The citywide New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) reaches back into time and forward into the unknown for its 26th edition to center audiences in the present, with cutting-edge films from throughout the ages to films that regale with resplendent tales of all things African.
Under the theme “Beyond Borders: Storytelling Across Time,” the event launches at BAM Film in May, heads to Film at Lincoln Center (FLC) from May 30 through June 4, and closes at Maysles Cinema. The popular festival includes 68 films of multiple genres from 31 countries across the diaspora, and is presented by FLC and African Film Festival, Inc. (AFF).
“These films help us to celebrate our vibrant cultures, as well as confront the issues that affect our societies, said AFF Executive Director and NYAFF Founder Mahen Bonetti. “The stories challenge us to continue thinking about ways to improve our situation and build for the future and that is the magic and power of the cinema.”
Opening Night at Film at Lincoln Center at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 30, is the U.S. premiere of Frances-Anne Solomon’s triumphant feature HERO: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life and Times of Mr. Ulric Cross. The film, which won the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival People’s Choice Award in the narrative feature category, tells the story of Cross, the Royal Air Force’s most decorated West Indian of World War II, and his fellow West Indians’ lasting impact on world history, including several liberation struggles across Africa. The film was selected as part of NYAFF’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first Pan-African Congress, organized in Paris by W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Gibbs Hunt in February 1919, when delegates from Africa and the diaspora convened to champion Africa’s self-determination.
On Saturday, June 1, The Mercy of the Jungle, a Centerpiece film by Rwandan director Joël Karekezi will be shown to mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic Rwandan genocide of 1994 where 800,000 to one million lives were lost. One of a crop of films about the aftermath of the tragedy by Rwandan directors, the gripping drama follows Rwandan soldiers hunting rebels separated from their unit as they fight to survive while lost in the war-torn countryside.
Preceding The Mercy of the Jungle will be the short The Letter Carrier, a haunting, folkloric fairy tale told through an original acapella song. The directorial debut of actor-directors Jesse L. Martin and Rick Cosnett imagines a black family from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the lengths they will go to save themselves from slavery.
In its look back, NYAFF also tips its hat to FESPACO (Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), the historic festival in Burkina Faso now celebrating its 50th anniversary, with classic works from African trailblazers who continue to influence generations of filmmakers. Among the selections are the first FESPACO Best Film winner Oumarou Ganda’s Le Wazzou polygame in 1972, most recent awardee Karekezi’s gripping drama The Mercy of the Jungle, and several in between, including Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s Fatwa (bronze at FESPACO in 2019, first prize at Carthage Film Festival in 2018), Ola Balogun’s Black Goddess (1978), and Souleymane Cissé’s Baara (1978), all seminal works that define themes explored in contemporary African cinema.
The final film screening at Film at Lincoln Center, on June 4, is the sweeping epic Sarraounia by Med Hondo, who passed away on March 2.
The festival also highlights some of today’s most buzzed-about directors of the diaspora, including South African comedian-actor-director Kagiso Lediga (Wizard / Matwetwe), the first African director to be tapped for a Netflix Original Series (Queen Sono, starring Pearl Thusi); Julius Amedume, whose thriller Rattlesnakes featuring Jimmy Jean-Louis won the Panafrican Film Festival Audience Award for Narrative Feature, and Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam, whose Chez Jolie Coiffure captures the powerful real-life story of an undocumented hair-salon manager who escaped to Belgium from quasi-slavery in Lebanon.
A digital art exhibition, From Ouaga to NYC: Capturing the Pan-African Spirit, will run from 1 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. from Friday, May 31, to Monday, June 3, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 4. For four decades, director Mohamed Challouf and cultural advocate Kojo Ade captured African and African diaspora cultural celebrations on the continent and in the diaspora respectively. Charting personal memories across landscapes of African history and heritage, the two photographic essays explore issues of cultural identity shaping an African diaspora consciousness and solidarity within an international vocabulary of contemporary media art practice.
Finally, acclaimed Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno will deliver a free master class on entertainment and education within the context of African cinema on June 1. The event will feature a discussion on how filmmakers and stakeholders today can trigger change through the transformative power of cinema, much as the pioneering generation of African filmmakers did.
The 26th NYAFF kicks off at BAM Film on Thursday, May 23, and runs through Monday, May 27, as a part of BAM’s popular dance and music festival DanceAfrica. It then heads to FLC and closes with screenings at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem from Thursday, June 6, through Sunday, June 9.