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Now in its 15th year and bigger than ever, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s showcase of contemporary cinema from Africa presents 37 films from 22 countries. While there’s no single unifying concept, certain themes recur from nation to nation: the difficulty of getting around—a character in Niger is thrilled when he procures transportation for a long journey in the form of a camel; a search for gold and other means to a better life; and an overwhelming sense that we in America are terribly, terribly spoiled. From the thriving pop film industry of Nollywood to the arthouse traditions of Egypt to regions not known for filmmaking at all, the festival offers a variety of rich perspectives in films that you will not likely get a chance to see again on the big screen.
The Burial Of Kojo Directed by Samuel “Blitz” BazawuleGhana
This ambitious directorial debut from Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule, a Brooklyn-based Ghanaian artist best known by his stage name Blitz the Ambassador, is a visually stunning ghost story that tackles a harrowing reality. The ill-fated Kojo (Joseph Otsiman) is responsible for a car accident that kills his brother Kwabena (Kobina Amissah-Sam) and his new bride. Although Kojo survives the crash, his brother seeks vengeance—from the grave. When Kojo finds work at an illegal gold mine run by a Chinese company, he winds up in his own grave, while his wife and daughter try desperately to find him. Bazawule, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story from the eyes of an imaginative child who remembers her father’s unsettling dreams of an automobile burning at sea—an image that calls back to such Western arthouse classics as Walkabout and The American Friend. The Burial of Kojo is based on the gruesome true story of miners who were buried alive in mines operated by outsiders who exploited local workers and the land’s natural resources. Cinematographer Michael Fernandez crafts gorgeous, dream-like images that recall the fireworks of Beasts of the Southern Wild. But even when his characters get lost in a delirious swirl, Bazawule never loses sight of their very real struggle.
Thursday, March 7 at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
CATCH.ERDirected by Walter TaylaurNigeria
In this prime example of Nolly Noir, a vital subgenre within Nigeria’s prolific film industry, a seemingly typical murder mystery turns into something that will—surprise!—shock you. Abby (Beverly Naya) is a business executive (and heiress to a fortune) who’s murdered on her wedding anniversary. Naturally, her husband (Alexx Ekubo) is the most likely suspect. But as the police investigator (Nollywood heartthrob O.C. Ukeje of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel) digs deeper with his growing lists of suspects, checking and cross-checking their alibis and motives, new and sordid secrets are revealed. While YouTube is filled with four-hour Nollywood comedies and horror movies that feature low production values and high emotions, this taut 81-minute crime drama—shot in just four days—at first seems to restrain its raw genius with steady camerawork and largely subdued performances. Yet, as if critiquing his film noir precursors, director Walter ‘Waltbanger’ Taylaur (Gbomo Gbomo Express) begins to loosen up with a more visually and emotionally unstable whodunit. The dry procedural of Taylaur’s second feature unravels in an unpredictable third act twist that finally gives its actors a chance to burst out of their muted shells.
Sunday, March 10 at 9:20 p.m. and Wednesday, March 13 at 9:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Divine WindDirected by Merzak AllouacheAlgeria
Amine (Mohamed Oughlis) is a devout jihadist preparing for a suicide mission to destroy an oil refinery in the Sahara. He’s staying at a safe house with elderly host El Hadja (Messaouda Boukhira) and faithfully says his prayers, but he may have doubts about his assignment. When he meets his mission partner, a severe, mysterious woman named Nour (Sarah Layssac), the pair tentatively bond, but not without conflict; there’s tension in the way they deal with El Hadja. He treats her with the respect accorded to the elderly, while she treats their host like a dog. Meanwhile, their mission may be compromised by someone who finds it a corruption of the faith. Seasoned Algerian director Merzak Allouache (Madame Courage) uses stark black-and-white photography to portray this fanatical web, which plays out more like an existential terrorist chamber drama than a political thriller. But while Oughlis and Boukhira create three-dimensional characters, Layssaac comes off like a cartoon villain straight out of the kind of movie that a more conventional director might make. Divine Wind loses its way in its own shifting jet stream, but its gorgeous images and two of its central performances make it worth watching.
