Africa, a large and diverse continent, is known for many things. Cinema, however, is not one of them.
Mahir Saul, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois, hopes to open the eyes of film lovers with the first African Film Festival. The weeklong festival, featuring multiple screenings of six movies, starts at 7 p.m. Friday at the Beverly Cinema 18 in Champaign (please see sidebar for descriptions and show times). Tickets are $5 each.
"I've been involved in African film for many years," Saul says. "I had this idea of bringing more awareness to African films. Films from Africa are very marginal in the United States. When you say 'African cinema' to people, they think of documentaries, but today there are many different types of films being made in Africa. So I consider myself a bit of a missionary for African cinema.
"There have been a few very successful film festivals here already. What these festivals proved is that there is a great demand for this sort of thing in the community," he adds.
Among the films coming to the festival are the recently released "Bamako," which features a cameo by American actor Danny Glover and was directed by Abdurrahmane Sissako, a celebrated filmmaker in Africa but far from a household name in the United States.
The other films are "The Hero," which in 2005 won the World Dramatic Grand Prize at Sundance; "Les Signantes," a rarely seen, avant-garde, science-fiction tale by Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo; "Ezra," a prize-winning drama by Nigerian director Newton Aduaka; "Tasuma," a comedy from Burkina Faso; and an animated film aimed at children, "Kirikou and the Sorceress."
"These are all interesting films in different ways. The thing about African film is that it's very diverse – just like the countries of Africa," Saul says. "You have popular, mainstream films, adventure, avant-garde, animation.
"The problem is distribution. Most of these films don't get distributed very well in the world. The other problem is that they have to be subtitled in English," which can be a stumbling block for any foreign film in the United States. "We are dealing with a limited body of films. I had to work with what films I could get," he adds.
The Tournees French Film Festival and the Latin American Film Festival have both taken place at Boardman's Art Theatre in downtown Champaign. That was Saul's preference, too, but he was not able to reach an agreement with the owner of the Art and found a willing taker in Beverly Cinema 18.
"We decided to go with the Beverly. We'll have one screen for the festival. It's a new thing, and I hope it works for us. I wanted to do the festival in a commercial setting, something that was outside the university, to bring it to the community and to people who go to movies just for entertainment."
Saul is married to Angelina Cotler, associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the UI, and the organizer of the Latin American Film Festival, so he has an insider's view on how to put together a film festival.
"This is a multifaceted effort with many people helping out," Saul says. "It is something that I hope will create more interest in African films, and that the festival will become an annual event."
The festival is being presented by the Center for African Studies at the UI, the largest academic center of its kind in the Midwest, according to Saul.
African Film Festival lineup: From courtroom drama to comedy to sci-fi
l "Bamako," a mock courtroom drama by acclaimed Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, is set in the domestic courtyard of a home in the capital city of Mali. A trial pitting African civil society against the World Bank is about to be engaged, and lawyers from both sides arrive armed with passionate accusations. Meanwhile, in surreal contrast, the everyday life of the families surrounding the courtyard continues.
Viewings are at 9 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Monday, 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, noon Wednesday and 9 p.m. Feb. 28.
"Ezra" is the story of a Sierra Leonean teenager and a former child soldier who faces a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" that is trying to piece together the puzzle of a devastating attack on a village during the country's murderous civil war. The film packs a wallop and eschews easy emotions.
Showtimes are at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, 9 p.m. Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Monday, 4:45 p.m. Tuesday and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 28.
"The Hero" is from Angola, another country torn by civil war, and centers around a decorated veteran who waited for months to receive a prosthetic leg. Indifference, joblessness and theft dash his hopes for a dignified new life. Other characters enter his life, all carrying different sorts of scars. As they learn to lean on each other, "The Hero" offers a hopeful and humane anticipation of the future.
Viewings are at 9 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Tuesday, 9 p.m. Wednesday and 4:45 p.m. Feb. 28.
"Les Saignantes" is a hyperactive, stylish film with an attitude by the most experimental of filmmakers, Cameroon maverick Jean-Pierre Bekolo. This stylized sci-fi-action hybrid is about two young femme fatales who set out to rid a futuristic country of its corrupt and sexually obsessed powerful men.
Showtimes are at 11:15 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday, 4:45 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"Tasuma" is a laid-back comedy from Burkina Faso filmed against the fetching vistas of a hilltop village. An elderly veteran, still affectionately called "Fire" for his bravery in the battlefields of his colonial army days, bumps along on his bicycle in the rock-strewn descent from his village to the main road, wearing his medal-laden uniform, in the hopeless pursuit of his pension. He gets in trouble trying to do good, but everything works itself out when the women decide to take matters into their own hands.
Viewings are at 7 p.m. Friday, 11:15 p.m. Saturday, noon Monday, 9 p.m. Tuesday, 4:45 p.m. Wednesday and 7 p.m. Feb. 28.
"Kirikou and the Sorceress" is an animated movie with snappy visuals that exquisitely recounts the adventures of tiny Kirikou as he sallies forth to free his village from the curse of wicked Karaba.
Screenings take place at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, noon Sunday, 4:45 p.m. Monday, noon Tuesday, 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and noon Feb. 28.
For more information about the festival, visit online www.afrst.uiuc.edu/FilmFestival2008.html.