PSIFF 2011: CINEMA SAFARI: A Showcase of AFRICAN Cinema


This is the time of year when most film journalists are making arrangements to attend Sundance; but, I eschew the snow, the steamy auditoriums and the lookalike independents and opt instead for the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) where the weather is blessedly warm in early January, a shuttle transports me between venues, and the program is rich and diverse with foreign films. This year, in fact, PSIFF will be screening 40 of the 65 official submissions to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for Best Foreign Language Film (the complete line-up of films to be announced next week).

Today, however, PSIFF has announced "Cinema Safari: A Showcase of African Cinema", which comes as welcome news to me. Were it not for the Pacific Film Archive's collaboration with the traveling arm of the New York African Film Festival, I sometimes wonder if the Bay Area would see any African film whatsoever except for the token few at the San Francisco International. As PSIFF Director Darryl Macdonald asserts: "Our African films showcase reflects our delight at the discovery of a vital new arena in world filmmaking, with the emergence of a large number of bold new talents and singular stories from a continent that has not previously been known for its wealth of cinematic storytelling."

"Cinema Safari: A Showcase of African Cinema" will premiere 13 new films made in Africa or reflecting contemporary African stories and themes. The showcase reflects the dramatic upsurge of film production across the African continent and the concurrent emergence of exciting new filmmaking talents throughout the region. The films selected in the Cinema Safari program include:

Africa United (2010; United Kingdom / South Africa / Rwanda)--Two young Rwandan soccer players undertake the 3,000-mile trip to South Africa for the World Cup in this exuberant, hopeful and supremely entertaining road movie that--while not whitewashing the myriad problems faced by modern Africans--shows how fast things are changing. Director: Debs Gardner-Paterson. Cast: Eriya Ndayambaje, Sanyu Joanita Kintu, Roger Nsengiyumva, Sherrie Silver, Yves Dusenge. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Eye For Film, Paul Griffiths qualifies that Africa United "goes for the obvious buttons, but they're brightly colored and pushed with cheery vigor." At Movietalk, Jason Best details the film's production and describes it as "a feelgood fable that doesn't shirk from showing the darker side of life" and adds "the continent's vibrancy and energy come across vividly, and it'll be a hard heart that isn't touched and uplifted." More at IMDb External Reviews.

The Athlete / Atletu (2009; Ethiopa / Germany / USA)
--Marathoner Abebe Bikila, the first black African to win an Olympic gold, ran his gold medal marathon barefoot. Impressive, sure, but Bikila's story becomes truly remarkable following an accident that leaves him unable to walk. Directors: Davey Frankel, Rasselas Lakew. Cast: Rasselas Lakew, Dag Malmberg, Ruta Gedmintas, Abba Waka Dessalegn. IMDb.

At Eye For Film, Amber Wilkinson characterizes The Athlete as "ambitious and brave." She praises co-director Davey Frankel's background as a visual artist, which "shows in his knack for framing a scene. Even though the film was shot on a very tight budget it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into both the overall look and to ensuring that key moments have a certain level of 'wow'." At Ferdy on Films, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a thorough plot synopsis and adds: "The Athlete has created a new approach to biopics that finds a way to weave flashbacks into present time (even when the exposition feels a little stiff), suggest the beginnings of not only the circumstances, but also the character of its subject, and produce visual metaphors that are subtle and powerful. The landscapes of Ethiopia and Norway are breathtaking and woven into the story, the archival footage well chosen, and the use of music (I'm buying the soundtrack if I can) superb." At Toronto Screen Shots, James McNally provides some inspiring details on Bikila's biography and offers a YouTube interview with co-director Davey Frankel (from the Montreal World Film Festival). At Tracking Shots, Larry McGillicuddy writes: "What really works is the decision by directors Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew to not litter the film with distracting subplots. Bikila mentions a family, but they are not seen. There is no romance, no big court case, and minor characters do not overstay their welcome. This is Bikila's story and it is a wonderful one."

Desert Flower / Wüsten Blume (2009; UK / Germany / Austria)--Daughter of a Somali shepherd, Waris Dirie went on to become a top supermodel and a spokesperson against the ongoing genital mutilation of African women. Hormann's gorgeous biopic of this inspiring woman is anchored by supermodel Liya Kebede's quietly determined turn in the lead. Director: Sherry Hormann. Cast: Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson, Craig Parkinson, Anthony Mackie, Meera Syal. Official site. IMDb.

At Variety, Derek Elley warns that Desert Flower's "pulpy script, played by a largely Brit cast on sitcom autopilot, is partly redeemed by a dignified perf from Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede." Cara Nash concurs at FilmInk but concedes: "While Desert Flower is perhaps a little pulpy in places--and not helped by an overbearingly sentimental score--it should be commended for confronting this taboo issue and revealing its damaging and irreversible effects."

