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Focus on African Films

Aired April 14, 2007 - 12:30:00   ET


ISHA SESAY, GUEST HOST: Hello, I'm Isha Sesay. This is INSIDE AFRICA, with a special edition for you from New York City.
This city is all about the movies, as you'll see throughout the program. But today, we're going to focus on African films.

We're standing inside the lobby of the Walter Reade Theater, part of the Grand Lincoln Center, which these days plays host to the 14th Annual African Film Festival.

From social despair to political tyranny, tradition to tragedy, crisis to comedy, the African film festival showcases a unique patchwork of voices, not usually heard outside the continent.


SESAY: This is where some of the leading lights of African filmmaking showcase their talents. But perhaps more importantly, this festival presents them with the power to shake the way their continent is portrayed to the world. And for the force behind the African Film Festival, this is key.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm very proud to show our work, because our filmmakers, I feel they are national treasures. They're (inaudible) that old tradition. It's something that will live on.

SESAY: From South Africa to Algeria, the continent's rich creative tapestry is displayed in some 47 films from 20 countries. And with the diverse array of comedies, tragedies and documentaries on the program, the event remains dedicated to challenging the popular notions of African cinema and society.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's about the Africa beyond the problem dialectic. The Africa beyond the news, the Africa beyond the current affairs. It's about African stories, African dreams, African hopes, African lives, just as people live them.

SESAY: Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence is among the themes celebrated at this year's gathering. With a mix of rare and never before seen archival footage, festival goers are able to witness a series of historic moments relating to the end of colonialism.

Since the 1950s, both Ghana and African filmmaking have come a long way, as this event clearly highlights. The hope now is that with each passing year, the African Film Festival will open more people's eyes to Africa's rich creative offerings.


SESAY: New York City is teeming with culture and a distinct African heritage. What better place than here to spread the word of African cinema to the world? We're standing outside the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, also known to some as the center of black culture. This stage launched the career of giants such as Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. We're going to be taking a special tour of the Apollo a little later.

But first, off to the movies, and this next one has been described as a rollicking mix of farce and fancy. Jim Clancy has more on "Max and Mona."


JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When Max Bua cries, everyone cries. In Max's small South African village, tradition holds that the souls of the departed can't get on their way until the mourners rain down tears.

As the official village mourner, Max is paid to be the funereal rainmaker.

"Max and Mona" is the film that follows the 20-year old as he pursues his dream of becoming a doctor. Not a healer, mind you, but a bona fide medical doctor. His journey takes him to Johannesburg, carrying not much more than his mother's warning to steer clear of his ne'er-do-well uncle Norman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You will only phone (inaudible)...

CLANCY: Who Max does bring along is Mona, the sacred goat who won't shut up.


CLANCY: The goat becomes his unlikely sidekick as Max ignores his mother's warning and decides one short night at uncle Norman's couldn't hurt. He is promptly proven wrong. Uncle Norman's problems with a gangster named Razor magically make his tuition money disappear. But as uncle Norman learns about Max's unique talent, he's prepared to shed a few tears of joy.

Max, on the other hand, begins to worry whether he'll be crying at his own funeral, and it's the audience that will be left in tears of laughter.

TEDDY MATTERA, DIRECTOR: Tragedy and comedy are the sides of one coin, you know, and quite often, through comedy, it's easier to get to painful stuff. And so it's easier to talk about death through laughter.

CLANCY: Starring Mpho Lovinga as Max and the late Jerry Mofokeng in his final role as uncle Norman, the story puts a comedic spin on post- apartheid South Africa.

MATTERA: For a long time, we've had a very tragic history, and I don't know, but perhaps I was tired of, especially white people or white filmmakers making fun of black people. And I thought this was a perfect opportunity for us to laugh at ourselves, and take an opportunity, rather than telling the dark and morbid stories of apartheid and the past, it is time for us to laugh, because we've gone through so much pain before.

CLANCY: Based on the stories told to him by his own grandmother, "Max and Mona" is Teddy Mattera's first feature film. Grandmother and mother would be proud -- Mattera won the London Film Festival's award for best first film of 2004.

Jim Clancy for INSIDE AFRICA.


SESAY: We're at the Time Warner Center, overlooking Columbus Circle. The 1905 landmark is named after Christopher Columbus, and is the first ever traffic circle in the United States. It's quite an impressive view, but so is our next piece, which is also about breaking new ground -- in this case, by breaking with tradition. Nick Valencia has the story.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Burdened by (ph) ancestry and obligated by his father to inherit the role of imam, a young man is torn between familial destiny and discovering his own independence.

"Clouds Over Conakry," a film by Cheick Fantamady Camara, is set against the backdrop of a drought-stricken capital of Guinea. In the opening scenes, we're introduced to BB, a passionate 25-year old born into a religious family where independent thought is discouraged.

BB, played by Alex Ogou, is a talented political cartoonist, gifted with the ability to capture the political climate of Conakry with his cartoons. But when his father, an influential spiritual leader, chooses BB as his successor, BB soon finds himself trapped by tradition.

