For ten years the indefatigable Mahen Bonetti has been bringing African movies to America. First, with the hugely popular New York African Film Festival in the Big Apples Lincoln Center and additionally tours around the USA. The AFRican's Nnenko posed a few questions to the woman behind the show.
Q: Why did you start the NYAFF?
BONETTI: In the 1980s Spike Lee began making films about black people, and African musicians like Fela and Youssou NDour were creating a new genre in the record stores called World Music and African American started becoming the designation of choice for many black people.
For me, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, the cultural context seemed ripe for developing African cultural events. At that time,I had just finished a degree from Bradford College and was working at advertising giant Young and Rubicam and Newsweek.
At first, I started promoting African-themed parties, which brought in a diverse crowd hungry for the sounds of the continent. However, the joyous and rich culture of Africa was rarely conveyed in mainstream media, which tended to focus strictly on poverty and famine. I felt that other people were always speaking for Africa, but did not know how to combat this. Then I happened to attend the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 1989. There I saw several African films, including Ousmane Sembenes Ceddo, which was part of an anthology celebrating thirty years of African cinema.
The idea of starting an African film festival in New York suddenly came to me. In my mind there was this urgent need to find a way to show my daughter, my friends, and the people of New York, the Africa in which I grew up -- to give them a more multifaceted depiction of this continent that shaped me into the person I am today.
Q: What changes have you seen over the decade?
BONETTI: I have seen that the types that are submitted have diversified. Traditionally the Francophone countries were the most active in filmmaking, as France continued to fund film projects in her former colonies. These were beautiful films of high production value, mostly shot on 35mm, and were popular in the "world cinema" and art house circuit. The growth of video technology, however, has put the means of filmmaking in a larger number of hands. So there's been an explosion in documentary filmmaking and Nigeria and Ghana have developed their own brand of entertainment, films which have been hugely popular throughout the continent.
There's also been a lot of work by a new generation of Africans who have grown up in Diaspora, as well as more experimental video and video installation artists which we've tried to make known to American artists through an art exhibit we organized as part of 10th Anniversary entitled "Digital Africa."
Lastly, South Africa has been producing a lot of cinema since the end of apartheid ten years ago. You must remember that the first feature made by a black South African was Fools by Ramadan Suleman in 1996, so they had quite a lot of catching up to do. And the training and development of black filmmakers is still occurring and what they are coming up with is quite exciting and fresh.
Q: What are your personal favorites among the films?
BONETTI: Now I would have to say there are so many important films - in fact each one is a miracle that it gets completed despite so many logistical and financial obstacles. Of course I love the pioneers who really had no precedent to work from and created a new vision of cinema - people like Sembene, Mambety, and Cisse. However, I love Safis Faye's gorgeous Mossane as well as the comedic genius of Kwaw Ansah of Ghana as well.
More recently, I've enjoyed Hijack Stories from South Africa which manages to turn conventions of black popular cinema on their head. L'Afrance whose sensitive portrayal of a Senegalese immigrant in Paris is so well acted and shot. And the films of Tunde Kelani of Nigeria who deftly combines the charms of oral storytelling traditions with sharp social commentary. And that's just a few. The list keeps growing larger and more diverse, as is African cinema on the whole!
Info on the NYAFF is available online at www.africanfilmny.org.