For several years now, despite praising the quality of the festival’s programming, part of the FCAT audience has stressed the often very harsh nature of the films. African cinemas are often associated with social themes treated in a very serious manner. It is true that drama occupies a predominant place in African cinematographies. However, there are comedies and films with which one can laugh even out loud.
For this reason, FCAT has designed “Howling with laughter”, a cycle of ten titles – ten short films and ten feature-length films – divided into five thematic sessions, which illustrate different aspects of humour in African cinemas. Although not all the films are comedies, they all include original humorous resources used or invented by their directors to tell their stories. Through the use of language, the absurd, repetition, the choice of burlesque characters, both in fictions and in documentaries, humour serves as a counterpoint to life’s tragedy.
Despite it all, artists create
For several years now, FCAT has been opening a window for Spanish filmmakers who focus on the realities of the African continent. Although their productions present a great variety of themes and geographical areas, there is a growing number of films focusing on Equatorial Guinea. We cannot but celebrate this growing interest. On the one hand, because it is urgent to shed light on an almost forgotten historical episode – the Spanish colonial past in Sub-Saharan Africa – and, on the other, because it is an almost ignored contemporary reality – the isolation and stranglehold suffered by the Equatoguinean society under the rule of one of the world’s longest and harshest dictatorships.
On the occasion of this special 2020 edition, we have chosen to showcase, under the theme “Despite it all, they create”, two Spanish films that reveal the political realities of Equatorial Guinea, as well as social, cultural and artistic realities particularly unknown in Spain. Two portraits of Equatoguinean artists who, in the name of freedom of expression and defying the totalitarian regime of their country, never stopped creating. El escritor de un país sin librerías offers a portrait of Juan Tomás de Ávila Laurel, one of the most critical and least invisible voices of the Obiang dictatorship. Through the eyes of the author of the eponymous book, the documentary denounces the stark contrast between the standard of living of the multimillionaire leader’s family and the situation of the rest of the population who often have no access to even drinking water.
Manoliño Nguema is a touching portrait of the actor, circus performer and writer Marcelo Ndong, and at the same time a positive story of immigration. The film covers all the life experiences of this artist born in Equatorial Guinea and trained in Galicia, who, after having flooded the stages of the whole world with his extraordinary energy and fantasy, decides to return to his native country and transmit and share everything he has learned abroad.
This year marks the symbolic 60th anniversary of the independence of many African countries. It is therefore time to revisit the recent history of the continent and recognise the importance of collective memory and the act of remembering, as Africa’s recent past -and present- is so closely linked to that of Europe. In order to understand the independence movements and the main ideas brought forth by the movements’ great political and ideological leaders, it is fundamental to go back over the facts, stories and discourses that colonisation imposed on the entire continent. Decolonising the memory requires an honest glance, without any pre-established dichotomous vision, on this common, violent and painful past, so that reparations can be carried out.
In 2010, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of African independences, FCAT was able to organise a major symposium and a complete film retrospective to reflect and debate on the issues of colonisation, decolonisation and the process of achieving independence. Unfortunately, current circumstances do not allow us to offer an event of this magnitude. Nevertheless, we are offering a selection of four films, old and recent, and of a wide variety of genres, which paint the portrait of key figures and revisit different episodes of colonisation and decolonisation.
In this context, it was a must to pay homage to the pioneer Sarah Maldoror, who passed away in April of 2020 due to COVID-19. Maldoror was the quintessential champion of the negritude movement who was praised by A. Césaire, L. Senghor and L. G. Damas, and who remained faithful with her camera to all of the processes of decolonisation in Africa. A great defender of freedom, Maldoror developed a language of her own which combines a strong political commitment and a sensitivity to all the arts, especially painting, music and poetry. The short film Monangambée (1971) is based on a novel by the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira and performed by non-professional actors in Algeria. It is a film about torture and, more broadly, about the misunderstanding between the colonised and the colonisers. The soundtrack that the Art Ensemble of Chicago produce and gave to Sarah Maldoror free of charge, in solidarity with the oppressed Angolan people, accords a hymn-like dimension to the film.
