially strong. South African director Darrell Roodt’s Zimbabwe does a stellar job of melding a host of issues (AIDS and its orphans; poverty; immigration; intra-African culture clashes; the fragile status of women) into an intelligent, affecting drama that scores its large-scale political points by keeping its focus on the human, day-to-day costs of strife. As the beleaguered 19-year-old title character, charged with caring for her younger brother and toddler niece, Kudzai Chimbaira is exquisite in her calibration of grief, wariness and fleeting moments of hard-won happiness. David E. Simpson’s documentary Milking the Rhino (U.S.) unfolds along the lines of a more artful National Geographic special, with lovely vistas, close-ups on African faces and a narrative carefully shaped toward uplift. What elevates the film above its template is the palpable urgency of its overlapping issues: the conflict between the conservation movement and African tradition, and the tensions sparked by the need to preserve indigenous culture while also catering to tourists. Though the film ends on a happy note, Simpson makes it clear that there are no easy answers. PAFF’s opening-night film, Jerusalema (South Africa), serves its purpose by being a slickly crafted crowd-pleaser that pretends to offer something vibrant and new, when, in fact, it’s safely formulaic. Lucky Kunene (Rapulana Seiphemo), who cites Al Capone and Karl Marx as his heroes in a smooth voice-over, tells the story of his rise, fall and rebirth as the Robin Hood of the hyperviolent South African hood of Hillbrow. Flecked with humor, full of bullet-riddled action, and well-acted, director Ralph Ziman’s film wallows in too many clichés — including positioning a white woman as the ultimate prize — to be fully satisfying. As usual, the festival also hosts a series of worthwhile panels; one that looks to be especially promising is “Teen Filmmakers: New Voices/New Dreams in the Digital Age,” moderated by L.A.-based visual artist Amarpal Khanna, on Saturday, February 7 at 2 p.m. (Culver Plaza Theatres; through Mon., Feb. 16. www.paff.org)
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