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New Visions of Africa

At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge to Oct. 3

Because it had been largely unexplored by Europeans, Africa was once called the Dark Continent. These days, “underexposed continent” would be more apt, because Africa is rarely depicted by Western film and video cameras, save for stock images of famine and war. Africa has its own cinematic traditions, of course, but these have been limited by poverty, censorship, and lack of technology. To judge by the five features and four shorts in “New Visions of Africa,” a series co-sponsored by Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge and African Film Festival—New York, the continent’s cinema still has some technical restrictions, but other limits have been traversed.

One vigorous example is Karmen Gei (Sept. 29 and Oct. 2), a film with a sexual charge unusual in Africa cinema. Senegalese director Joseph Gai Ramaka’s loose retelling of Bizet’s opera, like Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen, updates the politics while jettisoning the original score. The bisexual Karmen Gei is introduced in prison, seducing the female warden with a spirited dance. Allowed to escape, she then does an accusatory dance for a military strongman. “You’ve swallowed up the country, but it will stick in your throat,” she charges as she’s rearrested, only to seduce her captor and go free again. Liberation of various sorts is the recurring theme of this brightly hued film, which has little narrative drive but lots of compelling music. The soundtrack mixes traditional West African drumming and chanting with torch songs, hymns, and some jazz saxophone.

The most harrowing of the series’ films, not surprisingly, is set in Rwanda during the 1994 tribal “cleansing” that left some 800,000 people dead. Writer-director Nick Hughes’ One Hundred Days (Sept. 27 and Oct. 1 and 2) begins boldly, with a Hutu leader announcing his plan to kill every Tutsi in the country, before detouring to a more conventional plot device: introducing two young Tutsi lovers who will be the audience’s proxies during the massacre. Although not the most horrific cinematic depiction of a genocidal campaign, the film conveys the extent of the killing with scenes of slaughter and aftermath; those who have difficulty understanding the heavily accented English dialogue won’t miss the tale’s essence. Hughes is unsparing of the Western news media, which observed with clueless zeal; the United Nations, which did little to stop the murders; and the Catholic Church, some of whose priests and nuns collaborated in the carnage. Indeed, much of the movie was shot in a Kibuye church that was an actual massacre site and is now an official genocide memorial.

Although not without its sorrowful aspects, Dole’s account of four teenage boys on the make in Libreville is lively, warm, and ingratiating. The central figure in Imunga Ivanga’s film (Sept. 28 and Oct. 3), the first feature ever made in Gabon, is Mougler, who needs money to buy medicine for his ailing mother. His pals also want cash, if for less critical reasons: One craves a fancy sound system he believes will make him a hiphop star; another dreams of buying a tugboat with which he can navigate the entire African coast. As if to taunt the youngsters, a scratch-card lottery game—Dole, or “Dollar”—is introduced, proclaimed as “the greatest event since independence.” Dole promptly makes a millionaire—that’s a million African francs, not U.S. dollars—of a man from the kids’ neighborhood. The notion that the boys can now finance their plans with lottery winnings rather than petty theft quickly fades, however, leading the boys to plan a final heist of an ironic target.

The series’ second Senegalese feature, Ndeysaan (“The Price of Forgiveness”) shares the vivid color and pageantry of Karmen Gei and echoes the brother-against-brother theme of One Hundred Days. When a fishing village is wrapped in an unceasing fog and catches disappear, Mbanik becomes controversial for rejecting the local shaman’s explanation for the phenomenon; his purported lack of respect for village elders even threatens Mbanik’s marriage to true love Maxoye. Then Mbanik’s actions seem to lift the fog and restore the fish, and he becomes a hero. But this just increases the resentment of Mbanik’s childhood friend Yatma, who also loves Maxoye. This tale of jealousy, vengeance, and redemption has a mythic air and is most cogent on that level. Director Mansour Sora Wade uses shadow puppets to recount old village lore—which is more effective than his attempt to stage a battle between a man and a shark without actually having a shark. Jaws this isn’t, but Wade persuasively translates folklore to celluloid. (The film screens Sept. 29 and Oct. 1.)

The only one of these films that’s not set in Africa, L’Afrance (Sept. 27 and 30) is technically the most rudimentary. Shot in murky natural light (or the lack thereof), Alain Gomis’ movie is the tale of El Hadj, a Senegalese student who insists he’s going home after he graduates but has become acclimatized to Paris. When El Hadj lets his visa run out, the subsequent crisis makes him re-evaluate his plans. Although resentful of France’s attempt to deport him, he battles to stay. He also turns to a Frenchwoman for emotional support as his longtime girlfriend calls from home to say that her parents are pressuring her to accept another man’s proposal. El Hadj’s plight parallels the plot of a well-known Senegalese novel and is underscored by quotations from African nationalist Sekou Toure, yet his story seems less than archetypal. Many Africans-in-Paris sagas have been filmed in the last decade, and L’Afrance doesn’t stand out among them.

The series also features a shorts program (Sept. 30 and Oct. 3), whose entries include Lunettes Noires (“Sunglasses”), a fleeting paranoiac fantasy from the Ivory Coast, and Surrender, a routine tale of a temporarily rebellious son set in a beachfront village in Zanzibar, overlooking the strikingly turquoise Indian Ocean. More substantive are Ermias Woldeamlak’s The Father, about an Ethiopian portrait painter who tries to avoid politics but whose attempt to protect an old friend leads to a brutal encounter with the country’s military dictatorship; and Bintou, a characteristically African satire about a Burkina Faso woman who outwits her blustering husband to earn money to send their daughter to school. If not as audacious as Karmen Gai, it’s nonetheless one of this series’ most exuberant swipes at the status quo.

Distant from Africa’s colonial legacy only in geography, Skins is set in the poorest of the United States’ own tribal compounds, the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservation. Chris (Smoke Signals) Eyre’s second feature opens with a minitutorial on the South Dakota reservation, which has 75 percent unemployment and an alcoholism rate nine times the national average. The latter statistic suggests the enormous profitability of liquor stores in nearby Nebraska, given that booze is not legally sold on the rez itself. Naturally, those nearby package stores are among the targets of fed-up Pine Ridge cop Rudy (Eric Schweig) when he decides to become a vigilante.

Perhaps under the influence of a Lakota trickster spirit—in the form of a spider who bites him—Rudy goes outside the law to punish some young thugs who kicked a man to death. It doesn’t take long, however, for Rudy to confront the real source of his discontent: his brother Mogie (Graham Greene), a Vietnam veteran who’s drinking himself to death. When Rudy torches a liquor store just outside the rez’s border, he accidentally ignites Mogie as well. But Jennifer D. Lyne’s script, adapted from Adrian C. Louis’ novel, quickly absolves him: A doctor explains that alcohol has damaged Mogie more than the burns. The brothers are reconciled, and the dying Mogie briefly becomes his playful old self, suggesting that Rudy help him blow the nose off George Washington’s face on nearby Mount Rushmore.

The ease with which the brothers repair their bond is typical of Skins, which charts a tragic course but soon deviates into a less demanding direction. A mix of outrage and sentimentality, the movie ends with a symbolic gesture that is characteristically mild. Skins is well-meaning and will engage those with a particular interest in the unresolved status of Native Americans despite its sometimes amateurish acting. Ultimately, however, the movie is undermined less by the customary shortcomings of low-budget films than by its own emotional corner-cutting. CP