Academic journal article Framework

The 15th New York African Film Festival

Academic journal article Framework

The 15th New York African Film Festival

Article excerpt

April 9-May 26, 2008

The 15th New York African Film Festival, this year programmed by director Charles Burnett and writer Wole Soyinka, continues to offer a tremendous variety of stimulating films from countries throughout Africa and the African Diaspora. This year's entries heavily focused on themes of African history, past and present.

The festival was blessed by the presence of Nobel laureate Soyinka. The year 2007 is the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade, which received little attention in the United States. Soyinka narrates Diane Seligsohn and Richard Rein's The African Slave Trades: Across the Indian Ocean (US, 2007-8), an educational documentary series that reveals the Indian Ocean slave trade emanating from East Africa. The film looks at the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the ninth century. This revolt stemmed from the growth of Iraq's economy during the Abbasid caliphate and the influx of vast numbers of African slaves. They were used to reclaim marshland in the Tigris-Euphrates delta. The revolt was centered on Basra in southern Iraq.

This film is complemented by another facet of the slave trade, Gül Büyükbese Muyan's Baa Baa Black Girl (TR, 2007). This focuses on the complexities of the Ottoman slave trade by examining the family of Mustafa Olpak, whose African grandfather, bought as a domestic slave by an Ottoman Turkish family, came to Istanbul as a result of the Kemalist revolution from the island of Crete. For the audiences, the film opens up a vast uncharted realm of how slavery played itself out during the period of the Ottoman Empire. Some films highlighted the crucial role that Cuba played in the wars of African national liberation from the sixties onward. A remarkable story unfolds in Jack Lewis's Brothers in Arms (SA, 2007). It looks at the life of Ronald Herboldt, the only South African to fight in the Cuban Revolution after jumping ship in 1958. He lived in Cuba for forty years and fought in Angola twice. Given his knowledge of Afrikaans, he used his skills to listen to South African military signals while inside Angola. He returned to South Africa in 1998 and fought and won a pension as a militant involved in the struggle against the apartheid state. Jihan El Tahir's Cuba: An African Odyssey (FR, 2006-7) deals with Cuba's involvement in Africa's guerrilla wars that began with Ché Guevara's ill-fated efforts in the Congo to nurture continent-wide rebellion. It continues with the vital aid that Fidel Castro sent to Angola in the 1970s to thwart South Africa's and the United States's efforts to shape the geopolitical outcome in sub-Saharan Africa after the collapse of the Portuguese empire. While highly revealing, the film does not cover in depth the shifting of Cuban troops to Ethiopia to fight in the 1977-78 Ogaden War, which would have added more nuance. This conscious absence simplifies the film, but it still remains powerful and illuminating.

The same could be said about Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (NA, 2007), directed by Burnett, a departure for the director, better known for his remarkable features To Sleep with Anger (US, 1990) and Killer of Sheep (US, 1977). This film follows the life and times of Samuel Daniel Shafiishuna Nujoma, the first president of Namibia and of the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). The film is hagiographic in tone, similar to any society's look at key figures in the national mythos (much as Americans regard George Washington). But, in that very process of creating mythos, the film gives us an invaluable wealth of perspectives into the nationalist narrative concerning the Namibian liberation struggle. There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Namibia. Phil Ya Nangoloh of the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia has said that this is because SWAPO- the former liberation movement and now Namibia's ruling party- was also guilty of human rights abuses "in their camps in Angola, Zambia and Tanzania. …

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