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A Shadow & Act Chat w/Pan African Film Festival Founder/Director Ayuko Babu

A Shadow & Act Chat w/Pan African Film Festival Founder/Director Ayuko Babu

The Pan African Film Festival begins this week in Los Angeles with an eclectic lineup of films from across the Diaspora scheduled to screen this year, its 20th anniversary by the way; and I’m looking forward to finally seeing a number of films we’ve covered here on S&A that’ll be making their world premieres at the festival, like Russ Parr’s The Under Shepherd, Philippe Niang’s Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Neema Barnette’s On The Seventh Day; as well as films that have screened previously elsewhere but that I’ll be seeing for the very first time like Alfons Adetuyi’s High Chicago, Bill Duke’s Dark Girls, and several other titles. 

I won’t be there for the festival’s opening night film Think Like A Man, which happens this Thursday, the 9th; I don’t get to the festival until the 16th, which is next week Thursday. That’s as soon as I could get there unfortunately. But I’ll still get to see most of the films on my to-see list, and I’m sure we’ll get some coverage of Think Like A Man, even if it doesn’t come from directly from me.

Leading up to opening day, expect to see a number of S&A interviews with filmmakers and actors of a few films that will screen at the festival which Vanessa did and will be posting here spread out over the next couple of weeks; so look for interviews with Neema Barnette (director of On The Seventh Day), Jimmy Jean Louis (star of Toussaint L’Ouverture), Alfons Adetuyi (director of High Chicago) and possibly others.

But to kick things off, we’ll start with a Shadow And Act conversation with the head honcho himself, the founder and director of the festival, Mr Ayuko Babu. who waxes on everything from The Help, his festival’s evolution, what the festival looks for when considering films, and highlights of this year, being its 20th anniversary. 

The festival runs from February 9th through the 20th. Maybe I’ll see some of you there…

Read on below:

Can you talk about the founding of the festival, and how you got involved with it and its creation?

Essentially, myself and other people that came out of the sixties; we were from the sixties basically. And when I say we came of age in the sixties, we mean it starts really in 1965 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery with Dr. King, and all those ladies who were depicted in The Help. The ladies in The Help, were really, I don’t know if you know but most of the people who supported the Montgomery Bust Boycott were actually “The Help,” they were maids, and they actually refused to go on the buses to white folks houses, and they liberated themselves. That’s really the most important story, and not the one we saw.

Have you seen The Help?

I actually haven’t seen The Help.

You’ll see that they just kind of waxed that, but in fact the real maids, they empowered themselves by not going to people’s houses and started the whole thing in Montgomery. So, then from the sixties one of the things we felt needed to be changed was the colonial education and we needed to control the education. We were getting “his story,” and not our story. And we believed and at this point it was very important to try to put an institution together to help push our stories because we believe that unless you understand your story, then you’re not going to be able to liberate yourself and enrich yourself, or develop yourself, and our stories are complicated narratives. With the Slave Trade and colonization, we’ve been spread all over the planet.

So we have stories in Los Angeles, Lagos, stories in Cairo, and stories in Brazil, so we have to put all the stories together. And since we all scattered so all over the planet, we tend to get caught up in our own particular story. You talk to youngsters from LA and they swear they’re only from LA. You talk to somebody from New York and it’s the same, and you talk to somebody from Lagos, London, you know. But in fact, it’s all of those stories. So we felt that in this historical period, the important cultural thing we could do is to be involved in the struggle to tell our stories on the big screen, small screen, because that’s where most people get their information.

We have to fight to get our story out there so that people can understand our stories a little bit better and understand the other parts of the Diaspora, and what I mean by that is that the Haitian person needs to understand the African American, and the African American needs to understand the Nigerian, and the Nigerian needs to understand the South African, South African needs to understand the Papua New Guineaian because they are all part of the total Pan African world and unless you understand that, you can’t really go forward with techniques and strategies to continue to liberate ourselves politically, economically, and materially. So, that’s the context of it and that was put forth by some brothers from – we went to the Pan African Festival of Cinema and Television-FESPACO- which is the largest black film festival in the world, 400, 000 people come. They asked us to get involved and see what we can do in terms of putting together a similar opportunity here for black folks.

The other thing we realized was that in order to get distributors to make more than what they think about, most of the distributors are following a formula, and their formula is that you get these stars, in this case rap stars, and then you get a white star, put them in a film. That is the film with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. Parton has a following and Queen Latifah has a rap following, and you put that together. So we said, if you don’t have that type of formula and you think got something more that’s different, then you have to put your film in a film festival and tell your distributor that there’s an audience that comes to the festival to see the film. So you want to let distributors know what we think, and what kids go to, then you got to put a festival together that shows the spectrum of stories and brings a spectrum of black people together.

How has the festival’s mission evolved since it was formed?

