Contemplating the African Diaspora International Film Festival

At the risk of sounding clichéd, one of the perks of working at Facets is that I am able to see films from all over the world. Not only does watching films from places like the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Nigeria, Brazil, Korea, and New Zealand offer a crash course in social studies by exposing me to cultures and societies that I know little about but it allows me to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of American filmmaking—that is, Hollywood.
Though I readily admit that American commercial cinema has been in a creative freefall since the early 1990s, I still love Hollywood films, major movie stars, and stylish, action-driven genre flicks. However, watching films from Europe, distant countries, or even American independent filmmakers expands my understanding of what film can be, or can do. Missing from Hollywood studio films is any sort of social agenda—the idea that movies can expose a wrong, objectively examine another culture, bring forgotten history to light, or stimulate change. These thoughts on cinema as a social force were provoked by recent film festivals at Facets. Earlier this month, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival offered a variety of enlightening documentaries, and currently, the 9th Annual Chicago African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) features a worthy, eclectic slate of features and docs.  The United Nations has declared 2011 the Year of the African Descendant to raise awareness and to celebrate people of African descent all over the world. An easy way to embrace this idea and to show support is to attend the ADIFF, which requires so little effort.
Last evening, I attended the fest’s opening-night film, Black Hands: Trial of the Arsonist Slave, which revealed some little-known Canadian history. Most Americans know that slaves escaped from the U.S. to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century via the Underground Railroad. Because of this, I assumed that Canada did not abide slavery, but I was wrong. Black Hands told the story of a Canadian slave who was accused of burning down her mistress’s house. The film makes the most of its low budget by effectively embracing sparseness and simplicity as an aesthetic. It combines three levels of storytelling: the story of the slave, which is shot like a play; documentary-style interviews with Canadian historians; and an experimental-like technique in which the actors dissect their characters. Tetchena Bellange, the actress who plays the starring role was also the director of the film, and her sister, Bianca Bellange, was the producer. Both of them appeared after the film for a Q&A, which is always a gift for anyone who wants to learn about film on any level. They talked with sincerity about deciding on a style that suited the material and their miniscule budget, remarked with passion about how much they identified with the main character, and repeated the importance of exposing this little-known aspect of Canadian history. (Black Hands shows again on Sunday at 3pm.)
Small films like Black Hands can so easily slip through the cracks for lack of attention, and yet filmmakers like the Bellange Sisters are exactly what film lovers appreciate in their directors.
Other documentaries that stand out in the festival include Shadows of the Lynching Tree. I am a history buff, even of controversial events or eras that are uncomfortable to contemplate. Yet, sometimes those events or eras are the most important to remember. This provocative documentary by Carven Eison covers the history of lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries and the legacy of lynching in the 21st. Eison will be on hand after the Sunday afternoon show and the Monday evening show for a Q&A.
More history from an African American perspective is offered in a double feature of two short documentaries on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. Stubborn as a Mule and Slave Reparations: The Final Passage cover the subject of reparations, honing in on the misinformation and lack of understanding surrounding this controversial issue.
Not all of the documentaries focus on historical issues; some reflect the culture and arts of the Diaspora countries. A double feature of two short docs, Hands of God and Sons of Benkos, exposes viewers to the African-based music of Latin America on Monday and Wednesday evenings, while the full-length Master Leopoldina chronicles the talents of a practitioner of the capoeira. Capoeira is an art form derived from African slaves that combines the physical and mental discipline of a martial art with the exuberance of dance. Practitioners claim that its key significance is its perception as an act of defiance performed under the noses of oppressors.

The feature films in the fest include Africa United, which is described as “the next Slumdog Millionaire.” I am not sure if that comparison will help or hurt the film, but the storyline is promising. Three Rwandan children audition for the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. Their travels to the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa reveal a side of Africa few people ever see. Now that your children are out of school, get them away from their computers by bringing them to see this kid-friendly movie on Sunday afternoon or Tuesday evening.

The politics of Islam is the topical subject of Time of Comrades, playing Wednesday evening. Directed by Mohamed Chrif Tribak, the drama is centered on a young Moroccan woman whose life is irrevocably altered by her experience on a college campus as she witnesses intense debates around Islam and Socialism. 
For a full schedule of the African Diaspora International Film Festival, click on this link. Facets members are not eligible to get in free for these films, but the ticket price is an affordable $9.00. Be sure to take advantage of this festival featuring movies that no other venue in the city can offer.–Susan Doll

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