America film festival showcases African movies

Beside the pool. The cast of Otelo Burning, one of the African movies that are being screened at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles. PHOTO | BILLIE ODIDI 

A cowboy in Namibia is beaten and left for dead in the vast desert, for protecting an innocent frontier woman from a transnational gang of brutal land grabbers. However things change when he is rescued by a mysterious gunman who has reasons of his own to sort out the gang.

This 13-minute movie shot entirely in Namibia is among a host of African films being showcased at the 21st Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF), America’s largest and most prestigious Black film event that opened this week in Los Angeles, California. There’s a wide range of productions being screened from Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Senegal and Uganda.

African Cowboy is written, directed and produced by English filmmaker, Rodney Charles, and a Namibian, Joel Haikali, who also plays the lead role along with South African actress and singer, Charlie Charles.

Haikali is a Namibian screenwriter, actor and director whose award-winning short film, Differences, won the 2009 Namibian Audience Choice Award. In 2011, his first feature film, My Father’s Son, was officially selected for PAFF, FESPACO in Ouagadougou and the Tri-Continental Film Festival in Johannesburg.

He made his international acting debut in 2007 playing the lead role of a young Sam Nujoma, the first President of the southern African nation, along with American actor, Danny Glover, in the film, Namibia - the Struggle for Liberation, directed by Charles Burnett.

“I have a passion for telling stories and my films are about the negotiation of personal identities in a system, be it modernity, tradition or stereotypes,” says the 33-year-old who is also the Chairman of the Filmmakers Association of Namibia.

Haikali's next role is in the film Feral, also directed by Rodney Charles, about an injured former Namibian soccer star who, while on the run, convinces a beautiful American tourist to hire him for her cross-country drive but discovers she is searching for the perfect location to kill herself.

Grappling with freedom

A South African film is nominated for Best Feature Film at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival this year. Otelo Burning is set in 1989 during the anti-apartheid struggle and three black South African boys escape their lives in the township of Lamontville, Durban, through the joy of surfing.

The story revolves around 16-year-old Otelo Buthelezi, his younger brother Ntwe, and his best friend New Year, who discover that “flying on water” represents a freedom from the misery of their violence-prone lives. The close friends initially bond through their shared antagonism to the apartheid system.

However, resentment sets in when Otelo outshines his friend, Mandla Modise, who had introduced the township boys to surfing and then Dezi, New Year’s younger sister, falls in love with Otelo. On the day Nelson Mandela steps out of prison for the first time in 1990, Otelo makes a decision that will change his life forever.

Teenage rivalry, love and politics combine to make for this powerful narrative, which took seven years to complete and is shot in Zulu with English subtitles. Director Sara Bletcher says the themes in the film are a metaphor for a nation grappling with its own freedom. “It s a young, vibrant, sexy story and one that has never been shown on the big screen before,” she says. “I don’t think people would put young black kids in 1990 together with surfing; that’s what makes it so striking, so unique and so local.”

Since premiering at the 2011 Durban International Film festival, Otelo Burning has had a great run at international film festivals in the last one year. It made its international debut at the 16th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and its UK premiere at the 55th BFI, London International Film Festival. It has also been seen at the Dubai, Seattle and Lille film festivals.

Despite this international success, the director says South African filmmakers no longer feel the need to shape their work to appeal to foreign audiences. “There is a new crop of young filmmakers who are beginning to tell stories in a more direct and authentic way that allows universal truths to emerge more convincingly.”

Nairobi Half Life

A film about Uganda’s tumultuous political past is also being screened at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival. State Research Bureau, a full-length film, directed by Matt Bish, is loosely based on the tumultuous events in Uganda during and after the reign of the dictator, Idi Amin.

In the film, set in 1985, a couple that escapes the brutal massacre of civilians by soldiers in the Ugandan town of Arua reaches Kampala but are intercepted on their way out of the country by the dreaded Captain Yusuf who runs a unit as ruthless as Amin’s infamous secret police. Every minute that passes draws the couple closer to their death and they must escape one of the so-called safe houses before it is too late.

“I wanted to make a film that, while having a political purpose, wouldn’t be overly polemic but rather observational – giving the viewer the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about what they are experiencing,” producer Matt Bish told the Monitor newspaper in Uganda at the film’s launch two years ago.

The all-Ugandan cast includes Roger Masaba as the bloodthirsty Capt. Yusuf, Okuyo Joel Atiku Prince who won the Best Actor Award at the Zanzibar International Festival for his role in the film, Cleopatra Koheirwe and Matthew Nabwiso.

The 37-year-old director, graduated with a degree in architecture at Makerere University, Kampala, before studying digital film in the Netherlands in 1998. Bish started his career producing television commercials and music videos before making his first full-length film Battle of the Souls in 2006.

The PAFF screening offers another international showcase for State Research Bureau after the film’s success at festivals like Amakula in Kampala and ZIFF in Zanzibar.

Nairobi Half Life, one of the most successful films produced in Kenya, albeit with German assistance, is another highlight at PAFF this year. The story of an aspiring actor who travels to the big city in search of his big break only to turn to a life of crime even as he tries to pursue his dream of becoming an actor has already been successful at Rotterdam, Berlin, Durban, Toronto and other major international film festivals.

The screening of David Tosh Gitonga’s directorial debut at PAFF comes just ahead of the film’s release in 100 movie theatres across the United States in March.

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