I first began covering the Annual African Diaspora Film Festival in New York in 2000 and looked forward once again to this year’s event with the highest expectations. After having seen six different films—three fictional and three documentaries–from the 2010 festival, I can state without qualifications that this is New York culture at its pinnacle. For those who have to put up with the cities indignities and growing class differentiation, there are still compelling reasons to live here. The African Diaspora film festival that began yesterday and ends on December 14 is at the top of the list.
Starting with the fictional films, John Kani’s 2009 “Nothing but the Truth” is a stunning departure from “feel good” Hollywood films like Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” or John Boorman’s “In My Country” in which the election of Nelson Mandela assumes messianic proportions.
Kani, regarded as the grandfather of South African theater, wrote, directed and stars in this mixture of family drama and social commentary. He plays Sipho, a sixty-three-year-old librarian who is organizing the funeral for his brother Themba, who had been living in exile in Britain for decades. When he comes to the airport to pick up the body and greet his niece Mandisa, an Oxford educated fashion designer with few ties to the homeland, he is shocked to learn that Themba has been cremated. How can the mourners pay tribute to ashes?
Sipho’s daughter Thando escorts Mandisa around Johannesburg as the funeral approaches, filling her in on life in the new South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is holding its hearings and Mandisa is shocked to discover that one of the racist regime’s top torturers will go free. For his part, Sipho’s disappointments have more to do with being bypassed for a promotion that a post-apartheid society would presumably assure.
John Kani discusses Truth and Reconciliation
In a December 30, 2002 article on the stage version of “Nothing but the Truth” that was playing at Lincoln Center, Kani expressed a view that would become generalized before long:
Mr. Kani says the government deserves much credit for building houses and for bringing electricity and running water to thousands of blacks for the first time. But he says the governing African National Congress must speed the pace of change if it hopes to stay in power.
“We’ve got the right to vote, but what does it mean?” Mr. Kani asked. “People now want to have the right to a job, the right to education, the right to medical services.
The struggle against colonialism in Zimbabwe also receives a conflicted treatment in Ingrid Sinclair’s “Flame”, a 1997 film that tells the story of two teenage girls, Florence and Nyassa, who join ZANU in the early 70s. Florence becomes “Comrade Flame” while Nyassa becomes “Comrade Liberty”.
While Sinclair is certainly no supporter of white rule, the film is nothing like “Battle of Algiers” or other radical anti-colonial films. Instead, it is a feminist critique of male domination in ZANU and the alleged widespread use of rape, represented in “Flame” by Florence being victimized by “Comrade Che”.
Sinclair insists that her screenplay was based on the testimony of numerous female ZANU veterans who were anxious to tell their story. When ZANU officials learned about Sinclair’s goals in making such a film, they did everything in their power to nip it in the bud.
You can find scholarly support for Sinclair’s perspective in Tanya Lyons “Guns and Guerilla Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle”, a 2004 book that was reviewed on H-Humanities by Norma Krieger, who wrote:
While some female ex-combatants found new equality in dressing like their male counterparts and in training alongside them, others voiced resentments at inequalities, especially in not being able to fight in combat inside the country. Lyons argues that ZANU’s response to sexual relations among the combatants was to blame women’s “prostitution” and to try to control their behavior through party-certified marriages. Moreover, she asserts that the party opposed the use of contraceptives among women because it wanted women fighters to produce the next generation of soldiers and it feared fueling “prostitution”. Pregnant female fighters and those with small children were confined to separate camps, which they experienced as punishment since they wanted to return to their military duties.
I have little reason to doubt this version of events seen through the prism of ZANU’s recent history, one in which the rights of all Zimbabweans—men and women alike—is given short shrift. That being said, this is not a movie that begins to tell the story of one of the great chapters in African liberation in modern times. The struggle to emancipate “Rhodesia” involved the mass participation of rural villages of the kind that Florence and Nyassa came from. It is unfortunate that Sinclair became so preoccupied with gender issues that she neglected to give any kind of weight to class issues. That being said, “Flame” is an important film and stirring in many ways. Despite their oppression as women, the two lead characters also find emancipation as fighters and political leaders during the course of the movie.
Despite the reputation that France enjoyed in the 1950s as a kind of racially tolerant escape from Jim Crow America, there is evidence that Black GI’s were often the victims of discrimination by the French, particularly in the countryside, and by their own white officers. “Prohibited Love”, a French made-for-TV movie directed by Philippe Niang, the son of a Senagelese father and French mother, takes place in a farming village in the final days of WWII, when German soldiers have just been driven off.
