One could be charitable, and attribute Americans' general disinterest in movies from (or about) Africa to the vast physical distance between the continents. Except U.S. moviegoers rarely venture to see films from South America, either, which is in our hemisphere. It's reflective of a bigger issue, I think, namely the cultural and political isolation that we've cultivated so assiduously, and which feels more entrenched than ever.
Now, with respect to African cinema -- and to be uncharacteristically charitable, again -- it's entirely conceivable that its classic themes don't speak to American audiences. The migration from rural villages to dog-eat-dog cities, family loyalty versus individual ambition, and the painful tug-of war between tradition and modernity were central concerns in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th Century but aren't especially relevant today.
The touring African Film Festival, which decamped at the Pacific Film Archive for seven programs over three-plus weeks beginning last Saturday, January 22, illustrates that African filmmakers have progressed with the times. As an indication of just how far, the PFA includes three classics -- Al Momia (1969), Touki Bouki (1973) and Trances (1981) -- both for their own merits and as reference points.
"Beyond the Ocean"
My attention, however, was galvanized by the two newest features in the series. Eliane de LaTour's vibrant Beyond the Ocean (2008) tracks the divergent paths of 20-something Ivory Coast friends with grandiose yet desperate dreams. As the film begins, lanky Otho and husky Shad are doing all right in Spain as entry-level hustlers. Ambitious young Africans used to head for the capitals of their countries, not so long ago, but nowadays real money can only be found "beyond the ocean."
Shad evades a late-night, dockside police raid, but Otho is caught and deported. ("Bye-bye Europe, hello jungle," the cops' black translator says with an unfriendly smile.) Otho returns to his family to hugs and adulation, but all that respect fades in the ensuing weeks as his opportunities to make decent cash locally -- like every other honest person's -- are non-existent.
Shad, meanwhile, hops to London and then Paris, relying on the curious kindness of strangers and searching for a way to make a straight living doing something other than hustling customers into a beauty parlor. He thinks life is, or should be, a meritocracy. And how do you think that pans out for him? Shad's is not an unfamiliar immigrant story, but it is as current -- and as relevant, incidentally, for American audiences -- as it gets. Beyond the Ocean (playing Saturday, February 5, 6:30pm) also boasts an infectious soundtrack of African tunes, which is to say upbeat blues.
In contrast to Beyond the Ocean, which spends almost the entire time on the streets, Oliver Hermanus's moving and rewarding Shirley Adams (playing Thursday, February 3, 7pm) invites us into a nondescript Cape Town apartment. A single mom whose husband walked out when their teenage son, Donovan (Keenan Arrison), lost the use of his legs after taking a gang-banger's bullet in the chest, Shirley (Denise Newman) is relentless and stubborn. But she's not stupid, or incapable of making adjustments and allowances.
This is an intently, intensely observant film, with its own pleasures and rewards. The camera is practically perched on Shirley's shoulder, including us in her circumscribed life and forcing us to share her point of view. We particularly get her skepticism, by osmosis more than from a sentence or even a look, when she's confronted with a succession of white authority figures (doctor, lawyer, social worker).
Shirley Adams is a character study that allows for a fascinating yet understated glimpse of post-apartheid South Africa. The social worker, for example, a pretty, privileged and empathetic young woman (well played by Theresa Sedras), wants to help ease Shirley's burden of caring for Donovan. But she unwittingly threatens the intimate bond between mother and son, not least with her vacation videos of faraway beaches that Donovan will almost certainly never visit.
Winner of the Best South African Film and Best Actress prizes at the 2009 Durban Film Festival, Shirley Adams adeptly pulls us close to the characters yet leaves space for ambiguity and interpretation. Although it's a story that conceivably could be set anywhere, it's imbued with the heart and soul of the new Africa.
African Film Festival screens January 22-February 17, 2011 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For a href="http:/www.bampfa.berkeley.edu">more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.