The New York African Film Festival

A beautiful film about Zaire's 1974 World Cup football team, the first from black Africa, is one of the entries in the 17th New York African Film Festival.

A still from "White Wedding."

The New York African Film Festival was just voted the fourth best festival in the city, which is no mean feat. This news arrives as the 17th edition of the festival kicks off at Lincoln Center and a few other venues around New York City.  Highlights include South African director, Oliver Hermanus’ claustrophobic “Shirley Adams,” about a mother in a coloured township in Cape Town caring for her ungrateful son who is paralyzed; there’s also “Streetball,” about the homeless World Cup; the comedy “White Wedding;”  “Bronx Princess,” about Ghanaian immigrants in New York City’ and a short film about Che Guevara’s Congolese translator.

I am part of the program: I will interview the filmmakers, Monique Mbeka Phoba and Guy Kabeya Muya, after a screening of their film, “Between the Cup and the Elections,” (a beautiful film about Zaire’s 1974 World Cup football team).

Here’s Vanity Fair’s review of the film:

… (F)or those living in Kinshasa and throughout the rest of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the year 1974 is important for another, more bittersweet, sporting moment. That summer, Zaire’s national soccer team, the Leopards, became the first team from sub-Saharan Africa to qualify for the World Cup, which that year was hosted by West Germany. The story of the Leopards’ rough ride in the tournament—they were outscored in their three games, 14-0—and the players’ slide into ignominy upon their arrival back home, is the subject of Between the Cup and the Election, which is making its U.S. premiere Friday afternoon, April 9, at 1:00 (and is showing again on Sunday at 5:45) at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater as part of the 17th New York African Film Festival.The filmmakers, Monique Mbeka Phoba and Guy Kabeya Muya, get off to a rocky start in telling their tale. The film opens with Phoba voting for president in Kinshasa in 2006, as she explains in a voiceover that it was the elections that made her decide to fulfill her dream of making a movie. From there, she and Muya are unapologetic about the school-project nature of their quest, and they are clunky at times in their attempts to interweave the soccer and politics threads of their story.

But even if you find yourself cringing a bit in the early going, stick with it. The core of the film is filled with terrific archival footage of the 1974 World Cup, of Mobutu-era Zaire, and of the Leopards, the team that was, at the time, the pride of Africa. The larger story of the players’ collective vanishing act from Congolese society after they crashed out of the World Cup is a sad but important demonstration of the fleeting nature of celebrity, no matter the trade or the country in which that fame was won.

Phoba and Muya track down a handful of the surviving members of that 1974 Leopards team, and the players are refreshingly candid as they speak about their impressions of playing in Germany, the weighty expectations placed on them by Mobutu and their fellow countrymen, and the backroom bribery and arm-twisting that went on during the World Cup. (One former Leopard says they let Brazil score a third goal in Zaire’s final game because the Brazilians had requested it at halftime so they could advance to the next round. “We got nothing for it,” he says. “We did it for pleasure.”) Each member of the national team was given a house and a car by Mobutu to thank him for his service to his country. The filmmakers take a tour of the neighborhood where all the Leopards once lived, and they even find the only player who still has the car he was given, a green Volkswagen. (After his playing career he used it for years as a taxi driver.)

In the end, and in spite of its unpolished feel, Between the Cup and the Election offers as much insight into Congolese political culture as it does into Congolese soccer. Kibonge Mafu, the Leopards’ captain at the ’74 World Cup and a man who has probably fared better than his teammates in his post-soccer life, was running for political office while the film was being made. His campaign posters, plastered all over Kinshasa, show a photo of him with Pelé, who once called Kibonge one of the most talented players he’d ever met. Later, the camera follows along as Kibonge joins a gathering of old Leopards—earlier we’d seen them jogging around on a rough dirt pitch during a veterans’ game—who are begging another political candidate to fight for the needs of former soccer players if she wins office. She smiles and makes a few impossibly disingenuous promises—promises that seem forgotten as soon as she shakes her last hand and turns away from the camera.

For the schedule and more information about the films, click here.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.