Volume 75, Number 51 | May 10 - 16 2006

Mahen Bonetti, ambassador of African film

By Judith Stiles

While some film buffs scoured Tribeca for the latest and greatest in so-called independent films, true aficionados followed Mahen Bonetti uptown to Lincoln Center to sample a cornucopia of extraordinary movies in the thirteenth annual New York African Film Festival, which runs till May 29 at various locations (visit www.africanfilmny.org for times and listings). Festival director Bonetti has carefully selected films that tell their stories in a uniquely non-western and non-linear fashion, like the lively, honest “Don’t F— With Me I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters” by Sumisani Phakathi, or the sweet comedy “On line Rendez-Vous” by Adama Roamba, where an estranged couple only communicates by writing on the bathroom mirror. The indefatigable cineaste, who has lived and worked in Chelsea for twenty years, has acquired a premier library of African cinema in her office, where she spoke recently about the festival, African storytelling, and her favorite spots in Chelsea.

When you approached people about creating an African Film Festival in 1989, you said “high-powered blacks” thought such a festival would be hard to sell. Why?

I think it was largely based on economics, because money is culture in this country. They did not see a market here for African films. Getting turned down only became a bigger challenge for me. Fortunately, Richard Pena of the Film Society of Lincoln Center was an enormous help in the creation of this festival. He completely supported the program from the beginning.

African cinema has been described as a “non-linear” style of filmmaking. What does that mean?

This kind of work is born out of a tradition of oral history — of telling, not writing stories. I agree with Ousmane Sembene, who is considered the father of African cinema, when he said that cinema is going to preserve that oral tradition, like the old man in the village.

In the film “Drum” by Zola Maseko, the scene in which Taye Diggs is brutally stabbed to death by a gangster is very different from typical Hollywood murder scenes. Is this an example of the stylistic differences of African cinema?

That is what I am talking about with the difference in storytelling. In that scene the filmmaker told the story of murder, but in the same moment, without a lot of words, he also beautifully told the story of how in Africa we are all related. We have this saying that there is not a bush where you can throw a bad child.

What are your upcoming plans for the festival?

I started a program that brings the films into different urban schools. We also present the films in city parks in the summer, which is great because it feels like a village gathering. At ICP on May 12, we are showing a wonderful film telling the story of Ethiopia going backwards in time, all the way back to Lucy, the first human being. You must see it! It is called “Blood is Not Fresh Water” by Theo Eshutu. Then at BAMcinematek on May 27 we have “The Golden Ball” which my husband Luca loved because it is the story of a boy-wonder soccer player, who went from his village in the bush to superstardom in France.

Of all the films in this year’s AFF, which one would you choose to show here in lower Manhattan, at the school of your fourteen-year-old daughter, Miriama?

I would show “All About Darfur” because young people today have mostly learned about the perilous situation in Darfur from those outside the country. These stories are told by ordinary Sudanese in tea shops, markets, and living rooms. It is a personal story of how this crisis came about.

Are there spots in your neighborhood that you would recommend to others?

There is wonderful art in the Axis Gallery on 17th Street, which exhibits works from southern Africa – beautiful beading for weddings and aprons, paintings, and mixed media. And the pastries are really delicious at the City Bakery on 18th Street.

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