Article Image
Courtesy of Birdgirl Productions

“Burning in the Sun,” produced by Columbia alumni Cambria Matlow, Morgan Robinson, and Clare Weingarten, is an uplifting story about a man who starts a solar panel business.

Independence, the broad focus of this year's New York African Film Festival, is illustrated on-screen in a mixture of celebration and critique, as filmmakers from the continent and abroad examine their homelands with as much a sense of mourning as of hope. The festival, running through April 13 at the Walter Reade Theater and appearing April 14 at Columbia's Institute of African Studies, offers a diverse, powerful look at the state of African cinema today, after 50 tumultuous years of independence. The festival's opening night certainly aimed for celebration, but also placed notable emphasis on the disappointment and frustration still felt in the wake of colonialism's collapse. Richard Peña, professor of film studies at Columbia and program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, highlighted the way African cinema has echoed this conflicted sentiment: "Clearly, many African films and African filmmakers have been critical of what's happened to their countries since independence. They often feel they traded one kind of dependence for another." At the same time, Peña said, African national cinemas clearly play out a desire to identify their place in a global context, "to be seen alongside other producers of culture without justifying itself and its traditions." The festival offers a small opportunity for African filmmakers to confront these struggles of cultural identity on-screen. In the short film "A History of Independence," writer/director Daouda Coulibaly reflects, in the style of a traditional folk-tale, the uneasy transition from colonial occupation to autonomy. Coulibaly tells the modern African parable of a newlywed couple's visit from an angel and the bittersweet changes that threaten their happiness and physical identities. The striking juxtaposition of historic radio broadcasts with storyteller narration and traditional puppetry offers an odd collage of cultural identities. As the husband and wife experience physical transformation, reluctant migration, and a serious test to their young marriage, the film casts Africa's history and future in a faint light of hope. At the end of the film, Coulibaly effortlessly paraphrases the mixed sentiment on independence with a concluding proverb, "If you can stand the smoke, you will enjoy the heat of the fire." In a darker, more personal take on Africa's identity, "The Absence," a brutal thriller from director Mama Keïta, traces a man's return to his family in Senegal after 15 years in France. As he unearths family secrets and a web of crime, barely hidden resentment for the returning son rises to the surface. Keïta, also a Senegalese resident of France, explores his own vision of Africa as a distant homeland in need. In a Q&A session, the director described his deeply personal connection with the film, calling it an expression of "unfinished mourning." In this portrait of Africa, the continent desperately demands reunion with a bitter emigrant whose crash landing at home culminates in tragedy. One of the festival's highlights, "Burning in the Sun," depicts a return home in a genuinely uplifting light. The documentary follows Daniel Dembele's homecoming to Mali, where he starts a small business making and selling affordable solar panels in the village of Bamako. Bringing desperately needed electricity to the village, Dembele has a visible impact on its residents, as the film captures equally quiet moments of joy and uncertainty. The film was directed and produced by a trio of Columbia alums, Cambria Matlow, Morgan Robinson, and Claire Weingarten, who create a really moving portrait of a simple, realistic solution that evades labels of heroism. In one scene, Dembele coolly and profoundly aligns a desire for personal independence with the complex cultural dilemma expressed so prominently in African cinema. Dembele explains the need to free himself from others' assistance, hoping to avoid ever having to say, "Mom, now that your shade is not here, I'm just burning in the sun." With inspiring calm, Dembele illustrates a struggle at the heart of this year's festival: to embrace independence but to understand the harsh really of fulfilling its promise.