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African & Diaspora Films at TIFF 2006

19 Sep 2006

A look back at four great films featured at the Toronto International Film Festival 2006


Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006)

Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako must be considered one of the most powerful African diaspora films screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film chronicles a trial court, set up in a communal courtyard, where the World Bank, the IMF, and globalization as a whole are put on trial by local village residents.

Abderrahmane Sissako (one of Africa’s most celebrated filmmakers) set the movie in his father’s actual house and courtyard, in Bamako, Mali’s poorer neighbourhood of Hamdallaye. Sissako grew up in that house. He explains that: “this house is associated with the memory of passionate discussions with my father about Africa.” In the film, the house belongs to bar singer Melé and her out of work husband Chaka. As the trial proceeds, the film follows several secondary plots depicting seemingly mundane lives of people going about their daily routine. Sissako sought to demonstrate how these grand debates affect the daily lives of African civil society.

Presenting their case to a series of judges and lawyers, including a European judge prominently featured as the devil’s advocate, a series of inspiring witnesses testify to voice their resentment. A particularly powerful witness was a woman named Aminata Traoré, who says: “I am against the fact that Africa’s main characteristic in the eyes of the world is its poverty. Africa is rather the victim of its wealth. Pauperization and not poverty should be the focus. By tackling pauperization then you are touching the mechanism. Bush is at the centre of this mechanism. He is the orchestra’s conductor. So I don’t see why he is complaining.”

Attacking globalization, in response to the European judge’s point that we now live in a global world without borders, Aminata Traoré makes the salient point that the world’s borders might well be opened for Whites but they are definitely closed to Blacks. Reinforcing that point, another witness, Madou, comes forward to tell his story of traversing the Algerian desert in and attempt to reach Morocco with 30 other West African economic refugees. He recounts the horrors of being shot at by border guards and being left to wander aimlessly in the desert -- with only ten of them eventually surviving the ordeal unscathed.

Essentially, Bamako is an intelligently measured but intense diatribe against the West’s exploitation of African lives and labour as the base of its economic power.


Abeni (Tunde Kelani, 2006)

Abeni is a captivating love story coming out of a newly effervescent Nigerian film industry which is bursting at the seems. Know as “Nollywood”, the grass-roots-based Nigerian movie industry has, since the late 1990’s, quickly found its rightful place next to Hollywood flicks and India’s equivalent, Bollywood, among the hearts and minds of film-goers in English-speaking Africa. The story tells the tale of an African “Juliet”, Abeni (played wonderfully by rising Nollywood star Sola Asedeko) who falls in love with Akanni (Abdel Hakim Amzat). Their love affair starts off during their childhood. But already, there are barriers. Abeni is from a wealthy family while Akanni comes from a modest upbringing. Akanni was a boisterous child and, after getting into a fight with another boy at Abeni’s 10 th birthday party, he is kicked out by Abeni’s father. Fearful of the shame and retributions caused by Akanni’s actions, his father (who worked for Abeni’s father) moves the family across the Nigerian border to Cotonou, in Benin.

Years later, as adults, Abeni and Akanni find each other again by chance as Abeni happens to visit Cotonou with a group of friends. By then, Akanni had pulled himself out of poverty and earned a descent living as an accounting director. But as the film’s director, Tunde Kelani, astutely demonstrates with his foray into the class and ethnic taboos which still exist between Anglophone Nigerians and the Francophone Beninois,  the cultural barriers along class and linguistic lines continue to challenge their union. Speaking to AfroToronto.com last week-end at the R.O.M., director Tunde Kelani says that exploring the cultural divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africans through film is a healing exercise capable of tearing down those artificial barriers within the Yoruba world which are merely the product of European colonialism.

It is evident that with a conservative estimate of $45 million a year in revenue as an industry (despite widespread piracy), Nollywood is certainly poised to have a major influence on African popular culture. Recently, during the Toronto International AIDS conference, a Nollywood movie tackling the AIDS epidemic in Africa through everyday life in Nigeria also showed that Nollywood is out to change the world!


