Films Track the Course of the African Diaspora

What started as an idea of an immigrant couple who were film buffs has now grown into the African Diaspora Film Festival — showcasing 102 movies from 43 countries in a 17-day feast of documentaries, comedies, musicals and dramas.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

What started as an idea by an immigrant couple who were film buffs has now grown as the African Diaspora Film Festival. It's in 15th year, showcasing 102 films from 43 countries in a 17-day feast of documentaries, comedies, musicals, dramas. It's up and running until December 9th here in New York.

One of the featured films is "Zanzibar Soccer Queens" by Cameroonian filmmaker Florence Ayissi. The filmmaker came by the BPP studios, along with the festival's creator, Diarah N'Daw-Spech, who talked about the festival's humble roots and admirable ambitions.

Diarah, I read that this festival started because of a conversation you were having with your husband, a film buff, at the kitchen table some 15 years ago. What was that conversation like?

Ms. DIARAH N'DAW-SPECH (Co-founder, African Diaspora Film Festival): Well, that conversation was like, you know, what can we do with our lives that's meaningful to us and to other people? We came from both abroad. We are both foreigners. We immigrated in the early '80s, and we did like what most foreigners do when they come here. They go to school. They look for a job. And we were at a point in our lives where we - we were - we had achieved all of those things and we were saying, so what's next for us? What can we do that we love that's important and that's going to help us connect with the people in this big city of New York? And it found - we thought that a festival would be a very great option.

STEWART: How did you go from that kitchen conversation to actually being a reality?

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: We have been going to see films since - you know, we've been together for a long time. So when we have a conversation, we can kind of started to think, well, okay. What films are we going to show? And basically, from memory, we were able to do a lineup of the festival, the first year.

STEWART: Wow.

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: And then, we said, well, how are we going to get these films? So we went back to all of the film festival books that we had from previous years and we started to look for contact information and call people. And there was Reinaldo, at the time - my husband - was teaching at New York University, and there was a movie theater there that was always empty. He would go there to have naps in between…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: …in between courses. And so he said, well, you know, maybe we could the festival there. So he spoke to the manager and said, can we rent this space? And they said sure. So how much? He said, okay, well, we can work that out. So he will - we have a venue. We rent the space. We had the films from memory. And then, now, we contact the people. We find the films, and we just start to - the next step is just finding someone to help us get word out. And I think we worked with a student at the time.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: And we just designed a flyer, and here we go. Here we started.

STEWART: A lot of the films have it, and many film festivals deal with heavy subjects: violence and different communities and strife. But there's also great films about romance, and my personal favorite - I've seen two and a half of the films, so I have my own personal favorite out of the whole 15 days, right? This one film was just sweet and sings. It's called "Kirikou," about a little boy who's out to fight a sorceress who is causing trouble for his village. Let's play a little clip of Kirikou, who's talking to his grandfather about what he must do.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kirikou and the Sorceress")

Mr. THEO SEBEKO (Actor): (As Kirikou) Why does Karaba the sorceress eat all of the men?

Mr. MABUTHO "KID" SITHOLE (Actor): (As Old Man) She doesn't eat people.

Mr. SEBEKO: (As Kirikou) She doesn't?

Mr. SITHOLE: (As Old Man) That's what the villagers believe. Karaba let them go on believing it. The more frightened people are, the more powerful she is. She has never even thought of eating a human being. She even has tasty yams in a nice spicy sauce.

STEWART: Is this based on a fable that you know, or just an original story?

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: The filmmaker is a French gentleman. He grew up in Africa with his parents, and he used to go listen to tales, you know, across the fire.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: And the film is really his imagination. It's a mix of different stories. It also sometimes looks at some of the European folktales, and he really mixed this all together and he made a wonderful, wonderful film that's really presented a very nice message.

This little boy, who asks all these questions, he is smart. He's creative. He's fast. He has a sense of humor, and he doesn't - he questions everything. And so he never takes anything for granted, and it's such a - wonderful to have this image of this little African boy, and being so positive.

It's so unusual. And it's - this film, everybody loves the film. It's amazing. You see kids 2 or 3 years old - people tell me all the time, oh, my kid is watching this film over and over and over again. I know the thing by heart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: "Kirikou and the Sorceress." It's just - it's great. It's beautiful, too.

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: It's beautiful. He has inspired himself from drawings of Rousseau.

STEWART: That's what we said. We said it look like a Rousseau painting…

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: That's right. That's right.

STEWART: …back in the studio when we were watching it.

Ms. N'DAW-SPECH: That's what he did, and it's so colorful. And, also, he made sure that all of the plants and everything were really those that were there at the time. So he also done a lot of research. And you can also see - if you get the DVD, you can also see some of the drawings that he used to inspire himself from Africa, some images from Africa that had, you know, the shape of things. Everything is really based on reality, and it's beautiful.

STEWART: Documentaries are always a big part of every film festival. We have one of the documentarians who has a film in the festival with us, Florence Ayissi. Did I say it correctly? Tell us about your film.

