TORONTO FESTIVALS: Toronto's African Planet, from Harlem to Johannesburg
by Cameron Bailey
Folks land in Toronto from stateside and it's like Canada's a parallel universe -- it looks the same, but feels different. Planet Africa is one dead giveaway.
The American industry knows that the Toronto International Film Festival has gracefully clawed its way to the top of the world's festival heap. They get that this is the place where Europe meets Asia meets Hollywood on the closest we'll ever get to neutral ground.
But Planet Africa throws them for a loop. A program that puts films from L.A. and Jamaica and Johannesburg in the same section? What is that? Back home we call that a ghetto. But Planet Africa soldiers on. Now in its fifth year, Planet Africa has evolved into a touchdown point for the international black film world. At Sunday's launch party, you could hear south London accents mingling with Brooklyn voices mingling with west African French.
On screen, it's the same vibe. William Jennings' spirit-lifting "Harlem Aria" opened the program, offering audiences Puccini in a world of phat beats. Damon Wayans executive produced the film and takes a juicy role as a crotch-grabbing street hustler. Dwayne Johnson Cochran's "Love and Action in Chicago" casts Courtney Vance and Regina King in one of this year's many romances. Malcolm D. Lee's "The Best Man," starring Taye Diggs and Nia Long, is playing here as a Special Presentation. Over in Contemporary World Cinema, Charles Burnett's "The Annihilation of Fish" has Lynn Redgrave and James Earl Jones in a rare screen romance between an older man and a woman who is actually his age.
Planet Africa also includes a couple of love stories further from the beaten path. "Compensation" is indie writer-director Zeinabu Irene Davis' drama about two deaf couples, falling in love on either end of the century. And in "Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100," Chicago filmmaker Yvonne Welbon charts the live and loves of America's oldest out lesbian.
Judging by the program this year, the renaissance of African American love stories continues to thrive. But then this is the place where, two years ago, Christopher Cherot met Harvey Weinstein. Cherot's "Hav Plenty," perhaps the ultimate indie African American romance, went from its Planet Africa screening to a Miramax deal.
Even with all this Yankee activity, there's still an Africa in Planet Africa. Cheick Oumar Sissoko's "Genesis," picked up by Kino International, transplants the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau to ancient Mali. The effect is sometimes electrifying.
There's a whole slew of South African films here, including Ross Kettle's feature "After The Rain," and three powerful short dramas made in co-production between Primedia Pictures in Johannesburg and London's Xenos Pictures. Africa film watchers look to South Africa for the next wave of directors; this year's films show the beginning of the surge.
The Planet Africa program also includes the end of an all too-brief career. Djibril Diop Mambety died this year, just after completing "La petite vendeuse du soleil" ("The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun"). In 1973, he raged onto the scene with a wild, couple-on-the-run movie called "Touki Bouki." It did for African film what Melvin Van Peebles' "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" did for African American movies. It was the wake-up call heard across a continent.
Directors like Jean-Marie Teno heard the call. Teno hails from Cameroon in West Africa. With producing partner Christiane Badgley, a Bay area transplant to Paris, he turns out scathing looks at contemporary Africa. This year it's a subversive one-hour documentary called "Chef!" ("Chief!") In it, Teno lines up the proud village chiefs of Cameroon with the overproud national leaders. He sees one continuous line of hubris running from the presidency to the village circles and even into the family. In Cameroon, the husband is the chief of the family. By law.
Teno's film represents the idea behind Planet Africa. But the program as a whole goes way beyond just ideas. Chris Browne's "Third World Cop" races along with the shameless glee of a Hong Kong crime flick. It's a product of Palm Pictures, part of Chris Blackwell's Island Records empire. But somehow, this movie keeps the feel of something homemade. It's set in Kingston's toughest districts and features Paul Campbell, the baddie in Dancehall Queen, doing his best Charles Bronson. "Third World Cop" sometimes feels like it's held together with guts and gaffer tape, but I loved this movie. And this is Planet Africa, too.
[Cameron Bailey is a writer and broadcaster in Toronto. He programmed Planet Africa from 1995 to 97.]