African cinema is one of those areas of the movie map that tends to elude most American cinephiles/film nerds; if you’ve seen an African-made feature in the past year, it was probably Congolese action breakout Viva Riva! or maybe some similar Nigerian “Nollywood” cheap thrill. And that’s kind of a shame. Not that there’s anything wrong with action flicks, but the wider realm of African film remains underexposed on this side of the Atlantic. Which is where the New York-based African Film Festival and its Traveling Series comes in. For the eighth consecutive year, the Baltimore Museum of Art hosts the AFF’s annual touring bill of films from Africa (often co-produced in Europe/with European filmmakers), offering a fuller picture of the spectrum of African cinema across countries, regions, styles, and concerns. Here’s a rundown of this year’s offerings, which screen at the BMA March 24-25. For more information, visit artbma.org. (Lee Gardner)
March 24, 1 p.m.
Kinshasa Symphony Directed by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010
Kinshasa Symphony follows the members of the 15-year-old Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste as they prepare for their biggest public concert to date. This could easily have been yet another throwaway of the underdogs-work-hard-and-come-out-on-top school, but filmmakers Martin Baer and Claus Wischmann wisely chose to instead subtly construct a story out of the lives and words of the members of the orchestra. Despite difficult lives—or perhaps because of them—the musicians commit themselves to putting on a performance worthy of their city’s ears. And this is not a program to laugh at: They tackle Beethoven’s ferociously difficult Ninth Symphony, plus works by Handel, Verdi, and Orff, using second-rate instruments sometimes cobbled together with whatever materials are on hand. This is a simple, beautiful documentary that shows the power of community and music; as one member puts it, “When I sing Beethoven, it takes me away.” (Laura Dattaro)
March 24, 2:45 p.m.
A Screaming Man Directed by Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, Chad, 2010
Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) is an aging swimming champ who has parlayed his youthful athletic success into a job as the pool attendant at a luxury hotel for Europeans, a modest post in which he nonetheless takes pride. But the army is fighting a bloody battle against rebels (the sound of helicopters pierces the poolside calm) and the hotel has been sold to Chinese newcomers, who fire Adam and replace him with his own twentysomething son Abdel (Dioucounda Koma). How Adam responds to his humiliation and the pressures he and other citizens face to “contribute” to the war effort sets A Screaming Man’s tragic narrative on its way, and writer/director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun and star Djaoro make of it a subtle and affecting character study of pride and regret and the things people will do when they have so little to lose. (LG)
March 24, 4:30 p.m.
“Lezare (For Today)” Directed by Zelalem Woldemariam Ezare, Ethiopia, 2010
This sweet little parable follows a young homeless boy in a small village in Ethiopia as he struggles to find something to eat. His village is organizing a tree-planting day, in which the whole community will work toward its future by planting rows of young trees in the hopes of staving off desertification. The village leader gives the young boy a coin for bread in exchange for joining in the work, but as the day closes, the boy finds his coin is missing. “Lezare (For Today),” a 14-minute short produced, written, and directed by Zelalem Woldemariam Ezare of Addis Ababa, features bright, beautiful colors and uses almost no dialogue to tell its sharp tale of poverty, community, and ecological awareness. (LD)
March 24, 4:55 p.m.
One Way: A Tuareg Journey Directed by Fabio Caramaschi, Niger, 2010
Rarely does a documentary find a character so easily lent to visual storytelling. Sidi, a 13-year-old boy from a farming community in the Sahara who emigrated to Italy to follow his father after the latter left to find more lucrative work, is a budding filmmaker himself. While he, his father, and his sister make their way in Italy, his mother and younger brother Alkassoum—just a baby when his siblings left—remain in the Sahara, living the traditional Tuareg life of farming and raising camels. Sidi relieves the documentary makers of much of their burden, interviewing his father, his uncle, and Italians on the street. Things take a turn when Alkassoum gets his travel papers and joins his family; in one particularly poignant scene, Sidi interviews Alkassoum about moving to Italy and then lets the young boy turn the camera on him. The contrast between the boys’ lives in Italy and Niger presents a stark commentary on the differences between the two societies: While Sidi’s father is making more money, he is also burdened by the constraints of shift work and bills; life for the Tuaregs in the desert, while hard, seems peaceful and freeing. (LD)
March 25, 1 p.m.
A Trip to Algiers Directed by Abdelkrim Bahloul, Algeria, 2010
It’s 1962, immediately after the French withdrawal from Algeria. One mother—along with her six children—has lost everything in the fight for independence. Her husband died in the resistance, and she herself devoted time and energy to the cause by cooking for the National Liberation Front and tending to the wounded. As a French official leaves the country, he decides to give the woman his home. It’s not long before a well-connected man in the newly established government tries to take it from her, though, and she makes a daring trip to the nation’s capital to demand security for her children. Abdelkrim Bahloul’s gentle yet powerful film depicts a woman boldly asserting her rights to a new government that’s still finding its footing in a postwar, postcolonial country. (EG)
March 25, 2:45 p.m.
Kongo: 50 Years of Independence Various directors, Belgium, 2010
Kongo: 50 Years of Independence is marketed as a documentary. But the three-part, 156-minute film, which blends animation with archival footage to relate the tragic history of the Congo, strays so far from documentary convention that that is a serious misnomer. The film spans the early, brutal years of colonial occupation to the country’s personal takeover by Belgium’s equally brutal King Leopold II in the 19th century to independence and the rise of charismatic leaders like Patrice Lumumba. It is a rich, painful history, and the bounty of rarely seen historic footage in Kongo is reason enough to watch. But the animation, while atmospheric and at times lovely, is mostly just bizarre, particularly when overlaid on top of archival footage. Another disorienting element: The film jumps from one narrator to the next—including an Arab slave trader, a Catholic cardinal, and finally Lumumba himself. If their words had been taken from original sources, all well and good. But any hopes that that might be the case are dashed when Lumumba begins to speak from beyond the grave, with lines like, “My death has settled nothing.” A country whose narrative has for so long been co-opted by others deserves better. (Andrea Appleton)