Experiences of African people across the world brought to life through film

A scene from the film ‘The Vow’, which is being shown at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival that aims to depict African stories through documentary. Photo supplied

Creole is the language used daily by the majority of Guinea Bissau’s population, but it has no official status. The film Lantanda, one of twenty-one short and long documentaries being shown at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in Cape Town, explores this fascinating story.

Lantanda (Guinea Bissau/Spain) opens with the mesmerising sound of the kora, an instrument associated with tradition, caste and cultural nationalism. Through a steady exploration of music and culture, we place it and other instruments in the broader context of a national liberation struggle against Portugal and Portuguese led by Amilcar Cabral. The Creole language, music and culture played a vital part in this struggle. In the post-colonial era, musicians and writers explain why they have chosen this language to express their feelings and transmit the social reality of the country. The film is also interesting in the way in which it integrates photography into the narrative of national liberation.

The festival has been running for eight years. This is the third time it has been held in Cape Town. Its aim is to promote the knowledge, life and culture of African people on the continent as well as those across the world through the art of documentary filmmaking. Based at the University of Missouri in the US, the festival screens films in cities across the US, the UK and the Caribbean. It has African partners at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, and the iRepresent International Documentary Film Festival, Lagos.

What is ‘African’ about the films on show?

Over the past two years the majority of films which the festival has screened in Cape Town have been made by filmmakers based in Africa through international collaborations and/or partnerships. The local selection panel for this year’s festival interpreted the description of an ‘African’ film broadly to include:

  • films about African topics made by people living in Africa who self-identify as African;

  • films that are not about Africa but are made by people in the African diaspora;

  • films about people in the African diaspora and Africa-related topics made by people who do not identify as African.

This broad interpretation invites two simple questions with an abundance of answers: who speaks for Africa, and how?

While it is vital for African filmmakers to find, reclaim and tell African stories, this cannot be on the basis of racial exclusivity. Nor should we dismiss those who are at home on more than one continent as mere Afropolitans.

The festival provides a platform for debate. It also shows how documentary films clarify and complicate the answers through content and narrative techniques.

Themes explored

One of the feature-length films is Life in Progress (SA/Switzerland) about members of a Katlehong dance group called Taxido. Themes explored in this film include the ways in which dance reinforces and challenges stereotypes about Africa and rhythm, the difficulties faced by young black women in the townships as they deal with sexist male fellow dancers and the stigma associated with pregnancy. The film’s fluctuation between fly-on-the-wall technique and low-key interview raises a question that has long dogged documentary filmmakers: how much does their presence as observers shape the events that they record?

A dance double feature Fare-Ta: Land of Dance (Guinea/UK) gives viewers the chance to compare two films that view dance as a combination of individual aesthetic expression as well as social and self-discipline but treat context and character differently.

One of the short films is Maestra (Cuba). Many people in the Caribbean are descended from slaves captured in Africa. In 1961, 250,000 volunteers taught 700,000 people to read and write in one year. 100,000 of the teachers were under 18 years old, and over half were women. The documentary explores this story through testimonies of the young women who went out to teach literacy in rural communities – and were transformed in the process. The story offers policy makers and practitioners an inspiring example given Africa’s low adult literacy rates.

As part of its short-film programme, three films will be screened under the title: ‘The Performance of Racism and Race’. The aim is to explore the notions that race may be felt but is not real; that it is ‘performed’, that it is a ‘social construction’ through films in which people designated as ‘non-white’ literally act in a racist manner or adopt the racist interpellations to which they been subjected. The films are: Wolf Call (USA); Money 1955: The Emmett Till Murder Trial (US); Wish You Were Here (SA).

Gold is Here (Ghana) takes a critical look at villagers who have been shot while defending their land from illegal mining providing an additional contribution to the documentary conversation on miners, mining and conflict initiated by Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down (2014) and continued with Aryan Kaganoff’s [Night Is Coming](2015). The film also focuses on women who ferry ore from dangerous pits to process them in poisoned waters. It sheds light on children who mine abandoned and collapsing mine pits. For some, work in mercury-infested streams is their only way to pay for school. As a result, some suffer serious diseases. Activists and African cinephiles may wish to draw comparisons with Laurent Salgue’s Dreams of Dust (2008).

A Day in the Sun (SA) offers a peek behind the scenes of South Africa’s most widely read tabloid newspaper, the Daily Sun and provides a poetic look at stories behind the headlines.

Noise Runs (Haiti/US) offers a different take on the mass media. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, protests erupt in the streets. Driven by their passion for a new Haiti, young Haitians offer hope through a radical newspaper.

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