BB threatens to soil the family lineage by refusing to embrace the path chosen for him. And BB's father, Karimou (ph), fears that everything he spent his life working for may crumble.

CHEICK FANTAMADY CAMARA, DIRECTOR (through translator): This film reflects our African youth and population in general. This is not only a reflection, but it allows us to denounce our social problems.

VALENCIA: BB's already volatile situation is further complicated after he gets his girlfriend Kesso pregnant. And despite their wanting to keep the baby, the imam refuses to allow what he calls "a bastard child" to enter his lineage. Things quickly begin to unravel.

CAMARA (through translator): I want people to retain and reflect about issues such as human manipulation, and beware of any pressure through religion, politics and the press.

VALENCIA: "Clouds Over Conakry" is a movie about faith, fortune and fatherhood. Winner of the People's Choice Award at FESPACO, "Clouds Over Conakry" shows that the destiny we inherit isn't always the destiny we deserve.

Nick Valencia, CNN.


SESAY: There is much more ahead on INSIDE AFRICA. When we come back, an Ethiopian folk tale brought to life.

And later, a sneak peak inside Harlem's historic Apollo Theater. Stay with us.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oil giant Shell expects to resume full production in the Niger Delta within six months. Militant violence forced Shell to shut down last year, but it says an agreement with local communities should allow it to restart production.

South African-based Aspen Pharmacare has struck a deal with a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary to distribute the generic version of HIV drug Presista. Drug is expected to reach up to 40,000 patients in Africa by 2011.

And researchers say they're looking for ways to use the water supply in Namibia's plains. The country is mostly desert, but researchers believe rice production is possible and could benefit the local population.


SESAY: We're standing on what is perhaps one of the city's most iconic movie sites: The Empire State Building. From "King Kong" to Cary Grant, this place has seen its share of movies stars, having appeared in some 90 films since its 1930 opening.

But it doesn't always take an icon to make a movie. As our next African film shows, all it takes is a trip to the market in Ethiopia's countryside.


ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A trip to the market isn't just a trip to the market for a boy whose father and their donkey in "Menged," a short film set in the Ethiopian countryside. Adapted from a traditional Ethiopian folk tale, the film explores religion, tradition, modernity, and even free market capitalism through the characters the boy and his father made on their way.

Their journey begins as the father leads their donkey towards the market with his son riding on its back. Everyone has a suggestion on how the boy and his father should be traveling with their tiny donkey. A priest suggests the father ride the donkey and the son walk. A vendor suggests they both ride. An aid worker suggests they carry the donkey.

The closer they get to the market, the more confused they are. Who should they listen to?

Directed by Daniel Taye Workou, "Menged" is a laugh-out-loud film that delivers a universal message about what happens if you try to follow everyone's advice.

DANIEL TAYE WORKOU, DIRECTOR: People are telling us, oh, this is our story, this is our tale, from Iran to the Caribbean, to West Africa, to Europe. And they always ask me, why did you choose our story to adapt? And I say, it's not your story, it's an Ethiopian story. But it's a bit universal story, and I think people can find themselves in it.

CHURCH: In the end, they decide not to take anyone's advice, and they finish up as they started -- the father letting his son ride, just like his father let him ride. They just laugh as yet another bystander throws their opinion into the mix.

Workou's first fictional film has won the award for best short film at the Ouagadougou Film Festival in Burkina Faso, and took home a Crystal Bear Award at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival.

Rosemary Church, CNN.


SESAY: When making a visit to the New York Film Academy, training ground for the next generation of filmmakers. As you can see, they are busy preparing for a future on or behind the big screen. So what does that future look like for African filmmakers? For more on trends in African filmmaking, I spoke a little earlier to acclaimed writer and filmmaker, Jean-Marie Teno.


SESAY: Thank you so much for spending some time with us on INSIDE AFRICA. I want to start by asking you to give me a sense of the scale of the African film industry.

JEAN-MARIE TENO, AFRICAN FILMMAKER: When you talk about the scale of the industry in Africa, it's new -- it's something new, actually. And for the scale of the economy of Africa, it can become something important.

SESAY: Is there an interest for seeing these films made?

TENO: Well, when you have a great idea that can make money, there is always interest. But the question now is, what to make money, especially when you tell an African story, because that's where the problem is. Most of the stories coming from Africa are not really even of interest to any broadcasters around the world, because they see that Africa, well, Africa for them is only the place where they set their stories. And to have an African character who is a leading character and who can draw the audience, as we say, we don't have that so often.

So it's a problem because of the perception that the people who have the funding have of Africa. And also, they don't really want to take any chances by saying, OK, this is a wonderful story by a totally unknown actor, taking place in Africa. And I believe also there is something that we can say is coming from the whole historical perception of Africa. Are the audience willing to identify with an African character? Why is it that most of the stories taking place in Africa never have as a central character an African? It's almost like you always have to have white, European or an American presence...

SESAY: And why is that?

TENO: Well, I'm not the person to answer the question. It's just a fact. I believe that for most people, to have the audience identifying with an African character is something that they are not ready to face or to impose, and that is really a problem for African cinema, because our stories are told and the stories of African people. So (inaudible), how do we reach the big market if no one wants to identify with an African?

