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Ambiguous adventures
The African Film Festival comes to the MFA

"African Film Festival"
At the Museum of Fine Arts February 6 through March 1.

Of the six feature films in this yearís African Film Festival (which is programmed by African Film Festival, Inc., in New York), five involve sea voyages recalled, made, or anticipated. The seaís primacy in this festival, in which films from coastal West Africa dominate, reveals its complex role in the African cinematic imagination: itís a nurturing and destructive spirit, an image of beauty and death, and a route of invasion or escape.

Throughout Abderrahmane Sissakoís beautiful Waiting for Happiness (2002; February 6 at 8 p.m., February 9 at 3 p.m., February 15 at 10:30 a.m., and February 16 at 2:10 p.m.), the sea is a place of memory and mystery. At one point, it washes up a dead body on a desert shore. The police come to investigate, then leave, taking the body away. We end up knowing nothing, only feeling that the strange mood the film has established has darkened and become more painful.

From its first images (a man buries a radio in the desert sand and walks away; a station wagon breaks down . . . ), Waiting for Happiness announces that itís about things that get lost, about places and people related in ways that arenít immediately clear, and about how the space of these relationships gets filled up with absence and distance. As the two main characters become familiar (Abdallah, a teenage student visiting his mother in a Mauritanian city; and Khatra, a little boy apprenticing with an electrician), a narrative takes shape, but it remains anecdotal. Abdallah spends most of his time reading and looking out the ground-level window of his motherís house. He makes half-hearted attempts to enter into the social life of the city but fails because he canít speak Hassaniya (the Arabic dialect thatís the majority language in Mauritania). Meanwhile, Khatra accompanies his mentor on trips to bring electric light to the outskirts of town. The film is filled with light humor and a calm sense of pleasure and acceptance, but its longest-lasting emotion is the equivocal distress implied by the title: to be waiting for happiness isnít necessarily to be sad.

Sissako leaves it unclear as to whether Abdallah is guilty of rejecting his culture or whether itís the culture that has rejected him. The hero of Alain Gomisís LíAfrance (2001; February 16 at 4 p.m. and February 21 at 8 p.m.), on the other hand, is anguished at the thought of losing his culture and fights to hold on to it. What El Hadj, a Senegalese student working on his dissertation in Paris, fears above all is that he will betray his nation. By the filmís ambiguous end, the apparent alternatives (fidelity or betrayal) have become confused. El Hadj gets a foretaste of this complexity when his friend, a fellow expatriate, recounts his return visit to Senegal: he was treated like a foreigner or a sick person, and revisiting the familiar places of his youth was like watching a movie.

The early scenes in LíAfrance are cut in a cryptic way that accentuates El Hadjís displacement and heightens its ambiguity, suggesting that heís in neither one place nor another. It becomes clear that this is indeed the case: he refuses to give himself up fully to his life in Paris because heís living for Senegal (perhaps this explains his delay in renewing his visa ó a delay that leads to his arrest and galvanizes the fitful narrative). A brooding, thoughtful, interior film about the struggle for personal identity, LíAfrance finally leaves unanswered the question it asks twice (quoting from Cheikh Amidou Kaneís novel The Ambiguous Adventure) about those who leave Africa to study in Europe: "Is what they will learn worth what they will forget?"

The community ties that are in danger of being forgotten in LíAfrance are preserved in Mansour Sora Wadeís absorbing The Price of Forgiveness (2001; February 7 at 8:15 p.m., February 9 at 5 p.m., and February 14 at 6 p.m.). This film takes place in a Senegalese fishing village that exists in a state of pre-colonial timelessness, a place where great ancestral feats are recounted and re-created in shadow plays. The village is plagued by a fog thatís so bad, "it has even changed peopleís voices." Mbanick, son of a dying marabout, takes off on a ritual sea journey to dispel the fog, whereupon he wins the love of the beautiful Maxoye. His envious rival, Yatma, kills him, and the rest of the film deals with the paradoxical punishment Yatma suffers.

