Demystifying Africa: Five Years of the Silicon Valley African Film Festival

Still from The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo by Yaba Badoe

The Silicon Valley African Film Festival is celebrating its fifth year with three days of African film, culture and visual art. The festival may have started in 2009, but its inception stretches back nearly 30 years, when the festival’s director Chike Nwoffiah first arrived in the United States.

In the 1980s, black Americans were beginning to carve out a more complex social identity for themselves, especially in the media. The Cosby Show challenged the perception of "the ideal American family," while directors like Spike Lee used film to unapologetically complicate black identity.

Despite the success of these films and TV shows, there was still a limited interpretation of life beyond U.S. borders, particularly in Africa. In 1987, Eddie Murphy starred in Coming to America, the story of a prince from the fictional African Kingdom of Zamunda on a quest for love in New York City.

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In the film, the Africans are sophisticated, which is novel. But still, there's a lot of stereotyping for comedic effect. At its core, Coming to America  is a comedy written by an American about the co-mingling of African and black American cultures. So naturally, Prince Akeem, with his questionable African accent, is a bit unrealistic. But can you imagine how much of an improvement it was from this?

As an international student in the U.S. in 1988, Nwoffiah picked up on how little people knew about the day-to-day experience of contemporary Africans. "There was this sense that Africa was a tiny place," recalls Nwoffiah. He felt an urgent need to convey the continent of Africa as he saw it -- with many unique countries and identities -- as opposed to the exotic locale of National Geographic photos and historical victims of slavery, famine and war. "After I arrived here, it became very important to tell a different African narrative," he says.

Chike Nwoffiah
Chike Nwoffiah

Nwoffiah grew up in an artistic household in Nigeria. He attended the same secondary school as the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Nwoffiah enjoyed theater arts and participated in plays from childhood on. He eventually left the country for graduate school and ended up in Silicon Valley, where he discovered the medium of film through classes and workshops.

Nwoffiah began to write plays and dance dramas and eventually co-founded Oriki Theatre in 1992. Shortly after, he started coordinating lectures on pre- and post-colonial Africa at Menlo College and eventually joined as adjunct faculty in 2006. As a history professor, he used films to help his students understand and connect with the modern social, political and economic climates within the African continent.

Nwoffiah's students responded positively to the films and he knew it was only a matter of time before he expanded these screenings from the classroom to the community. In 2009, he partnered with the Community School of Music and Arts and the Oriki Theatre to curate the first Silicon Valley African Film Festival.

The festival focuses exclusively on films by African filmmakers as opposed to most African American film festivals that focus on the diaspora. In the early days, Nwoffiah looked to the New York African Film Festival for guidance and support. Mahen Bonetti, that festival's director has noticed an increased interest in African films since she started in 1993. She credits the interest to the rise in technology. According to Bonetti, it is important "to get those interested access to the right subjective material." After all, everyone from the fleetingly curious to the most obsessed Africaphile should be well informed. The festivals provide that insight.

There are over 30 films, ranging from documentary features to animated shorts, to look forward to this weekend. Some are real standouts that characterize why African films are worth the effort.

The documentary The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo was directed by Yaba Badoe of Ghana and tells the contemporary Ghanaian author's story. It's one of the many films by a female director that chronicles the lives of African women. Throughout the film, Aidoo sits in her vibrant outfits and Chanel sunglasses as she describes, with enthusiasm, why she writes about feminism, colonization and the African diaspora. Aidoo's career began with a Christmas story published in the Daily Graphic newspaper when she was 18 years old. Her writing is inspired by "Fante" storytellers from Ghana's central region where she grew up. It feels so right to hear Aidoo read her simple yet bold prose out loud to the camera as the images of Elmina Castle and the bustling cities of Accra and Takoradi play on the screen. The film also follows Aidoo as she travels to the University of California, Santa Barbara for the debut of her play, Anowa.

Soko Sonko (The Market King) is another film directed and written by a female director. Ekwa Msangi's comedy short is about a father who volunteers to take his daughter to the market to get her hair braided when his wife falls ill. It also happens to be the same day that his favorite soccer team is playing in a really important game. As the film progresses, the father learns that the hair market isn't as simple of a place as he thought. Soko Sonko will make its regional premiere on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 3pm. Ekwa Msangi is attending.

The films vary in their quality -- some excellent and others OK, which is true of most festivals -- but the subject matter is so captivating that it doesn't even matter. Fare Ta (Land of Dance) is a simple film about urban village dance practices in Guinea. The film's director, Idrissa Camara of Ballet Nimba, won the ADAD Trailblazer Fellowship in 2013. He used the funds to travel to his home country and make this documentary. At times, the film feels like a home video. The camera is a little shaky and the audio jumps around. However, Camara's narration of his homecoming is captivating, "Dancing make[s] you stronger, emotionally and physically it make[s] us happy which is important because life is difficult [without] opportunity -- no job no money." The dancers' movements are riveting. They swing their limbs using their full range of motion so fast that you don't even want to blink. Fare Ta will have its North American Premiere on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 3pm.

Domestic violence is a universal issue that affects women and men from all walks of life. In the film When Is It Enough, Daniel Ademinokan sheds light on some of the cultural elements that make reporting domestic violence difficult in Nigeria. Everything about the film is raw and in your face. Within the first few minutes, the main character, Amaka, is spitting out her own blood after a blow to the mouth. The film is based on a true story about a woman in an abusive relationship who is eventually murdered by her husband. The storyline is engaging from start to finish. Real life activist and actress Stella Damascus delivers a poignant monologue at the end of the film that will definitely fuel dialogue on the issue after the screening. When Is It Enough will make its regional premiere on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 3pm.

These films adhere to a different set of cultural norms from their level of drama to their language choice. Shooting a film in English guarantees more commercial marketability but it may alienate the people within the filmmaker's own country. Films shot in the local language contain a natural intimacy that draws the viewer deeper into the cinematic drama. Unfamiliar body language and mannerisms become intriguing. It's one of the beauties of watching a film in a language that you don't understand.

Beleh
Beleh

Beleh was shot in pidgin. The film, takes place in Cameroon and tells the story of an ungrateful husband who spends a day in the life of his pregnant wife. Similar to Soko Sonko, Beleh's director Eka Christa Assam addressess gender roles and family dynamics from a lighthearted comedic place. Beleh will make its regional premiere Sunday, October 19 at 1pm.

3 Candles is an Egyptian short film shot in Arabic from director Ahmed Fouad. The film tells the story of three brothers who struggle to produce light in order to do their homework. It's sad and touching to watch the eldest child raise his two younger brothers. 3 Candles screens Saturday, Oct. 18 at 3pm.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe, Adaeze

This is the first year that the festival will include a featured visual artist. Kosisochukwu Nnebe addresses issues of racism through the lens of her experience as a Nigerian-Canadian. The 21-year-old Nnebe has been working on her project Coloured Conversations since July 2014. Coloured Conversations addresses the hyper-sexualization of the black female body that lives on in today's music videos and magazines. Her work is designed to claim the black body as a work of art and challenge the negative perceptions that have been cast on black women and men. Nnebe's exhibition is on display at the Mohr Gallery in Mountain View through October 19. She will conduct a youth forum on Saturday, October 18 at 10am.

Exhibit, forum or film screening, the Silicon Valley African Film Festival demonstrates a rich and layered storytelling tradition that engages audience members in deep conversations about social and political issues that affect Africa and the African diaspora. It will be an undeniably informative weekend event.

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The 5th Annual Silicon Valley African Film Festival runs October 17-19, 2014 at the Community School of Music and Arts. For more information visit svaff.org.