Friday, November 23, 2012

2012 African Diaspora International Film Festival Reviews: "La Playa D.C." and "Toussaint Louverture"

The 20th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival screens in New York from November 23 through December 11, 2012 at Teachers College at Columbia University, Symphony Space, NYIT Auditorium on Broadway, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Black Spectrum Theatre. Below are reviews of two major highlights of this year’s festival.

La Playa D.C. (Juan Andres Arango, Colombia, 2012)

Chosen as an official selection of the Un Certain Regard section of the year’s Cannes Film Festival, La Playa D.C. marks an auspicious debut of 35-year old director Arango, who delivers a unique vision, by turns harrowing, heartrending, and humorous, of his native Colombia. He transforms the familiar coming-of-age story with wonderfully evocative cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni which vividly renders Bogota’s unique geography of harsh concrete jungles surrounded by lushly verdant greenery, as well as a pulsating hip-hop soundtrack that perfectly mirrors the restlessness of the film’s characters. La Playa D.C. follows Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara), a 13-year old Afro-Colombian whose life experience makes him seem much older, and his struggles to keep his head above the dangerous waters of poverty, drugs, and street life in the capital. His family was forced to flee the civil war on Columbia’s Pacific coast, eventually making their way to Bogota. Tomas’ older brother Chaco (James Solis) has recently returned from being deported from “El Norte,” i.e. the US, and is saving money to return to his family’s hometown, and perhaps make a second attempt to escape the country. His younger brother Jairo (Andres Murillo) has succumbed to crack addiction and now owes a debt to drug dealers after smoking away the product he was meant to sell. With a mostly ineffectual mother and a hostile stepfather, Tomas is forced to take to the streets to survive. He hopes to make a living with his artistic skills in a very specific way: carving out elaborate haircut designs for the young Afro-Colombian teenagers who adopt this as a major part of their fashion and cultural identity. Arango is especially adept at giving us a visceral sense of how this community is looked upon as outsiders in their own country and subject to race-based hostility. This is pertinently illustrated in one scene in which Tomas and Chaco are chased out of an upscale mall by security guards solely based on their physical appearance. La Playa D.C. gives us a glimpse of a nation that is woefully underrepresented in world cinema, and it excels in immersing us in its environment with stylistic flair and humanistic sensitivity.

(Nov. 24, 6pm and Dec. 3, 8pm)

Toussaint Louverture (Philippe Niang, France/Haiti, 2012)

This year’s festival centerpiece, this two-part, three-hour epic made for French television, represents, as far as I know, the first successful attempt to get the story of the famous Haitian revolutionary leader who organized a famously successful slave revolt and eventually won Haiti’s independence from France. Actor Danny Glover, among others, has tried for decades to create a cinematic rendering of this historical figure. This production is mostly successful in rendering the scope of this remarkable man’s life, as well as the complicated political and military machinations necessary for Louverture to free his people. Shot in France and Martinique, Haiti itself being unsuitable for actual location shooting, the film’s budgetary limitations are fairly obvious, most notably in the lack of elaborate battle scenes. This is especially unfortunate, since Louverture was as renowned for being a canny military strategist as he was for being a freedom fighter. Someone more versed in Haitian history than I am will have to judge whether, and how much, narrative compression and dramatization have come at the expense of historical accuracy. Still, Toussaint Louverture does a very good job in illustrating the complex thicket of racial politics and strategic alliances that went into the process of Haiti’s independence. Also, Jimmy Jean-Louis is a riveting presence as Louverture, and brings an impressive sense of gravity and a sense of the human being behind the historical figure.

(Dec. 1, 5pm)

For more information on these and other festival films, and to purchase tickets, visit ADIFF’s website.