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Photo still from 'Sprinter.'

These 5 Hard-Hitting Films by Caribbean Directors Will Give You All the Feels

We look back at the standout films coming from Caribbean talent screened at the 27th Pan African Film Festival.

I was not prepared to go to the intimate places where the Caribbean films from the 27th Pan-African Film Festival took me. The surprises came in the most palpable forms as filmmakers and their characters with roots on the African continent and in the Caribbean's African diaspora painted the most vivid lives in our multi-textured tapestry.

Examining the human experience in minute detail, these stories were hard-hitting. Here are the five standouts below.


RATTLESNAKES

British-Ghanaian director Julius Amedume, and Haitian-American actor Jimmy Jean-Louis united for Rattlesnakes. A therapist, played by Jean-Louis, goes farther for his clients than we expect him to go. His character, Robert McQueen, is the great savior in this story who navigates the complicated lives of three couples whose marriages are being held together by a therapist. Because the husbands don't know the nature of the relationship McQueen has with their wives, they assume that he has cuckolded them and they conspire to teach McQueen a lesson. Where it goes from there, nobody expects.

Jean-Louis also produced the film and has screened over 20 films at the Pan African Film Festival. With the ability to lead in films speaking English, Spanish, French and Creole, he explains his longevity as an actor saying: "If you're in it, it becomes part of who you are. I don't believe that people do things just because of a level of success; you do it because you love it."

Upon winning the festival's Audience Award for a Narrative Feature, Amedume shares that "it meant so much to screen it to an audience and for them to engage with the film in such a great way." Playing the role of a psychologist in his authentic Haitian accent, Jean-Louis reminds us that "It's always been a fight to get people to embrace you for who you are." This film will begin limited theatrical release beginning on April 26 and is just one of the many to come from a team that is producing films from across the African continent, in the Caribbean, in Europe, and in the United States.

Amedume, a British director with roots in Ghana formed a Caribbean-African partnership that facilitates their entry into the multiple markets to which their respective heritages connect. After the screening, the producer Effie Brown raved about the film, saying "I loved it. I thought that it always kept you guessing." Many agreed with Brown with Rattlesnakes winninh the Pan African Film Festival's Audience Award for a 'Narrative Feature.'

SPRINTER

A Jamaican Rastafarian is a superstar runner played by actor Dale Elliott, Jr. in Sprinter. This relatable tale focuses on the impact of immigration from the perspective of the family members left behind in the home country. The undocumented immigrant mother can do little to assuage her youngest son's sense of abandonment as she is forced to parent via video chat.

Directed by Storm Saulter, this film gave a snapshot of the immigrant's story from the perspective of a Jamaican mother who moves to the U.S. in hopes of finding a better job that allows her to provide for her family. Played by Lorraine Toussaint, this mother is keeping her family finances in order as she is forced to give up on keeping the family itself together. Parenting via video chat, the co-parenting dynamic and couple's bond breaks down and the parents file for divorce. Their younger son is a high school track star who gets advice from Usain Bolt before he attempts to earn the opportunity to travel for an international competition. His biggest battle was fought internally after he suffered a debilitating foot injury. Turning to his Rasta roots for healing, he immersed himself into a Nyabhingi ceremony filled with drumming and prayer to repair his body and spirit that ultimately prepared him for the biggest race of his life. His coach, played by David Allen Grier, and his competition, played by Bryshere Y. Gray, pushed him from a good athlete to a great sportsman. Jamal Watson, a producer on the project, related his satisfaction with "the idea that these stories can resonate with more than just the African diaspora…we try to tell a story that has the potential to have a life beyond the current program."

Sprinter won the Pan African Film Festival's 'Best Narrative Feature' award and will open in select theaters across the United States on April 24.

SOLACE

Tchaiko Omawale, the Jamaican-American writer and director of Solace, highlights the inner dialogue of a person struggling with a binge eating disorder—an often undetected mental health issue.

Sole, played by Hope Alide, a 17-year-old who lost both of her parents, moves in with her maternal grandmother and struggles to adjust to life with a new authority figure in the beginning of the film. Her staunchly Christian grandmother, played by Lynn Whitfield, is a fashionable alcoholic who feasts on diet pills and is in a succulent sexual affair with the pastor of her church, played by Glynn Freeman. The pastor ultimately is the voice of reason when the strained grandmother-granddaughter relationship breaks and Sole moves in with the neighbor named Jasmine. Jasmine is a dancer who drinks and cuts herself to temporarily escape the pain of her daily life. A perfectly imperfect friend, Jasmine is the first person to confront Sole about her binge eating disorder. To Sol, fat is her greatest fear. Her entire life is organized around her binging food and her discomfort with eating around others.

