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Africa First 2012 Profile: Advisor Mahen Bonetti On What Separates The Program From Others

Africa First 2012 Profile: Advisor Mahen Bonetti On What Separates The Program From Others

I’m close to wrapping up this series, with 1 or 2 more entries coming; but I hope that, in reading all the previous entries, intentionally spread of over the last 3 months or so, the program is one that you’re now intimately familiar with, and won’t soon forget; so when we talk about the Focus Features Africa First program, you’ll instantly make the connection!

But continuing on with the series… first, as always, a recap, for those just joining us. You can obviously skip this part and jump right into the interview below.

Announced last fall, the 5 filmmakers selected for the next class (2011) of Focus Features’ Africa First program were Oshosheni Hiveluah (from Namibia); Cedric Ido (from Burkina Faso); Mark Middlewick (from South Africa); Akosua Adoma Owusu (from Ghana); and Zelalem Woldemariam (from Ethiopia).

For those unfamiliar with the program… launched in 2009, Africa First was created “to foster and develop long-term relationships with some of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers from continental Africa.

The aim is that, through financial support of the program and mentorship provided by the Focus Features Africa First Advisory Board, to bring African filmmakers into an environment that will allow them to grow as filmmakers with an international audience. Each year, five filmmakers are awarded $10,000 each for production on a narrative short film made in continental Africa.

Kisha Cameron-Dingle, producer of such such projects as Spike Lee’s 2000 film, Bamboozled, and the 2005 TV drama about Rwandan genocide, Sometimes in April, runs the Africa First program for Focus Features, and her company,Completion Films, has a first-look and consulting deal with the company.

As well as on-site work in Africa, the progam includes a weekend of workshops in New York City with the program’s international advisory board of experts in African cinema.

We posted an into to the program interview with Kisha a few weeks ago (read it HERE if you haven’t; you’re strongly encouraged to do so); and as I promised, interviews with the 5 new filmmakers selected for the new current class (who are likely in production on their films right now, or soon to be), as well as their advisers, were forthcoming.

I’ve already posted 8 entries – 4 filmmakers and 4 advisers. 

Today’s entry is my conversation with another one of the advisors – Mahen Bonettithe founder and Executive Director of African Film Festival, here in NYC.

AFF collaborates each year with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and BAMcinématek to produce the annual New York African Film Festival. Additionally, the organization curates a series of other film programs with a host of national and international partners.

She was the last of my interviews, and we were in a bit of a rush, so this one’s shorter than the others, but still informative, and certainly worth reading:

Your name, a little about your background?

My name is Mahen Bonetti. I’m the founder and it’s so funny to say this, Executive director of the African Film Festival, a 501c3 not for profit arts organization that is based in NYC and showcases the works of African and Africa-Diaspora filmmakers, mainly filmmakers. We do local, national, and international programming, disseminating the work, making sure whatever space or venue requests the work, and also having filmmakers attend these screenings and engage with audiences. We also have an artists and residence program. We have become a focal point program so the name is deceiving. African Film Festival and most people think it’s just a festival but we’re actually a resource center for everything arts and culture.

Any connection- There’s an African Film Festival at Lincoln Center…

That’s our festival. We do year-round programming.

The AFF programming was very exciting last year. I recall you showed Viva Riva – which is where I first saw it…

I felt it was important to show another side. So, we had Viva Riva, we had Congo, we had the 3-part series that was done in commemoration… the Belgium government opened up their archives. They have 800 hours of footage of Congo and they digitalized it and it was fantastic to get this broad spectrum on the Congo, because everything you hear about Congo here is dismal. There are people on the ground. And that’s what’s important about seeing these films. We see actual local people advocating on the ground. There’s this perception that Africa always has its hand out and its not always the case, despite all the challenges, there’s a lot of resilience.

How does this program with Focus Features distinguish itself from others you’ve been involved with?

What makes this different? I wish I was an emerging filmmaker. (laughs). I mean, beyond the award, just the mentorship program that there are these advisors that are there at your disposal through out the year and beyond and carrying you through it. You can not put a prize on that.  

These advisors – I’m a programmer and some of them are programmers, and in addition to that they are producers, they’re teachers, they’re writers and they come with so many years of experience. So the selection of the advisors alone was really good throughout, and it’s like the core group that you have heard and it’s very different. It’s not giving someone an award and saying go out and do your thing. There are five people in place and even in the Focus Features company, they are there every step of the way with these people. Do you know how many people would die to have that opportunity? But not only African emerging directors, but emerging directors in general. You cannot put a price on it.

How would you define the success of the program?

The success starts with the creation of the program. The fact that you have these five filmmakers who have completion of their work and each one is telling a story that bring a different voice into the mix or point of view onto the landscape of Africa and the diaspora. So, for me, what’s fantastic about this is that it gives an overview and you start use it when we want to have audiences, or we want to give programmers the opportunity to learn about African cinema today.

It’s a fantastic program all around, and we use it when we do the community program. Our flagship program takes place in these established institutions so it’s also important for us to go into the community with this program, and it’s a way to introduce community by doing an outdoor screening in the Bronx, in Harlem at the park, Bedstuy in Brooklyn, Governor’s Island, and taking it on a traveling series to Latin America, or to Russia, and they were blown away. Because when you think of cinema, you think of Russians because they made historical cinema, so when they saw it they were blown away by the Africa First Program that was shown there. It was like an out of body experience.

On that note, since these films are playing internationally and on a global cinema stage, are there any pressures or burden in representing Africa in a certain light?

There’s a generation and it’s not only in Africa, but all over the world, that has grown up with this technology so there’s a lot of confidence that these filmmakers have, and they are confident in their craft and of their knowledge of their history. That takes off a lot of pressure already and then when you see the final product, it can compete with any other film.

The pressure is that you’re almost waiting your turn to show how good you are. There’s pressure is more trying to get it out there in various phases so people have the opportunity even when we do the traveling series, we’re mindful that these are films that are not only shown in the established academia or art house, but that the filmmakers make an effort to reach back.

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