Under the theme “Beyond Borders: Storytelling Across Time,” this year the citywide 26th edition of the New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) launches at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinématek in May, heads to Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) from May 30 through June 4, and closes at Maysles Cinema. The festival lineup includes 68 films of multiple genres from 31 countries across the diaspora, and is presented by FLC and African Film Festival, Inc.
Opening Night at Film at Lincoln Center at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 30 is the U.S. premiere of Frances-Anne Solomon’s triumphant feature HERO: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life and Times of Mr. Ulric Cross. The film, which won the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival People’s Choice Award in the narrative feature category, tells the story of Cross, the Royal Air Force’s most decorated West Indian of World War II, and his and his fellow West Indians’ lasting impact on world history, including several liberation struggles across Africa. The film was selected as part of NYAFF’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first Pan-African Congress, organized in Paris by W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Gibbs Hunt in February 1919, when delegates from Africa and the diaspora convened to champion Africa’s self-determination.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the tragic Rwandan genocide of 1994, when between 800,000 and one million lives were lost, on Saturday, June 1 is the Centerpiece film, Rwandan director Joël Karekezi’s gripping drama The Mercy of the Jungle. One of a crop of films about the aftermath of the tragedy by Rwandan directors, it follows Rwandan soldiers hunting rebels separated from their unit as they fight to survive while lost in the war-torn countryside. Preceding The Mercy of the Jungle will be the short The Letter Carrier, a haunting, folkloric fairy tale told through original a capella song. The directorial debut of actor-directors Jesse L. Martin and Rick Cosnett imagines a black family from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the lengths they will go to save themselves from slavery.
In its look back, NYAFF also tips its hat to FESPACO (Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), the historic festival in Burkina Faso now celebrating its 50th anniversary, with classic works from African trailblazers who continue to influence generations of filmmakers. Among the selections are the first FESPACO Best Film winner (Oumarou Ganda’s Le Wazzou Polygame in 1972), most recent awardee (Karekezi’s gripping drama The Mercy of the Jungle), and several in between, including Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s Fatwa (bronze at FESPACO in 2019, first prize at Carthage Film Festival in 2018), Ola Balogun’s Black Goddess (1978), and Souleymane Cissé’s Baara (1980), all seminal works that define themes explored in contemporary African cinema. The final film screening at Film at Lincoln Center, on June 4, is the sweeping epic Sarraounia by Med Hondo, who passed away on March 2.
The festival also highlights some of today’s most buzzed-about directors of the diaspora, including South African comedian-actor-director Kagiso Lediga (Wizard / Matwetwe), the first African director to be tapped for a Netflix Original Series (Catching Feelings, starring Pearl Thusi); Julius Amedume, whose thriller Rattlesnakes featuring Jimmy Jean-Louis won the Panafrican Film Festival Audience Award for Narrative Feature), and Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam, whose Chez Jolie Coiffure captures the powerful real-life story of an undocumented hair-salon manager who escaped to Belgium from quasi-slavery in Lebanon.
FILMS & DESCRIPTIONS
All screenings take place at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 West 65th Street) unless otherwise noted.
HERO: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life and Times of Mr. Ulric Cross
Frances-Anne Solomon, Trinidad and Tobago/Canada, 2018, 110m
In 1941, a young man from Trinidad named Ulric Cross leaves his island home to seek his fortune. He emerges from World War II as the RAF’s most decorated West Indian. Cross’s long life spanned key moments of the 20th century, including independence in Africa and the Caribbean. Shot in Ghana, the United Kingdom, and Trinidad and Tobago, the film is not just about his life but also the transformative times in which he lived, and tells the untold story of those Caribbean professionals who helped to liberate Africa from colonialism.
The Mercy of the Jungle
Joel Karekezi, Belgium/France, 2018, 91m
French and Swahili with English subtitles
At the outbreak of the Second Congo War, Rwandan soldiers Sergeant Xavier and Private Faustin are sent to hunt down Hutu rebels in the vast jungles of eastern Congo. Xavier is a stoic veteran of the ethnic wars that have plagued his country for years; Faustin is an eager young recruit who joined the army to avenge the death of his father and brothers. Under the relentless command of Major Kayitare, they march 80 kilometers a day in pursuit of the murderers of nearly one million Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide four years earlier. When they are accidentally left behind in the jungle, with only each other to rely on, they embark on an odyssey through the most violent forest on earth, faced with the depths of their own war-torn souls.
The Letter Carrier
Jesse L. Martin & Rick Cosnett, Canada, 2016, 18m
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of 1860, a mother protects her family from slavery, while the myth of a man known as The Letter Carrier, who, as the legend goes, roams the mountains looking for children to sell as slaves, looms over them.
Souleymane Cissé, Mali, 1980, 93m
Bambara with English subtitles
In the great Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé’s political drama, a young factory manager encounters a man walking along a road who tells him his family members work as servants in the manager’s household. The man then offers him a job, and as he watches out for his welfare, begins to see how the company mistreats its workers. As dire problems surface at the factory, the manager is then challenged to choose between his ethics and the pressure from others to protect his own interests.
