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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 (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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