A ‘new wave’ of African film

Should we have read anything into "Best African Film" award at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards to "Viva Riva!," the Congolese gangster film?

Patsha Bay in the title role in 'Viva Riva!'

Leonardo DiCaprio, sullen and bleary-eyed, stoically stares just off camera: “Sometimes I wonder: Will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other?” “… I look around and I realize…” DiCaprio pause for emotion, “God left this place a long time ago.” DiCaprio, as the white African “soldier of fortune,” leans back in the shadows, wiping away tears by rubbing his eyes as though he just woke up, and takes obvious care not to look directly at Jennifer Connelly, a do-gooder American journalist who dreams of exposing the real stories in Africa, not just the infomercial refugee children with flies in their eyes and distended bellies.

God has left the civil war-torn country of Sierra Leone in 1999, the setting for 2006s Blood Diamond.  Using the illegal diamond trade as the backdrop for the primarily character-driven storyline, the film carries a hefty social conscience for a big budget Hollywood action/drama.

Blood Diamond is one of Hollywood’s “message films” that allow Americans to leave the Cineplex feeling a little bit better about themselves after seeing an “educational” film about disenfranchised Africans.  And you can now impress your friends at parties with your knowledge of world events.

Don’t get me wrong, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, DiCaprio as the “bad guy with a heart” who helps the black man find his son—these are all good mainstream films.  Meaning they won numerous awards and only the best things win awards.

This is why I noticed Viva Riva!, the Congolese gangster film that won the “Best African Film” award at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards last month in Los Angeles, CA.

Yes, the MTV Movie Awards now has a “Best African Film” category.

I think it was presented while the stars of Twilight: Eclipse were shuffling back and forth from their seats with their golden popcorn statues. But, as Sean Jacobs pointed out on Africa is a Country last month, “That’s the kind of publicity African films can’t buy and should count for something when the film opens in [the US] …”

New York Magazine‘s brief review of Viva Riva! notes that the movie, “gives us reason to get excited for a new wave of films coming out of Africa: It’s well acted and slickly made, all while exposing a part of the world we haven’t really seen before.”

At the fashionable international film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, and the Toronto International Film Festival, and at regional venues like Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest and the New York African Film Festival, organizers are showcasing more African filmmakers.  This year, Cannes awarded the Chadian film A Screaming Man with the 2011 Jury Prize, and Viva Riva! was chosen as an Official Selection in Toronto and at SXSW. Ultimately, demand for what the film industry aristocracy deems praise-worthy helps foreign filmmakers to land deals with US distributors.  Everyone is hoping to find the next “sleeper hit”; last year’s unexpected crowd-pleaser was the South African film District 9.  Released in August 2009, the faux-documentary sci-fi thriller earned four Academy Award nominations in 2010, including Best Picture.

The folks at MTV, who also honored DiCaprio’s Inception co-star Ellen Page in the “Best Scared-As-Sh*t Performance” category, may be onto something with their inaugural Best African Film award, pointing to a larger trend among Western audiences who are finding that there is more to Africa than what Hollywood tells us about in its “message films.”

There are several possible explanations as to why Westerners have a growing and earnest interest in learning more about African pop culture.  Perhaps I could continue citing the success of critically acclaimed African cinema, or mention the growth of the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, into the third highest grossing film industry in the world, behind Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.  Or maybe I could point to the inquisitive, over-zealous, at-times-inane reporting on South Africa by international media as they set out like Louis and Clark to discover the country hosting the FIFA World Cup last June.  OR I could just put up a link with a picture of George Clooney in Chad, looking ragged but smiling as he shakes the hands of children—who I assume are orphans because it’s Africa and I’m American—and someone would click on it because they’re curious or to satiate their unrequited love for George Clooney.  Simply put, it’s the Internet.

Hollywood has spent decades and billions of dollars making movies from a distinctly white-American-male perspective that depict Africa as a homogenous landmass populated by despots, refugee camps, and lions.  But perhaps this story is starting to change; as the number of cell phones and access to Internet increases in remote areas of Africa, so to increases the flow of information out from individuals throughout the continent.  As a result, a twenty-something living in Brooklyn can read this fantastically intriguing blog out of Cape Town, documenting what appears to be a thriving hipster culture in South Africa.  People in Portland, Oregon can catch a showing of Viva Riva! or someone in Texas can watch the trailers of the three other films nominated by MTV for Best African Film.

The digital collective experience created by the Internet has opened doors to places that previously required a passport and an expensive plane ticket to get to.  The next time you go online to watch Lady Gaga’s newest music video, your curiosity may get the upper hand and maybe you’ll actually learn something by spending an hour wandering around Youtube.

Despite my snark, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland are successful films, but they only tell one, highly-fictionalized story from one perspective.  MTV may not be the cultural spearhead it once was but that gilded box of popcorn provides us with another link to click on, another clip to watch, and another celebrity to follow on Twitter.

In the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, in an unidentifiable African accent, “This. Is. Africa.”

Further Reading