A remarkable celebration of African cinema
At this year's New York African Film Festival, we saw films united by key thematic concerns, some of them quite unexpected.
The New York African Film Festival debuted in 1993. This year marked the 26th edition of the Festival, which concluded on June 4th. It was a remarkable celebration of African cinema, past and present. Expertly curated (by longtime director, Mahen Bonetti), the festival brought to Lincoln Center in Manhattan a collection of films both old and new. Representing a range of national, cultural, and linguistic contexts, the films were united by some key thematic concerns, some of them quite unexpected. As someone who teaches and writes about African cinema, I was struck by the care and originality with which these titles were selected. None of them obvious choices, they nevertheless seem, in retrospect, apt, even inevitable pairings, and they offered festival goers a glimpse of the influence that the masters of the past continue to exert on the African filmmakers of today.
Consider, for instance, the juxtaposition of Ola Balogun’s Black Goddess (1978), a classic Nigerian-Brazilian dramatization of the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, and Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye’s documentary Bigger Than Africa (2018), which similarly considers slave ships as carriers of Yoruba culture; or the contiguity of Mambéty (2000), Papa Madièye Mbaye’s moving documentary about the making of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1998), and the equally invaluable Behind the Scenes (1981), Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s film on the making of Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo (1976). Such pairings evince important connective threads, from the formal to the thematic, and they made for a most memorable edition of the always-stimulating New York African Film Festival.
Balogun’s Black Goddess is an essential meditation on the transatlantic slave trade and the global diffusion of Yoruba culture. It opens with a depiction of the capture of African men and women by Portuguese merchants bound for what is now Brazil, where much of the film was shot. A subsequent scene, set in Nigeria in the late 1970s, involves a man’s deathbed request to his son, Babatunde: the dying man wants Babatunde to travel to Brazil, where his ancestors were enslaved, in order to connect with those family members still living there. (Babatunde’s great-grandfather relocated to Nigeria upon the abolition of slavery in Brazil.) Balogun’s task is thus to particularize the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade in terms of contemporary Nigerian national-cultural identities. While Black Goddess was not the first African film to focus on the institution of slavery (Senegalese director Mahama Johnson Traoré’s The Town, for example, was released 6 years earlier, in 1972), its influence on subsequent projects—particularly Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993)—cannot be overstated.
Balogun depicts a kind of witchcraft that compels those under its spell to envision a past that the director powerfully recreates—the time of the transatlantic slave trade. In Black Goddess, the historical sites of slavery contain the potential to transport (as in Sankofa, with its depiction of the possessive power of Cape Coast Castle). Here, some of the actors play dual roles, suggesting at once the reincarnation of enslaved persons and the persistence of the experience of African alterity in a white-supremacist world. For Balogun, the memory of slavery is necessarily a familial memory, wrapped up in an awareness of ancestry, of lineage. “There can’t be any friendship between slave and master,” declares one character, articulating a major theme of the film, which ends with a breathtaking homage to Sembene’s La noire de… (1966), recalling an African cinematic past just as, for today’s audiences, it clearly anticipates the future.
That future was beautifully represented at the festival, including by Sierra Leonean-American writer-director Nikyatu, whose short film Suicide by Sunlight (2019) is a beautifully made, delightfully suspenseful exploration of themes of expropriation, abandonment, and othering. Nikyatu’s talent for building tension is on abundant display in this tale of a Black vampire, as is her facility for upending genre conventions, including through examinations of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Kayode Kasum’s Nigerian film Oga Bolaji (2018) is a delight—and, by the director’s own admission, a principled corrective to the kind of big-budget Nollywood film that focuses exclusively on the wealthy, glamorous denizens of Victoria Island and other elite enclaves. The title character, played to perfection by Ikponmwosa Gold, is, at 40, a former highlife musician who lives with his ailing mother (played by veteran actress Idowu Philips, also known as Iya Rainbow) and works the day shift at a local bar, where his predilection for free products leads him to empty the contents of unfinished beer bottles into a big pitcher that he then refrigerates for later consumption, much to the chagrin of his coworker. (Bolaji is an unapologetic cheapskate.) Dreaming of recording his own album, the music-obsessed Bolaji likes to hold court on the roof of the bar, addressing Nigeria’s countless political and economic problems to an audience of friends who have heard it all before (and who can barely get a word in edgewise). These include Omo (Gregory Ojefua, with his marvelously raspy voice), a taxi driver who gives Bolaji free rides, and whose double takes are among the film’s comic highlights.
