2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival Review Round-up

The 19th edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival screens in New York from November 25 through December 13, 2011 at Quad Cinema, Teachers College at Columbia University, the Thalia Theatre, and the Schomburg Center for Black Culture. This year’s festival features 63 films from 37 countries. Some of the most interesting and eye-opening selections are the documentaries, a few of which I’ll review here.


An African Election (Jarreth Merz, Ghana/Switzerland, 2010)


Jarreth Merz’s revealing and meticulously crafted film examines in great detail, and with unprecedented access, the inner workings of the 2008 presidential election in Ghana. The election of Barack Obama earlier that year was a major aspirational influence on all participants in the Ghanaian election, who very consciously saw themselves as an important test case and example to the rest of the African continent. The major question was whether an African country, especially one with a long history of rulers seizing power through military coups, could conduct a fully democratic election without it descending into the chaos of civil war. Merz vividly details the twists, turns, and high drama of the 2008 election, especially the contentious period when, with neither of the two major political parties achieving a majority, a runoff election had to be held. Things got especially tense during the runoff, with accusations of fraud and vote tampering flying fast and furious on both sides. And even though a winner was eventually chosen without a bloody civil war, which becomes the cause for celebration (and no doubt, relief), unsettling issues remain unresolved. Not the least of these are the many problems with the voting process itself, which often resulted in long lines and many hours of waiting for people wishing to cast their ballots. Also, a civil war being narrowly averted seems to be a rather low bar with which to measure the success of an election. Still, Merz’s film excels in its penetrating examination of democracy in action, which, while not always a pretty sight to behold, is always fascinating to watch. An African Election will screen for an Oscar-qualifying weeklong run at the Quad, from November 30 through December 6, with shows at 1pm and 7:25pm daily. Jarreth Merz will appear for Q&A sessions on December 2, 3, and 4.


The Story of Lover’s Rock (Menelik Shabazz, UK, 2011)

Music documentaries are a frequent fixture at ADIFF, and a great example is this year’s opening night film The Story of Lover’s Rock, which sheds valuable light on an underappreciated and largely neglected music movement in 1970’s and 1980’s Britain known as “Lover’s Rock,” which was a distinct genre of reggae music which originated among black British people who were born to immigrants from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. Lover’s Rock was a softer, more romantic version of reggae that was a sharp contrast to the harder-edged, political, Rastafarian influenced music coming from Jamaica. This music, along with its culture of “sound systems,” (live venues that served as an alternative network to mainstream radio, which mostly ignored Lover’s Rock), and methods of dancing to these baby-making tunes, were an escape from the racism and violence young people experienced at the time. The Story of Lover’s Rock makes a powerful case for this musical genre as a mostly unacknowledged influence on British popular music, which spawned such figures as The Police, Culture Club and UB40. Lover’s Rock music, even though its practitioners are still not widely known outside diehard devotees, remains alive through its travels to other countries, especially Japan, where latter-day fans eagerly embraced this music, and helped revive the careers of some of its artists. The Story of Lover’s Rock will play a weeklong run at the Quad, from November 30 through December 6, with shows at9:40pm daily. Shabazz will appear for Q&A’s at the Quad on November 30, December 1, 2, and 3.


The First Rasta (Hélène Lee and Christophe Farnarier, France/Jamaica, 2011)

Jamaican reggae music is aesthetically, spiritually and politically permeated by Rastafarian ideology, which revered Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, and advocated healthy living, organic living, and of course, ganja. Many know at least this much about Rastafarianism; what most may not know about is the story of the man who began the movement, Leonard Percival Howell, who is largely forgotten, even by those who follow a Rastafarian lifestyle. Howell is the subject of the impressively researched and eye-opening documentary The First Rasta, which seeks to uncover the hidden, and governmentally suppressed, history of the man who existed as a constant thorn in the side to Jamaica’s government, both during and after British colonialism. Howell lived his early life as a sailor traveling the world, where he picked up ideas from everywhere he went: Communism, Indian philosophy, Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement, the Harlem Renaissance. With this eclectic mix of influences, he began a colony in Jamaica known as Pinnacle, where the guiding principle was self-reliance in every aspect, including farming and even creating a separate monetary system. Howell and his people were often persecuted by the authorities, and Howell spent some time in prison, and was even institutionalized in a mental facility at one point. An especially revealing fact emerges in the documentary: the most well-known aspects of Rastafarianism, wearing dreadlocks and smoking ganja, were directly influenced by Indians living in Jamaica at the time. Howell also had an influence on reggae music as well; Bob Marley, the world’s most famous and celebrated reggae musician, derived his nickname, “Tuff Gong,” from Leonard Howell, who was known as “Gong.” The First Rasta’s most moving passages concern music, much of it sung by now elderly followers of Howell, who are unstinting in their praise of their leader. The First Rasta screens at the Quad in a weeklong run from November 30 through December 6, with shows at 5:25pm daily.


Love Lockdown (Nadia Hallgren, US, 2010)

A little closer to home (New York City, that is) is the short documentary “Love Lockdown,” which addresses the impact of the radio show “Lockdown Love,” which is a forum for loved ones of incarcerated people. “Love Lockdown” follows one woman, Shoshanna, who uses the show to send messages to her boyfriend Felix, the father of her children who is currently in jail, as she anxiously waits to hear if he will be given a 10 year prison sentence. The film sensitively follows Shoshanna’s struggles to cope as a single mother, with the fate of her family, and the possible long absence of the father, threatened with the looming sentence that hangs like a scimitar over all their heads. The voice of the DJ is a conduit for the most impassioned and heartfelt feelings of those like Shoshanna who use it to communicate with their lovers behind bars. Behind this lies the backdrop of the overwhelmingly black and Latino makeup of those incarcerated in U.S.prisons, which of course is its own sad commentary. “Love Lockdown” screens November 27 at Teacher’s College at Columbia University and December 8 at the Schomburg Center, both times preceding Benedict A. Dorsey’s feature The Human Web.