Bigger Than Africa
Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye, Nigeria/USA, 2018, 90m
When the slave boats carrying African people docked in America, Brazil, Cuba, and the Caribbean, hundreds of cultures, traditions, and religions landed with them. Today, only one remains prominent in the new world: the culture of the Yorubas. This documentary, shot in six different countries (including Brazil, the United States, Republic of Benin, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago), and featuring interviews from around the world, follows the journey of these Africans from West Africa to their final destinations.
Black Goddess / A Deusa Negra
Ola Balogun, Nigeria/Brazil, 1978, 95m
Portuguese with English subtitles
Black Goddess is a classic Nigerian-Brazilian film from director Ola Balogun that journeys into the past and present of Africa. Balogun’s tale is a love story that spans three centuries, set in both the 18th century and the 1970s, when the movie was made. Structured in the form of mystical journey, the film unfolds under the aegis of the Yoruba divinity Yemoja.
Chez Jolie Coiffure
Rosine Mbakam, Belgium/Cameroon, 2018, 71m
French and Pidgin with English subtitles
Recruited by a Lebanese maid agency, Sabine leaves Cameroon and embarks for Lebanon. After many years of servitude, she escapes to Belgium, but her arrival there is complicated by the fact that she enters illegally, by way of Greece and Syria. She settles in Matonge, the African quarter, where she becomes the manager of the beauty salon Chez Jolie Coiffure. Here, patrons, many of them undocumented immigrants, are not only be made to feel beautiful but can also escape the daily difficulties and harsh realities of their lives.
Tafadzwa Chiriga, Zimbabwe/USA/Nigeria, 2018, 6m
In this visually beautiful coming-of-age story, ancestral spirits emerge from the depths of a forest to guide a young African-American woman into a deeper relationship with her past, introducing her to a rich legacy of the African women who came before her. Little Girl is about finding a deeper understanding of the self, infused with questions of identity, religion, and cultural history.
Chosen / Le Futur dans le rétro
Jean-Marie Téno, Cameroon/Ghana/France, 2018, 89m
French and English with English subtitles
In 1964, following the death of her mother, 14-year-old Nana Banyina Horne becomes a mother figure to eight younger siblings. Years later, after living and teaching in America, Nana is chosen to be Queen Mother back in Ghana. As the film follows her on her journey home, we meet her sisters, family, and other members of the community, and we slowly perceive the both loving and suffocating ties and responsibilities that pull her back. On Nana’s journey, motherhood and sisterhood converge and collide, losses resurface, and cycles repeat, bringing to the fore questions of place and belonging, and the burdens of responsibility and sacrifice.
Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Tunisia, 2018, 102m
Arabic with English subtitles
Brahim Nadhour is a Tunisian living in France who returns to his home country to bury his son, Marouane, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. While there, Brahim finds out that Marouane was active in a radical Islamist group. Brahim then decides to carry out his own investigation to discover why Marouane was radicalized and who indoctrinated him.
Kayode Kasum, Nigeria, 2018, 91m
Pidgin and Yoruba with English subtitles
Oga Bolaji centers on the simple, happy-go-lucky life of a retired, 40-year-old musician (played by Gold Ikponmosa) whose life changes forever when he crosses paths with a 7-year-old girl. Oga Bolaji showcases the resilience and ingenuity of the Nigerian spirit, of striving, hoping, and dreaming despite life’s pain and limitations.
Julius Amedume, USA/UK, 2019, 86m
Writer-director Julius Amedume’s Rattlesnakes, is a psychological neo-noir thriller based on Graham Farrow’s acclaimed stage play. The story follows an intense day in the life of family man and yoga instructor Robert McQueen (Jimmy Jean-Louis), who is ambushed by three masked strangers accusing him of sleeping with their wives. He pleads his innocence, though what he does reveal will change all of their lives forever. But will it be enough to save his?
Med Hondo, Burkina Faso/Mauritania/France, 1986, 120m
Dioula, French, and Fula with English subtitles
Based on historical accounts of Queen Sarraounia, who led the Azans into battle against the French colonialists at the turn of the century, Med Hondo’s sweeping epic rivals any that American cinema has produced. A brilliant strategist and forceful leader, the queen commands respect from the men she guides into battle and deep loyalty for her people. Hondo contrasts the strong alliances that emerge among African communities with the self-seeking and purposelessness of the Europeans and provides much-needed African historical perspective.Sarraounia is both an engrossing tale of a remarkable woman’s bravery and a captivating study of revolution against enslavement and the struggle for peace and freedom.
