The 18th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival screens in New York from November 26 through December 14, 2010 at various venues including Anthology Film Archives, Teachers College at Columbia University , the Thalia Theatre, and the Schomburg Center for Black Culture. Given a prominent berth at this year’s festival, with a gala screening this past Tuesday (Nov. 30), and the cover of this year’s festival catalog, is Annette von Wangenheim’s Josephine Baker: Black Diva in a White Man’s World (Dec. 3, 7, 12, 14), a brief (45 minute) but quite thorough and eye-opening documentary. Baker was perhaps the most internationally famous of expatriate African-Americans who left the blatant racism and lack of opportunity in the States to find renown in Europe . Almost everyone at all aware of who she is knows about her risqué stage shows in France , where she wore as little as possible, often with such provocative accoutrements as a banana skirt. But von Wangenheim’s film shows us that she was so much more than that. For one, she was very active during the French resistance to Nazis, helping the allies by smuggling secret documents underneath her clothes. After WWII, she was very active in anti-racism movements, and played a crucial role in the civil rights movement in the United States , even speaking at the 1963 march on Washington . Also, she was, in a sense, the Angelina Jolie of her day, adopting many orphaned children from around the world, unable to have children of her own. Her philanthropy was no mere pose, or bid for publicity; it was deeply felt to the core of her being. This valuable documentary gives a much fuller picture of Baker than we are usually given in other media.
Philippe Niang’s Prohibited Love (Dec. 3, 4), as its title indicates, indicates the taboo love between Louise, a nurse, and Gary, and American GI, during ’40s France , shortly after liberation from the Nazis. Women are subject to witch-hunts, looking for women who treasonously slept with the enemy during the war. Louise is married to Philippe, who is away at the front. Their affair happens very quickly, after Gary ‘s unit is stationed to help out on the farm where Louise is taking care of her father, who is convalescing after an accident. The film’s major weakness is that it all happens more due to the demands of plot mechanics, rather than any way that feels natural or emotionally earned. Prohibited Love redeems itself slightly at the conclusion, which strikes a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. Still, this doesn’t quite overcome the contrived manipulations that precede it.
“You don’t bear the weight of history,” Maya, the protagonist of Christian Faure’s Dancing Forever (Dec. 1, 2) is told, in a scene where she is told the differences between herself, a mixed-race woman from France , and African-Americans. However, Maya bears a different sort of historical weight, that of her tortured family history. Born to a white French mother and an Africa father she never knew, Maya must navigate the bewildering questions of identity she is confronted with on a daily basis. She finds respite through this with her discovered love and talent for dancing. The film charts her passage thorough the decades, traveling from France to New York City to dance with a prestigious modern dance company, seemingly modeled on the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. Although all the film’s issues are telegraphed with unmistakable bullet points, it all goes down smoothly, thanks to Faure’s assured direction and the unexpected turns the narrative takes, avoiding overwrought cliché.
Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s documentary Youssou N’Dour: Return to Goree (Dec. 5) follows the world music superstar as he travels from his home in Senegal to Atlanta, New Orleans, Luxembourg, and back, to assemble musicians for a concert on the island of Goree. This was a major port for the transport of slaves to America , and the film makes connections between this historical circumstance and the music that resulted, and the massive influence on American jazz and blues. The film’s impact, however, is lessened by its very conventional structure, and its lack of clarity on the exact project N’Dour is creating: is it a concert, a recording, or part of a multimedia project? Also, one wishes there were a little more information on the musicians themselves, especially Moncef Genoud, the pianist who accompanies N’Dour. Nevertheless, the documentary shines in its sequences of the musicians putting together this great music, and is quite astute in its demonstration of the remarkably similar rhythms in the music of N’Dour’s global travels.
The title of John Kani’s Nothing But the Truth (Dec. 7), which he wrote and directed based on his stage play, makes reference to the truth and reconciliation trials of post-apartheid South Africa . In these trials, those accused of crimes during apartheid confessed fully in exchange for amnesty. The purpose of this was to cleanse the society of the bitterness caused by the horrors perpetrated on black South Africans, achieving this not by punitive or vengeful measures, but in a spirit of healing and forgiveness. This approach was understandably controversial, and divisions sprung up between those who were ready to move forward and work to build a new society and those who insisted that those who committed crimes should be made to suffer the consequences. Kani’s film points out another societal division, between those who left the country to become exiles, either by force or choice, and those who remained behind. Sipho (Kani), a librarian, receives the cremated body of his younger brother Themba, an exile for many years overseas. Sipho has long harbored resentment toward his brother, the favorite of their father, who sent Themba to college, while Sipho struggled through life – now at 63, he fails to be promoted to head librarian. The truth and reconciliation trials depicted in the film (with actual footage) parallel Sipho’s struggles to reconcile with his brother after death. The details of the plot are less important, and less interesting, than the scenes of the elaborate funeral rituals accompanying Themba’s posthumous return from exile, demonstrating the persistence of tradition in the face of the often contentious and bewildering changes in South African society post-apartheid. Nothing But the Truth is short and sweet, not overstaying its welcome, and greatly benefits from Kani’s remarkably lived-in performance; his presence conveys the resilience of his character, who has survived violence and terror, yet remains hopeful for the future. This no doubt mirrors Kani’s own life, and it shows in every moment he is on screen.
For more information on other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit the African Diaspora International Film Festival’s website.