Tuesday, March 12 at 7:10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Ouaga GirlsDirected by Theresa Traoré DahlbergBurkina Faso
From Frederick Wiseman’s High School to Abbas Kiarostami’s First Case, Second Case, the classroom is a favorite subject for the non-fiction filmmaker. But this inspirational film is the first documentary about an all-female school for auto mechanics. Directing her first feature, Theresa Traoré Dahlberg, who grew up between Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou and an island in southwestern Sweden, depicts young women’s struggles and friendships as they aspire to a vocation that many of their peers will dismiss as unsuitable. In a nation where more than half of the youth are unemployed, the Ouaga girls are learning a valuable trade, and as Dahlberg shows us the luster restored from damaged auto parts, she also reveals her subjects coming of age. Set against the background of a democratic election, the film offers hope for Burkina Faso’s citizens as well as its leaders, who have been subjected to more than one coup d’état over the years.
Sunday, March 10 at 11 a.m. and Thursday, March 14 at 5:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
YomeddineDirected by Abu Bakr ShawkyEgypt
In his first feature, Egyptian-Austrian director Abu Bakr Shawky expertly plays audiences like a fiddle with the kind of sweeping, sentimental beats that would serve him well in Hollywood. But the heartbreaking story he tells introduces us to a world that no commercial film industry would deign to enter. We meet Beshay (Rady Gamal) scavenging at a garbage dump where he finds an old Walkman and some cassettes to bring home—to the leper colony where he has spent most of his life. After his mentally ill wife dies, he seems to have nothing left. But an orphaned boy called Obama (named after “that guy on TV,” he explains) befriends Beshay and accompanies him on a journey to find the father who abandoned his leper son at the colony gates when he was just a boy. Shawky met his lead while making a documentary short about a leper colony run by Catholic nuns. Gamal’s story is much like Beshay’s—he was abandoned as a child. His face severely disfigured by his disease, the actor uses his eyes and scarred body to express a lifetime of sorrow, but also a resilient hope. You’re probably already crying, but Yomeddine (the title is Arabic for “day of judgement”) depicts the rejected and impoverished with a compassion that encourages us to find joy in what we do have.
Thursday, March 14 at 7:10 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
ZerzuraDirected by Christopher KirkleyNiger
In this 2017 “acid Western,” a young man (Tuareg guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, who also composed the soundtrack) leaves his small desert town in search of his long lost brother—and a mythical city of gold. The second feature from ethnomusicologist-director Christopher Kirkley, a follow-up to the Purple Rain-inspired Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, again features music released on his record label Sahel Sounds, which specializes in artists from the West African Sahel. With a quietly intense score and characters whose faces are often completely covered except for their eyes, the movie evokes Sergio Leone epics with mystical digressions out of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Low production values keep the film from fully achieving its heady aspirations, but the budgetary restraints seem part and parcel of a story in which the determined traveler is excited to find reliable transportation for his journey: a camel. After a slow start, Zerzura gets better and bolder, its imagery more closely in tune with its evocative score. The movie may not be essential, but it’s a must see for fans of Sahel Sounds’ music catalog.
Saturday, March 16 at 8:45 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Nigerian PrinceDirected by Faraday OkoroNigeria
D.C.-born Howard University alum Faraday Okoro won a million-dollar award to make his first feature. Although that windfall didn’t come without problems, the film that emerged is one of the most entertaining in the festival. Based on Okoro’s own experience, the movie tells the story of Nigerian-American teenager Eze (Antonio J. Bell), whose mother sends him to live in Lagos after he gets into a fight at school. Living with his aunt, Eze struggles to adapt to life without reliable electricity and internet service. Worse, he butts heads with his cousin Pius (Chinaza Uche), a Nigerian con-man looking for a new mark. With Spike Lee on board as executive producer, Nigerian Prince takes us inside the world of “black money” and notorious email scams for a thoroughly engaging crime comedy.
Friday, March 8, 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
The New African Film Festival runs from March 7-17. You can buy tickets for individual films here.