Americans are notoriously uncurious about the rest of the world, but we have special blinders on where Africa is concerned. We think of Africa, and we think of wars and starvation and disease, and it isn't just that we don't know much about it; we actively don't want to know about it. After all, our lives are too busy to fill our heads up with the suffering of a lot of people way over on the other side of the globe. Westerners once referred to Africa as the Dark Continent, and while political correctness has since done away with the term, Africa is, more than ever, a dark, gray blur in the Western mind.
The films in UC Irvine's Subsaharan African Film Festival offer us a wide-ranging look at Africa's past and present as well as some conjectures about its future, and they show us that the little we think we know about the continent is wrong.
The show kicks off Thursday, Feb. 12, with Ivory Coast director Roger Gnoan M'Bala's Adanggaman. The film tells the story of Ossei, a rather flighty 17th century tribesman; his biggest worry is dodging the arranged marriage his family is pushing him into, until pillagers arrive while he's away, slaughter his loved ones and take the rest of his village for slaves. The film has aroused tremendous controversy by concentrating on the role of African collaborators in the slave trade; it's a bold tale to tell while the world is still coming to grips with the legacy of slavery, and since the film premiered at the FESPACO Film Festival in Burkina Faso, the director has faced accusations that the story's focus absolves Western colonialists for their crimes. But Adanggaman simply puts new villains on trial without absolving anyone, and one could hardly watch the way Ossei's people are treated in this film and say they brought it upon themselves. Nanette Fornabai, UCI professor of French and Film Studies, is the evening's guest speaker.
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The following Thursday, Feb. 19, brings a double bill, with each film less than an hour in length. Afro@Digital looks at the continent's stunningly rapid transformation as this ancient land is flooded with 21st century technology; not long ago, telephone service was erratic in Africa, and now cell phones are enabling people scattered across the continent to keep in touch, workers are telecommuting, students are taking courses over the Internet, and citizens are gaining unprecedented access to Western pop culture (and freely downloading Western porn). It is, of course, an exciting but precarious time; here in the U.S., we had decades to get used to this stuff, and we're still arguing over whether we're better or worse off for being as plugged into the grid as we've all become. But what happens when all of this happens to a continent in a fraction of the time?
The festival closes with The Draughtsmen Clash, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda's 1996 satirical fable about a late-night, high-stakes game of checkers between the dictator of a fictitious African nation and the dope-smoking wanderer who unwisely professes to be the "all-around champion" of the game. The evening's guest speaker is Aboubakar Sidiki Sanogo, USC professor in Cinema-Television and former curator of FESPACO.
Obviously, a couple of evenings of films won't tell us everything about Africa. But they do reveal a land far richer and more complex than the horror show we've spent our lives flipping past on the evening news.
UCI Film and Video Center, Humanities Instruction Bldg., Room 100, Campus & W. Peltason Drs., Irvine, (949) 824-7418; www.humanities.uci.edu/fvc.Adanggaman: Thurs., Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m. $3-$5;Afro@Digital andThe Draughtsmen Clash: Thurs., Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. $3-$5.