Thursday, November 26, 2009

2009 African Diaspora Film Festival: Review Round-up

The 17th edition of the African Diaspora Film Festival screens from November 27 through December 15. Below are brief reviews of some of this year's selections.

Nothing But the Truth (John Kani, South Africa, 2008)

The title of South African actor Kani’s film, which he wrote and directed based on his stage play, makes reference to the truth and reconciliation trials that occurred in post-apartheid South Africa, in which people accused of crimes during apartheid confessed fully in exchange for amnesty. The purpose of this was to cleanse the society of the bitterness caused by the horrors perpetrated on black South Africans, and to deal with this not by punitive or vengeful measures, but in a spirit of healing and forgiveness. This approach was understandably controversial, and divisions sprung up between those who were ready to move forward and work to build a new society and those who insisted that those who committed crimes should be made to suffer the consequences. Kani’s film points out another societal division, between those who left the country to become exiles, either by force or choice, and those who remained behind. Sipho (Kani), a librarian, receives the cremated body of his younger brother Themba, an exile for many years overseas. Sipho has long harbored resentment toward his brother, the favorite of their father, who sent Themba to college, while Sipho struggled through life – now at 63, he fails to be promoted to head librarian. The truth and reconciliation trials depicted in the film (with actual footage) parallel Sipho’s struggles to reconcile with his brother after death. The details of the plot are less important, and less interesting, than the scenes of the elaborate funeral rituals accompanying Themba’s posthumous return from exile, demonstrating the persistence of tradition in the face of the often contentious and bewildering changes in South African society post-apartheid. Nothing But the Truth is short and sweet, not overstaying its welcome, and greatly benefits from Kani’s remarkably lived-in performance; his presence conveys the resilience of his character, who has survived violence and terror, yet remains hopeful for the future. This no doubt mirrors Kani’s own life, and it shows in every moment he is on screen. (Nov. 27, 28)

The Harimaya Bridge (Aaron Woolfolk, Japan/US/South Korea, 2009)

Like Nothing But the Truth, Woolfolk’s film is also one of reconciliation, this time between cultures and races, forming an eloquent plea for cultural bridges and understanding and against prejudice. Also, like Kani’s film, The Harimaya Bridge features a fine central performance, in this case by Ben Guillory, who plays Daniel, who travels to Kochi, Japan after the death of his estranged son Mickey, who went there to teach English. Mickey did this against the wishes of his father, whose own father died in a Japanese POW camp, leaving Daniel with a deep hatred for the Japanese. Daniel therefore goes to Japan with a huge chip on his shoulder, and has to adjust to the very different culture. However, there is very little Lost in Translation-like whimsy here, except for the presence of an irrepressibly bubbly secretary (pop singer Misono); Daniel’s experience is very much colored by the contentious relationship with his son. As Daniel learns more from Mickey’s colleagues about the life he led in Japan, especially with his Japanese wife (Saki Takaoka), Daniel’s anger slowly falls away, and he is deeply transformed by the people he meets. This is a very rare portrayal of black people’s experiences in Japan, and would be a remarkable film for that reason alone. But that is not all The Harimaya Bridge has to recommend it. Woolfolk displays a sure hand with this material and an admirable handling of tone, preventing the film from venturing into sappy bathos. The Japanese folktale that lends the film its name is beautifully transformed into a celebration of different cultures bridging their differences, and transcending them to create a beautiful vision of humanity. The film also benefits from very good performances all around, especially from Guillory, the great Japanese actress Misa Shimizu (The Eel, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) as Mickey’s colleague, and co-producer Danny Glover in a smaller role as Daniel’s friend. (Dec. 6, 13)

When the City Bites (Dominique Cabrera, France, 2009)

The practice of human trafficking is given visceral form in When the City Bites, Cabrera’s episode of “Suite Noire,” a series for French television. Sara (Aïssa Maïga, Bamako) is tricked into prostitution along with her cousin, and after her cousin is beaten to death, she escapes from her captors and spends the rest of the film on the run from the dangerous people who smuggled her into France. Sara, an aspiring painter, idolizes Jean-Michel Basquiat, and dreams of using her talents to escape her prison. However, both her aspirations and newly-found freedom prove illusory, as this leads only to various concentric circles of enslavement. Maïga is riveting in her role, and Cabrera renders the atmospherics of the streets and cheap hotels and bars in gritty, vivid visuals. (Dec. 3, 4)

Fright of an Angel (Brigitte Roüan, France, 2009)

Roüan’s “Suite Noire” episode is a witty and faintly parodic gumshoe tale that begins with its hero, private detective Corbucci (rapper Ysae), being beaten by a pair of thugs in the best Philip Marlowe fashion. He communes in his head with his Corsican father, a police detective who died in the line of duty. Corbucci’s mother is an African from the Ivory Coast, and although the film references his mixed background, this isn’t the subject matter of this story. After the brutal opening scene, we backtrack to see how Corbucci ended up here. Corbucci hangs his shingle as a private detective, and soon an old lawyer friend throws him his first case, involving a woman (Sarah Biasini) whose mother died in a plastic surgery clinic, which gives her the runaround as she tries to learn the cause of her mother’s death. Corbucci’s investigation leads, with the help of his father’s colleague (Gerard Meylan), to a vast conspiracy involving a network of plastic surgeons that seemingly has all relevant authorities in its pocket. Roüan enlivens her private-eye story with stylistic verve and amusingly eccentric touches. (Nov. 29)

Skirt Day (Jean-Paul Lilienfeld, France/Belgium, 2009)

Skirt Day sets itself up right away as the anti-Dangerous Minds, as a harried high-school teacher (Isabelle Adjani) struggles to teach Moliere to her rowdy students. But the tables are soon turned, in the most violent way: a student’s gun falls out of his bag, and the teacher seizes it, and it becomes a hostage situation. Skirt Day admirably sidesteps the clichéd homilies of the high-school-from-hell film. Lilienfeld offers a remarkably nuanced examination of his characters, with no clear heroes or villains. All the volatile material he explores here, involving educational methods, racial attitudes, and institutional failure, become bewildering shades of gray. There are no happy endings or life-changing epiphanies for anyone in this film. If there is a villain at all in this piece, it is the society that allows interpersonal conflicts to fester to a point where it can only lead to death and destruction. (Dec. 6, 8)

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