New York African Film Festival 2013

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the New York African Film Festival. The Festival–from April 3rd to the 9th at Lincoln Center–is still the longest running, and probably most significant, African film festival in North America. (I’ve helped out on the festival in the past, so I’m biased.) It is worth remembering what the festival’s executive director and founder and executive director, Mahen Bonetti, has achieved. In a 2004 interview–around the time I first met Mahen–with the UN Chronicle, she said that before she started the festival, “there were very few opportunities for American audiences to see African cinema.”  There were lots of  images of Africa circulating in the media at that time, but  they were mostly negative and decontextualized. And as she wrote much later: “Those of us over the age of thirty probably remember well, the images of famine in Ethiopia that had become so pervasive in the news media. Africa, in the US at least, seemed to be known only for famine, war, AIDS–an unreasonably skewed reputation, which sadly, we still struggle to counteract.”

Still from “Nairobi Half Life”

There are now tons of African-themed film festivals in North America and Western Europe, but they all this owe this festival a debt of gratitude. To assess the impact of her work, in 2o10 Mahen was awarded France’s Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Letteres). NYAFF now runs programs all year round, including a traveling series and school programs, but the festival is still the highlight on the African film calendar. Props to Mahen and her team for keep doing this. So what’s on offer this year?

As usual, the festival features a mix of classics (“Guelwaar” from the Father of African Cinema Ousmane Sembène as well as “TGV” by Moussa Touré) along with films by a new wave of African directors (“Death for Sale,” “Burn it up Djassa,” “Nairobi Half Life” and the short “Boneshaker” by Frances Bodomo).

The festival provides audiences with insight into the future of African film by spotlighting the filmmakers making waves on the Continent today. Hot new directors Lonesome Solo and David Tosh Gitonga bring a gritty and realistic view of street life in Africa’s urban areas to their respective tales “Burn It Up Djassa” and “Nairobi Half Life.” Faouizi Bensaïdi’s crime drama, Death for Sale, follows three friends as they embark upon a jewelry heist in a Moroccan port city to escape a hopeless future.

This year’s festival will also feature the US premiere of “Dolce Vita Africana,” a documentary about legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibe. According to the PR, “the film depicts the life and work of the man whose iconic black-and-white images from the late 1950s through 1970s captured the carefree spirit of his generation asserting their freedom after independence.” The festival will also feature the historical drama, “Toussaint Louverture,” about the African slave revolt in Haiti for independence from France in the late 18th century–the first and only successful slave revolt in the Americas. As we know Haiti’s been made to pay for it ever since. (The program includes another Haiti-themed film, “Stones in the Sun”–still just below–about Haitian immigrants in New York City.)

Other new films on the program include “Land Rush” (foreign investors buying up African land), “Fueling Poverty” (the failings of the oil industry in Nigeria) and “Virgin Margarida,” on the the stories of women who endured the Mozambican “re-education camps” in the 1970s.

Images from the tumblr project, Everyday Africa, will be exhibited at the Roy Furman Gallery next to the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Century from opening night through April 25t. The project started by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill are “of contemporary African life taken by smartphones from various photographers.”

All screenings will take place in the Walter Reade Theater on 165 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam). Tickets for New York African Film Festival screenings go on sale March 7, 2013 at the Film Society’s box offices and online. Single screening tickets are $13; $9 for students and seniors (62+); and $8 for Film Society members.