Finally, after her grandmother catches her secretly eating cereal from the garbage bin, Sole is comforted in her grandmother's embrace. For the first time, Sole learns that her mother was bulimic and that her struggle with mental health is not unique. Sole is distressed and feels that something is uniquely wrong. Attempting to manage her grief over the loss of both parents is devastatingly stressful and reminds us that we don't always know what dictates how we'll respond to stress . A third generation sufferer of disordered eating (with the grandmother's disorder being undiagnosed but very real), Sole can begin feeding something beyond physical hunger as she moves forward and gets medical help.

An audience member was moved to share that she had felt alone in her suffering with disordered eating until the character on screen behaved exactly as she does in real life. I felt tears welling up as the theater warmed to applause in that moment to support her. And then my heart was comforted as Omawale sympathized with the audience member and offered her survivor's tale on the journey to recovery.

Effects from opening this dialogue about eating disorders were felt even before we left the theatre. An audience member shared that she has eaten out of the garbage and has felt that she was the only one who has done that until watching the film. As the issue is brought out of the shadows of shame, more people can progress in their recovery. "I had a breakup with white womanhood while making this film and it pushed me towards African American women," says Omawale, as she dialogues with the audience.

At the film's end, hope embraced solace in the problematic grandmother who finally puts her judgmental Bible-infused gaze in exchange for a breath of humanity seasoned with sympathy for her grieving granddaughter.

BAKOSÓ: AFROBEATS OF CUBA

Puerto Rican filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi immersed us in the novel Cuban music and dance culture called Bakosó. The budding sound was created by African immigrants who attend medical school in Cuba who collaborated with Cuban artists to birth a completely new genre. Bakosó: Afrobeats de Cuba highlights a new category of music that has spread across the Cuban countryside. The winner of the Audience Award for 'Short Documentary' lightened the lens with which we viewed the effects of immigration in another film. The influx of scholars to the island's medical school results in a cultural fusion in the form of Bakosó. Bakosó represents the mixture of Afrobeats, Conga, techno, and Rumba. One medical student featured in the documentary intimates that "[As] African medical students today, we can say that we are Cubans who come from other countries."

Exhibiting Cuban pride is a primary theme as featured artists include Candyman, the first reggaeton star from Cuba, Kiki Pro, a rapper and music producer, Mykael El Padrino, Alva, Kamerun, and The Inka who contribute to the new explosion of music on the Cuban art space. DJ Jigüe guides the tour of Santiago de Cuba, his hometown which hosts a second medical campus and the garden of growing Afro-Cuban music. Out of respect for his elders, the tour is brought before his grandmother for consideration before he executes it. Invoking African ancestry in the dwelling of his grandmother, DJ Jigüe receives a spiritual message about his plans and blessings on the fruitful journey that is predicted to lie ahead. His grandmother's proverb is "if you sleep well above the Earth, it will reveal its secrets to you." There are indeed secrets in the dance that accompanies the rich rhythms of Bakosó music. This new style represents the perpetual creation of new culture that keeps its ancestral roots.

Cuba's indigenous Taino people, like many in the Caribbean, were mixed in with the enslaved African populations and the European kidnappers who brought them to these Caribbean shores. The African ancestry of the town includes the maroons, a community of Africans who escaped capture, "represents rebellion and freedom." DJ Jigüe's Afro-Cuban grandmother tells history as she delves into the oral tradition, finally beckoning you to come closer as smoke from her cigar floats above her traditionally wrapped head. The scene concludes that "Bakosó has arrived"—and indeed it is here for all to explore.

NINE NIGHTS

Jamaican-British filmmaker Veronica McKenzie poured her personal experience with grief into Nine Nights. This winner of the PAFF Directors' Award struck a deep chord with her directing debut. After a teenaged twin dies suddenly in an accident, his relatives gather to grieve his passing over nine nights. The practice is Caribbean in custom and cathartic in function, as it is believed that the nine nights after death allows the spirit of the dead to leave this plane while allowing time for the living to bid it farewell. The deceased enters a brief spiritual purgatory while his twin sister is in complete denial of his death. She struggles as her family tries to interject truth into her self-preserving alternate reality. During the first three nights, the deceased experiences confusion. During nights three through six, the deceased is getting ready to accept their fate. After this, a character explains, "A spirit can never be Earthbound, the ticket has been paid for, you have to get on the plane." A community of mourners gathered in the home with friends and family each processing the loss in their own way.

I could not keep calm as the story would suddenly take off in an unpredictable direction and I resorted to holding my breath as the last attempt to control this rollercoaster narrative. Each individual grieves differently we cannot judge a single "right" way to process loss. Losing a loved one makes room for something else, but ultimately you choose whether to fill the void with anger or with love.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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