The programme continues with A Story from Africa by the African-American filmmaker Billy Woodberry, one of the main figures of the L.A. Rebellion group. The film brings to life the photographic archive of Velloso de Castro, a photographer hired by the Portuguese army to document the conquest of the Cuatama region in southern Angola in 1907, after European colonial powers had divided African territories at the Berlin Conference in 1885. Bringing to life the tragic story of the Calipalula village chief who unknowingly served the enemy, Woodberry attempts, in his documentary, to avoid shortcuts in interpreting history and to restore its complexity.
The animated short film Mangi Meli Remains, also evokes the life of an African chief, the one Méli lost while resisting German colonisation in Tanzania. The filmmaker, Konradin Kunze, elicits the idea that the process of repairing and pacifying history also involves the need to return looted property: in this case and among many others, the skull of Chief Méli, taken to Europe as an object of scientific study and never returned to his descendants.
In Sankara n’est pas mort, Lucie Viver pays homage to the political leader of Burkina Faso, assassinated in 1987, through the eyes of a Burkinabe poet. After experiencing the 2014 revolts against Blaise Compaoré – the ruling president and Sankara’s assassin-, the poet decides to explore his country and discover his heritage, along the country’s only railway line. This film, conceived as a kind of road-movie, looks back at the ideas and projects of Sankara, the leader who marked an entire continent: the anti-imperialist struggle, the achievement of economic independence through the development of national production of manufactured goods, and the improvement of public services, including education and health, ecology and feminism.
Next time, fires
The COVID pandemic and its consequences have captured the media attention and overshadowed virtually all other global news. However, one significant event has succeeded in bringing the world out of its lethargy, diverting our attention from the number of victims of the coronavirus, the lockdowns and unemployment: the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American father who died asphyxiated while repeating in vain “I can’t breathe”, under the weight of a policeman who pinned him to the ground squeezing his neck with his knee.
Since then, we have all seen, in hundreds of photographs and videos, placards and banners with phrases like “I can’t breathe” or “No justice, no peace” symbolizing the anger of African Americans at the deadly violence of the police against their communities. Not even a pandemic has been able to silence the cry of Black lives matter – yes! Black lives matter. And we continue to see crowds of people of all races take to the streets wearing masks, showing that they are more outraged by the perpetuation of these infamous, unjust, criminal and racist acts, than they are concerned by a potentially deadly contagion. At a time when democratic values are being challenged by the restrictive measures taken by governments to curb the epidemic, a popular and spontaneous outcry resounds in all four corners of the world calling for fairer, more egalitarian and freer societies.
It was moving. Moving and disturbing. It provoked anger, because in the 21st century, nothing seems to have changed. Almost sixty years after the death of Malcolm X, the Ku Klux Klan has still not been completely dismantled and is perpetuating the massacre. Almost sixty years have passed since Martin Luther King delivered the speech for which he lost his life, yet his ideas remain a dream. Nearly sixty years after its publication, James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time takes on a prophetic dimension: burning cities and an irreparable social gap in the face of growing hatred for blacks. The United States has a unique history, from slavery to segregation. But colonisation is the work of Europe, and racism and the resurgence of hatred for the black man is not only the work of the Americans, but a reality present in the vast majority of Western societies.
FCAT could not fail to take up this topical issue and offer a space for debate and reflection on the events that are still going on, even though the summer holidays and the second wave of the virus have helped to silence these voices that are still reverberating. In this section, we therefore offer a selection of films that take as their starting point and historical reference Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which traces the struggle of African Americans for civil rights based on an unpublished text by James Baldwin, Remember This House, which takes place at the time of the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others. In this section, we also propose contemporary films from different geographical backgrounds, but which have in common the fact of highlight the violence that white supremacy exerts, in different forms, on black communities and the power it wields over disadvantaged populations. In Auto de Resistencia, Natasha Neri and Lula Carvalho denounce the lack of justice on the part of the State in the face of police violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Les Misérables, acclaimed in Cannes in 2019, is a testimony to the social and racial tensions in the marginalised suburbs of Paris. Idrissa and Paris Stalingrad, in the style of their respective authors, reveal the treatment that modern states -in this case Spain and France- reserve for migrants: controls, evacuations, isolation, overcrowding, denial of a dignified life and death. In other words, the trivialised denial of their humanity.
