[Diaspora Connect] Mahen Bonetti, the Sierra Leonean-American running the New York African Film Festival

Nduta Waweru May 16, 2018
Mahen Bonetti. Photo: Francoise Bouffault

Mahen Bonetti is the founder and executive director of the New York African Film Festival, a platform for advancing an enhanced understanding of African culture through films.  We catch up with her on the 25th anniversary of the festival. 

F2FAfrica: It has been 25 years of the New York African Film Festival, how does that feel like?

Mahen Bonetti (MB): It is good to have reached this milestone. Obviously, there are daily challenges, but the fact that we are still here is miraculous. Representing African culture in the West is like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, but the rock not only rolls down the hill, it flattens him out. I was very dry-eyed about it when I began the festival because it is a battle to sustain programming about African culture. Either it dies, or if someone else is carrying the weight, we feel left out. Looking at all these factors, I knew I had to give it my last blood, sweat, and tears.

This year’s festival is a passing of the baton and this applies internally too in terms of the content of the festival. The theme for this year’s festival is indeed 25 Years of the New York African Film Festival, and the panorama of screenings and programming will capture the vibrant history of contemporary African Cinema and culture.

F2FAfrica: How did it all start out?

MB: It started out of an urgency. I was very frustrated. There was a convergence of several things happening in the 80s: the famine in Ethiopia, with the images of Africa seen only on tv; the movie She’s Gotta Have It by Spike Lee; the music of Fela and Salif Keita that burst on the world stage, and then the hyphenation of African-American identity which became official. But this was Reagan’s America. The discussions about black Africa were mostly frustrating. There was never a back story. Our voices were not involved. We all jumped from trees, had AIDS and were wild. Then I discovered this body of work with African content, produced and written by Africans. I had always loved cinema and I knew that story whether it was from Senegal or Congo. I was so proud of the quality. I wanted to show everyone this work because we have to have pride.

I was also coming into my own identity. As a child in Sierra Leone, I took ballet but I did not take my first African dance class until I came to New York. That’s saying a lot. And we share a lived experience. In retrospect, I realize that meeting my counterparts in the diaspora is when we all became woke. Pan-Africanism, Negritude, these movements were all born in the diaspora. I was following in the footsteps of a particular African story. I feel lucky it happened to me.

F2FAfrica: Why African films?

MB: For so long, images of people of African descent which started with photography shaped a story about Africa, but we didn’t make them. And images are very powerful. They are also accessible, they are the most democratic art form. Black or white, old or young, everyone pays the same money and sees the same thing. The conversation after the cinematic experience is what is important for this setting. It is imperative and equally as important as seeing the images. After every screening, there is a question and answer period to foster discussions that enable the audience to frame or reframe what they have just seen.

F2FAfrica: What goes into the selection of the films?

MB: We look at what is happening historically and concurrently in our environment and in the larger world. We look at milestones. We want to not only entertain but to educate as well. We want people to laugh and think at the same time, and it’s possible. The themes are elastic and broad. But what is primary for us is the ability to create a cohesive dialogue through the program which is equally as important as seeing the films.  If someone only sees one film, can he have a conversation with someone who sees a film at another venue?

We’re trying to tell a story through the program as well. You can never underestimate the intelligence of the audience. When the audience comes out, you can feel the energy and the impact. They want to know more. This is why we created the issued publications: Looking Back, Looking Forward – 20 years of the New York African Film Festival; and two volumes of Through African Eyes – Dialogues with the Directors.

F2FAfrica: What else does the film festival entail?

MB: In addition to showcasing classic and contemporary films from Africa and her diaspora that capture the vibrant history of contemporary African Cinema and culture, the 2018 festival will also present a digital art exhibition, panel discussions on art and activism and live performances.

F2FAfrica: How has the festival evolved over the years?

MB: When I started the organization 28 years ago, the AFF produced a series of community programs and a biannual festival. Then we began to provide a meaningful context for African film through art exhibitions, master classes and panel discussions. We have since expanded into an organization offering year-round arts and culture programming on a global scale and in collaboration with world-class institutions, from MOMA to the Schomburg Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

F2FAfrica: What lessons have you learnt through the years that you think benefit filmmakers (whether upcoming or established)?

MB: The AFF gives films a shelf life. We present outdoor screenings and performances in various locations in the city. We produce a travelling series and make recommendations to other programmers. Through the festival and other programs, young and established filmmakers find exposure, develop an audience, and are sometimes invited for an artist-in-residence stint at academic institutions and other cultural institutions, who might also acquire their films for their libraries or archives. They know that the AFF is their home away from home.

F2FAfrica: Could you tell us a bit about representation and the need for a voice for Africa in the diaspora?

MB: We have to define that need. We cannot wait for others to define what blackness is and then try to wear it. We are here. We exist. When Michelle Obama said she woke up every morning in a house built by slaves, it shows a need to be in the present. It doesn’t suggest victimization. We are all born equal. The representation of blacks as backwards was a creation of colonialism, slavery and imperialism. I cannot respond to that, it is not for me to deal with. I exist and will represent myself, not in response to anti-blackness but to affirm my own existence.

F2FAfrica: What do you want festival-goers to take away from this year’s edition of the festival?

MB: We need to know that this moment in history will pass. It is a cycle and we are in a different space and time now. In looking at classical cineastes, we are checking in with them to hear them say to us that this too shall pass. But in the context of an intergenerational discourse, they are passing on the baton to the young filmmakers and also to women, who are working in front of and behind the camera. This dialogue between the past, the present and the future let us know that we are on the right side of history

F2FAfrica: What do you want your legacy to be?

MB: The AFF is the legacy. I just want someone to continue the vision. It’s about the collective, so it’s not about my legacy but that of the AFF.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: June 12, 2018


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