The Pan African Film Festival
By Tom White
The Los Angeles-based Pan African Film & Art Festival was launched in 1992 and in a short time, thanks to the tireless efforts of executive director Ayuko Babu, has emerged as major player in the growing nexus of African Diaspora-oriented festivals in the United States and around the world. As curator of the film festival (other individuals curate the music and visual arts components), Mr. Baby labors year-round maintaining working relationships with sister festivals in Chicago, Newark, Atlanta, Houston and Oakland.
The Mecca of black film arts festivals, where programmers and producers from around the world gather every two years, is in Burkina Faso, West Africa. This two-week program is the largest and oldest of its kind in the world, but more important, it is where many ideas for African Diaspora festivals take shape.
The Pan African Film & Art Festival takes place at the Magic Johnsons Theaters in the bustling Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall in Los Angeles. With so many films scheduled into two theater over a ten-day period, the Q&As often took place in another building to keep the schedule running smoothly. Such a presentation may have undercut the essential segue between viewing and discussion but the audience seemed content to go along with it anyway.
This year's edition of the Festival included both world and local premieres as well as screenings of works that have been on the festival circuit for a while, Endurance, now in the theaters, made its world premiere here. With such esteemed documentary veterans as Leslie Woodhead and Bud Greenspan directing this production, and Terrence Malick producing, one would expect more, even though it is not as it turns out, a documentary. Endurance stars Ethiopian track star and Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebreselassie as himself, in his quest to follow in the flee footsteps of his great Ethiopian predecessors. Several of his family members act in the film: his nephew plays him as a boy, his uncle plays his father, and his wife plays herself. Incorporating documentary footage from past Olympics, as well as sumptuously shot scenes of Ethiopia, the film trots to its inevitable conclusion: Bud Greenspan's footage of Gerbreselassie winning the gold medal in Atlanta. Dramatic as that sequence is, it just made me wish that this whole film were either a documentary or a drama. As a dramatized documentary, or docudrama, Endurance loses is potential for poetry and power.
Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland (U.S., 1998) is short, meditative poem, of sorts, by acclaimed filmmaker Charles Burnett. Dr. Holland is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a playwright, and professor at University of Southern California. Viewers may recall her compelling presence in the 1994 IDA Award winner Freedom on my Mind, and theatergoers may be familiar with her powerful autobiographical play From the Mississippi Delta. Here, Burnett chooses to frame her in a stationery medium-to-close shot, sitting on her front porch, talking about her life and sharing her wisdom; Bumett uses a bare minimum of stills and a quietly ethereal rendering of a spiritual to complement her monologue. But in fifteen minutes, the film is over, and without prior knowledge of her remarkable life, the viewer is left wondering if less couldn't be more.
Dr. Endesha Ida May Holland was part of a program of shorts entitled Beauty and Woman: The Inner & The Outer. From Mansour Sora Wade, Aida Souka (Senegal, 1993) is an amusing profile of the art of the makeover among woman in Senegal. For the Pleasure of the Eyes (1997. Morocco), by Izza Genini, traces the long, intricate, almost byzantine, process that Moroccan women endure to look beautiful. Genini unfolds this process slowly, with respect for the ritualistic conceits of beauty and sensuality—even filming the process of mixing the make up. The preponderance of details may try the patience of some viewers, but the filmmaker does open up a new world that is pleasing to the eyes.
The Garifuna Journey (Belize, 1998), by Andrea Leland and Kathy Berger, has a suggestion of Bertold Brecht's epic theatre about it, a combination of entertainment with didactic purpose. Here, the indigenous garifuna (pronounced "gar-IF-oon-uh") struggle to hold onto their culture in a world filled with Burger Kings, television sets and rap music. From Africa to the island of St. Vincent, north of South America, to another island (Roatan), and finally to British Honduras (today, Belize) and Spanish Honduras, in Central America, the film traces the history, the music, the food of the garifuna, all of this celebrated on November 19, the garifuna settlement day that was founded by T.V. Ramos and remains at the center of pre serving this culture, steeped in its Catholic tradition (called "devil worship" by the British), devoted to its ancestors, and committed to educating the young people so that the history and traditions will not die.
