The Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts Festival, celebrating its 18th anniversary this year, is one of the city's best film festivals, and last year's transfer of the festival's film program to the Culver Plaza Theaters from its longtime home at Magic Johnson Theaters finally places its programmed fare in a setting — good screens, quality sound — that both the movies and the moviegoers deserve. Within this year's typically strong lineup, many of the films speak to (and with one another on) the futility and dire costs of holding on to notions of racial/ethnic or cultural purity.
One highlight is Neshoba, a documentary about the decades-long aftermath of the infamous 1964 murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the KKK. In 2004 co-directors Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano trekked to Neshoba County, Mississippi, for the 40th anniversary of the murders, to see how white and black residents living in the place where the killings occurred were faring, and if racial attitudes had changed. The filmmakers lucked out; while they were in town, Edgar Ray Killen — preacher, KKK member and alleged mastermind behind the murders — was finally charged and forced to stand trial, creating a firestorm of controversy. Though the film itself is standard-issue in terms of craftsmanship, the tools used to tell the tale (particularly old newsreels, family photos and seldom-seen crime-scene and autopsy photos) are masterfully employed. Within the first 15 minutes, Dickoff and Pagano milk tear ducts (iconic newsreel footage of a young Ben Chaney weeping as he sings “We Shall Overcome” at his brother's funeral has lost none of its power to devastate), and then use that emotion to fuel the rest of the film.
Repeated several times by white bigots in Neshoba is the idea that “mixing” across racial boundaries is not only unnatural but a courting of death. This sentiment, adjusted to fit African-versus-African bigotries, is explicitly manifested in the South African film Gugu & Andile, a reimagined Romeo and Juliet set in 1993, in a township wracked with tensions between the Zulus and the Xhosa. Director Minky Schlesinger, who wrote the screenplay with Lodi Matsetela, keeps the basic thrust of Shakespeare's classic but imbues her wonderfully filmed tale with such great detail of everyday South African life that you feel the tensions of quotidian conflict in every scene, even those that are sweetly charged by the young lovers' blossoming and doomed affair. What's more, Schlesinger works in commentary on the ways in which black-on-black discord is sown and manipulated, without ever absolving black folk of their part in the bloodshed.
Like Neshoba, the Australian documentary Stolen started out as one thing and became something else entirely. Filmmakers Violet Ayala and Dan Fallshaw set out to film a family reunion between a black Saharawis woman and her mother, only to help trigger an international modern-day-slavery scandal. Though Ayala and Fallshaw could have provided more historical context for the political and cultural struggles between Morocco and the Polisario Liberation Front, which have left countless blacks stranded as slaves in refugee camps, the slow unraveling of the truth between a “white grandmother” and the black “daughter” and grandchildren she claims is utterly enthralling and infuriating.
Some films are important but not particularly good. All My Life falls squarely in that category. At its core, Life is about the shadow of creeping Islamic fundamentalism and what it costs gays and women in present-day Egypt, especially when juxtaposed against a history of Egyptian feminism and more progressive cultural attitudes on queerness. Director/screenwriter Maher Sabry breaks new ground in foregrounding queer lives and issues in an Egyptian film, but his important messages are hampered by didactic dialogue, barely rudimentary filmmaking skills and a cast that, to put it nicely, can't act. (Some nice eye candy, though.) As a manifesto of resistance, it's a brave and noteworthy endeavor. On cinematic terms, it leaves almost everything to be desired.
The Los Angeles Pan African Film and Arts Festival: Culver Plaza Theatres, 9919 Washington Blvd., L.A. paff.org.
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