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Pan-African Film & Arts Festival

February 07, 2009|Reed Johnson

Among the dozens of film festivals that start popping up in Southern California like desert wildflowers at this time of year, there's one that includes movies about Palestinian burial rituals (Nasri Hajjaj's "Shadow of Absence"), a Romeo and Juliet remake set in a Brazilian slum (Lucia Murat's "Another Love Story") and a third about the search for a lost Cambodian civilization (Lama Rangdrol's "Festival Canceled Due to Heavy Rain").

It's the 17th annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival, held in Los Angeles, and if those eclectic offerings surprise some people, they reflect how much both the festival and the notion of "African-ness" continue to evolve, says Ayuko Babu, the festival's director.

So great was the effect of the African diaspora that it would be easier to make a list of global locales without African influence (Antarctica?) than with them. Even today, that effect sometimes surfaces in unexpected places. "As a result of the slave trade, we spread all over the world," Babu says, "so there's a little bit of our story in all those places."

Of course, as evidenced by the festival, which officially opened Thursday night and continues through Feb. 16 (with most events taking place at the Culver City Theatre and the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza), much of that story is concentrated in Africa and the former colonies of the New World. But while Western media tend to focus on ongoing tragedies in places such as Darfur and the Congo, the festival seeks to give movie-goers a richer, more nuanced understanding of countries where riveting daily dramas unfold, even after they've stopped making the nightly news.

This year, for instance, two prominent festival films, Ralph Ziman's "Jerusalema" and Anthony Fabian's "Skin," are from South Africa, a country that in only the last two decades has broken the shackles of centuries of racial inequality and suffered the birth pangs of a new democratic government.

"South Africa is decisive in the development of black people in this world," Babu says. "If you're a conscious, educated black person, you pay attention to South Africa, sort of the way Jews pay attention to Israel." Right now, he adds, the country is especially eager to promote its film industry because it is the designated host of the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010 and wants to project an image of itself as a dynamic modern nation.

Darrell Roodt, another South African director, is represented in the festival with "Zimbabwe," about a young AIDS orphan struggling to survive with her brother in that desperate southern African nation. Among the more familiar names in the festival are Charles Burnett ("Relative Stranger" and a repeat showing of his 1977 masterpiece "Killer of Sheep"), John Sayles ("Honeydripper"), Spike Lee ("Miracle at St. Anna") and Norman Jewison, whose 1967 classic "In the Heat of the Night," starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger as odd-couple cops, is being screened. Another classic slated for viewing is "Black Orpheus," Marcel Camus' 1959 re-imagining of the Orpheus legend, set amid Rio de Janeiro's raucous Carnival.

About 200,000 people come to the yearly art festival, and around 40,000 attend film screenings. Over the years, Babu says, one of the Pan African's biggest challenges has been to avoid being stereotyped as a niche festival. That perception may shift somewhat this year, he says, as many white Americans lately have grown curious to learn more about the stereotype-defying new president, Barack Obama.

"If people had been going to these kind of festivals," says Babu, "they would have had a chance to really get an understanding of Barack."

For more information about the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, go to


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