Africa is closer than we think. Don't look for it in the multiplexes, though. Beginning this week at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a generous helping of fresh, urgent movies from Africa and the African Diaspora comes to town. African Film Festival 2014 is a traveling series, curated out of New York by Mahen Bonetti, with eight programs of features and shorts from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, France, Belgium, Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, Sudan, Kenya, and, perhaps most exotic of all, Brooklyn.
For sizzling energy, Burn It Up Djassa (Thursday, January 30) is the pick of the series. Digitally produced as an imitation news report/essay by filmmaker Lonesome Solo (aka Souleymane Bamba), Le Djassa a pris feu dunks us into the scuffling street life of Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast, where the onscreen narrator (Mohamed Bamba) proudly introduces us to an intense young man named Dabagaou, played by non-actor Abdoul Karim Kanaté. Dabagaou's real name is Tony, and his older brother Mike (Mamadou Diomandé) is a cop, but that doesn't stop the younger brother from adding drug dealing to his business of selling cigarettes outside nightclubs on Princess Street. Factor in Tony's would-be girlfriend, a prostitute named Ange (Adelaïde Ouattara), and we're looking at a 2012 version of a classic 1930s Hollywood gangster pic — in French and Nouchi, with handheld camera work.
If Burn It Up Djassa is frantic, then director Alain Gomis' Tey, from Senegal, represents the dream-driven spirituality of West African culture in the story of a man who wakes up dead. When Satché — wonderfully played by American slam poet/film actor Saul Williams — rises up from his bed one morning, all his relatives are gathered in his house. The expressions on their faces are pitying yet somehow detached, as if he is already on the other side of reality. Townsfolk cheer him ironically as he passes. He visits an ex-girlfriend, who chides him: "You're going to die but you haven't lived." A friendly old man, keeper of the cemetery, washes his body as if for the grave. Filmmaker Gomis, whose 2007 Andalucia walked similar paths, overlays Satché's last day with gorgeous street scenes, full of laughing kids and people hurrying by, as the dead man steadily slows down. But the look on his face tells us everything. Tey (original title: Aujourd'hui), distributed by Bay Area filmmaker Guetty Felin, screens one time only, Tuesday, February 4.
Brooklyn may seem familiar turf after visiting Dakar, but the Yoruba Nigerian characters in Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George follow recent-immigrant guidelines of food, dress, and customs, and keep well within the invisible colonial walls of Yoruba Brooklyn — there's almost no outside influence, and the view is directed inward. Restaurant worker Ayodele (veteran international actor Isaach De Bankolé) and his sweetheart Adenike (Danai Gurira) get married in a vivid traditional ceremony and then settle down to start the requisite family — but Ayodele cannot get pregnant, and her husband does not want to address the issue. Amid meddling relatives, she looks outward, and trouble brews. This fairly routine cross-cultural marital drama is dressed up in sumptuous imagery and talk of watchful Orishas. It's almost a tone poem, quietly observant and yet anxious, as any assimilation story must be. It opens the series Saturday, January 25, at 8:30 p.m.
Another highlight of the month-long series is Le Président, a politically pointed mockumentary by Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo, in which the limousine carrying a fictional leader (played by Gérard Essomba) gets "lost" in the back country as a TV news reporter/host named Jo Wood'ou (Valery Ndongo) hunts him down with a camera. The point is that the president-for-life is out of touch and corrupt, something he understands all too well. An Afro-hip-hop soundtrack amps up the anxiety. Playful style, serious topic. Le Président shows Tuesday, January 28.
The African Film Festival has been an annual event at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive since 2005, and, according to BAM/PFA film curator Kathy Geritz, has filled in a gap for local audiences eager to see movies that all too rarely find their way to North America. "They see very little African film outside of our festival and many comment on how the feel and form of the narratives is new and exciting to them," said Geritz. "Some compare it to dreams, others to oral tradition, and others are just intrigued at the innovation." Adventurous film fans are advised to see them all. For further details: BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu