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Black Faces Missing at Film Festivals: Why African Films Deserve More Attention

In this report from the Locarno Critics Academy, Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii speaks about African films on the international film festival circuit, as well as the blackness and Africanism that is reflected in her art.

yellow fever

“Yellow Fever”

The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the Locarno Film Festival.

Kenyan Ng’endo Mukii was the only black Sub-Saharan filmmaker showing her film “Yellow Fever” at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. For the duration of the festival, she participated in the Filmmakers Academy, an educational workshop. During a residency with the South African Realness program, Mukii— a mixed-media animator who lives in the Kenyan capital Nairobi—developed the script for her first feature, which is, in her words, “set in Kenya with two girls and a goat and explores coming-of-age themes through the forms of magical realism and the fable.” When she first noticed the scarcity of contemporary African cinema in the festival’s programming, Mukii—modest, witty, precise in her language—was shocked. “I had no idea of how underrepresented African filmmaking was,” she said, in an interview at the festival.

Given that the festival is taking gender parity seriously, one might also be lead to believe that the programmers would make more of an effort for the inclusion of films made south of the Sahara, by all genders. However, browsing through the immense, intense program of the 71st Locarno Film Festival, the underrepresentation of African films becomes obvious.

The festival encompasses eleven sections, giving room to established as well as upcoming directors, to fictional, documentary and experimental films—short as well as long—and several historical retrospectives. The spectrum seems as endless as it is endlessly interesting. Naturally, there is a certain focus on U.S., European and Swiss films, likely due to the grandeur of the Piazza Screenings, to globally dominant or geographically close film industries. Indeed, this year’s Open Doors, a section that aims at “assisting directors and producers from countries in the South and the East where independent filmmaking is vulnerable,” focuses on films from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. But where are the Sub-Saharan films, or even more so, specific voices of Sub-Saharan blackness? In the section for contemporary films there was only one South African feature, “Siyabonga. This is the story of a young, black inhabitant of a township, fighting for his dream—to be in a movie—to come true. Nevertheless, the director Joshua Magor is white.

“It’s not the case that there are no films and even more so films of quality that come out of the continent and were made in Africa by Africans themselves,“ Mukii said. „A lot of my friends are brilliant, amazing filmmakers. This situation with Locarno is really confusing.” In an international program that hosts only two films from Sub-Saharan Africa, what are the factors that explain this strange phenomenon? On the one hand, Mukii acknowledges that one requires a curatorial willingness to dig deep and investigate the movies of the continent. On the other, she said that the Western film festival circuit and its importance for international distribution of films may not be well known nor broadly accessible among filmmakers in Africa. There is, she added, also “a lack of national and continental funding possibilities for film. Producers mainly come from Europe or the States, which I also see as another kind of colonialist implementation.”

Can this underrepresented blackness thus be compensated with, for instance, “The Equalizer 2” or “BlacKkKlansman,” which focuses on an African-American police officer who investigated and infiltrated the KKK in the ’70s? Spike Lee’s newest feature bluntly, warningly equates the story on which its based with the present situation in the US under Donald Trump. “No, of course not. There is a lot of subtlety and variations to blackness and Afro-centricty across the globe,” said Mukii, calling Lee a brilliant ambassador for American blackness. She spent five years living in the US, where she grappled with a “second imperialism of now in the context of black and African-American culture, and what was projected as being a global black consciousness.” The definition of what it meant to be black or of African heritage was heavily defined by the American perception of it, erasing the diversity and presence of other constructions of blackness.

“When I lived there, my African-ness was weird, but my blackness was understood,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t fulfill the very specific black notion because I wasn’t the right kind of black, because I failed at fitting into boxes, because even in the understanding of my difference as a black African, I still was not fulfilling the preconceived notions of Africa(ns) either.” This, coming from a woman who dresses in locally tailored outfits made of African wax and kanga prints, wears her curly hair short, and speaks with a British accent.

Where did she get that accent? Her parents sent her to Catholic convent school to fulfil a certain middle class ideal. Part of this ideal also entailed chemically straightening curly hair on little black children, driving a certain car, living in a certain neighborhood. All in all, “a western package,” to use Mukii’s phrase. The Irish and Scottish nuns at the convent physically punished the children when they would speak in local languages, including Swahili. Yet another “colonial mindset.” In her work, Mukii questions practices such as hair straightening and skin bleaching. During our interview, she also mentioned the widespread appreciation for Kim Kardashian’s shape.

According to Mukii, “her proximity to whiteness” made it fashionable— when I comment on Rhianna’s drastically lightened skin tone, Mukii playfully avoided the conversation, saying that she can’t cope with the thought. All these practices are used to praise predominantly Western beauty ideals and suppress Sub-Saharan blackness.

In “Yellow Fever,” her award-winning documentary-animation from 2012, Mukii investigates the implications of skin and race in her own family. The plot evolves around a discussion she had with her niece, in which the young girl praises blonde hair and white skin. Based on her consumption of fantasy children’s TV series her niece believed she could use “magic, ” to change her physical appearance to fit a more western ideal. In the reality of daily life, this translates to many women (and increasingly men) using damaging bleaching creams and melanin-altering concoctions to improve their appearance. “Our own blackness went out of fashion, when we started to see ourselves through Western eyes,” Mukii said.

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