I Am Slave (2010; United Kingdom)
--Powerful and shocking by turns, this drama of the modern-day slave trade features a soul-stirring performance from Wunmi Mosaku as a Sudanese woman sold into slavery who ends up "working" for a family in London without pay and while deprived of her passport. Director: Gabriel Range. Cast: Wunmi Mosaku, Isaach de Bankolé, Lubna Azabal, Igal Naor, Hiam Abbass. IMDb. U.S. Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Rechtshaffen likewise praises Mosaku's leading turn, along with "a spare, intimate screenplay by The Last King of Scotland co-writer Jeremy Brock" and "cinematographer Robbie Ryan's striking compositions, often bathing his lead character in shafts of shadow and light suggesting the hint of possibility still lurking in all the encroaching darkness", concluding that "the strikingly shot picture leaves a lasting impression despite its 80-minute running time." At IFC, Stephen Saito admits: "With a title like I Am Slave, one can reasonably expect neither subtlety or uplift", but argues for patience and concludes that I Am Slave "shamelessly tugs at the heart, but it's in service of a greater purpose." At The Independent, Hugh Montgomery notes Mosaku's performance is empowered by a "virtuosic passivity": "Bereft of dialogue, hers was a performance rooted in the eyes, the window to a reservoir of terror, anger, pride and sorrow." Also at The Independent, Brian Viner offers a contrarian point of view, criticizing the film as "monochromatic" but adding: "I Am Slave could have been less heavy-handed in parts, and I very much doubt whether they speak quite such excellent English up in the Nuba mountains, but it was a stirring, important drama with some powerful performances."

Imani (2010; Uganda / Sweden)--In the course of just one day in contemporary Uganda, we venture into the seemingly unrelated lives of a child soldier, a maid, and a hip hop dancer. A refreshing snapshot of a country settling into a new national identity with richly drawn characters and vivid cinematography. Director: Caroline Kamya. Cast: Rehema Nanfuka, Philip Buyi, Stephen Ocen. IMDb.

Kinshasa Symphony (Germany)
--A true ode to joy, this heartening, hopeful movie dispels European stereotypes about Africa. It shows how people living in one of the most chaotic cities in the world have managed to forge one of the most complex systems of human cooperation ever invented: a symphony orchestra. Winner, Audience Award, Vancouver Film Festival. Director: Claus Wischmann. Official site. IMDb.

Several reviews have been rounded up at the film's website, including Rob Nelson's Variety rave: "Electricity may be spotty in Kinshasa, but the pic itself is a fully charged ode to the power of music in a region ravaged by war and poverty."

The Last Lions (2010; USA / Botswana)
--Fifty years ago there were close to half-a-million lions in Africa. Today there are around 20,000. This cogent, beautifully filmed documentary makes a much-needed case for the protection of lions and "big cats" in general. A cri de coeur that is both timely and fascinating. IMDb. World Premiere.

The Lazarus Effect (2010, USA)
--This 30-minute documentary, directed by Lance Bangs and executive produced by Spike Jonze, follows the story of HIV-positive people in Zambia, who undergo remarkable transformations thanks to access to antiretroviral medications. Director: Lance Bangs. Official website. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Wikipedia details the documentary's reception: "The 'Watch This' column in The Guardian stated, 'It's hard to imagine that there could be a positive story to be told about HIV in Africa--if there is, however, The Lazarus Effect is probably it." Paul Whitelaw, writing in The Scotsman, called the film 'a surprisingly uplifting and quirk-free documentary about growing efforts to curb the scourge of HIV/Aids in Africa [...] A heartening story of hope.' Critic Noel Murray of A.V. Club described the film as a 'straight-up advocacy doc, designed to get anyone who watches it to open their wallets. And it's remarkably effective at that.' "

Life, Above All (2010; South Africa / Germany)
--Featuring a completely winning central performance from the young Khomotso Manyaka as an intelligent and willful girl coming of age in South Africa during the AIDS epidemic, Oliver Schmitz's powerful drama offers a message of hope for that beleaguered nation. Director: Oliver Schmitz. Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Phil on Film, Philip Concannon has mixed feelings about South Africa's official submission to the 2011 Academy Awards®, describes it as "powerful but flawed" and concludes: "Life, Above All is a commendable and quite touching attempt to address a serious issue in an accessible manner, but it's let down by its climax, which feels a little easy and weak." At Dave's Films and DVD Reviews, David Brook concurs: "It's a solid film that gets its point across effectively, but it felt a little too straightforward and earnest (but with a lot of heart) to truly stand out."

Reconciliation: Mandela's Miracle (2010; USA / South Africa)
--An artful and inspiring documentary about how Nelson Mandela chose the wise path of reconciliation over revenge when he became president of South Africa. Director Wilson's wide-ranging amalgam of historical footage and contemporary interviews shows how the "miracle" became a reality. Director: Michael Henry Wilson. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Desmond Tutu, FX de Klerk, Zindzi Mandela, François Pienaar and the Springboks. IMDb. World Premiere.

A Screaming Man / Un homme qui crie (2010; Chad / France / Belgium)
--Confirmed as one of Africa's preeminent film artists, Haroun returns to themes of family and loyalty in war-torn Chad. When proud hotel swimming pool attendant Adam loses his precious job to his own son, he makes a decision that he will forever regret. Winner Special Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival. Director: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Cast: Emile Abossolo M'bo, Youssuf Djaoro. IMDb. Wikipedia.

I caught this film at Toronto and found it strong, effective, if not a bit formulaic. IMDb has several External Reviews. Wikipedia has likewise tracked the film's festival reception.

Soul Boy (Kenya/Germany)
--A gentle coming-of-age story encompassing the diverse worlds of the Kenyan capital, combining traditional beliefs and contemporary problems into a narrative that's part fairy tale, part teaching tool. Director: Hawa Essuman. Cast: Samson Odhiambo, Leila Dayan Opou, Krysteen Savane, Frank Kimani. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At MUBI, David Cairns finds Soul Boy "eminently loveable." At Eye For Film, James Benefield argues: "It's hard to judge a film made with such good intentions, by a community experiencing these opportunities probably for the first time. It is formulaic, but it's also bursting with conviction and insight."

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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