African Film Festival continues its mission in its 12th edition

| Staff Writer

A Nigerien Prince bikes through the desert of a Tuareg community as he battles against music rivals and a conservative family. His journey, a music-infused adventure that brings classic guitar and blues sounds to the Tuareg region, comes to the screen in the form of a film aptly titled, “Rain the Colour of Blue with A Little Red In It.” It’s a window into the unexpected rock-heavy scene of Niger that the African Film Festival transports the audience to this time around.

In its 12-year run, the African Film Festival has carved out an important place in the St. Louis’ and Washington University’s film scenes. This year, the festival will continue its traditional three-day programming of contemporary African films starting March 31.

With each edition, the festival’s main goal has remained constant: to shine a light on narratives that normally do not reach mainstream audiences for a number of reasons. Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, the festival’s organizer, is conscious of this when selecting the films that will be screened. It is a big responsibility, after all, to choose films that fairly represent and accurately highlight the diversity of stories found in every African country.

“I am very careful about trying to choose non-stereotypical things that otherwise might be great films but might reinforce that stereotype,” Toliver-Diallo, who also serves as assistant dean and academic coordinator of the College of Arts & Sciences, said.

It is not surprising, then, to find an extensive range of films in the festival’s schedule, from science fiction to opera. The process in finding such films is not easy but after 12 years of doing this, Toliver-Diallo knows exactly where to look for them.

In many ways, this is a process that never seems to stop. Toliver-Diallo is always reading film news and closely following coverage from different festivals around the world that feature African films in their programming. “76,” for instance, is a film that garnered considerable buzz when it premiered last September during the Toronto International Film Festival. This historical fiction drama about a failed coup will be the first Nollywood film to be shown at the African Film Festival.

“[76] is told from an angle that really empowers the women in the film and I was interested in that,” Toliver-Diallo explains. “I mean, it has some Nollywood elements with the crazy, dramatic music and little bitty things like the editing but I think that’s part of the whole experience of a Nollywood film anyway.”

There is a remarkable essentiality that the festival has fostered over the years to push audiences to be critical about the narratives they consume about the African continent. These tend to be tokenized narratives that arbitrarily depict Africa as a country and not as the 54 countries that make up the continent. That is why the festival, for instance, finds the need to feature stories about empowering women.

“Children of the Mountain,” the second feature film of the festival, revolves around a mother who goes through great lengths to find a cure for her child who was born with cleft lip. Similarly to “76,” this film also gained notoriety after it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and caught the attention of Toliver-Diallo. She also read interviews by the cast and crew and was intrigued by their passion for the film. The film’s director, Priscilla Anany, will be in attendance to discuss her film after the screening.

Even the short films, which serve as openers for the feature-length presentation, deal with a diverse number topics related to LGBTQIA* issues, polygamy, marriage and love. Notably, all the shorts are from France, which surely adds an extra layer of underlying diasporic themes in the narratives.

Perhaps the film that will be most talked about this year is “Akounak Tedalat Tah Tazoughai,” which translates to “Rain the Colour Blue with a Little Red in It.” Its inclusion marks the first time a feature from Niger will be shown at the festival, and it is a special one. The film, which will close the festival, is an unapologetic tribute to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” using the iconic 1984 musical drama as the structure of the plot.

“[The film] really gives you a good sense of the Niger landscape and once you get that it’s an homage to Prince, you follow the story,” Toliver-Diallo said. “There are things that are definitely cultural to Tuaregs and that region which are cool and very educational but it really does follow ‘Purple Rain’ pretty much from start to finish.”

This is, in fact, the first ever feature in the Tuareg language, which becomes an introduction into the Tuareg people, an ethnic group from Northern Africa. The film stars one of the biggest musicians from the region, Mdou Moctar, and nonprofessional actors, a practice that echoes the origins of African cinema.

Ask Toliver-Diallo what her favorite part of the festival is, and she will not hesitate to say the children’s programming. This year, Abdul Ndadi, the director of “Orisha’s Journey,” will lead a hands-on workshop that will take children through the process of animation and cartooning.

“[Ndadi’s] philosophy is also very important because he wants to tell stories for youngsters about Africa that don’t involve animals. He feels that a lot of the stories are fun but they involve animals, which distort what part of Africa the story comes from and that’s his objective with this,” she noted about Ndadi.

It is indeed an important message that must be instilled in the younger generations if we are to change the one-dimensional perception of African countries. The African Film Festival, then, becomes a yearly reminder of the power of cinema: an art that actively changes and affects us in ways beyond mere entertainment.

The 12th African Film Festival runs from March 31 to April 2. It is free and open to the public.