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Slaves Survive on Spirit in 'Passage'

Awesome film about the hellish 18-week journey screens during the annual Pan African Film Festival.


Among the films at the ninth annual Pan African Film Festival, which opens tonight at 8 with the gala premiere of the comedy "Kingdom Come," is Martinique filmmaker Guy Deslauriers' "Middle Passage." It is an awesome evocation of the experience of being enslaved in Africa andsubjected to horrendous conditions on the 18-week voyage to America. It is a tremendous feat of the imagination, heightened by Amos Coullanges' dramatic score, in which Deslauriers confronts a veritable hell on earth with a stunning sense of visual splendor that makes watching his film bearable without softening its impact.

With eloquent voice-over narration (by Cameroon actor Maka Koto) from an unidentified slave aboard ship, the film celebrates the transcendent power of the collective African spirit.

The narrator raises questions about the role played by those Africans who abducted and sold their brothers and sisters into slavery and of his discovery that his white captors feared those they kept in chains. "Middle Passage" may leave you with a sense of irony that it was more important to the ship's white crew to consider the Africans as less than human than as the source of tremendous potential profit as slave laborers.

How else to explain that half the ship's human cargo had perished, due to terrible treatment, by the time the slave ship had reached its destination? Our narrator, however, points out that those who did survive the journey were primed to endure what lay ahead. ("Middle Passage" screens Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 10 p.m., Feb. 18 at 11:45 a.m., Feb. 19 at 3:40 p.m.)

Another of the festival's more powerful films is Egyptian writer-director Atef Hetata's "The Closed Doors" (Saturday, 6:25 p.m., Feb. 18, 10 p.m.), a complex, multifaceted portrait of a poor Cairo youth's coming of age at the time of the Gulf War. The father of Mohamed (Ahmed Azmi) has left his mother (Sawsan Badr) for another woman, and this has made for an exceptionally close bond between mother and son. Working as a maid, the self-sacrificing mother lives for the day when she will see her son become an airline pilot. A serious, often picked-upon youth, Mohamed is experiencing the onslaught of puberty. His growing awareness of life's unfairness and cruelties combine with a nascent, threatening Oedipal complex to make him ripe for recruitment by Islam fundamentalists who offer him the security of rigid, male-dominant doctrine.

"The Closed Doors" is overly long and repetitive at 110 minutes, yet Hetata, who was renowned veteran director Youssef Chahine's assistant in his feature debut, uses this time to explore his people and their evolution with an acute sense of psychological validity.

"The Closed Doors" is a splendid example of the straightforward traditional narrative with glowing performances by Badr and Azmi.

With the exception of the opening night gala for "Kingdom Come" at the Galaxy Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, films screen at the Magic Johnson Theaters. Information: (323) 295-1706.


The USC School of Cinema-Television will present Friday through Feb. 18 "Shadows of the Modern: Social Change and the New Korean Cinema," composed of 12 features and including an academic conference on Feb. 17. On Feb. 18 director Park Kwang Su will appear with his films, "A Single Spark" (1995), one of the finest South Korean films of recent years, and "Black Republic" (1990). Korean cinema has emerged as a vital and critical reflection of the wrenching changes Korea has experienced over the last two decades.

Addressing that issue specifically is Lee Chang Dong's electrifying "Peppermint Candy" (9 p.m. Saturday at Norris Theater). Seol Kyeong-Ku, in a stunning portrayal, stars as Yeong Ho, a ravaged-looking 40-year-old man, inappropriately dressed in a suit and tie for a picnic in the country, a 20th reunion of a group of small-town factory workers. The celebrants try not to notice Yeong Ho's increasingly erratic behavior, which at its climactic point triggers a series of seven flashbacks spanning 20 years, in which this man's disintegration is keyed to his country's turbulent and repressive political history and its emergence as an industrial power. Lee, who wrote "A Single Spark," launches a broadside attack on the brutality and concomitant corruption in Korean society yet suggests that Yeong Ho is no less responsible for his fate.

Yeong Ho's curse is that he is too intelligent, too questioning, for his humble station in life as he progresses from sensitive and innocent rural youth through a savage rite of passage in the military that leaves him ripe to become a violent cop and then a no-holds-barred entrepreneur at last undone by the ruthless and risky nature of his existence. Familiarity with recent Korean history is undeniably a plus, but this bravura film connects on a timeless personal level.

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