Ms. FLORENCE AYISSI (Director, "Zanzibar Soccer Queens"): "Zanzibar Soccer Queens" is a film, for me, that celebrates the diversity of women in Africa. I was very enchanted by their spirit and their beauty and just their passion for soccer. And it was a real privilege to be able to make this documentary, because it says something different about the African woman, but most importantly about the Muslim African woman who we normally don't hear anything about. We just know that they are submissive. They're suppressed, and tradition pulls them back. And in Zanzibar, this wonderful island, the women just want to be themselves. And through soccer, they can express something that's very special about who they are and what they want to become.

STEWART: There's a very wonderful exchange early on in the film when one young woman is praying, and she is covered head to toe. And that she's been - when I play soccer, I wear shorts. And then there's a religious leader, a man who says it's okay that they'd played soccer, but they should be wearing dresses…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: …and the back and forth. Was that important to you, to include that part of this story?

Ms. AYISSI: It was very important, because here we are in the Muslim society where 96 percent of the people, the society's Muslim. The women desperately wanted to express something to just enjoy the sports, which is like a world culture. Soccer's a world culture. And in the streets, people will talk about the fact that women should not even be playing, or if any them play, they should cover their bodies. And I felt, who am I going to get to talk about it? Many people don't want to talk about it. I when this Koran teacher said he would, that was like - just like gold for you.

STEWART: Or magic for a (unintelligible).

Ms. AYISSI: It was very magical. And when he said the things that he said, he said them passionately because he believes in them, because he reads the Koran. It's interesting, because the young women also read the Koran, so I was thinking there's a clash here. They want to play football the way that it's played and respected all over the world, but their culture says you should cover your body. And I felt that it was necessary for maybe the audiences to try and understand some of the reasons why women are controlled in this way to cover their bodies. And for that particular man, his teachings that men will get tempted if they see a body, and so they will get all sexual.

STEWART: That it goes to your heart.

Ms. AYISSI: It goes to your heart.

STEWART: It goes to your heart.

Ms. AYISSI: And the heart starts beating really fast, and you do the things that you were not expected to do, because that woman has exposed her body. But that's also very, very crucial in saying that is it the woman's fault if you must commit adultery? So there are all kinds of messages there are, for me, I was very interested to see for myself what the Koran teacher would say, and how the mothers. Because I took it back to this mother to say, why is this like this? And it was crucial for me to see the mother of the younger (unintellgible) saying that we are really going (unintelligible) you don't have to develop. And if the woman can see that, then I think it's very important in the whole wider context of what women can do in Africa, and the whole thing about empowerment development. So that particular interview for me is very crucial. So if anybody asks me to cut it out, I will not. That's very important.

STEWART: In the film, you get to know the coach, the woman coach of the soccer team. Let's listen to a little bit of a clip, and then we'll explain what she's saying.

(Soundbite of movie, "Zanzibar Soccer Queens")

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

STEWART: She's saying football is my life. Football brings me happiness. Football takes me to a different place. It was really important to these women.

Ms. AYISSI: It was so crucial, because every time I speak with them, all they say are the things that football has enabled them to do. And to me, it became that this film is not really about the soccer itself as soccer. It's about the freedom. It's about soccer being the means to getting somewhere, to traveling, to meeting friends, and to just having the joy of being with other women, the whole thing about empowering. Because if you have the opportunity or the chance to say that I want to play, I want to travel, then I think you'd become really empowered in a way.

And for Nassra Juma, the coach, she sees her role as very vital in helping enabling these young women to just become something they want to become, even if it just means coming for training five times a week. For me, that was really important that we see women expressing something - not saying that we are hungry, come on, Britian or America, give us food to eat. They're saying that this is football. So that's something that's very different, which is very rare for the lives of these women.

And for me, that's really my mission. I just want to capture the experiences of women that doesn't see we are hungry or we have AIDS or there's corruption in Africa, just something that's very, very different and which actually defines us as human beings. Because whatever we are in the world, we desire something. And the Muslim woman, particularly in Africa, is not exempt from that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Filmmaker Florence Ayissi. And earlier, we heard from the festival creator Diarah N'Daw-Spech. For more on the African Diaspora Film Festival, including a look at "Kirikou," which is so beautiful and funny and cheeky…

LUKE BURBANK, host:

You just like the fact that you recognized the Rousseau look in that.

STEWART: I've to be honest. It was Tricia McKinney who first recognized it.

BURBANK: Yeah.

STEWART: I was thinking, she spoke it - our editor. That's why she's our editor.

BURBANK: Well, nobody can say the show isn't brainy.

STEWART: Our blog is npr.org/bryantpark. Enjoy "Kirikou" there.

BURBANK: Check us out, including a photo on the blog, right now, of the most awesome note ever found in an Atlantic City hotel room at 7 in the morning.

STEWART: By whom?

BURBANK: Our video producer Win Rosenfeld, to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Check it out, npr.org/bryantpark. Thanks very much for listening. We'll see you real soon.

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