Africa, My Africa
Burkina Faso may be the fourth-poorest country in the world, but it sure knows how to raise the curtain on a film festival. Thirty thousand people, including programming maven Zoe Elton of the Mill Valley Film Festival, jammed the stadium in Ouagadougou for the opening ceremonies — a color-drenched carnival of dancers, bands and speeches that peaked with a breathtaking twilight fireworks show — of the biannual Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television. Elton gleaned several fresh insights into the addictive appeal of African films, which apply elemental, unadorned cinematography to moral tales of extraordinary con-viction. “You want to tell the story visually, because you may well be talking to people who have 11 languages in one country,” Elton explains. There's also the legacy of oral storytelling, which contrasts with the heavily ritualized interior theater of Asian cultures. “The African tradition has more to do with a single person creating pictures in your head than a group of people creating pictures in front of you,” Elton says. Scouting for films for Bay Area audiences (“You look for grains of truth, or the grains of talent that will take the filmmaker to the next stage of filmmaking”), Elton liked Keita, Burkina Faso director Dany Kouyate's tale of a griot who comes to the city to tell a boy about his heritage. Elton singled out Djibril Diop Mambety's comedy about a Senegalese lottery winner, Le Franc, which coincidentally won a Golden Gate Award and screens in the S.F. International Film Festival next month.
Mambety's previous film, Hyenas, was picked up by an American distributor — who went belly up before the film could be released. That's still a success story compared to most African films — even those by major filmmakers such as Sembne and Ouedraogo — which would never surface here if not for the film festival, the PFA and the Red Vic. Commerce, not racism, is the culprit: Foreign-language films have a tougher time than ever elbowing into arthouses overrun by English-language imports, from overrated Anglophile fare like A Man of No Importance to the manipulative pyrotechnics of New Zealand's Once Were Warriors. Chinese films are the lone exception, still riding the coattails of Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine and aglow with the lush production values that pass for cinema art these days. Trust me, as soon as the first African film breaks through at the box office (fueled by a killer soundtrack of infectious African songs), a wave of films from the continent will follow.
A Woman's Tale
Perhaps your anger about Hollywood's opposition to women in the director's chair has been alleviated by chart-toppers Tamra Davis (Billy Madison) and Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie). More likely, you agree with local director Erica Jordan that “in America you have freedom but not a sense of belonging.” Walls of Sand, Jordan's languid, hypnotic debut feature about the tenuous friendship between an Iranian immigrant and an agoraphobic single mother, has its world premiere Sat, March 18, 2 pm, at the Bay Area Women's Film Festival.
By Michael Fox