new york african film festival – five movies to watch out for

April 16, 2012

The 19th Annual New York African Film Festival launched April 11 at Lincoln Center, and this year’s batch of movies are as inspiring as they are entertaining. In recent years, there has been more and more discussion about the plight of diasporic filmmakers and what to do about the lack of opportunity and representation that black people face in Hollywood. Luckily, the AFF this year is proving yet again that there are strides being made all over (take the Kenyan documentary featuring AP member Djae Aroni and his band Crystal Axis, for instance). Filmmakers from countries across Africa, from the Caribbean, and from the US are sticking up a (figurative) middle finger at Hollywood and taking matters into their own, talented hands. As founder Mahin Bonetti described it at the festival’s opening on Wednesday, “[The festival] is for us to have a discussion, to realize our worth. It’s a way to reach the community. African filmmakers are the vanguard right now.” Here is a list of my personal favorites from the festival: movies that you should be on the lookout for, movies that are telling the stories that Hollywood won’t.

Words by Zeba Blay

Mama Africa

Mama Africa celebrates the life of Miriam Makeba, the first international African star, a staunch activist against apartheid and colonialism in Africa, and just generally an all around badass. In the 1960s, Makeba was exiled from her home country of South Africa after speaking out against the injustices faced by her people. It was during this exile that she reached worldwide fame – but the beauty of Makeba, and of this documentary, is that she never forgot where she came from, mixing modern soul music with traditional Xhosa music in songs like ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘The Click Song’.Through the use of amazing archive footage from throughout Makeba’s life, Mama Africa gives a refreshing look at a legend.


Relentless is the striking directorial debut of Andy Amadi Okoroafor, about a former Sierra Leone peace-keeper who struggles with war trauma upon his return home to Nigeria. Okroafor describes the impetus behind making the movie as an attempt to create “visual poetry,” and force viewers to “Look and think and Nigeria in a different way.” The movie is bursting with haunting shot after haunting shot, and its two leads, Nigerian singer Nneka (who is stunning in this film) and Haitian actor Jimmy Jean-Louis (you might recognize him from Heroes) gives the sort of performances that stay with you long after the movie is done.

Restless City

Restless City has been much buzzed about since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Watching this movie is like some sort of visual massage – Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu uses the landscape of New York City to frame the story of an African immigrant who finds himself mixed up in a world of trouble when he falls for a beautiful callgirl under the thumb of a vindictive gangster. Everything about this movie oozes style and a sort of film noir quality reminiscent of films like Drive, only in an even more dynamic, even more engaging way.

How to Steal 2 Million

How to Steal 2 Millionis a movie that falls under the tradition of film noir of the 1940s, but with a “Modern twist, in a whole new world,” as director Charlie Vundla puts it. The South African movie is full of all the tropes of film noir – the femme fatale, the Last Big Score, the good guy criminal who we can’t help but root for. And, like all the movies playing at the AFF this year, it once again presents another dimension to modern African life – taking on predictable Hollywood formulas and turning them on their heads with an African sensibility. In the movie, Jack, a professional thief who’s just been released after a five year stint in prison, finds himself back in the game when a bid to start a legit business is stalled when he’s rejected for a loan (don’t you hate when that happens?). To make his dreams come true, Jack must take what won’t be given to him. Drama (and lots of action) ensues.

Man on Ground

Man on Groundis one of those movies that, after you see it, you’re entirely perplexed as to why no one else has seen it yet. Here is a movie that lives and breathes through the performances of its actors, who after a while seem a lot less like actors and a lot more like people you could know. It’s a haunting drama about Ade and Femi, two Nigerian brothers who take very different paths – Ade moves to London and becomes a succesful bank executive, while Femi finds himself living the harsh life of a refugee in South Africa. The festival theme this year is about homecoming, and none as much as this movie examine this idea as poignantly as this particular film.The different lives of the two brothers converge in such a shocking climax that may leave you with more questions than answers but, above all, will definitely leave you thinking.

For more info on this year’s New York African Film Festival and the films above, click here.

* Contributor Zeba Blay’s movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter