New York African Film Festival highlights Tuareg movie inspired by Prince, Ousmane Sembène’s pioneering work and more
As fans mourn the loss of the pop star Prince, they may be surprised by the reach of his influence.
The flamboyant musician’s 1984 rock-musical “Purple Rain” is the template for the first feature production made in the Tuareg language, spoken by nomadic tribes of the Sahara Desert.
The drama, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai,” is one of the highlights of the New York African Film Festival, whose 23rd edition opens Wednesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The festival is part of a monthlong focus on African cinema that continues May 13 to 15 at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem. On May 18, the Brooklyn Academy of Music opens the theatrical revival of Ousmane Sembène’s pioneering 1966 film “Black Girl.” The month closes with the companion “FilmAfrica” series, also at BAM.
Although some selections are international co-productions, the films represent a variety of African nations, including Ghana, Sudan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.
“There is a homegrown industry on the continent,” said Mahen Bonetti, executive director of the festival, which spotlights not only artful independent titles but films, such as those from Nigeria’s “Nollywood,” that are popular at the African box office.
The Tuareg musical is a breakthrough for its star, real-life guitarist Mdou Moctar, who collaborated with the film’s director Christopher Kirkley, an American who has spent several years documenting the Tuareg music scene.
“No one else was going to remake ‘Purple Rain’ in the desert,” said Mr. Kirkley, who runs the Sahel Sounds record label in Portland, Ore. Mr. Moctar plays an aspiring performer who wears purple robes, rides a motorcycle and struggles both with a musical rival and his father’s disapproval of his career.
After that, direct comparisons to the Prince film are scarce. There isn’t even a word in Tuareg for “purple,” so the title translates to “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It.”
“I think that it’s a nice reference to the process of how this remake turned into something completely different,” said Mr. Kirkley, whose camera captures Tuareg musical gatherings with a kind of hypnotic grandeur and a campfire intimacy. “At the same time, it still bears the legacy of the original film.”
Performance and identity also are key themes in “Martha & Niki,” also showing at the Film Society. The Swedish documentary captures the dynamic street-dance routines of two African women living in an adoptive land far from their roots.
“Sweden is not a dancing country,” said Niki Tsappos, who, with her performing partner Martha Nabwire, dazzles audiences at hip-hop dance exhibitions and competitions across the world. “It’s something I needed to do to be.”
Filmmaker Tora Mkandawire Mårtens explores her subjects’ anxieties over their identities as Africans and their eventual decision to pursue their goals separately.
“The first time I saw them I couldn’t sleep for days after,” Ms. Mårtens said. “They were battling all these men that were great hip-hop dancers and they won and won and won. That was amazing to me, to see these girls just win all the time.”
That triumph is in contrast to the title character’s plight in “Black Girl,” which in 1966 became the first feature made by a sub-Saharan African filmmaker to reach an international audience. Sembène’s debut has been restored through the World Cinema Project of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.
Fifty years after its release, the story of a young Senegalese woman’s rebellion against servitude is as relevant as ever, said Samba Gadjigo, Sembène’s biographer and a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
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“There are still men and women who are going to look for opportunity in Europe and fall in a trap,” Mr. Gadjigo said. “ ‘Black Girl’ is a metaphor for the exploitation of black people and of Africa, which still continues.”
Mr. Gadjigo recounts his close relationship with Sembène, known as the father of African cinema, in “Sembene!,” which also screens at BAMcinématek. The Senegalese-born scholar co-directed the documentary with Jason Silverman, personalizing a biography of the novelist and filmmaker, who died in 2007 at age 84.
At age 17, Mr. Gadjigo discovered Sembène’s writing while enrolled at a French-language high school.
“My world fell completely apart,” he recalled. “I discovered that Africa had a culture. That Africa had a history and that Africans could also be actors in their own history, not a subject of history enacted by the white man.
– Steve Dollar