Ghosts of Cité Soleil (Asger Leth, 2006)

Only a two-hour flight from Miami, Haiti, described by the UN as “a silent emergency”, became the world’s first Black republic in 1804 when slaves rose in revolt against the French. This act of defiance against a world where slavery was still part of very fabric of the global economic engine has never been swallowed by the powers that be. From immediately imposed trade embargos, to invasions and occupations, a strong case can be made for the argument that Haiti is the victim of “manufactured poverty.” Haiti’s 8 million inhabitants are living in a state almost constant political upheaval and succeeding dictatorships --- which have come to define daily life in the Caribbean island.

In 1990, a glimmer of hope seemed to have been ignited with the popular election of a humble priest hailing from the masses named Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Following the collapse of the military government of Prosper Avril, Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. However, the jubilations did not last long. In 1991, he was overrun by a military junta while outside the country. The military regime lasted until 1994. Aristide was then returned to power by military forces from the UN and the U.S. After losing power in 1995, his Lavalas (the party he founded) comrade René Préval held power until 2000. Aristide then won the year 2000 election. During this latest term, the U.S. funded and trained an anti-Aristide paramilitary army in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Finally, in 2004, Aristide was overthrown again and fled to South Africa. The outside interference of the U.S. on, ironically, the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence has left a sour taste in the mouth of many.

Danish Direct Asger Leth’s film Ghosts of Cité Soleil takes place in that tumultuous year of 2004 – when the U.S.-backed rebel forces were fast moving in from the north and into the capital of Port-au-Prince -- with the violent aim of overthrowing Aristide. Coming perilously close to the action, Asger Leth and Serbian co-director and cinematographer Milos Loncarevic follow the lives of two top gang leaders in Haiti’s dangerous slums of Cité Soleil. They are real-life brothers 2pac and Bily. They lead the Chimères, the secret army of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They will go to any length to crush Aristide’s opposition. While Aristide never officially acknowledge arming the Chimère or creating a secret army, the film seeks to bring to light this underground power structure supporting Aristide’s regime.

While the aim of the film is noble as far as presenting very convincing evidence showing the Chimère’s tight links with the Aristide regime, Leth and Loncarevic fail to properly balance the political equation and explore the similar vicious arms deals and training by the U.S. government of rebel forces from the north. In fact, the rebel forces are basically portrayed as liberators with very little blood on their hands. This is known to be historically inaccurate. Nevertheless, the film gives a very realistic portrayal of one side of the political dividing line which needs to be told.


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)

By official count, more than 1,300 people lost their lives and 500,000 were displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina -- which devastated lives from Louisiana to Mississippi just over a year ago. In his latest epic-film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, filmmaker Spike Lee gives a large socio-political context to the Katrina disaster. The issues of race and class, a “Chocolate City” left to fend for itself.

Speaking to Reuters recently, Spike Lee gave an inkling about his motivation to complete this project: “I wouldn’t put anything past the U.S. government when it comes to people of color …There is too much history ... going back to when the U.S. army gave smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans.” AfroToronto.com had a chance to speak to Spike Lee about When The Levees Broke during his red-carpet entrance for its Toronto International Film Festival screen at Ryerson University.
Responding to AfroToronto’s question about what he thinks this film’s legacy will be, Lee says that he has no control over that. He just wishes to be able to show the facts as they were in the hopes that those who are still asleep will wake up.

In fact, Spike Lee is never seen or heard of in the film, except when he asks questions to his interviewees. While he may have been criticized in the past by some critics for his didactic style, in When the Levees Broke, Lee lets the story be told by those who lived it. From the ordinary people of the Ninth Ward, to Kanye West, Sean Penn, Rev. Al Sharpton, Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, and former police chief Eddie Compass, all get to describe how events unfolded, and how they were personally affected.

A particularly strong testimony is that of New Orleans native Herbert Freeman Jr. who describes how his mother died next to him on a wheelchair as they waited in vain for days for buses to come by the Superdome. He was ordered to depart from the dome and leave his dead mother behind with just a hand-scribbled note attached to her body. Even when he tried to get to her body several days later, he was prevented from doing so by a National Guardsman with a machine gun.

When the Levees Broke is a no-holds-barred exposé of the failures of all levels of the government which resulted in the unspeakable destruction of human lives. Spike Lee doesn’t shy away from exposing those lapses in judgment and overt bias and racism by political officials. A shocking part of the movie features a recording of Barbara Bush (the President’s mother) visiting the Superdome and casually saying: “So many of the people in the areas here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working out quite well for them.”

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