Film Festival Turns Lens To African Homeland

The 19th New York African Film Festival kicks off Wednesday, with a wide selection of films exploring ideas of home and homeland. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with the festival's founder Mahen Bonetti, and documentary filmmaker Laura Gamse, who is showing her film The Creators about South African artists.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away visiting member station WRVO in Oswego, New York.

Coming up, we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month with a creative tweet from a listener who would like to write a poem a day.

But first, the 19th New York African Film Festival kicks off today by turning the lens on films from the continent with the theme, "21st Century: The Homecoming." The documentaries, features and art house offerings explore notions of home and homeland, and the woman behind the extravaganza is Mahen Bonetti. She joins me now. And filmmaker Laura Gamse is showing her film, "The Creators." She's with us, as well.

Welcome to the program.

LAURA GAMSE: Thank you for having us.

MAHEN BONETTI: Thank you.

HURTADO: Mahen, I watched some of the films and am really blown away by the range. What do the choice of movies in this festival say about African cinema today?

BONETTI: I feel that it shows the vibrancy and also the production that is coming out of the continent as a result of technology and also the DIY spirit of a generation that has come of age. And they're telling their stories and they're giving a face and a voice to Africa, which is my motivation. This was why I started the festival, so there's a generation who has come of age now who are basically working and walking in stride with us.

HURTADO: The festival is also marking 100 years of South Africa's African National Congress Party by showing a number of films about the country. Laura Gamse, I loved your film, "The Creators," which looks at South Africa's complicated political history through the perspectives of different artists. Tell us about it.

GAMSE: We wanted to look at the way in which these artists expressed their reality through their own craft, so there's the graffiti artist, Faith47. There's the opera singer, Mthetho Mapoyi, the Afro blues artist, Ongx Mona, the hip-hop, you know, B-boy, breakdancer, Emile Jansen.

These artists who work in these various different crafts all came to creatively direct their segments of the film and we juxtaposed them together in the final piece, which looks at the historical oppression and censorship of the arts during Apartheid and the ways in which artists have maneuvered around censorship during Apartheid and being able to still spread messages of empowerment and come together and nowadays address social issues in current South Africa, modern South Africa.

HURTADO: You mentioned Mthetho Mapoyi, the self-taught opera singer. Let's hear a clip of him.

MTHETHO MAPOYI: (Singing in Foreign Language).

When my father left, I was around about four years old. I grew up listening to opera music when my father lived. Yeah. My mother gave me these CDs and then I started to sing with the CDs and then I found myself singing "Santa Lucia."

(Singing in Foreign Language).

HURTADO: He had quite a story. How did you find him for the film?

GAMSE: I had heard so many rumors about him, but I had not met him, so I drove to Hermanus, which is about three hours out, and went to the township where I had heard he was from and got out on the street with my cinematographer and we were just asking everyone, do you know Mthetho, the opera singer? And he actually has a scar down his cheek, which we had heard about. This was another rumor that was just kind of going around town about him, that he had a scar stretching the length from his temple down to his throat. And so we would tell people about this and ask them if they knew this guy, and after about an hour we met his friend's sister who introduced us to him.

And it was incredible to hear his story from his perspective after hearing all of the rumors and realizing that it was true and, actually, the scar had come from a fight that had stemmed from a little - some of the jealousy of his success because he comes from a township that has extremely high unemployment and the fact that he was able to teach himself Italian and mimic Pavarotti so beautifully and bring all of the emotion of the hardships of his youth into that. I think it really spoke to people when he sang on the street.

HURTADO: The film developed out of your college thesis and you hadn't been to South Africa before filming. What was it like trying to make a film there?

GAMSE: You know, I studied South Africa for years before I went, writing my thesis and just out of general interest in protest art and countercultural arts during the anti-Apartheid protests. And, when I got there, I realized that I knew nothing after all of my reading and writing on South Africa. I really just was so surprised and appalled by the great polarity of wealth and just how close people lived. You know, you could live in a mansion and be 10 minutes away from someone who lives in a shack.

And the realities of that - I can tell you about it, but the realities are just so much more visceral when you're actually there, of course. And so that's one of the reasons I wanted to make a film about it, to bring people into that.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtato. We're speaking with the New York African Film Festival's founder and executive director, Mahen Bonetti, and Laura Gamse, director of "The Creators," a documentary about artists in South Africa.