SESAY: Bearing that in mind, what you just said, what is the image of Africa that emerges from African films, films made by Africans in Africa? What is the Africa you see on screen? Is it of hope or is it of despair? What is it?

TENO: Africa is the only continent whose image was created by others on the screen. So when Africans started making films, one of their first challenge was to challenge, actually, misrepresentations.

SESAY: Are there any key directors, any big names emerging, excuse me, dominating the African scene? Are there people to look out for that you think are great filmmakers in the making or already great filmmakers?

TENO: Oh, me.



SESAY: That was filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno, speaking to me a little earlier.

There is much more on African filmmaking to come when we return. Also, an original slice of African-American culture. We'll head back to the Apollo for some good old-fashioned entertainment. Stay with us.


SESAY: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of INSIDE AFRICA, coming to you this week from New York City.

Right now, we're standing in front of the grand Lincoln Center, home to a number of arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and many others. It's also the site of the New York Film Festival and the African Film Festival.

Among the documentaries featured this year is a sobering tale of the after effects of the war in Congo. Chandrika Narayan has more.


CHANDRIKA NARAYAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a film about hope at a time of crisis, about families torn apart. It's also about rape used as a weapon of war.

"A Love During the War" is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war. The moving documentary centers on journalist Aziza, her husband Dedier (ph) and their four children. The story begins when the husband goes to visit his ailing father. He leaves eastern Congo in early August 1998, just when a fresh crisis breaks out. He's caught in the capital, Kinshasa. More than 3 million people are killed. Much of the country is destroyed.

The family is finally reunited in Kinshasa, after living apart for nearly six years. But Aziza is still haunted by the horrors suffered by other women in eastern Congo. Aziza is concerned particularly about a pre- teen who was raped by several men in uniform.


NARAYAN: Thesa (ph) has a child. In Congo, it's often said that women have paid the highest price in the conflict.


NARAYAN: Director Osvalde Lewat-Hallade has made several films that deal with the issues of injustice in Africa. One deals with a man sentenced to four years in prison in Cameroon. He ends up being locked up for 33 years.

OSVALDE LEWAT-HALLADE, DIRECTOR (through translator): The film was shown in Cameroon, and because of that, several prisoners were released. So you get a feeling it does have some sort of impact.

NARAYAN: The director hopes this film, too, will make an impact that will be felt far beyond the borders of the country.

Chandrika Narayan, CNN, Atlanta.


SESAY: As promised, we return to the Apollo theater in Harlem for a private tour of this piece of African-American history.


BILLY MITCHELL, APOLLO THEATER TOUR DIRECTOR: I've been coming to this theater for 33 years.

This wonderful theater was built in 1914. And the original name of the building was not called the Apollo Theater, as everyone calls it right now. This building was originally a burlesque house. You know, ta-da-ta- da-ta-da.

I would come to see shows. I even saw Michael Jackson here when he was 9 years old. I first saw Stevie Wonder on the stage when he was 14.

I got to be close and watched the Temptations rehearse.

SESAY: What was that like for you?

MITCHELL: I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I really, really did. I did not understand what cool was. You know, I was a young kid. I didn't understand what cool was until I saw the Temptations and the Four Tops. Those guys were cool. In the way they dressed, in their mannerisms, the way they talked to the girls -- because there were a lot of groupies, you know -- and I saw how guys would really talk to girls, all cool and that. It was a fun time that I will always cherish.

Amateur night is our longest running and most popular show, created in 1934 by an African-American actor from Harlem. That show has been going on now every Wednesday night at 7:30 for the last 73 years.

The first female to win the amateur night show was Ella Fitzgerald. When she was 15 years old, Ella was scheduled to perform on the stage as a dancer, but she was so intimidated by the other dancers that she refused to go out and dance. So she decided to sing. She sang her favorite song, "A Tisk-it, A Task-it," but while singing it, she kind of forgot the words, so she got creative and started scatting. And that became her trademark.

This is called the Tree of Hope. They rub it supposedly to get good luck before they perform.

The amateurs can rub it hoping they don't get booed off the stage, and thus became the tradition of rubbing the Tree of Hope.

SESAY: I'm rubbing it. I'm rubbing it.

MITCHELL: Oh, man, I'll tell you. But there have been some wonderful artists over the years, some well-known artists who have rubbed this tree, and unfortunately -- well, let's say, for instance, James Brown. When he first did the amateur night, he wasn't totally received well by the audience.

SESAY: James Brown, the godfather of soul?

MITCHELL: The godfather of soul. But later on, look what happened.

This theater will be here in 900 years, I assure you of that. Because it means so much to so many people.


SESAY: We're going to end this show in New York City's famous Times Square. This iconic site is famous not only for the many movies in which it serves as a backdrop, but also because it's rather hard to miss. Believe it or not, this is the only neighborhood in New York where tenants are actually required to put up bright signs. It's no wonder this city never sleeps.

But we do, and it's time to say goodbye for now. We'll be back next week with much more, so please, let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent.

We leave you now with some images from the still photo exhibition, African Cinema in Pictures. Take care.



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