Out of Africa, into the cinema

Shane Murray, Will Ghosh and Katie Anderson 5 November 2009

Shane Murray, Will Ghosh and Katie Anderson take a look at what’s on at the African Film Festival

The Cambridge African Film Festival is the UK’s oldest annual exhibition of African films and this year hosts its eighth week of films shining a light on the “dark continent”.

Lindiwe Dovey, the festival director, told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that the aim of the festival was to dispel some of myths and negative stereotypes about Africa. “Given the focus of Western media on the negative aspects of Africa, which homogenizes the continent and makes it appear to be a continent of war, violence, death and disease, the Cambridge African film festival aims to show the many positive, exciting and inspirational dimensions of Africa and to represent Africa in all of its heterogeneity.”

Rather than being a niche interest, African cinema is now beginning to cross over to a mainstream audience. Ms Dovey said, “Audiences are growing every year, signalling that the interest in African cinema is increasing.

“There have already been several African films in the past few years that have crossed over into the mainstream, such as Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the future but, for African cinema to become more mainstream, we are dependent on distributors and exhibitors taking an interest. We hope that the festival can pique their interest.”

This year, the festival has the theme of “Sex, Sport, and Revolution”. Ms Dovey says, “The programme “Love and Sex in Africa” tries to shift audiences away from discourses that link sexuality in Africa with HIV/AIDS, to look at people’s everyday experiences of love and sex in different contexts, from Burkina Faso to Mauritania to South Africa to Senegal to Algeria.

“Our focus on sporting cultures in Africa is a way of celebrating the upcoming 2010 football world cup which will be hosted by South Africa. The “revolution” focus was inspired by the fact that 17 African countries will be celebrating their 50 years of independence from colonial rule next year.”

To celebrate the continued success of a Cambridge institution, we’ve reviewed some of the highlights of this year’s festival.

Light-hearted, but not frivolous, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s look at a tale of cultural unease in Sex, Okra, and Salted Butter (4/5) is a comic gem. Malian immigrant Malik is a bastion of tradition whilst his family shed their cultural identity (as he grasps it) around him. His attempts to rectify the escalating disorder of his wife’s departure, son’s homosexuality, and his single parenthood produce a flurry of hilarious moments.

Whilst trying to persuade his young and beautiful wife, Hortense, to stay he is unceremoniously carried off by a large security guard, a wizened babe in arms. In another failed act of cultural assimilation, he goes through an African warrior dance; spear in hand, only to be watched by his disdainful sons, earphones firmly in place. It is in these small moments of humour that the film really shines and allows us to appreciate the satirical blend of cultural, racial and gender stereotypes it deals with. KA

Nominally split into five parts, Sea Point Days (4/5) is more of a continual, gentle meditation on people’s lives in the supposedly integrated, multiracial Sea Point area of Cape Town. It is, however, only a portrait of the place in the sense that it is a portrait of its inhabitants. Perhaps they do reflect something of the district’s character; you get the feeling, though, that Sea Point Days has ambitions much further reaching than this small, eponymous stretch of coastline.

Director Francois Verster resists the temptation to make it a purely racial treatise, although race is an inescapable centre point, for he considers a number of potentially isolating factors, notably religion and age. Sea Point Days provokes a huge variety and depth of reaction, far too much to mention here, but it deserves your attention.

Even ignoring what it potentially might have to say, it is a work that is never less than interesting; sometimes compelling, sometimes brutally poignant. WG

From a Whisper (2/5) had the potential to be a fascinating African film that could have crossed over into mainstream cinema. It follows the attempts of two people to recover from having lost their loved ones in the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi. It follows both the lead up to the bombing through an examination of the relationship between the first protagonist, an intelligence agent, and his friend, who, it turns out, is one of the bombers, and the attempt of a young girl to deal with the loss of her mother, ten years later.

It’s a good premise and the film exploits certain parts of this really well, notably by making everyone a Muslim (despite only 10% of Kenyans being Muslim), which lends the tension between the bomber and the agent a certain originality. Similarly, the examination of the bomber’s motives is well carried out, and the scenes following his preparation are some of the best in the film. Unfortunately, almost of all the rest of the film is melodramatic and faintly implausible. Worse still, the second protagonist, a teenage girl, is intensely irritating, and can’t act. It’s worthy and good in places, but ultimately a failure. SM

A mother’s unconstrained despair as she is informed of her son’s death goes against the grain of the rest of The Yellow House’s (4/5) understated and emotive portrayal of loss. The journey the deceased boy’s father, Mouloud, must undertake to identify his son’s body is at once imbued with a sense of grieving isolation and the solidarity of the local community. It is a testament to Amor Hakkar’s skill that infrequent and straightforward dialogue translates to a strong attachment to the father of this sombre road trip.

The grandeur of the Aures Mountains where the film was shot is a stunning contrast to the simple, practical way death is dealt with by the family. It is this lack of emotional outburst and persistence of routine that leaves us free to really empathise with the sentiments that undercut the very simple narrative. The unremarkable cinematography is only a footnote compared to such charmingly naive scenes as Mouloud’s attempt to procure a medicine from the local pharmacist to treat his wife’s sadness. KA

At first Mascarades (4/5) wasn’t much more interesting than the whirlwind of gossipy village life that blights the lives of its main characters. However, as Mournir (played by Lyes Salem who also wrote and directed the film) came into his own, I found myself warming to the unfolding chaos.This eager, if inept, patriarchal figure is driven by his pride into drunkenly lying that his narcoleptic sister is going to be married.

The casting of the groom as a wealthy westerner allows him to climb up the social ladder in a way that has so far evaded him and the initial blip of concentration turns into a well-oiled facade. It’s not spectacular but it is an endearing look into the extremely close quarters kept in any version of village life and the relationships of some of its inhabitants. Even Mournir’s offensive Ali G style tracksuit didn’t stop me from watching with growing concern as this relaxed comedy careers towards its inevitable, calamitous conclusion. KA

A documentary about South Africa’s preparations for the FIFA World Cup, Fahrenheit 2010 (3/5) is much better than its ripped-off title would suggest. Although the tone of the film is generally sympathetic to the project, it asks a number of probing questions and ultimately decides that it was a bad idea for South Africa to get the World Cup. As the film and several of the talking heads point out, does it really make sense for a country like South Africa to spending so much money building new stadia? In particular, the film notes that the country’s already desperate housing shortage has been made worse because so much money and material has instead been directed towards stadium-building.

Add to that mysteriously rising costs, and schools being bulldozed to make way for stadium car-parks, and the overall perception is one of corruption, with FIFA, government, and local officials more interested in creating a legacy (i.e. a big building) than in considering the best way to run the tournament.

In general, it’s a pretty interesting and wide-ranging documentary, with some great talking heads. However, there are a few problems, notably the slightly patronising voiceover, and the very ordinary visual style. It’d be great on BBC Four, but isn’t great as a film. SM

Fahrenheit 2010 is showing today at the Arts Picturehouse and Mascarades is at the Trinity College Winstanley Lecture Theatre.

Shane Murray, Will Ghosh and Katie Anderson