10 Highlights of the 2019 Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF)

From Cannes to Berlin to Luxor, all big film festivals share an inevitable frustration: No one person can see every film showing.

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If it’s a truly great festival, you won’t even get to see all the films you need to.

What to do?

You manage expectations and hope for the best. But that is always easier said because the feast of films presented always produces a fair bit of longer-throat; suddenly you think you can make a grab for every work on the schedule — from the new exciting guys to the old masters of cinema.

My plan at the just concluded Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) was to see a lot of short films, a handful of great documentaries and all of the fiction films in competition. Dear reader, such were the riches at the 2019 AFRIFF that I failed.

Nonetheless, I can’t say it was deeply gratifying to attend an event that, at the very least, is an indispensable feature of the Nigerian film industry.

AFRIFF once again showed that if our mainstream cinema chains are unwilling to embrace new talents and the unusual imagination of some of our filmmakers, the festival will give those new talents and those imaginative filmmakers an opportunity to reach an audience. It is an imperfect festival, but no other platform in Nigeria provides as wide a selection for the true lover of cinema.

Unfortunately, those lovers of cinema were disappointed by the festival’s fiction film jury, which showed a lack of the knowledge of cinema and the nature of film festivals by giving an undeserving film the top award.

Somebody needed to tell members of that jury that it is rare that an audience choice award goes to the same film picked by a jury at a film festival for a simple reason: the jury knows more about cinema while the audience is likely to go for a crowd-pleaser. At AFRIFF 2019, there was no difference between jury and audience. And that is a disappointment at a festival so wonderfully curated by the AFRIFF team.

In a competition segment that included new work from a growing master like South Africa’s Jahmil X.T Qubeka, a fascinating sophomore from Abba Makama and the long-awaited second collaboration between Akin Omotoso and Ego Boyo, how does a film with a wooden lead actor and nothing by way of ambition receive a festival’s top prize?

The answer, I believe, is related to sensibility. Overwhelmed by the possibility of commercial success, the jury abandoned its obligations to true artistry. This is the flaw of practically every Nigerian award scheme: nobody cares about artistry immediately popularity walks into the room. It is why the Nigerian culture space needs a critics’ awards.

While we try to figure that out, here are 10 films that showed at AFRIFF 2019, any of which would be a much better choice for the big AFRIFF prize than its actual winner.

Honourable Mentions: Dhalinyaro (Djibouti) and For Sama (Syria)

AFRIFF adopted the theme Sheroes this year. Appropriately, both Dhalinyaro and For Sama have women at their centre. For Sama is a documentary about the Syrian uprising filmed over years; Dhalinyaro follows a trio of young girls navigating friendship, romance and the unbearable ache of being young. In their own ways, both explore the many ways of being female in today’s world.

8. Gold Coast Lounge — Ghana

Director Pascal Aka tells the story of a battle for the ownership of a lounge around the time of Ghana’s independence. John Donkor returns from prison to the lounge he owns but in the time he was away things have changed. His two adopted sons have their differences and a woman is about to complicate their lives.

The story sometimes descends into a bit of soap opera — but it is an innovative take on the noir form. Aka filmed in black and white, calls his work Afro-noir and did his own editing, music composition, writing and some of the acting. C

7. The Burial of Kojo — Ghana

Much has been said about the images in The Burial of Kojo. And yes, those statements are true. But not enough has been said about the manner in which Blitz Bazuwale, its director, pursues a theme of guilt and how good the film’s lead actor, Joseph Otsiman, is. Perhaps the problem is subtlety: both are understated in comparison to the film’s several dazzling scenes. All three features are, however, noteworthy.

To my mind, there is an inconsistency embedded in the story’s resolution, and yet as a whole The Burial of Kojo is worthy addition to the library of the true African cinephile. Catch it on Netflix. B-

6. The Ghost and the House of Truth — Nigeria

Although I would like to see a producer with the resources of Ego Boyo work with a talented young Nigerian director, her partnership with the revered Akin Omotoso appears to be working well.

In their new production, The Ghost and the House of Truth, a woman (Susan Wokoma) learns her daughter is missing and her life is unravelled. A pregnant detective nicknamed Stainless (Kate Henshaw) works the case. While the latter character recalls Frances McDormand’s police officer in Fargo, this is a story much removed from the nihilism of the Coen Brothers. The narrative trajectory also recalls the Oscar winning Mystic River from 2003.

