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Africa Unite! PAFF Mainstreams the Black Experience

By Tracie Lewis

Beah Richards, subject of LisaGay Hamilton's 'Beah: A Black Woman Speaks.' Courtesy of HBO

Ayuko Babu's passion for international cinema began when he was 13 years old. On the way home from playing basketball one summer with friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the future founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Pan African Film & Arts Festival (PAFF) noticed how several people of color were queued up outside a local art house to see a movie. He and his friends thought the film must be important to attract such an audience, so they, too, wanted to see it. The film was in a language that they couldn't understand, the cast was full of people of color, the costumes were beautiful, the location was amazing and the music was rhythmically moving. The film was Black Orpheus, and the year was 1960.

This experience would change Babu's life forever; it introduced him to a different way of thinking and looking at movies. Realizing that films were more than just entertainment, he saw cinema as an educational tool for learning about other cultures. " Black Orpheus changed my perception of films and my consciousness," Babu affirms.

In 1989, when asked by Gilbert Minot, the secretary general of Syli Cinema, Guinea's National Government Agency in charge of media, if he would be interested in helping to bring African films to the United States, Babu didn't think twice. African films were only seen in Guinea and Nigeria, and implementing a showcase in the US meant two things: (1) the showcase would present the opportunity to go back to the government to get more money to make more films, and (2) the films would provide African- Americans an opportunity to learn more about Africa.

Babu realized how hard it must have been to bring Black Orpheus to a small theater in New Mexico in 1960 just a year after the film was released. "It's just as difficult to bring one film in as it is to bring 50," he explains. In 1992, the Pan African Film Festival debuted in Los Angeles with 50 international films.

Asantewa Olatunji, PAFF's chief programmer, general manager and general counsel, works with three other programmers to review all of the films submitted; then a jury makes its selection. There are two major criteria for selecting the films: (1) the films must "speak to," excite and be of interest to people of African descent and (2) the festival must show works that do not get a chance to be seen.

"So much that has been written about African or Black people tries to explain us to other people, and I'm bored with that," Babu maintains, asserting that films don't have to be directed by a person of color or about people of color. "Many film festivals use Black films as an adjunct or part of the bigger festival," says Babu. "Here, we feature all of the films." The 2004 PAFF, held in February, screened over 140 works, 60 of them from 30 different countries, with Q&A sessions with filmmakers following most of the screenings.

PAFF's mandate is to present the festival in mainstream theaters; hence, the Magic Johnson Theatres, a multiplex that anchors the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, has hosted the festival for the past eight years. The ten-day festival directly serves the surrounding African-American communities of Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills by providing international films and other films that may not have had distribution or a theatrical release. Outreach programs include the Children's Festival, where parents and children are invited to free screenings, storytelling events and other activities, and Studentfest, which allows middle-school students to attend five films free of charge. In addition to those programs, PAFF produces panels, forums, workshops and a spoken word fest, as well as fashion shows and an arts festival, which exhibits works by artists from around the world.

This year's slate of documentaries reflected a unique blend of personal, historical, political and social issue stories. The Agronomist (US, 2003), by Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme, is a portrait of journalist, broadcaster and human rights activist Jean Dominique and his quest for liberty and democracy in Haiti. Although trained as an agronomist, Dominique, along with his wife, Michele Montas, became a voice for freedom-fighting through Radio Haiti Inter, the Haitian radio station. The film uses interviews with Dominique and his friends and family—as well as archival footage—to show this remarkable man's crusade and love for his country. Demme shot several hours over a 15-year period, during which Dominique's life was cut tragically short in 2000 when he was gunned down in front of his radio station.

Debra Wilson's short documentary Butch Mystique (US, 2003) profiles nine African-American lesbians who identify themselves as "butch" and share painful, powerful and comedic stories about their lives and society. The film exposes rules, challenges opinions and gives a voice to a relatively unknown community. The subjects in the film—women of varying ages, with careers ranging from firefighters to activist—stalk candidly about childhood, family, women and men-and the term "butch."

Actress LisaGay Hamilton's Beah: A Black Woman Speaks (US, 2003), which screened as part of IDA's InFACT Theatrical Documentary Showcase last year, captures the inspiring and moving life of the late actress, activist and poet Beah Richards. Hamilton, who met Richards while filming Beloved, delivers a powerful personal tribute rich with performances, interviews and archival footage of the talented actress.

A Place of Our Own (US, 2003), by Stanley Nelson, is a powerful personal story about growing up in an upper-middle-class African-American family and spending summers at the affluent Oak Bluffs community on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. Beginning his narrative with the anniversary of his mother's death and continuing through his attempt to work out his relationship with his estranged father, Nelson recalls the good and the bad times shared at the famous vacation spot. Although Nelson's story gives an honest depiction of the culture, class and lifestyle from which he came, the story works on many other levels.

Eric V. Tait's Then I'll Be Free To Travel Home (US, 2001) is a two-part series chronicling the discovery of an African burial ground in lower Manhattan. Hosted by Lena Horne, the first part begins with a compelling, in-depth look—through re-enactments, archival drawings, readings and voiceover narration, at African-Americans' battles against slavery and their struggle for survival, as well as their historical contributions to New York and the nation. Part Two takes place in the 1990s and includes footage of public meetings about preserving the African burial ground, as well as interviews with experts and personal and emotional testimonies.

Zola Maseko's The Return of Sara Baartman (South Africa, 2003) is a follow-up to his Hottentott Venus: The Life and Times of Sara Baartman (1998), about a South African woman who had been kidnapped in the early 19th century by Europeans and taken to London, where she was tragically showcased as a popular freak show attraction. After she died in Paris at the age of 26, her body parts were dissected and placed on display in the Muse de l'Homme . The new film celebrates Baartman's repatriation to South Africa where, after nearly 200 years, she is given a proper and decent burial by the people who had fought to get her back.

The PAFF programmers will begin scouting films for next year's edition, with trips scheduled to festivals in Italy, Cuba and Atlanta. PAFF follows the lead of its sister festival, the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO-the world's largest and oldest Black film festival which that takes place every two years in Burkina Faso, West Africa. FESCPACO is scheduled for two weeks in February and March 2005.

This past spring, PAFF sponsored The Road to Freedom Tour to South Africa to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of free elections and the end of Apartheid. The 12-day tour included visits to exhibits, historical sites and museums, as well as to such storied locations as Soweto, Johannesburg, Durban, Shakaland, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Robben Island.

This is just another way for Babu to accomplish his goals to expose individuals to different cultures. 'I was one of of those people," Babu explains, when thinking back on the film Black Orpheus . Through PAFF's cinematic offerings, filmgoers can travel on journeys without ever leaving the city. PAFF will continue to promote the culture of people of color through film and art.


Tracie Lewis is a former programs and events manager of IDA.