That clashes of tradition, religion and global economic policies weigh so heavily as subject matter in the films of this year’s Pan African Film & Arts Festival should come as no surprise. To some extent, those have always been the dominant issues in this 10-year-old festival’s movie fare. And although now, for obvious reasons, they may resonate a little more powerfully, the audience for the cinema of Africa and the African diaspora has long known that such subject matter, regardless of how culturally specific, also reflects transformations in and around the world. What’s surprising is how strong the work is this year. With films from Africa, Australia, England and America (among other places), and topics ranging from political and cultural heroes (including documentaries on Americans Ralph Bunche, Ralph Ellison and John Lee Hooker), to civil wars in Africa, to simple love stories, the conversations onscreen — the way that movies, and therefore cultures, speak to one another — are rich and provocative.
Gavin Hood’s A Reasonable Man (South Africa/U.K.), in which the writer-director stars as a corporate lawyer with no real experience as a litigator, who rashly decides to defend a young herdsman against a charge of murder, embodies the multiple purposes of the festival. After a woeful start (the first half-hour is a groan-inducing soufflé of courthouse-drama clichés and white-liberal guilt), the film turns into a taut thriller as Hood orchestrates events toward a heady crescendo of timely questions: In our fast-shifting world, whose cultures and standards will prevail? At what costs do we maintain a status quo of European-based definitions of fairness and reasonableness? While the heaviness of his theses are offset by strands of humor (a feisty spiritual priestess in a courtroom showdown, the late Nigel Hawthorne as a crusty judge who’s not quite what he seems), Hood’s real triumph is in remembering to bring the story back to its human element after he’s made his political points. The stricken faces on which the camera lingers near the film’s end remind us that a human life has been lost in this tale, and that justice — fairly dispensed or not — cannot alter that fact.
Just as bittersweet, and equally layered in its dissection of the ways politics can shatter the person, is Issa Serge Coelo’s Daresalam (France/Burkina Faso). A poignant essay on civil war in modern-day Chad, it’s also the story of childhood friends Djmi and Koni, who grow up to see their lives, and their friendship, ripped apart by the conflict. Achingly beautiful — the play of colors and shadows against the expanse of the desert is breathtaking — and laced through with sadness, the film finally wears out your tear ducts by pulling a last minute flip-flop of its world-view. Just as Coelo seems to be suggesting that the barbaric ways in which human beings treat one another cannot be rewired or transcended — that resistance is futile — Daresalam ends on a note of unironic optimism more radical than all the calculated nihilism served up on Western movie screens.
Now 9 years old, Haile Gerima’s classic Sankofa (Ethiopia/U.S./Ghana/Jamaica) is making a rare big-screen appearance. Having paved the way for films like Amistad, The Middle Passage and Ill-Gotten Gains, Sankofa — with its unflinching look at both the mechanics of the slave trade and how the effects of that perverse industry still play out on the psyches of black folk — remains a harrowing but worthwhile viewing experience.
Mercifully, not everything at PAFAF goes for the jugular. Room To Rent (U.K.), Khaled El Hagar’s tale of a homeless, handsome young Egyptian writer who crashes with friends while trying to figure out a way to stay in England once his visa expires (he has 12 weeks), is slight and perhaps overfamiliar, but fun anyway. In the vein of films like My Beautiful Laundrette, East Is East and My Son the Fanatic, which explored Pakistani and Indian identity crises in the modern-day melting pot of England, Room is filled with eccentric characters (Juliette Lewis as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, Rupert Graves as a gay photographer) and comes with a great soundtrack. Christine Swanson’s All About You (USA) is a romantic drama in which a beautiful law student is jilted by her arrogant beau, abandons her studies to waitress in a trendy club, and falls for her ex-lover’s black-sheep brother. If the plot strains credulity and the writing falters, the performances — especially by supporting actors Richmond Dunbar and hood-rat pinup Lisa Raye, surprisingly effective with her clothes on — are consistently engaging.
Still, it’s the political stuff — both the overt and the soft-sell — that makes the deepest impression. Much of the work on display at PAFAF gazes at today’s children and the harshness of the world they’ve inherited. Or rather, it’s in their tales that we see a world grappling with cultural shifts and new definitions of what it means to be a global citizen. YolunguBoy (Australia), directed by Stephen Johnson, is the weakest film in this category, but is still noteworthy, if only for being an aboriginal coming-of-age tale. Although too often bogged down with leaden direction, the film soars in flashbacks in which the juvenile characters are shown as appealing if feisty young boys, as yet unpummeled by poverty, puberty and drugs. Nabil Ayouch’s Ali Zaoua (Morocco) covers territory that, in the last few years, has been visited by filmmakers around the world: the lives of the bands of homeless children who fill the streets of so many of the world’s cities. While bringing nothing new to the table, Ayouch wonderfully captures both the grit (prostitution, violence and drugs) and the fleeting moments of beauty in his young heroes’ lives as he follows three friends trying to raise money to bury a fourth comrade in a manner befitting the prince he always imagined himself to be. (The traditional Arabic songs that one craggy-voiced boy belts out are absolutely haunting.) It’s the late Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (Senegal), however, that manages to both enchant and devastate. It’s the story of Sili Laam, a young disabled girl (she wears a leg brace and uses crutches) who gets a job selling the government newspaper — The Sun — in order to support her family. Tough and fearless, she breaks gender boundaries (no girl has ever sold the papers before) and stands up to foes, be they territorial bullies or crooked cops. Lissa Belera, who plays Sili, is a stunner whose huge eyes and regal face command the screen. There’s a scene in which, having earned her first paycheck then shared the wealth with beggars and outcasts, she dances on her crutches while wearing a new orange dress — the moment is exhilarating. Mambety, in the film’s closing credits, wrote, “This story is a hymn to the courage of street children.” If there was any doubt what he meant by that, he makes it clear in a scene in which Sili is attacked by street thugs and has her crutch stolen. When a teenage black knight comes to her rescue, hoisting her upon his back and asking her what she wants to do now, she exclaims a manifesto whose simplicity and optimism affirm life in all its heartache and beauty.
The Pan African Film & Arts Festival screens at the Magic Johnson Theaters at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3650 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Los Angeles, February 6–18. Check www.paff.org for further info.