Mahen, on to a West African film now, "Relentless," by Andy Amadi Okoroafor, charts the loneliness of Obi, a peacekeeper who returns to Lagos after the war in Sierra Leone. It deals with the consequences of war on the psyche of contemporary Africans. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RELENTLESS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sierra Leone and Liberia are actually branches of the same tree. You know, but what beats my imagination is with all the European companies and the Middle East cashing in on the war, what makes us Africans murder our neighbors - cut off people's arms, turn our children into murderers and rapists.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What is African about that? Diamonds? It must have been terrible for you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please. I'm a child of the Biafran War.

HURTADO: The director has said that the film's ambition is to explore Africa beyond the news. How does it do that?

BONETTI: This is generational in the 21st century, coming back to the theme of the notion of home and homeland. They have nothing to grab onto, you know? But at the same time they're unconsciously drawing from the past to create something new and very modern. What Andy's trying to say is that, you know, it's a limbo state almost, you know, because it's an uphill battle. But Africa, this century is really ours. I really feel that 20 years from now most of us will be going back there looking for work. It's a change that's taking place, despite everything we've gone through.

HURTADO: And Laura, from your observations, how do filmmakers address the negatives of contemporary African life while also challenging assumptions that Africa is only about conflict?

GAMSE: I love Mahen's positivity and her energy when it comes to this question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GAMSE: And it just reminds me of the fact that when you struggle for so long against some barrier and then the barrier is removed, the momentum from that struggle pushes you forward that much faster, it makes you so much stronger. And I really saw this with the Africans that I met in South Africa and in my travels throughout Africa. And I think Mahen's right - that this will only lead to good things in the future. And as the world collectively comes to understand that Africa is a three-dimensional continent, I think we'll come to a place where hopefully more people will travel there and more Africans will get a chance to travel around the world and there will just be that much greater dialogue.

HURTADO: Nigeria's movie industry, Nollywood, churns out thousands of films a year which are generally known for their cheap production, melodramatic acting and over-the-top plots. But Mahen, is "Relentless" an indication that Nigerian film is developing beyond this?

BONETTI: They're the most populous, first of all, in the continent. So I mean it's admirable that that industry was built from within, you know, that you had the Francophone and the sort of art-house movie directors who turned their doors(ph) down at this video production. And now everyone is emulating the Nigerians. And most filmmakers who are smart are trying to find this, how do you know meld the two, the art-house and the popular cinema, because they want to tap into that audience on the continent.

Coming back to the - people like Andy, you have a generation that we call it alternative Nollywood, who are going to branch out from that, you know, that genre and find other ways to still retain something of the popular cinema but also, you know, higher production value, better quality, sound, acting, lighting. So Andy does not consider himself a Nollywood director, by the way, but he's made a film that does appeal to an audience, a segment of the population there. Yeah.

HURTADO: And if you can't attend the film festival, how easy is it for these films to gain wider release in America?

BONETTI: Well, there's this, you know, this DIY spirit that these kids have. Some of them just, you know, they have their own websites and then there are more independent New York producers and distributors who are looking at these directors and who even meet with them when we have the festival each year. And so it's picking up, but they're not necessarily waiting for that to happen as well.

HURTADO: How about you, Laura?

GAMSE: It's definitely been difficult for the creators. We've been on a year-long film festival run and I've had distributors tell me everything from, you know, now's not a good year for Africa - African films, we don't want to see that this year. Or, you know, if someone doesn't get eaten in your film, we can't get it on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GAMSE: So it hasn't been easy and it kind of hurts a little bit when you want to tell a film that has a little bit more subtlety than someone getting eaten. But it's true that the DIY factor does come through in the end and actually have made probably, not that I've made any money at all on the film, but the most that has come through for the artist - and 75 percent of the profits go to the artist - has been through educational sales. So universities are buying the film from me personally without the middleman of a distributor. And also individuals can go to the website, buy it. If you want to find the film, you can find the film and unfortunately it probably won't be on HBO anytime soon but there are definite ways to get it if you simply just look online.

HURTADO: Laura Gamse is the director of "The Creators," a documentary about artists in South Africa. Mahen Bonetti is the New York African Film Festival's executive director and founder.

Thank you both for joining us.

BONETTI: Thank you so much for having us.

GAMSE: Thank you.

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