INTERVIEW: Reclaiming Honor; African Film Fest Hopes To Challenge Perceptions
by Jacque Lynn Schiller
(indieWIRE/ 04.05.02) -- Culling from experience in colonialism to xenophobia, tribal customs to urban life, a new generation of African filmmakers is employing the visual poetry of cinema to share their culture and forge unity with the world audience. Beginning today and running until April 11, the eighth-annual African Film Festival at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater presents a "rigorous, controversial and artistically experimental" line-up determined to shed any pre-conceived notion of what constitutes Africa. (The festival moves to the Brooklyn Museum of Art on April 13-14). Among the U.S. premieres at this year's event are Mansour Sora Wade's "The Price of Forgiveness," Oliver Schmitz's "Hijack Stories," Akin Omotoso's "God Is African," and Teboho Mahlatsi's "South Africa A-Z." IndieWIRE spoke with Mahen Bonetti, the effervescent Executive Director of the African Film Festival, about persistence, Mother Africa, and the benefits of bluffing.
indieWIRE: Can you talk a bit about your role with the African Film Festival and its relationship with Lincoln Center?
Mahen Bonetti: [The AFF] was just a dream I had. I am originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and after many years living here in this country, I was feeling a bit useless. More than ever, Africa was in my mind as well as everyone -- with the crisis in Somalia, the farming in Ethiopia, and also the name African-American became official. But everyone had their own take or prognosis on what Africa and African was. I felt here again, someone else is speaking for us. Where is our own voice in this discourse?
iW: So this led you to ask how you could contribute. Did you come from a background in cinema?
Bonetti: No, I was not a professional. What really inspired me was in the late eighties I visited Locarno for the big open-air festival. Flipping through the catalog I saw 'Thirty Years of African Cinema," and I thought, "What is this?" Looking around I see I'm perhaps one of maybe three people of African descent. Immediately I said, "this is the answer."
iW: With almost 10 years now under your belt, I'd say you've become quite the professional. How did you get the ball rolling?
Bonetti: After Locarno, immediately I called the woman who organized the festival. She came to meet me with a mountain-high amount of documentation of what had been done for this retrospective. But still there was no reference to the African himself having anything to do with this reverence for the culture. I think it's subconscious -- it is something people have lived with for so long -- that we are these children held captive or that Africa is a continent up for grabs. So it might sound ambitious, but I thought through this medium [film] that has been used to show a side of us that was negative, let's use it as a tool to challenge those perceptions.
iW: Certainly the perception of Africa that most people have is incorrect.
Bonetti: When anyone thinks of Africa, they think of farming or disease. So for me, even though I knew nothing about film, I still knew that was going to be what I would do. And when I met my husband, he got me so into African cinema. I saw how much [Africa] has given to the world. During the eighties, intermittently an African film would play in the city, New Yorker being the main distributor at the time. I would go out and tell everyone I knew, but still the audience was 90 percent American or European.
iW: Preaching to the arthouse choir.
Bonetti: Exactly. But even though I came into this a little naïve, I also had a lot of energy. So entered Richard Peña, who for me is the one who mentored this idea for me. I got the most enthusiastic response from him. He said, "We're building this new theater. Go for it. Don't give up. We can do it bare-bones."
iW: Richard is great. He's done so much promoting so many different cultures' films.
Bonetti: It takes a lot of passion. And it is tedious. Along with Richard, I found two women, who if it were not for them... I had a baby. I kept writing. I would talk to people at the grocery. These women, one was married to a filmmaker, and she was game. Then we went to the NYFA [New York Foundation for the Arts] for a session on how to start a non-profit organization and met another woman who was intrigued. So then we got our non-profit status, sending out proposals, visiting the Foundation Library and I was still so gullible to think getting the money would be "easy-street." But this was not the case.
iW: I would imagine that at the time few people realized this was a viable product and would have an audience.
Bonetti: Listen to this: they would say, "African film? You mean the Coca-Cola one?"
iW: "The Gods Must Be Crazy."
Bonetti: I would hear that and think, "Oh Lord." So back to sending the proposals, after a while I knew the rejection letters by weight. But one day at the end of 1991, I get a call from a woman at the Ford Foundation. She asked me about the Festival and if we had other sponsors. I bluffed and said, "Yes... in time." Then she said to keep her informed. I was so excited and called Richard who said, "Mahen, I hate to disappoint you, but often these companies will only just call. But don't give up." So I wrote the lady a nice letter and then three weeks later she called me. I couldn't believe she called back! She said, "Okay, you and Lincoln Center put together a joint proposal. I can't promise anything but we'll look at it." The rest is history.
iW: That's inspiring, and also similar to the actual independent filmmaking process.
Bonetti: And these filmmakers, I tell you. This year's program is so strong. I think since inception this is one of our best. Richard also admits it. It's a new generation coming up who are witnesses and victims and really have something to say. There's a theme that runs though this, their storytelling: stark honesty. And it's beautiful what they are doing considering the resources and conditions they have to work with. I'm really proud of them. There's so much talent.
iW: How have you seen the festival change over the years?
Bonetti: Well the first year, initially we thought no one would be interested. We were supposed to have a two-week run but all the tickets sold out. Lincoln Center was blown away and I was scared. There I was with no background in relation to this work but I think our honesty and the passion we put into it paid off. So they extended the festival to a month. Monday afternoon screenings at 2 p.m. were sold out. Phenomenal. Of course after that -- a hard act to follow -- things kind of mushroomed. The more the merrier since there's no distribution outlet and it's really important to me that there is a cohesive voice. Too often we fragment ourselves. What are we as African people doing to reclaim honor? For me, [cinema] is a way to unify and consolidate all we have to improve tomorrow for our children.
iW: And you really see film as a way to accomplish this?
Bonetti: Yes. The power. The immediacy. The popularity. This year we have a film called "God is African." Now with South Africa opening up we have more filmmakers coming from English-speaking Africa. It's great. Also the Portuguese-speaking Africa that no one ever thinks about. It's full of surprises and people can discover this through films.
iW: Alright, put on your PR hat. What would you say to someone, not the typical audience member, in order to encourage him or her to come see some of the films?
Bonetti: In any sort of good filmmaking, you can always come there and identify. Maybe it's a color, or a sound, or the voice of a mother as she calls her child. Africa is never out of fashion.
iW: You mentioned earlier that when the AFF was first starting out, a traveling series was also established. What other programs are offered?
Bonetti: We started to get requests from programmers all over the country so we started like a Bible. We created a brochure with a synopsis, bio and contact information. From there, anyone can get this book and hold a festival. Richard also suggested the traveling series, which would develop audiences. We put together a package of four shorts and four features and offer it to 10 cities. This year, at least five of the filmmakers are staying here for at least a month and visiting the other festivals and colleges. We also try to insert films in the Human Rights Festival, Urbanworld, and Diaspora. We also have a community outreach program, outdoor screenings in the summer, and an in-school program with the East Harlem School at Exodus House. It is important for people to know this is not something that is just in town for a few weeks then goes away.
For more information about the festival, see http://www.filmlinc.com or visit the AFF website at http://www.africanfilmny.org.