The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is back for its 33rd edition this year and is set to run from Sept. 4-13. TIFF ’08 will feature over 500 films from around the world. As we do every year, AfroToronto.com now brings you a run-down of the African and Diaspora films programmed at the festival. We will also showcase films featuring noteworthy performances by cast of African descent.
For this first part of our TIFF African and Diaspora films round-up, we will briefly highlight the following three films: Miracle at St. Ann by director Spike Lee (adapted from the novel by James McBride), Secret Life of Bees by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd), and Teza by renown Ethiopian director Haile Gerima.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, Spike Lee, USA
Miracle at St. Anna tells the moving story of four African-American soldiers from the famed all-black 92nd Infantry Division, also known as “Buffalo Soldiers”, stationed in Tuscany, Italy during the Second World War. Their lives take an unexpected turn when they suddenly find themselves stranded behind enemy lines, and cut off from the rest of their unit, after one of them tries to save an Italian boy.
The film’s director, Spike Lee, developed the screenplay for this $45 million budget film from the acclaimed novel by James McBride. Saying that “there''s really been a bad job of documenting the contribution African-Americans made to this country [U.S.A]”, Spike Lee seeks to put on screen the little-known history of sacrifice and courage demonstrated by black soldiers during World War II. Lee also actually had two uncles who served in World War II although they did not see frontline combat.
There was a well-publicized war of words between Spike Lee and Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood recently when Lee pointed out, during this year’s Cannes Festival, that Eastwood failed to include black soldiers in his two 2006 World War II movies Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. After Clint Eastwood retorted by telling Lee to “shut his face” and Spike Lee responded by calling Eastwood “an angry old man”, the Walt Disney Company bosses (who picked up the U.S. rights for Lee’s film) stepped in to broker a truce – fearing bad publicity. “But it''s over. I said what I had to say. He believes what he believes. And that''s that” said Spike Lee.
But more than just being about correcting what’s not been done in the past, Spike Lee says to the U.K.’s Telegraph that the interest in Miracle at St. Anna “is that the Second World War was the last war that the U.S. was right about. It was fascism versus democracy. You were on one side or another.”
Lee spent eight weeks filming on location in Europe. The film features gripping battle scenes backed up with musical score composed by Lee’s long-time associate Terence Blanchard. The leading role originally slated for Wesley Snipes was taken over by Derek Luke after Snipes was forced to leave the film because of his highly-publicized tax evasion trial.
Miracle at St. Anna screens at the Elgin Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 7th @ 9pm.
SECRET LIFE OF BEES, Gina Prince-Bythewood, USA
Another film adaptation of a popular novel at this year’s TIFF is director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Secret Life of Bees. Backed by an all-star cast including Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning, The Secret Life of Bees takes us back to Civil Rights-era 1964 South Carolina.
A 14-year-old white girl, Lily Owens played by Dakota Fanning), escapes from her abusive father and brings along her African-American caregiver, Rosaleen Daise (played by Jennifer Hudson). She seeks refuge in a nearby town with the Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okenedo and Alicia Keys) – who are African-American beekeepers who own a honey business.
The film tackles the predictable drama surrounding the setting of a white teenager living with four black women in a South Carolina still haunted by the ghosts of segregation and Jim Crow laws. The story is based on the popular 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
Playing the role of a beekeeper in the film, Queen Latifah says that shooting this film was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of her life. In keeping with her character, she extracted honey from real bee hives, surrounded by thousands of stinging bees, without any gloves or protective mask. “I''ve done all kinds of stunts. I''ve driven all kinds of cars. I have shotguns and I have snowboarded. The bees win” she says.
Secret Life of Bees screens at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday, Sept. 5th @ 6:30pm. It hits theatres on October 17th.
TEZA, Haile Gerima, Ethiopia/Germany/France
The latest film by acclaimed Ethiopian director and Howard University professor Haile Gerima, Teza, chronicles the return of an Ethiopian intellectual to his birth country. After completing his post-graduate studies abroad in Germany, Anberber returns to Ethiopia full of hopes to be able to contribute to his country’s development with his newly acquired knowledge.
However, he finds himself somewhat disillusioned by the harsh realities he confronts. In fact, Haile Gerima takes the name of the movie from an ancient Abyssinian riddle: “Seehade Agegnehuwat - Semeles AtaHuwat,” which means I found it when I was leaving - I lost it when I was returning.”
Returning to Ethiopia during the war of the 1990’s, Anberber finds a land decimated by the actions of the military junta and the policies of Mengistu HaileMariam’s Marxist regime. Gerima explores Anberber’s sense of powerlessness and feeling of being uprooted and disconnected from his own people.
A pan-African philosopher at heart, Haile Gerima is known for exploring in his films the issues and history relating to the experience of the African Diaspora. He is a strong believer in telling stories from the perspective of African people from the continent itself and from the Americas. He is best known for producing and directing the critically-acclaimed 1993 film Sankofa, in which he delved into African resistance to slavery.