Le Wazzou Polygame
Oumarou Ganda, Niger, 1971, 50m
Djema with English subtitles
El Hadji, an Islamic faithful, returns from his holy pilgrimage to Mecca, and falls in love with his daughter’s friend Santou, who is already engaged to be married. However, El Hadji already has two wives, and his second wife, Gaika, cannot stand the idea of another younger woman entering her house. Oumarou Ganda’s film depicts the rift between tradition and modernity during the period of Nigerien emancipation, and it serves as an homage to the age of African independence that gave way to the classic era of Francophone African cinema, which depicted the social struggles that come with emancipation discourse. Le Wazzou Polygame won the top prize at the 1972 FESPACO awards (Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), and was cited for cultivating a theme of liberation and humanization in African cinema.
Papa Madièye Mbaye, Senegal, 2002, 28m
Wolof with English subtitles
Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, one of the greatest figures in all of African film, died in 1998. In this behind-the-scenes documentary, shot during the making of his final work, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun / La petite vendeuse de soleil, Mambéty speaks with his technicians, prepares the actors, talks with his young star, and, in voiceover, shares his thoughts on cinema and life.
Wizard / Matwetwe
Kagiso Lediga, South Africa, 2018, 84m
Sotho-Tswana with English subtitles
It’s New Year’s Eve in Atteridgeville, and Lefa is on the cusp of major change. Accepted into university to study botany, he’s about to leave the ghetto township that has been his home—if only his deadbeat father will come through with his school fees. The easy life is on the horizon, but he and his best friend, an albino would-be gangster, Paapi, need to first find a way to navigate the difficult life at home.
Featuring Showtime by Shawn Antoine II, Suicide by Sunlight by Nikyatu, No Traveler Returns by Ellie Foumbi, Sign Up by Abeer Yehia, Wrong Con by Charles Obiemere, and Hello, Rain by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi
Shawn Antoine II, USA, 2018, 15m
Darius and Hakeem dance on New York City trains to earn honest money and escape the crime-riddled streets of Harlem. When Darius is offered an opportunity to audition for Juilliard’s traveling dance team, Hakeem grows jealous. When Hakeem begins to sell drugs with the neighborhood goon TJ and succumb to the crime in Harlem, Darius is faced with the decision to pursue his life-changing opportunity or help keep Hakeem out of trouble.
Suicide by Sunlight
Nikyatu, USA, 2019, 17m
Valentina, a day-walking black vampire protected from the sun by her melanin, finds it difficult to suppress her bloodlust when a new woman is introduced to her estranged twin daughters.
No Traveler Returns
Ellie Foumbi, Ivory Coast/USA, 2019, 12m
French with English subtitles
A young African immigrant’s struggle to adjust to life in America pushes him toward an existential crisis.
Abeer Yehia, Egypt, 2019, 15m
Arabic with English subtitles
Detainees in an Egyptian jail cell receive a new prisoner, Ahmed, who happens to be well-known on social media. Their interaction brings out their different backgrounds and perspectives, and as their relationship further develops, we learn the reasons behind their imprisonment. Together, they come up with an unusual solution to confront their new reality.
Charles Obiemere, Nigeria, 2018, 18m
English and Pidgin with English subtitles
Two down-on-their-luck con men desperately need to make a few bucks. They decide to pose as pastors in order to waylay a desperate wealthy man with a sick daughter. The job is supposed to be easy, but things take a turn when he locks con men inside the room with the demon-possessed girl, refusing to let them out until they have healed her.
C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, Nigeria, 2018, 30m
English and Pidgin with French and Spanish subtitles
In this adaptation of an Afro-futuristic short story by Hugo Award–winning author Nnedi Okorafor, three scientist witches create magical wigs that grant them untold supernatural powers. As with everything, power corrupts, and the leader, Rain, must stop them before they destroy the nation.
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra Shorts Program (TRT: 64m)
Born in Porto-Novo, Benin, and raised in Senegal, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925-1987) was a filmmaker and a historian, and one of the most important figures in all of African cinema. The founder of the “Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes” in 1969, Vieyra was a mentor to the great figures of the seventh art, such as Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Ababacar Samb-Makharam. The following program features three of his greatest documentary shorts, including Afrique sur Seine, one of the first released Francophone African films; Lamb, about traditional wrestling in Senegal; and his film about Sembène, L’Envers du Décor.
Afrique sur Seine
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Mamadou Sarr, Senegal, 1955, 21m
French with English subtitles
In this short documentary, Vieyra and his collaborator Mamadou Sarr explore the lives of Africans living in Paris, poetically evoking the ambiguities and questions about identity that plague students educated in colonialist spaces, removed from their comfort zone. In voiceover, the film wonders if Africa is only in Africa or also on the banks of the Seine?
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Senegal, 1963, 18m
Wolof and French with English subtitles
This documentary captures the sport of traditional wrestling, called “lamb” in Wolof, popular in Senegal. Vieyra presents the rigorous rules of the sport and training practices by the sea. Lamb was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, a first for a film from sub-Saharan Africa.
L’Envers du Décor
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Senegal, 1981, 25m
French with English subtitles
Vieyra captures Ousmane Sembène, one of the greatest African filmmakers, during the filming of Ceddo, which would be censored under the Senghor regime and until 1983 by the Senegalese authorities.