Bolaji is so parsimonious that he refuses to purchase fruit from a little girl who hawks at the bus stop that he frequents. Glimpsing the girl’s beautiful mother, Victoria (Omowunmi Dada), Bolaji is instantly enamored. When two bullies attempt to steal the daughter’s oranges, Bolaji intervenes. The bullies end up costing the little girl a few hundred naira, which the newly solicitous Bolaji borrows from Omo to give to her. The child’s troubles have only just begun, however. Hounded by a task force set up to crack down on trading on busy roads, she is struck and killed by an okada (motorcycle taxi). The rest of the film concerns the title character’s efforts to help the grief-stricken Victoria, including by getting her a job at the bar where he works, and splitting his salary with her. Victoria, it turns out, harbors lofty ambitions of her own. An aspiring fashion designer, she motivates Bolaji to work toward achieving his dream of recording his own highlife album, but the matter of his connection to the dead girl—a connection of which Victoria is unaware—remains to be resolved.
Oga Bolaji is a breath of fresh air—both a throwback to such Nigerian classics as Amaka Igwe’s Rattlesnake (1995 – 1996) and Tade Ogidan’s Owo Blow (1996–1998) and emblematic of the new Nollywood style of immaculate widescreen cinematography. Frequent aerial shots show not the glitz of Victoria Island (as in so many other recent Nigerian films) but the congestion of the mainland marketplaces. Kasum, who is only in his mid-twenties, falters in some of the more serious sequences (overdoing the cuteness of Victoria’s daughter, for instance, in moments that become cloying) but shows a flair for comedy and an obvious affection for Nigeria’s 99 percent. The Pidgin-language Oga Bolaji is his tribute to the struggling, hustling masses, and it is a memorable, at times uproariously funny romp.
The inclusion of Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece Baara (1978) in this year’s festival would have been cause for celebration even if the organizers hadn’t managed to bring Cissé—the legend himself—to Lincoln Center for a post-screening discussion with a reverent audience. As Cissé made clear to festival goers, Baara is about the persistence of forms of sociopolitical oppression associated with the rapacious capitalist system. The film focuses on the experiences of workers at a factory in Bamako. Some of them desire revolution; others must be taught the importance of organizing. “What happened to our revolutionary projects to change social conditions?” asks one disillusioned man. “When you work in the private sector, it’s forced labor. You work like the devil, and you earn nothing.” Several workers are too tired even to attend union meetings. The director of the factory, in response to disappointing financial returns, opts for massive layoffs. Those who remain in his employ want shorter workdays, better pay, and less toxic conditions at the job site. The factory director is unyielding.
“You got rich because your father was a small clerk misusing public funds,” his wife reminds him, with such justified venom that he strangles her to death on the spot—a stark reminder that capitalist exploitation and patriarchal violence go hand in hand.
There are masterful images in Baara: the wife’s corpse spread across the marriage bed; the irate workers chasing after the director’s car; the men carrying the corpse of the factory’s latest engineer, murdered because he agitated for change; and, finally, the montage of faces silently contemplating revolution.
During the post-screening discussion, Cissé talked about wanting to make a film about corruption, stressing that the issues at the center of the now-41-year-old Baara are those that we who live under capitalism are still dealing with today. A framing device, depicting two figures—the engineer and the laborer who shares his name—walking through a field of flames, forcefully conveys Cissé’s message, which he rearticulated in person for the Lincoln Center audience: an incineration is required—a burning away of capitalist evils—and an acceptance of the fact that, in order to achieve meaningful change, we must walk through fire. We must go through hell.