“We will only be free when others are free,” Baldwin wrote in his book. So it is time for us – the others – to be free. And in the meantime, they have the fire…
The third root
As an African film festival in Spain, and for many years the only one of its kind, the FCAT has always been aware of its geographical specificity and therefore of the role it can play as a cultural bridge between Africa and the Afro-descendant communities in Hispanic America. By creating and nurturing, each year, a film collection of African films with Spanish subtitles, the festival offers a chance to spread the latter throughout an immense territory. It also allows Afro-Latin communities to reconnect with their cultures and identities of origin, with a past that has been confiscated from them, and with a land from which their ancestors have been uprooted. In addition, the FCAT represents an ideal platform to raise awareness of the largely undocumented realities of these communities of African descent in Latin America.
The afrodescendant population represents a quarter of the population of South America. However, they are the most invisible minority. While it is true that people of African descent live in different conditions depending on their country, they all share a common history of exclusion and discrimination. On the other hand, most of the time, the Afro-descendant population continues to be seen by the rest of the Latin American population through the prism of stereotypes and racism, and systematically linked to its condition as descendants of African slaves. As an example, the famous discourse of mestizaje in Mexico in the 1920s promoted the acceptance of the Hispanic heritage without conflict and with pride in the indigenous matrix, but completely removed the “third root”, in other words, the African root of their mestizo culture.
The growing recognition of people of African descent has been achieved through the struggle of their leading organisations. One of the first signs of change was the progressive inclusion of ethno-racial variables in national statistics. Another important milestone has been the fact that some countries have adopted a wide range of affirmative action policies, such as quotas for positive discrimination in the labour market and in educational institutions.
To continue in this direction, it is necessary to address the stereotypes and beliefs that drive the exclusion of people of African descent, giving them a direct voice and space for the (re)cognition and appreciation of their cultural heritage and identity. Cinema, like any other artistic expression, is one of the tools that can provide visibility to this population and its culture.
The films that bring to the screen characters of African descent, represented in their daily realities, are undoubtedly becoming more numerous. However, it is difficult to speak of an ‘Afro-Latin cinema’. Except perhaps in Brazil, works made by filmmakers of African descent remain rare and isolated. Production by afro descendant filmmakers is even almost non-existent in certain countries. There are works of an ethnographic nature, made, produced and starring the black communities themselves – as in San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia, for example – and aimed at a local audience. However, the most widespread and internationally recognized films about the African diaspora in Latin America are rarely directed by Afro-descendent filmmakers, but rather by white filmmakers who promote respect for black people.
The aim of this section, which we have entitled “The Third Root”, is to show Latin American films which reflect above all the quest of their authors for artistic quality and original language. Secondly, these are films which contribute, voluntarily or not, to restoring the image to Latin America’s afro descendants. In this section, we screen three works selected and awarded in multiple international festivals. In Perro Bomba, the Chilean director Juan Cáceres defends with great commitment the cause of Haitian immigrants, a black community which is victim of racism in his country. On the other hand, in his documentary La Arrancada, the Brazilian Matias Aldemar chooses the intimacy of the family setting to evoke the political context of Cuba. The fact that this family is Afro descendant is not the subject of the film, and that is what makes it interesting: it is just a family like any other. Sofía Quirós’ film, The Snake Dance, is shot in the region of Limón, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, a region of lush landscapes, mixed cultures, races and rites where afro-descendant, Chinese and indigenous heritages mingle. This intimate account of a teenage girl learning to overcome the mourning of a loved one, reflects the singularity of a space where the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural live together.