Americans often associate Africa with human rights violations, impoverished villages, and, more happily, the roots of America’s best-loved musical traditions. Innovative filmmaking? Not so much. But for the past four years, AFI Silver Theatre‘s presentation of the New African Films Festival has celebrated the vibrant artistry behind African cinema. Informed by cinéma vérité, European new wave tradition, and indigenous culture alike, films range in origin from Morocco to Mauritius—a testament to Africa as a heterogeneous continent. The Theatre’s fifth annual showcase opens tomorrow night, with the first features in a week of films fit to shatter the myth of African art as ossified artifact.

Thursday, March 19

  • 13 Months of Sunshine (US, 2007, 98 min.) Director Yehdego Abeselom’s film explores identity, love and the American dream from an Ethiopian standpoint. Expect ample clashing of cultures.
  • Shoot the Messenger (UK, 2006, 90 min.) – With an opening line like “…everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person,” Nigerian-British director Ngozi Onwurah’s film inevitably courts controversy, as well as discussion and insight.

Friday, March 20

  • Divizionz (Uganda/South Africa, 2007, 91 min.) This festival-vetted film about four aspiring hip-hoppers from the Kampala slums is directed by the Yes! That’s Us Ugandan guerilla filmmaking collective.
  • Transes (Morocco/France, 1981, 90 min.) – Filmmaker Ahmed El Maanouni’s documentary follows Cassablancan musical group Nass El Ghiwane on the road and backstage. Fellow music documentarian Martin Scorsese called the group “the Rolling Stones of North Africa.”

Saturday, March 21

  • Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1973, 85 min.) – Djibril Diop Mambéty’s debut feature film about a young man and his girlfriend who engage in petty crime to fund relocation to Paris is an arthouse classic.
  • Wrestling Grounds/L’Appel des Arenes (Senegal, 2006, 105 min.) – Director Cheikh Ndiaye ventures into the world of Senegalese wrestling via 17-year-old Nalla, roving from nightclubs and ancestral ceremonies to the streets where athletes dance-off to boom-boxed beats.

The 2009 New African Films Festival runs from March 19-25. Tickets $15. ($12 AFI members opening night.)

Photo: Shoot The Messenger’s David Oyelowo. (BBC Films)