We did not anticipate how much of a cultural, social event the film festival would be in the sense that black folks like to come and see folks from around the world, and also hang out with each other. We didn’t understand the importance of the public space. We knew there was very little public space devoted to black cultural events and if you looked in the papers and the television, 99 percent of that was white. And you didn’t get anything hardly of us in public space. So, when we took the public space for ten days, then we began to see that people really gravitated towards that opportunity to see their old friends, to exchange ideas, to have a cup of coffee, and sit around and talk about the films and the social aspect was to enjoy our cultural experience and get a chance to have some place in this city and in the country, we also have Atlanta, where we could do that. So it’s about awareness and the need to have public space for ourselves and learn something about our experiences. .

When considering films for the festival, what kind of things do programmers look for?

Number one, does this film speak to our sensibility as black people? We’re not interested in films that try to explain us to other people, and we’re not interested in films that try to simplify us, our culture, in terms of caricature, stereotype, or buffoonery. We’re interested in films that really give us insight into authentic black culture, authentic humor.

Are we able to walk away and get some energy, walk away and get some insight, and be entertained? That’s our number one criteria, is it a good story? And we’re not necessarily concerned about the technical quality, because we know that a young filmmaker can work on improving that technical quality. We’re more interested in does it have a story, and have some kind of significance in subject for us. We believe that a piece of art, whether its film, a book, sculpture, or whatever, is supposed to stop you and take you out of your ordinary life for a few minutes or an hour and make you think about things you wouldn’t have thought about or see things you’ve never seen before, and take that wisdom and take it into your everyday life so you’ll be more empowered and have more of a sense of, and be more enriched and entertained.  So that’s our criteria.

So, for example if you’re going to do a story about our pathology like Precious or Pariah, we want to make sure that it speaks to us, and not a voyeur trip for other people to see what black folks are doing and how crazy they are. Does it speak to us as a people? That’s one thing.  You can be negative. We don’t have a problem with people being negative but it has to give some elevation and insight. So, we don’t want to have any films for entertainment for entertainment’s sake. We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in having it be entertaining, but it also has to say something. Does that make any sense?

Yes, lots of sense.

Can you also speak about the festival’s role as a community organization?

We feel that the role of a cultural leader or an institution that’s trying to lead our people some place has to be one that says we engage all levels of the black community. From day one, we put together the Student Fest program to expose black people from middle school and high school to Africa and how we’ve been spread through out the world. We feel that in the 21st century and since they’ve been living, and will be living long after we’re gone, they need to understand what’s going on in Lagos, Nigeria. They need to have some insight in South Africa. They need to have some insight into Haiti. They need to have some understanding of what the Africans are doing in England, and Germany and so forth because they live in a black world and the leadership of the black world is coming out of Africa and they have land and they have power. So we knew it was important for young black people to connect, so we started a student fest program.

We also feel it’s important to give the visual artists, and fine artists a platform also because they are almost excluded out of all the major galleries and all the major and minor places in art, and they are almost excluded absolutely. So they needed a platform so people can come and see the work that’s being done, and purchase it and get some. So that’s an important part of the festival.

Can you talk about festival highlights for this year’s 20th Anniversary?

Everybody should go on the website. All the films are up on the website now., as well as on Facebook, and just go through what the films are. We got some incredible films, we got a film from Nigeria called 96 Minutes, and we got about 20 films from the past bringing them back this year, and one called Besouro, which is one of the great films from Brazil about the great martial artists and it’s a feature film. We’ve got some incredible films from Jamaica, and Cuba and Guadalupe called Black Mozart, which is an incredible story and we haven’t heard about this brother in the 18th century who was a great composer, as well as fought in the French Revolution. There’s another story called Black Venus, which is a story about the sister that was taken in slavery and then put into indentured servitude in Europe and was put on exhibition so white folks can look at her big butt. The South African Government got her body back, and she’s back in South Africa now.

There’s a lot of great films. We have a film that was just nominated for an Academy Award yesterday, Chico and Rita. It’s a fabulous animation that deals with the love story between Chico and Rita, who were a piano player in Cuba and a singer and they are part of the great legacy of jazz and bebop musicians coming together with Cuban musicians.

Bill Duke has got a film called Dark Girls, and he begins to try to examine our self-hatred in terms of our skin color as a result of being in slavery and colonization. Cosmic Africa is a look at the mystical and spiritual outlook of African’s cosmology through the eyes of the young scientists of Africa, and looking at the different signs and symbols as well as connected to the astrological signs. Incredible film.

And there’s another film and I want everybody to come out and see this and it’s called The Education of Auma Obama. It’s President Obama’s sister, and she got President Obama to Kenya on the first trip and you see footage of him and Michelle before they were married enjoying Africa for the first time. It’s a tremendous look and insight.

Go online and you’ll see a lot of films and a film called Elza, from Guadalupe, and you get a chance to see the complexity of how they work out their mother, father, and the children’s relationships and what it means to be a Caribbean person working on all these issues. 

Please go to our website and Facebook and download everything. Please spread the word. It’s at the RAVE theaters for ten days and nights. So spread the word.

Thank you.

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