Tucked in the back of the small building that serves as the headquarters for the Pan African Film and Arts Festival lies the cluttered office of festival co-founder and executive director Ayuko Babu — or Brother Babu, as he’s affectionately known to his staff, filmmakers and festival audiences. The wall behind his desk is layered with posters and Post-its; stacks of tapes and DVDs are piled throughout the room, as are press kits and film canisters. Plaques from the city of Los Angeles commemorate his 14 years of work for the festival, which this year saw 40,000 attendees at its film screenings and some 200,000 at the concurrent arts fair. Films from more than 28 countries were shown this year.
“There’s a myth that says the black community has shrunk in L.A., that everybody has moved to Riverside, to the Valley,” says Babu, “but that’s not true. The African-American community has diminished, but if you add a hundred thousand Ethiopians, a hundred thousand Nigerians, black Cubans, black Guatemalans and black folk from Costa Rica — then you’ve got three or four hundred thousand more black folk than when I got here in 1963. Half the businesses on Crenshaw are now owned by black people from other countries, but that’s not reflected in the press or the analysis. You do see [that diversity] at the festival. If there’s a Cuban film, they’ll show up. Program a Nigerian film and they’ll show up. Our goal is to get Nigerians to go see an African-American film, African-Americans to go see a Cuban film, for Koreans and Latinos and everybody else to come out and see the films, period. And they do.”
Born and raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Babu moved to Los Angeles in 1963 to study sociology at Cal State L.A., where he minored in recreation (the study and practice of community organization and cultural tourism). He also received a law degree from UCLA, with the goal of starting a career in international trade and cultural exchange, viewing that as a means of building bridges between black folk in America and in Africa.
“I came out of the ’60s,” he says, “so I was in the SNCC and the Panther Party. I was part of the black student movement across the country that forced schools to open up and bring black students in. Through the movement, I understood the importance of the integration of sociology, community organization and culture. It was all one.”
A chance viewing of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (which set the Greek myth in the slums of Rio de Janeiro) when he was younger opened his eyes to the wider world of black experience and planted the germ for his interest in world cinema. Then, black activist icon H. Rap Brown told Babu to see Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 The Battle of Algiers, even agreeing to fly Babu to New York to view the film, uncertain that it would make it to theaters in Los Angeles. But the seeds planted by those two filmgoing experiences would only flower a couple of decades later.
After spending many years working with black American businessmen, especially those in Hollywood, to forge business and cultural alliances with Africa (like bringing the acclaimed dance troupe Les Ballet Africans to America during the 1984 Summer Olympics), Babu grew frustrated from dealing with prospective partners whose vision wasn’t broad enough — and capital not substantial enough — to bring about the kinds of cultural and political exchanges he was interested in. Around that same time, Babu had a conversation with his friend Gilbert Minot that changed his life.
“Gilbert was in charge of the entire film industry in Guinea,” recalls Babu. “He was secretary general of Syli Cinema, the government agency in charge of all the movie theaters, all production, equipment and funding. He was [civil rights activist] Stokely Carmichael’s best friend and had been a film school peer of George Lucas.
“We talked about the need for a film festival in Los Angeles to showcase the amazing work that black filmmakers were creating around the world. After it became clear that I could put my contacts and connections to use in order to make that happen, Gilbert stressed that this had to be my full-time job. Cannes was our model, and he knew that Cannes was a full-time job for those who run it. It was also our model because it’s a political entity. Most people don’t know that Cannes is a political festival, that it’s part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all the people that actually run the festival are senior civil servants. We knew that if you’re going to be involved in putting our stories out there, it can’t be a part-time thing. A lot of film festivals have been started by filmmakers and they’ve failed because you can’t nurture a film career and run a festival. You’ve got to do one or the other.”
Babu spends most of the year fund-raising, networking and traveling the globe scouting films. But his goal remains the same today as it’s always been.
“The whole thing is about having a rich experience,” he smiles, “checking everybody out. That’s why I came to L.A. That’s what the big city is about. If you’re going to be in a city like this, then experience it.”