Wokoma is a shaky protagonist speaking pidgin and sometimes her exchange with Henshaw plays out like two over-enunciating newscasters conversing — but those are forgivable in this well-made film that sometimes grasps the emotional load it obviously reaches for. And particularly notable is how cinematographer Kabelo Thathe finds beauty in the filth of Makoko. The dourness of the picture comes to emphasise the downbeat nature of the unfolding story. The film opened in cinemas on 22 November. See it. B-

5. The Man who Cuts Tattoos — Nigeria

As one of three directors making up the infamous Surreal 16 collective, Michael Omonua is an unabashed lover of cinema. It is apt then that his debut feature should be a kind of sombre love note to viewers just like himself.

The Man who Cuts Tattoos presents two related stories civilisations apart. In the first of the stories, a woman undergoes scarification before her marriage. In the modern story, a young man and woman try to sort out a troubled relationship.

This minimalist production is a love story — in the sense that love is no fairy tale. It is mankind’s most potent (or poisonous) addiction. Irrespective of time and place, a serious relationship between a man and a woman is accompanied by sacrifice, by pain. Why do we do it? Well, the writer-director seems to think we do it because to not do it is to not be human. You might disagree (I don’t) but his point is well-made.

The Man who Cuts Tattoos might never be seen widely because Omonua has made directing choices that might scare off a mainstream audience. But see it if you ever get the chance: if you can get into the rhythm, you might surprise yourself. Plus, even as the subject of sex never really gets broached, there is something ineffably gorgeous about the lowkey chemistry between the leads (Valerie Dish and Elvis Duke). Omonua has made Patient Cinema for a famously impatient people. B

4. The Lost Okoroshi — Nigeria

Abba Makama’s second feature film is a madcap fable. One morning, Raymond Obinwa (Seun Ajayi) transforms into a masquerade in the manner of Gregor Samsa. He abandons his wife and goes into the streets, befriending a prostitute and a diminutive businessman.

The film doesn’t deal in explanations — or maybe its explanation is embedded in his storyteller’s belief in his ability to hook you for the duration of his tale.

Makama has now made two films with an absurdist bent, with the second showing his increasing confidence in his own brand of filmmaking. If Green White Green showed promise, The Lost Okoroshi goes a long way towards fulfilling it. B

3. Our Lady of the Nile — Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide has captured the attention of many an artist. Novelists, filmmakers, musicians have produced work related to the deadly violence that engulfed the country. In 2012, the writer Scholastique Mukasonga took an oblique approach, writing about the genocide by prefiguring it through a series of events at a school for girls in 1970s Rwanda. The rhetoric of tribal hate passed on by adults transform the mischief of girlhood into a weapon at the Catholic boarding school in which the book is set.

The book has now been adapted by the French-Aghan Atiq Rahimi. As director, he gets young Rwandan actresses to put in highly believable performances through the film’s duration. The girls demand your attention, all the while filtered by the remarkable cinematography of Thierry Arbogast. B+

2. Walking with Shadows — Nigeria

Jude Dibia’s novel was always going to be difficult to adapt in any country with a tricky relationship with LGBT matters. So perhaps it is unsurprising that although the film is produced by a number of people including Nigerians Funmi Iyanda and Olumide Makanjuola (former head of The Initiative for Equal Rights), its director is Irishwoman Aoife O’Kelly.

It begins as a man’s wife is informed that her husband Adrian has had sexual relations with a man. He is kicked out after he admits it did happen. What follows is an exploration of how Adrian’s truth is received by the community to which he belongs.

As Adrian, Ozzy Agu delivers a performance equal to the role’s demands. His eyes convey a vague repression; though straight-backed, there is a melancholic poetry to his gestures. There is no moment in the film in which the pain of Adrian’s secret and the burden of his sexuality doesn’t come through.

While for a film about sexuality, there is surprisingly little intimacy onscreen, Walking With Shadows shows us that a film created to pass a message along can be artfully made. That is a lesson Nollywood needs to hear. But the film’s actual story is one that should be told to Nigerians. Its subject might prevent it from getting a run at our cinemas — but that is a mistake. B+

1. Knuckle City — South Africa

Jahmil Qubeka’s Knuckle City is the brilliant South African filmmaker’s most accessible film. It combines the man’s enchantment with the physicality of things with his ability to coax strong performances from his actors. (His lead actor Bongile Mantsai won AFRIFF’s top acting prize.) In this film, an aging, womanising boxer seeks one more chance at reviving his fortunes. When he gets it, a series of events threatens to throttle his dreams and family.

In one impeccably directed scene featuring violence, nudity and hysterics, Qubeka delivers a sequence of events so memorable, so finely orchestrated, so like real life, it overwhelms a narrative flaw in this story of a place, of a people in love with the sweet science.

There were more perfect films at the Africa International Festival. Knuckle City was AFRIFF’s most interestingly imperfect picture. A-

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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