Beyond Nollywood: New Band of Africa’s “Hottest, Brightest Stars” Sparkle in NYC

Directors, Stars of Africa's hottest new Films descend on New York's Lincoln Center for 21st New York African Film Festival

Mahen Bonetti founder of NYAFF with new band of Africa's stars

After lighting it up at New York’s Lincoln Center for a week, Africa’s band of newest and brightest stars and the New York African Film Festival team will take the expo to the Maysles Documentary Center starting Thursday.

By all accounts so far, this 21st New York African Film Festival has been a triumph.

The festival began May 7 and will run until month-end.

Organized under the banner theme, “Revolution and Liberation in the Digital Age,” the festival is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival, Inc.

It is also presided over by the watchful eyes of Cheryl Duncan and her public relations team.

The festival is being held at three venues. With the first leg having just wrapped up at the Lincoln Center, it now moves to the cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center before concluding at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Cinematek.

The first run of this installation of the film festival included 11 features and eight short films from various African nations and the Diaspora.

These new African voices who have spent years honing their craft on the continent and then around the world, are exploring new ways to tell their stories utilizing all the various media now available in this digital age.

FSLC Associate Director of Programming Marian Masone describes it as an exploration of “both myth and modernity.”

The New York African Film Festival organizers are calling this year, “A gracious nod to Nollywood, the world’s second largest film industry, and to the 100th centenary of the unification of Nigeria.” As part of the tribute, NYAFF’s opening night presented the American premier of the Nigerian dark comedy Confusion Na Wa.

Mahen Bonetti, Founder of the New York African Film Festival and Exec. Dir. of African Film Festival

Mahen Bonetti is the New York African Film Festival founder and executive director of African Film Festival Inc.

“It has been a long process of blood sweat and tears. I always think about all the people who have invested in us and who are depending on us and who have really embraced us. The energy and support they’ve poured into this machine really drive us and keep it going,” she says.

Bonetti’s first New York African Film Festival was more than 20 years ago.

“It’s like the ant colony, I cannot lag behind, I have to do my bit to keep the chain going. It’s been such an incredible ride, and it continues to keep me motivated and energized,” she says. “Each time you think the well is dry, then you hear of the next wave of filmmakers coming who are changing the form and the structure and raising the production bar and it’s just fantastic.”

On the Red Carpet

Anika Noni Rose attends New York African Film Festival's Centerpiece Night at New York's Lincoln Center

Over the past week, the stars that sparkled on the red carpet and onscreen, included a shimmering Anika Noni Rose, who took time out from a hectic schedule on Broadway, co-starring with Denzel Washington, to make an appearance at the festival and discuss her role in the sweeping epic love story Half of a Yellow Sun.

Half of a Yellow Sun Director Biyi Bandele and Anika Noni Rose attend premier of movie at New York African Film Festival

Joining Rose on the red carpet was Biyi Bandele the director of the movie, which is a film adaptation of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s international best selling novel.

Also making appearances were Kenneth Gyang, the wunderkind, Nigerian-born director of the hilarious and engaging, disturbingly dark comedy, Confusion Na Wa; OC Ukeje, lead actor of Confusion Na Wa, who also had a starring role in Half of a Yellow Sun; Akosua Adoma Owusu, director of the short Ghanian film Kweku Ananse; and Aissa Maiga from the animated film, Aya of Yop City.

Aissa Maiga, Actress Aya of Yop City at the 21st New York African Film Festival held at Lincoln Center

These stars are being touted as the next crop of talented African actors, directors and producers who will take the world by storm.

Meet the Stars

Akosua Adoma Owusu

“It’s part semi-autobiographical, so it’s told from the perspective of the spider’s daughter, who is a Ghanian-American girl returning home for his funeral.”

Akosua Adoma Owusu, Mbaho Mwine at the 21st New York African Film Festival

Owusu’s film Kweku Anase is a short adaptation of a well-known Ghanian fable. Kweku Ananse is a creature, part man, part spider who tries to collect all the wisdom in the world in a pot.

She describes her film as, “A semi-autobiographical adaptation, a modern retelling of a famous folk tale told from the perspective of the spider’s daughter who is a Ghanian-American girl returning home for her father’s funeral. She escapes into the forest in search of her father who is hoarding all the wisdom in a pot and she wants to confront him before she can return to his funeral in peace.”

Her film was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. She won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film last year. This is her first fiction short, though she has made several experimental films. She is working toward her first feature film this year.

Ekwa Msangi

“It is such an honor being an African filmmaker today. We have such a rich mine of stories to dig from and there are so many beautiful things to say especially now in the digital age with all the available equipment. We have so many more ways now to say what we need to say which makes it a fun time to be a filmmaker.”

Ekwa Msangi Dir. of Soko Sonko at the 21st New York African Film Festival

Ekwa Msangi‘s short film Soko Sonko received its world premier at the New York African Film Festival. The film, a comedy set in Nairobi, Kenya, is a fun adventure about a middle-class man who has to take his daughter to the market to get her hair braided on the same day his football team is playing a championship game and the drama that ensues as he tries to juggle and accomplish both missions.

Msangi says besides the challenges filmmakers face trying to raise money to fund their films, there are also certain stereotypes female African filmmakers have to confront.

“I like making films with male-ally characters. There is the stereotype that as a female filmmaker I should be telling female stories, and have female lead characters all the time. But I’m a female filmmaker who likes writing male stories. We are in a time when Africans are starting to show up a lot more on screens not just in tragic ways, or stories about famine and starvation — but there are more exciting things about Africa that are becoming public.”

