When you walk into her office, the first thing that is likely to not only strike you, but to hold your attention as well, is the wall. Far from being any old blank wall, this wall serves as home to hundreds of stories spun from modern-day African griots. The wall, with its rows and rows of shelves, stores the collected videotape copies of African films made over the last twenty or so years. Your eyes start from the top of 20 ft. ceiling down to the floor where you stand, before gazing around at the sea of other videos, DVDs, and even 35mm prints lying around.
Instantly you are drawn into a world of history, fantasy, politics and magic through the lens of cinematic storytelling. You are in the office of Mahen Bonetti, the petite Sierra Leonean with the continental presence, who has spent the last two decades building a platform for Africans to tell their own stories, in their own voices, in order to dispel the misrepresented images of Africa that the mainstream media endorses.
As Founder and Executive Director of the African Film Festival, Inc., Bonetti has been the powerhouse at the center of what is now an international network of artists, filmmakers, programmers, academics and cultural enthusiasts. And yet what’s even more striking than the famous wall in her office, is the fact that this energetically magnetic woman has managed to spearhead the organization for nearly twenty years while creating a name not only for herself, but for scores of other visionaries who use cinema as a way to reformat "the gaze" and re-define how the world sees Africa and the treasures of the people and cultures that descend from it.
Born in Sierra Leone in 1956, Bonetti grew up in a noble family during the height of Africa’s transition from colonial rule to independent sovereignty. Those vivid memories of Africa’s triumphs during the dawn of independence would be the spark that would ignite her desire to recapture the dignified African renaissance she remembered from her youth.
Working for entities like Newsweek and Young & Rubicam, Bonetti was also aware of the cultural depictions of Africa that resounded throughout the world. By then it was the 1980s, and with Spike Lee, Afro-Brazilian culture, Bob Marley and Malcolm X all becoming fixtures in popular culture, stereotypical images of starving Africans also penetrated these same visual landscapes. With all the contradictory images and labels swarming around the African Diaspora, Bonetti became frustrated with the apparent lack of African self-representation. Determined to do something about her frustration, she set out on a journey that would ultimately result in the founding of the African Film Festival, Inc.
The premiere New York African Film Festivalwas launched at Lincoln Center in 1993 with surprising, unprecedented success. Today, the organization has mushroomed to an annual flagship festival held at Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a host of other venues. The festival also includes a 9-month touring program that travels to 13 cities around the United States and Puerto Rico, an in-school education program held every 5 weeks in East Harlem, and a slew of other international, national and community programs including the much-lauded Summer Outdoor Screening series and Black History Month programs.
With such diverse year-round programming and the 17th New York African Film Festival coming this April, there seems to never be a dull moment in Bonetti’s life. And while over the years she has been featured in scores of grassroots and international media outlets as prestigious as CNN, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, has received numerous awards and speaking invitations, and has collaborated and consulted all over the world, Bonetti always insists that “its bigger then me.” For her, the real stars and heroes are those men and women who use their imagination, determination and innovation to pave opportunities for future generations. With champions like Bonetti, such opportunities are more and more visible on tomorrow’s horizon.