When the Americans arrive, a deal is struck with a local farmer. The army will pay him for the use of his land, where a company of mostly Black GI’s will bivouac. He has no particular animosity toward Blacks, but his wife views them with disgust. Even worse, their daughter Blanche would like to see them all dead since they had a hand in killing her German soldier lover.
One of the Black GI’s is Gary Larochelle, a French-speaking Louisianan who is immediately attracted to Louise, the wife of the farmer’s son, a French soldier who she has not seen for years. Louise fends off his advances at first, but soon discovers that she is attracted to him. This “prohibited love” forms the conflict that divides the farmer’s family against itself as well as the local townsmen who make few distinctions between the Nazis and the Americans now constituted as an occupying force.
“Prohibited Love” is as much of a corrective to anodynes about the “Greatest Generation” as John Kani’s “Nothing but the Truth” is to something like “Invictus”. The notion that American GI’s were being hailed as great liberators has been challenged in a number of places. A June 5th 2009 BBC article titled Revisionists challenge D-Day story jibes with Niang’s screenplay, even if it dwells on rape rather than the consensual sex depicted in the movie:
For example, Cpl LF Roker of the Highland Light Infantry is quoted in another new book about the civilian impact of the campaign, Liberation, The Bitter Road to Freedom, by William Hitchcock.
“It was rather a shock to find we were not welcomed ecstatically as liberators by the local people, as we were told we should be… They saw us as bringers of destruction and pain,” Mr Roker wrote in his diary.
In his book, Mr Hitchcock raises another issue that rarely features in euphoric folk-memories of liberation: Allied looting, and worse.
“The theft and looting of Normandy households and farmsteads by liberating soldiers began on June 6 and never stopped during the entire summer,” he writes.
One woman – from the town of Colombieres – is quoted as saying that “the enthusiasm for the liberators is diminishing. They are looting… everything, and going into houses everywhere on the pretext of looking for Germans.”
Even more feared, of course, was the crime of rape – and here too the true picture has arguably been expunged from popular memory.
According to American historian J Robert Lilly, there were around 3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war.
“The evidence shows that sexual violence against women in liberated France was common,” writes Mr Hitchcock.
“It also shows that black soldiers convicted of such awful acts received very severe punishments, while white soldiers received lighter sentences.”
Of 29 soldiers executed for rape by the US military authorities, 25 were black – though African-Americans did not represent nearly so high a proportion of convictions.
Some of the same issues about gender and power treated in the two fiction films above are explored in the documentary “Umoja, the Village where Men are Forbidden”, a 2008 documentary directed by Jean-Marc Sainclair and Jean Crousillac. It tells the story of Samburu women in Kenya who were raped by British soldiers and then shunned by their husbands in a further violation of their rights. Rebecca Lolosoli, a Samburu, decided to establish a village for these women and their children where they could live in peace and economic self-sufficiency. Despite occasional violent attacks by Samburu men, the village has thrived and serves as a testimony to the power of women’s liberation in a traditionally male-dominated society.
As the title implies, “Africa is a Woman’s Name” is another feminist documentary. It is directed by Wanjiru Kinyanjui, a Kenyan, Bridget Pickering, a Namibian by birth who was executive director of Hotel Rwanda, and the aforementioned Ingrid Sinclair. It is in three parts and recounts the efforts of a schoolteacher, a lawyer and a businesswoman in transforming the lives of women in contemporary Africa.
Finally, there is the remarkable tale told in “Hearing Radmilla”. Radmilla Cody became Miss Navaho Nation despite having an African-American father. Turned over to her Navaho grandmother as an infant by her 18-year-old mother, she was raised in traditional ways and even became fluent in the Navaho language.
Her fluency in the language and her singing prowess, including in traditional native songs, made her the first choice among all the contestants. Afterwards, there was a backlash with Navaho men writing angry letters to a native newspaper about her not having Navaho “blood”. This fixation on blood quantum has played a very negative role in indigenous society ever since the reservation system was established. In vying for handouts from the white ruling class, native peoples have used this criterion far more often than talent or leadership qualities that Radmilla Cody had in spades.
Unfortunately for her, a dependent relationship on an African-American drug dealer who pressured her and beat her into becoming part of his illegal activities alienated her even further. She eventually found redemption as a Navaho and as fully realized independent woman, just as the protagonists in the other documentaries discussed here.
Scheduling information for the 2010 African Diaspora Film Festival can be found here: http://nyadiff.org/