Talking About Trees

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Now in its 16th year and bigger than ever, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s showcase of contemporary cinema from Africa presents 39 films from 25 countries, with 40 percent of this year’s titles directed by women. Based on our limited cross-section, this year’s sprawling lineup has a particularly strong sense of history—film history. From a primer on sub-Saharan African cinema to one country’s endangered movie history, the festival offers a variety of rich perspectives from different cultures who face the 21st century with new and ongoing tensions between ancient traditions and the modern world.

Caméra d’Afrique

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Those well-versed in world cinema may be familiar with the work of Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, whose 1966 film Black Girl is considered the very first feature to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa, or the surreal 1973 drama Touki Bouki, from Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. These titles have been screened in the D.C. area in the past year, but what about the work of Mauritanian director Med Hondo, or the Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé? Originally released in 1983, this French-Tunisian documentary from director Férid Boughedir takes viewers through the difficult birth of African cinema. Early films from the continent were often easier to see overseas than in the restrictive nations from which they came forth. This wasn’t just a matter of oppressive government censors, although that was sometimes the case; distributors were often unwilling to screen these titles, instead opting for more lucrative films from India or the United States. Directors like Hondo, in his film Oh, Sun, addressed conditions of immigrant workers in Paris, while Nigerian director Ola Balogun, in his 1976 Yoruba-language musical Ajani Ogun, forged the groundwork of the now prolific Nollywood industry. A survey of films that are often hard to see outside of the festival circuit, Camera d’Afrique puts the struggles of today’s African filmmakers into a fascinating historical perspective. March 19 at 7 p.m.

Talking About Trees

While Camera d’Afrique is a primer on the history of African cinema, this Sudanese film demonstrates how much of this cultural legacy has already been lost, at least in Sudan. Director Suhaib Gasmelbari spent time with four veteran Sudanese filmmakers: Manar Al Hilo, Suleiman Ibrahim, Altayeb Mahdi, and Ibrahim Shaddad. The elders formed the Sudanese Film Club to bring movies back to a country that, after a 1989 coup, banned film production. Their own work, made primarily in the 1960s and ’70s, is hard to come by, and the film follows the aging artists as they dig into their dusty archives and find the vestiges of a once promising industry—and evidence of its destruction. Deep files uncover detailed production notes for a film called Crocodile that was ready for shooting until forces supported by the National Islamic Front overthrew the government and ordered movie theaters closed. With Shaddad gleefully performing an impression of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, these men never forgot the magic of cinema, and they try to get permission to take over an abandoned movie theater near Khartoum. Unfortunately, bureaucracy gets in the way. If contemporary African cinema is thriving, Talking About Trees, as it follows its subjects opening up boxes of dusty VHS tapes, is a cautionary tale: In order to preserve cinema for future generations, care must be taken to safeguard these cultural landmarks or they’ll disappear. March 10 at 7:15 p.m.

You Will Die At Twenty

Amjad Abu Alala’s evocative feature debut is a moody coming-of-age drama that again raises the question of Sudan’s endangered film history—this time as a reminder to the nation’s youth that there is a world beyond the village. Muzamil (played by Moatasem Rashid and Mustafa Shehata) is doomed by a fateful prediction: At his naming ceremony, an oracle said that the boy would die when he turned 20 years old. His father runs away, while his protective mother Sakina (Islam Mubark) enrolls him in a conservative Quran school. Most of the villagers still treat Muzamil as an outsider, condemned to die too young. One exception is the pretty Naima (Bonna Khalid), who falls in love with the boy. But he soon falls under the influence of Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), an elder who has lived around the globe and has a collection of 16mm films that show Muzamil what life is like elsewhere. You Will Die at Twenty isn’t a story about being afraid to die, it’s a story about being afraid to live. The dust particles gathering in the beams of a film projector become a poignant metaphor of what the body eventually becomes. Yet, as Suleiman tells his young charge, there’s still time to get out there and dance in the light. March 7 at 5 p.m. and March 8 at 10 p.m.

Gold Coast Lounge 

Call it Ghana noir: This black-and-white drama evokes hard-boiled thrillers as it charts the bitter rivalries in a crime family that runs a popular nightclub in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. John (Adjetey Anang) is the patriarch just released from prison and returning to an internal feud that threatens to put the lounge in jeopardy. Daniel (Alphonse Menyo) wants to run the business without the illegal activity that sent their leader to jail, but Wisdom (Pascal Aka, who also directed the film) is just fine with using the club to sell drugs and women. The family is not without its share of formidable women, like Akatua (Zynnell Zuh), who wields a vicious power within the organization. With ghosts, family secrets, and a bloodthirsty final act, the film comes across as a more modern Hamlet. But Aka’s allegiance to film noir is tempered by visions of tribal ancestors who watch over the modern proceedings with alarm. Gold Coast Lounge uses gangster movie tropes to address the nation’s history of civil war. And if the infighting doesn’t stop, Aka warns, outsiders just might take over. March 6 at 7 p.m.

Lusala 

The feature debut from Kenyan actor and screenwriter Mugambi Nthiga tells of class conflict in Nairobi. It’s also a harrowing ghost story.  Lusala (Brian Ogola) was adopted by an affluent family after he and his sister fled their violent father when they were children. Now that he’s an adult, Lusala’s parents think he’s ready to live on his own, and he gets a job where he proves to be a gifted mechanic. But when he attends church with his parents, he learns that his adopted mother apparently took him in just so she’d look good in front of the congregation. Stressed out by life on his own, he begins seeing visions of his sister Bakhita (Stycie Waweru), a reminder of a guilty secret. Lusala packs a lot of complex emotions and drama into 65 minutes, and Ogola is perfect as the haunted young man who overcame a difficult childhood and has yet to find his footing in the world. March 14 at 1:30 p.m. and March 18 at 9:15 p.m.

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