New York Festival Gives Voice to African Stories

A tale of a woman who flees the life of a gangster’s wife. The clash of the traditional versus the modern. A documentary look at a rising new musical sound.

Universal themes, told from the African perspective at the New York African Film Festival.

This year’s 25th annual festival features more than 70 films from 25 African nations and the African diaspora, with offerings in every genre, from comedy and satire to full- length dramatic features, documentaries, shorts and some hybrid-category films.

Festival founder and director Mahen Bonetti said every film has something that is intangibly, yet vividly, African about it “under the skin.”

“It’s atmosphere. It’s color. It’s language. It’s intonation,” he said. “And I think it comes from us being storytellers. It’s a living thing. You dip your foot in that stream, and the water feels different.”

Something for everybody

Offerings include the New York premiere of “Borders,” a feature film by Apolline Traoré of Burkina Faso. It’s about four women traveling by bus across several West African frontiers, starting in Dakar and traveling, via Bamako, Cotonou and Ouagadougou, to Lagos.

Also featured is “Makila,” a French-Congolese co-production about a 19-year-old girl who marries a gangster but goes into hiding to start a new life.

Lovers of politically tinged satire may seek out “Wonder Boy for President” — a charismatic unknown is tapped by corrupt politicians to run for president of South Africa.

Featured documentaries include “Tahar Cheriaa: Under the Shadow of the Baobab,” a Tunisian documentary about one of the core fathers of Pan-Africanism. There’s also “Birth of Afrobeat,” about the grassroots creation of the musical genre in Lagos.

Traditional values and the human heart clash in “Still Water Runs Deep,” a short feature film written and directed by Abbesi Akhamie, a young Nigerian-American. It centers on a stern family patriarch who searches in vain for a wayward son who has gone missing.

Akhamie said the main character reminded her of her own highly traditional father.

“Usually, he is in control of everything. He is the leader of his flock. But this time, when one of his sheep’ goes astray, it’s something he just can’t control. And how do you really deal with that as a man, as a father?”

Mixed reviews

Akhamie is proud that the film was selected by festival producers but noted its storyline received mixed reviews in Nigeria, where happy stories are the norm.

“This is very independent and raw,” she said. “Also, Nigerians don’t want negative images coming out of the country. It’s a very communal society. And if they see something they don’t like, they’ll tell you, ‘Don’t do that.’ They’re hypersensitive.”

Festival founder Bonetti, who comes from Sierra Leone, welcomes — even relishes — controversies over the films. She said audience views often run counter to type.

“When people leave the theater, I sometimes see the white person arguing that we are patronizing Africans,’ while the African is saying No! That’s how it is!’ And then everyone goes off and has a drink.”

Some films explore the African immigrant experience in the United States. Yusuf Kapadia directed “Mamadou Warma: Deliveryman,” a short documentary about a young man from Burkina Faso who works as a bicycle deliveryman in New York after being shot by police during a student protest in his homeland.

One of Bonetti’s favorites is “Purple Dreams.”

The film documents six disadvantaged African-American teenagers in North Carolina who find purpose and redemption in a local music and theater group.

“It’s a very triumphant story about young people facing so much adversity, but overcoming that adversity through culture. It keeps them alive. It keeps them out of jail. It gives that hope.”

In some cases, that hope was well-founded. One member of the troupe will soon make his debut in the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton,” while another has been accepted into the Ailey II Dance Company.

Bonetti acknowledged that putting on a film festival that explores the diversity and complexity of Africa and the African diaspora is a constant challenge.

“But what is beautiful is that all of these filmmakers keep giving us a face and a voice,” she said. “I’m beaming to be sharing this quality of work with our patrons here in New York and the world.”

The New York African Film Festival is co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs May 16 through May 21.