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Festival highlights African films

  • Olabode Omojola, professor of African music at Mount Holyoke College, is the lead organizer for the African Cinema Symposium and Festival, April 5-8 at Mount Holyoke and UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Olabode Omojola, professor of African music at Mount Holyoke College, is the lead organizer for the African Cinema Symposium and Festival, April 5-8 at Mount Holyoke and UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Olabode Omojola, professor of African music at Mount Holyoke College, is the lead organizer for the African Cinema Symposium and Festival, April 5-8 at Mount Holyoke and UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Olabode Omojola, professor of African music at Mount Holyoke College, is the lead organizer for the African Cinema Symposium and Festival, April 5-8 at Mount Holyoke and UMass. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A scene from “Viva Riva!” which screens at the African film festival April 8.

  • An image form “Indochina: Traces of a Mother,” which plays April 7 at the film festival. —

  • Filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno, a former visiting artist at Amherst College and a speaker at the film festival. —

  • A still from “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” a documentary about a popular uprising in Senegal; it plays at the festival April 5.



Staff Writer
Saturday, April 01, 2017

Cinema got a late start in Africa, emerging mostly in the late 1950s only after nations long under colonial rule won their independence and native filmmakers began chronicling stories of their countries and cultures.

Today the Nigerian film industry — “Nollywood” — has become one of the biggest in the world, outpacing Hollywood in sheer number of films produced annually, while other African countries have also produced filmmakers whose work has found international audiences.

But overall, many African films remain outside the view of western audiences — which is one reason the Five College African Studies Council has organized an African Film Festival that begins April 5.

The African Cinema Symposium and Festival, which takes place primarily at Mount Holyoke College, will feature four African films and presentations by several leading African filmmakers and experts, as well as panel discussions including Five College scholars in the field.

Speakers at the festival, which runs April 5-8, are from Africa, Europe and the United States, while three films come from West Africa and the fourth from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The latter film, “Viva Riva!” earned good reviews from western critics when it debuted in 2011; Roger Ebert called it a “slick, exciting, well-made crime thriller, dripping with atmosphere. The plot would be at home in many countries, but the African locations are a gripping bonus here.”  

Olabode Omojola, professor of African music at Mount Holyoke College and chairman of the festival’s organizing committee, says the event, among other things, aims to address an overarching question: What is African cinema?

“Is it a film that’s made in Africa?” Omojola said during a recent interview in his office. “What if the filmmaker is African but lives somewhere else? Does an African film need to have explicit African themes, like the impact of colonialism?”

Samba Gadjigo, professor of French and African studies at Mount Holyoke — he’s also a key organizer of the film festival — says the program will also look at how African cinema has responded to new movements of liberation there, as well as how it links Africans both at home and abroad.

A lot of African cinema “came of age in the first wave of independence,” said Gadjigo, who in 2015 produced an acclaimed documentary, “SEMBENE!” about Ousmane Sembène, a Senegalese filmmaker known as “The father of African cinema.”

“But if the old European colonizers are gone, today we have a kind of cultural colonization,” added Gadjigo, who’s originally from Senegal. There’s little distribution of most African films beyond the continent, he noted, while most TV shows there are imported from the West.

“Our screens are colonized,” he said with a chuckle.

Looking at the past … and present

Two of the festival’s films will examine different aspects of that colonial legacy. The documentary “The Colonial Misunderstanding,” which plays at Mount Holyoke Thursday, April 6, traces how white missionaries to countries like Namibia and Cameroon ignored local traditions and beliefs in their efforts to “civilize” Africans — and how that decision has resonated down the years.

The film’s creator, Jean-Marie Teno, who’s originally from Cameroon, was a visiting artist at Amherst College 10 years ago, and he’ll be on hand after the film to lead a discussion of it.

“Indochina: Traces of a Mother,” which plays Friday, April 7 at Mount Holyoke, tells the story of the “tirailleues sénégalais,” West African soldiers who fought for France during both World Wars and in Vietnam after WWII.

“A documentary on this subject alone would be fascinating,” one critic writes, “but [director Idrissou Mora-Kpai] takes it one step farther, looking at the dynamics of families — specifically those of West African men, their Vietnamese wives, and their children, torn between countries and ambiguous in their status in the post-colonial world.”

Mora-Kapi, who’s originally from Benin and studied film in Germany and France, will lead a discussion after his film.

The festival has its official opening April 7 with a keynote address by Mahen Bonetti, director and founder of African Film Festival, Inc., a New York organization that offers a variety of programming as well as an annual African film fest in the Big Apple.

“We’re really happy to have her come here,” said Omojola, the head of the film committee; he calls Bonetti, originally from Sierra Leone, “an expert in African cinema.”

Gadjigo says he’s  intrigued with the film that opens the festival April 5, “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” which is also part of the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival, produced by the Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It plays at UMass.

This 2016 documentary follows two popular Senegalese rappers and their DJ as they lead a youthful protest movement against former president Abdoulaye Wade, who tried to run for an illegal third term in 2011.

The film shows how amid protests that sometimes turned violent — “People were burning tires and throwing rocks,” said Gadjigo — the rappers and their followers convince people of the importance of voting and facing down state-sponsored violence, with the story played out in part in their lyrics.

The filmmaker, French-educated Rama Thiaw, will speak at the festival about her film and other aspects of African cinema.

Omojola says the Five College African Studies Council regularly develops different events that the community can enjoy, but the film festival is a special program that required much more planning and funding, particularly getting all the different filmmakers and speakers to come to the Valley.

“We thought ‘Let’s do something big this time,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I wondered sometimes if it was too big, but I’m happy to say it worked out.”

For more information on the African Cinema Symposium and Festival, visit www.fivecolleges.edu/african/african-cinema-festival. All events are free.