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Celebrating Africa Through Film

Posted: 03/28/11 06:31 PM ET

Every year, African Film Festival, Inc. (AFF) celebrates the work of African and Diaspora filmmakers and visual artists through the annual New York African Film Festival (NYAFF). In essence, we see the festival as a yearly opportunity for audiences to rediscover Africa through the richness of her culture. It is fitting, then, that as the United Nations prompts us to celebrate the International Year for People of African Descent in 2011, this year's NYAFF pays special homage to the vast contributions made by people of African descent worldwide -- contributions to the political, economic, social and, of course, cultural development of the global community.

I founded AFF in 1990, during a period when Africa was front and center in Western media: those of us over the age of thirty probably remember well, the images of famine in Ethiopia that had become so pervasive in the news media. Africa, in the US at least, seemed to be known only for famine, war, AIDS -- an unreasonably skewed reputation, which sadly, we still struggle to counteract. Yet even back in 1990, the cultural influences of Africa and the Diaspora still were visible to those who read beyond the headlines: Spike Lee had made his first big splash on the film scene; rap and hip-hop were taking off like never before; the first residents of Little Senegal were establishing roots in Harlem; Fela, Salif Keita, King Sunny Ade, and other popular African bands were performing frequently in New York City venues.

Twenty years later, the NYAFF is proud to be part of a much larger movement that presents a more complex, honest, and self-representative portrait of Africa and the African Diaspora to the world. Through the power of cinema, the filmmakers whose works will be presented in this year's 18th New York African Film Festival allow us, the viewers, to explore the multifaceted realities of both discord and triumph that coexist in the ever-changing cultural landscape of the African Diaspora.

As such, the themes covered by our filmmakers are as varied as the fields in which peoples of African descent have made their mark. Among the highlights of this year's lineup is an exploration of great heroes of Africa and the Diaspora: those individuals, both historical and mythical, whose stories prod our collective memory and spark our imaginations. Films such as Besouro; Kongo--Grand Illusions; Driving with Fanon; and Africans Out of Africa examine the lives and contributions of legendary individuals, who have inspired followings from Kinshasa to Bahia.

However, it would be remiss to suggest that the great African and Diasporan heroes come only from generations past. Instead, our program highlights the triumphs of extraordinary young people in the face of very real adversity -- young people who, perhaps, represent the next generation of great African and world leaders. An exceptional example is the film Thembi, which is a gentle and incisive documentary about one-time NPR diarist Thembi, who captivated South Africa when she candidly documented her tragic struggle with HIV. Yet there are other, less obvious young heroes to be discovered among our films' characters: tiny Kirikou, of the beloved animated film Kirikou and the Wild Beasts, sets out to save his village from supernatural and environmental perils; Ousmane, in the film of the same name, is a seven-year old Koranic school student who, tired of begging in the streets for money, invents a form of mutual begging, then decides to write to Santa Claus for help.

But be not mistaken, the incredible potential of the younger generation goes far beyond the characters in this the program's films. Emerging directors Wanuri Kahiu and Daouda Coulibaly, both alumni of Focus Features's Africa First Shorts program (whose works will be premiered at the 18th NYAFF, as has been the case in the past), are among the talented young directors who are showcased alongside veteran filmmakers such as Jean-Marie Teno and Souleymane Cissé in this year's program. These emerging directors bring a fresh perspective to the longstanding conversation about traditional beliefs and modern rituals; about cultural heritage and cultural evolution; about memories of the past and hopes for the future.

Through the 2011 NYAFF, the voices of these veteran and emerging directors intertwine to form the foundations of a conversation about the common and disparate histories of Africa and the Diaspora, and about the shared future for which we strive. This year's program takes viewers on a journey that demands our critical involvement, and asks us to weigh in on issues of morality, progress, community, and cultural evolution -- a conversation that will take part in shaping that future, in which citizens of Africa and the Diaspora can reclaim our freedom and independence (a goal that is fitting, in fact, for a year when two African countries -- Sierra Leone and Tanzania -- celebrate their fiftieth years of independence!).

I believe that if there is one thing cinema tells us about the worldwide Diaspora community, it is that the art of storytelling -- a tradition as old and rich as our earliest societies -- continues to unite us. The NYAFF's 2011 program represents the work of filmmakers from Algeria to Cuba, representing twenty-five countries, whose films represent dozens of genres and touch on themes as varied as the languages they depict.

If you are in the New York metropolitan area this April and May, we at AFF invite you to join us, as we celebrate the contributions of peoples of African descent worldwide -- and continue a vibrant conversation about art, culture, and society -- at the 18th annual New York African Film Festival.

The NYAFF is co-presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The festival runs from April 6-12 at Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center and continues throughout April and May at numerous venues citywide. Visit www.africanfilmny.org for more information.