The strength of The Price of Forgiveness lies in its mise-en-scène, above all its use of color, its evocation of landscape, and its delineation of a three-dimensional communal space. The straightforward plot has forward momentum, but Sora Wade ensures that thereís an equal pull toward the past. A griot who narrates the film from an unspecified future time also appears on the fringes of the story as a boy who hasnít yet accepted his destined role (heíd rather fish), and who identifies with Yatma as someone permanently in rebellion.

Rebellion is also the theme of Joseph Gaï Ramakaís Karmen Geï (2001; February 14 at 8 p.m., February 15 at 12:30 p.m., February 19 at 8:15 p.m., February 20 at 6 p.m., and February 22 at 11 a.m.). From its opening shot of Karmen sitting with her bare legs spread and smiling dazzlingly at the camera, the film celebrates its protagonistís sexuality as a subversive force in a corrupt society. The scene takes place at what at first seems to be an outdoor festival. When Karmen gets up to begin her star dance, the all-female crowd erupts in cheers. It becomes clear that the women are prisoners at an island-based womenís prison, and among womenís-prison musicals, Karmen Geï has no trouble surpassing Chicago. The film suggests that singing is a normal form of expression for its characters, but only Karmen and her band of freedom-loving outlaws sing ó the repressed and repressors in the film are limited to straight dialogue.

Although it leaves no doubt as to the inspiration for its story and characters, Karmen Geï is less remarkable as the first African film version of Prosper Mériméeís Carmen than as an attempt to Africanize blaxploitation. Like Pam Grier, Karmen is at once a sex object and an ass-kicking machine: she takes part in a jailbreak (accompanied by squealing-saxophone jazz from David Murrayís excellent score), rights wrongs, sleeps with whoever she wants (women and men), and in general behaves like an unstoppable natural force. Although itís entertaining, the film winds up compromised by its effort to follow Mériméeís plot in spite of its own impulses and logic, and the direction is more efficient than inspired. The best things about the movie are the music and Djeïnaba Diop Gaïís Karmen.

Directed by French anthropologist-filmmaker Eliane de Latour, Bronx-Barbès (2000; February 8 at 1:30 p.m.) is a more successful attempt to adapt an American genre ó in this case, the urban gangster film. One reason the filmís transplanting of genre works is that its characters themselves borrow names, styles, and figures of speech from America and Europe: since Bronx-Barbès thematizes Africansí emulations of the colonizersí culture, its stylization and its use of genre appear formally apt rather than (as in Karmen Geï) naive. Hoods in the ghetto of an African city (the film was shot in Abidjan) call themselves Tyson, Nixon, Clinton, Chirac, Apollinaire, Michael Jackson, or Al Capone. (Their assumption of these names recalls a movie shot in Abidjan by another French director 42 years earlier, Jean Rouchís Moi, un noir, in which the hero takes the name "Edward G. Robinson.") In one sequence, the hero freezes in the poses and outfits of action heroes in movie posters and the film images themselves become posters, with superimposed ad-campaign lettering.

Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (shooting in Scope) does agile work in cramped spaces. The frequent brutality of the action is offset by the richness of style and characterization: Latour is capable of cutting between violence and tenderness without falsifying either.

The one landlocked feature in the festival, British documentary filmmaker Nick Hughesís 100 Days (2001; February 21 at 6 p.m.), is set in Rwanda in 1994, at the outset of the state-orchestrated genocide of the Tutsi minority. The film links its re-creation of the genocide and its political context to a melodramatic account of the experiences of two young lovers separated by the holocaust. When it concentrates on the mechanics of the holocaust, the responses of individuals caught up in it, and the indifference or complicity of the "international community" (represented by UN soldiers and media professionals), 100 Days is chilling and effective. Visual and dramatic awkwardnesses can intrude, especially when the love story occupies the foreground. But this is a compelling effort and so far unique in its attempt to create a dramatic image of the Rwandan genocide.

Issue Date: January 30 - Febraury 6, 2003
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