Tides of Gold (Zimbabwe, 1998), making its U.S. premiere traces the 1,000-year history of the trading network along the southern and eastern coasts of Africa. Filmmaker Ingrid Sinclair evinces the research prowess of an archeologist in capturing the industry that gave life to Africa linking the continent with China and Indonesia. Using maps, reenactments and establishing shots of ruins from ancient kingdoms, Sinclair shows how African regions and cities prospered and declined with the vicissitudes of their gold, ivory and metal staples-and how the trade industry shaped whole cultures.
Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Sara Baartman (France/U.K./South Africa, 1998) tells the tale of the 19th century Hottentot native from South Africa who was captured by a Dutchman and exploited as a carnival sideshow attraction in London and Paris. In this fascinating, well-researched case study of scientific racism, filmmaker Zola Maseko interviews historians, activists, archeologists, and of course, anthropologists—filmed, not in their respective offices, but against a backdrop of cartoons and lithographs of Sara herself. Baartman's suffering didn't end with her death at age 25; her body was appropriated by the Paris-based Museum of Man, where her skeleton remains today, in perfect condition, while her ancestors in South Africa fight for her return to her homeland for a decent burial, at long last, as a human being.
IDA member Leslie Neale's Road to Return (U.S., 1998) makes for an interesting companion piece to Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus' The Farm: Angola USA. Neale's film addresses life after Angola, for those lucky enough to be released, but unlucky in their struggle for a livelihood. The film documents a New Orleans-based program, Project Return, that helps ex convicts make a successful return to society as productive citizens, instead of to Angola as repeat offenders. The program, the brainchild of a former Angola inmate and a college professor receives a well deserved and inspiring boost with this film.
David Massey's Dare to Struggle... Dare to Win (U.S.,1999), another world premiere at the festival, documents the power of the women's movement in Ghana, where President and First Lady Rawlings have made women's equality a priority in this west African nation. Massey and his crew have filmed a rich cross-section of the regions of Ghana, demonstrating how affective (and effective) the women's movement has been on the entire country.
Great, Great, Great Grandparents' Music (1998, Burkina Faso/U.S.) was apparently filmed over a period of two decades, chronicling the life of a Kone tribe family, with its three generations of jeli (tribal storytellers). While Taale Laafi Rosellini has painted a colorful portrait of a village and its treasured rituals and traditions, the film goes on way too long, without a cogent structure to lend it the story it deserves.
Mentioned in the 1997 review of the Margaret Mead Festival (I.D., March '98), Odô Yá: Life with AIDS (Brazil, 1997) concerns the difficulty in bringing AIDS education, especially beyond the white middle class. There are opportunities in the ritual religion of Candomblé, which accepts sex as a natural and vital element of life, without the severe morality of other religions. "It is only possible to have culture when you have good health," one of the Candomblé priests says. "AIDS is changing the face of culture—will culture change the face of AIDS?" Efforts include bringing AIDS education into the festive celebrations of the Candomblé rituals. The film was directed by Tania Cypriano, who also shot some of the footage.
From Guadaloupe was When the Spirits Come (1992), with director Veronika Wedo Dessout in attendance. Here the focus was on voodoo, and its role in the Candomblé religion. The narration (by the director?) was in English, clearly as a second language, and obviously being read, a choice that hampered access to the film. All in all, a comprehensive (and objective) introduction to voodoo—as director Dessout said, "Ghosts and the gods are not good or bad; it's what people make of them."
A festival like the Pan African Film and Art Festival brings hundreds of cultures of the African Diaspora to one place. That we can travel, through the magic of film, to remote villages and teeming metropolises, back and forth in time, across oceans and continents, to discover the global mosaic that is the African Diaspora, testifies to the vision of this festival.