The film opens in 2020. A woman paints her lips dark red as she stares at her reflection in the mirror, studying the details of her wavy blonde wig and firefighter red skirt. Satisfied with her examination, she relaxes her shoulders and turns to the other end of the room. The camera follows and finds a child sleeping peacefully. The woman covers the sleeping body with a blanket, cautiously kisses him and leaves. Outside, on the dimly lit streets of Dakar, she is followed by a chorus of men wearing complementary red jelabis. “When a drop of water falls on Earth / it’s no longer Earth,” they sing as she walks down the street, “How life is full of surprises.”
The chorus, a staple in Musa Sene Absa’s films, is particularly useful in the aunt, the director’s passionate thriller about gender violence and retribution. It is the final part of the Senegalese director’s trilogy about women, which includes Scrap table (1997) and the comedy-drama Madame Wilbaru (2002). Their direction lines up the narrative and eases the tension from the film’s formal surprises; pitch changes, time jumps, and fourth-wall breaks work more smoothly because of them.
This is appropriate aunt, which relies on narrative twists and unconventional storytelling methods, will open the 30th anniversary edition of the New York African Film Festival, which begins on May 10 and runs through June 1. The program, which was founded in 1993 by Machen Bonetti, has always showcased eclectic offerings from the continent, but this year, with its “free form” theme, makes this value a particular priority: More than 50 films — from over 25 countries — presented in the range, are associated with their unorthodox themes and forms.
Hyperlink, the centerpiece of the release, is an anthology of four short films directed by South African filmmakers Mzonke Maloney, Nolitha Mkulisi, Julie Nxadi and Evan Wigdorowitz, which examine the risks and dangers of the internet and surveillance culture. In one, a man who disappeared – and was pronounced dead by his daughter on social media – reappears with a renewed sense of faith. In another, an afternoon with two schoolgirls takes a surprising turn when a conflict is broadcast to their entire community via Instagram Live. This short, titled NSFW and directed by Mkulisi, makes Absa’s experiments c aunt seems tame in comparison. Mkulisi plays with aspect ratio, shrinking and expanding our sense of her characters’ world to chilling and menacing effect. The camera, imitating video surveillance technology, becomes its own character, shrewdly observing the consequences of white lies and omissions.
Angela Wanjiku Wamai’s bright and invigorating debut The pit is quieter and more formally conventional than Hyperlink, but no less powerful. The Kenyan editor and director presents the struggle of Jeffrey, a recently incarcerated man (played with quiet devastation by Justin Mirichi), to repent in a slow drama that unfolds at a leisurely pace, immersing us in the ebb and flow of the protagonist’s trauma. How can the former English teacher reintegrate into his home village of Shimoni as he confronts demons from a bygone era?
The past is a strong thematic thread throughout this year’s festival, which features documentary projects focused on the excavation and honoring of African history. Among them are those of Alain Cassanda Colette and Justinwhose subjects rescue the film from the usual melodramatic pitfalls of youth diasporic identity inquiries, and Fatou Cisse A daughter’s tribute to her father: Suleiman Cissea wide-ranging portrait of the prolific Malian filmmaker.
Kasanda, who was born in Kinshasa and lives in Paris, interviewed his maternal grandparents about the realities of Belgian apartheid rule in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Elders tell a range of stories, from segregated education – Congolese boys were taught French and girls were taught Tshiluba and Lingala because it was assumed they would never work alongside white people – to demoralizing employment prospects. Brief forays into more palatable territory add a balancing joy to this anecdote-driven documentary. There is something delightful about watching Colette in particular, talk with humor and enthusiasm about the local dance parties and her tailoring sensibilities, and lovingly laugh at her grandson’s probing questions about seemingly everyday events.
in A daughter’s tribute to her father, Cisse examines the historical legacy of his father, Suleiman Cisse. The result flirts with hagiography but deftly avoids it through candid interviews with the subject’s friends and family, who freely discuss his personal failings alongside his professional success. To complement the American premiere of Cisse’s documentary, Bonetti’s team has programmed retrospective screenings of the elder Cisse’s film Day Musso and still mesmerizing Yeswhich was screened at the inaugural African Film Festival.
The festival has come a long way since Bonetti (who previously worked in advertising), eager to bring African films to a wider audience, founded it in the early 1990s. Her determination and sheer will stem from a deep love of movies (she used to spend lunch at the Paris theater) and a desire to present the boldness of the continent’s cinematic offerings. Since then, the festival has become an international and year-round operation: A traveling segment, founded in 1995, allows the team to bring the festival to the United States and collaborations with programs in other countries, such as Lights, Camera, Africa! The Nigeria Film Festival is a major part of their mission.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 accelerated efforts to make the festival program more accessible. Cinema Awujo is the event’s screening platform that allows viewers anywhere in the world to pay what they want to watch selected films. Its success – as well as the organization’s growing index for films and directors – not only underscores previous work, but underscores the need for more initiatives to protect and expand access to African cinema.
Access is indeed the most pressing issue at the heart of African cinema, in addition to issues of restoration and preservation. How can we talk about its present or wonder about its future without critically engaging with its past? What does a cinema future look like on the continent if its successors cannot see everything they inherited? Although a number of directors – Ousmane Semben, of course, as well as Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Abderrahman Sissako, Sara Maldoror, Djibril Diop Mambeti, Safi Faye, Med Hondo and Haile Gerima among others – have gained international recognition, delivering some of their most famous works remain a challenge. These authors are renowned for their insightful and distinctive visions, and yet it is rare, still, to talk about the structural and financial obstacles that they, as artists, and their works have faced or still face.
Then there are the films of those we are yet to discover: Africa, a continent made up of 54 countries, has a rich, diverse film history that is only partially revealed. A virtue of Cisse’s documentary is how she focuses on her father’s efforts to promote film on the continent and help preserve famous archives.
Martin Scorsese, who will speak with the elder Cisse at this year’s African Film Festival, is also part of the effort. In 2019, the Director’s Film Foundation partnered with its affiliate Cineteca di Bologna, the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and UNESCO to form the African Film Heritage Project. Their goal is to restore 50 African films of “historical, cultural and artistic significance” and make them accessible to the people of the continent.
There is also the Givanni Pan-African Film Archive, which includes more than 10,000 items – films, television programmes, audio recordings, books and other tactile objects – collected by Givanni, a British film programmer, and her friends the director Imru Bakari and the academic Emma Sandon. A curated selection of these works is on display at London’s Raven Row Gallery until June 4. The exhibition also includes a seven-week film program. In the States, initiatives such as Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY have increased access to past and present films, including the most recent Gerima restoration Sankofa.
To welcome another year of the African Film Festival is to celebrate and reflect on the value and urgency of these interventions. Bonetti and others in and adjacent to her community of filmmakers, programmers and cinephiles have gifted us with these archival treasures. It is up to us to ask ourselves now, tomorrow and in the future: What will we do to sustain them?