I've never been to Africa, which may explain why movies about pretty much every corner of the continent seem to me both gritty and dreamlike. The dust, wind and heat are palpably real, yet somehow otherworldly. I feel as if I'm gazing into the past and the future at the same time. It's a lovely, disorienting sensation, delivered with differing degrees of pathos by three seductive works in the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Jamaica-born, New Jersey-raised Alrick Brown's dauntingly ambitious feature debut, Kinyarwanda (Get Movie Showtimes), takes its title from a language that practically every Rwandan, regardless of background, speaks. It's something everyone has in common -- Hulus and Tutsis, Christians and Muslims -- and Brown means to suggest that the basic values that Rwandans share trump any perceived ethnic, religious or class difference. It's an admirable sentiment but how much stock can we put in it given the rivers of blood shed during that terrible summer of 1994?
Well, a good deal, actually, based on the fact-based experiences of the terrifying genocide recreated here. A young couple (he's a Hutu and she's the daughter of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father), among others, navigate their way past and around the machetes to safety at a mosque. There's a passing dig at the hotel manager immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda, and Kinyarwanda -- with its gravitas performances by Rwandan actors and actresses (and some non-professionals) -- suggests a more authentic, less Hollywood view of events.
That said, there are some saccharine missteps with the soundtrack, an ill-advised use of slo-mo in a rescue scene and a jarring performance by the actress with a capital A who plays an important secondary character. At the end of the day, however, the fact that we leave the theater with a sense of hope and forgiveness proves that Brown's optimistic title wasn't so farfetched after all.
"The Redemption of General Butt Naked"
The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Get Movie Showtimes) sounds like a gag title, but it's deadly serious. The leader of a loose-cannon Liberian militia during the civil war that began in 1989, the general led his outfit -- comprised largely of children he recruited and armed, we come to believe -- into missions unclothed. He, and they, thought they were invincible, or at least unkillable.
Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion's documentary informs us that the general disappeared from the fray in 1996 (the war ended in 2003) when he discovered Jesus. Now he's a preacher, albeit without a congregation, teaching the gospel in Liberia and continually seeking out relatives of his victims in order to apologize.
You can decide for yourself if Joshua Milton Blahyi, as he now calls himself, is a true convert to peace, justice, faith and every other worthwhile pursuit of man. The more valuable question, it seems to me, is whether Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the granting of amnesty is all that great an idea. Healing is a wonderful and necessary thing, but justice is a farce if the greatest crimes aren't prosecuted. The Redemption of General Butt Naked is a provocative, albeit slightly overlong, film, but it doesn't grapple enough with this issue for my taste.
"The Place In Between"
The French director Sarah Bouyain has an abiding personal fascination with racial identity: Her grandmother was bi-racial. Bouyain's understated, oddly unemotional feature, The Place In Between (Get Movie Showtimes), follows a young woman from Paris to Burkina Faso to reunite with her long-unseen mother. Amy grew up in France with her white dad and she's a Westerner through and through; in the country where she was born, she's an awkward tourist who, with patience, graduates to outsider.
Meanwhile, The Place In Between enigmatically tracks an older African woman, Mariam, who cleans Parisian offices and tutors an enthusiastic, single Frenchwoman in the Doula language. Their friendship encourages us to take the film as comforting evidence that we live in a multi-culti world where ethnic, national and color barriers are dissolving by the day.
But there's more to be revealed in this low-key saga of mothers and daughters, connection and separation. Instead of old-school colonialism and exploitation, Bouyain conveys a more sophisticated, nuanced and forgiving view of the Euro-African relationship. Even still, Mariam and Amy are left looking for a place to fit that isn't "in between."
The San Francisco International Film Festival runs Thursday, April 21 through Thursday, May 5, 2011 at the Sundance Kabuki, Viz and Castro Theaters in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit fest11.sffs.org.