Biyi Bandele Dir. Half of a Yellow Sun at the 21st New York African Film Festival

Biyi Bandele

“The reason the film took six long years to make was because we wanted to shoot it in Nigeria and also ironically because a Nigerian wanted to direct it. If I wrote the script and had been happy to hand it over to another director, the movie would have happened three years earlier. It was just difficult raising 10 million dollars, which by Hollywood standards is a catering budget, but in Nigeria that is the biggest budget for a movie that has been made so far.”

Bandele, a writer-director, lives in London, but originates from Nigeria. His film, the critically acclaimed Half of a Yellow Sun was unveiled to audiences at the Walter Reade Theater at the New York Lincoln Center on the festival’s Centerpiece night.

The movie, a film adaptation of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s international best selling novel, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose and John Boyega.

It is a love story about a cast of characters trying to carry on their lives when suddenly they get caught up in the Nigerian civil war.

Says Bandele,”I read a great book called Half a Yellow Sun and I fell in love with it and decided to make a movie of it. I was fortunate I had an ensemble cast. Chiwetel, who was at the top of his game, Thandie who was just amazing, John, who has just been cast in the new Star Wars movie and Anika who is on Broadway right now with Denzel. It was a joy every single morning to wake up and go to set because I was surrounded by the most amazing group of actors.”

But despite expectations that Bandele’s film would be nationally embraced in its home country, the masterfully directed film that puts Nigerian talent in the spotlight, has been banned. Nigeria’s movie censorship board is reportedly shying away from the political overturns of the film, feeling that the movie will incite tribal violence. The bloody civil war between Nigeria and the Ibo Biafrans happened in the late 1960s, but is still a sore topic in the West African nation.

Nigeria’s censorship board has not technically censored the movie. What has actually happened is that the board has refused to give the movie a rating, effectively banning it.

Bandele reflects philosophically about the censorship board’s decision.

“They’ve banned it without actually using the word banned. Nigeria can be a very strange place. It reminds me of a scene from the movie the Sweet Smell of Success, where Burt Lancaster tells Falco who is played by Tony Curtis,  ’My right hand has not seen my left hand in 30 years.’ And so you’re talking to one part of the government and you think everything’s is fine and then the other part of the government is looking to sabotage you.”

Bandele also says he has seen the movie with Nigerians all over the world, in India, Dubai, Toronto, Dublin, Scotland and several Scandinavian nations. He says he’s never met a single Nigerian who walked out of the screening looking to harm anyone.

He says, “Everywhere I’ve gone, my film has spoken to people. I’m really looking forward to watching it with an African American audience and I hope it speaks to them too.”

Frances Bodomo, Dir. of Afronauts at the 21st New York African Film Festival

Frances Bodomo

“I think structurally as women we need to make sure that we are hiring women, mentoring women, opening up spaces. But I think that in terms of films, the same stories keep getting told and people are getting tired. Because technology is allowing more people to keep making movies there is no way I can see a future without more women, black women, African American women telling stories and making movies.”

Bodomo is the writer-director of the short film, Afronauts about a group of Zambians who in the ’60s tried to join the space race without really having the resources to do so. There are only five documents that still exist, but since this happened during the time of the nation’s independence from colonial rule, the government presumably wanted to distance itself.

Says Bodomo, “I heard my family members talking about it, and so I started researching it and after that, it developed into the short film and now I’m going to make a feature. For me, the point of trying to follow this story was the day-to-day emotions of the people involved in this project. Things you can’t really articulate, the things that caused people to take on this impossible task.”

Bodomo also discusses the difficulties women are faced with when trying to break into the film industry.

“It’s disappointing when you walk into rooms and people don’t want to take you as seriously as they would if you were male. But the interesting and exciting thing for me is that there are many African female filmmakers and on that end, I feel like I have a community. I think there is a higher incidence of African women making movies about Africa than there is in any other sort of group, so i feel like I’m part of a community and I love that.”

There is actually also an amazing photo series also called Afronauts by Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel, for anyone interested in learning more at Zambia’s attempt to build a space rocket.

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Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Dir., Kuhani at the 21st New York African Film Festival at New York's Lincoln Center

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine

“It’s great because often, African filmmakers work in isolation and so when your work is recognized by folks like people here at the African Film Festival it’s a real validation. Because of improvements in technology, the playing field is opening up so filmmakers in remote areas are able to make something on their phone, upload and send it where it needs to go.”

Mwine is director of Kuhani, an experimental short film that was loosely inspired by a gay priest in Uganda. It takes a look at the anti-homosexuality in the country and examines the “inner workings and inner psyche of this man.”

Mwine is thankful to be a part of this new digital age that makes it much easier for filmmakers to ply their craft.

“Things have changed so much since I went to school in New York. You didn’t have phones that had video cameras, there were no iPads. In order for them to see my films, I emailed them a link to the film and that’s how they got it. In the old days, it would have been much harder and a lot tougher.”

Kenneth Gyang, Dir., Confusion Na Wa at 21st New York African Film Festival

Kenneth Gyang

“You never really know that the action you take or the decision you make can affect someone really close to you. One small thing like a mobile phone can trigger a big crisis because in Nigeria people are always impatient and always want to jump to conclusions.”

Gyang is the talented, young Nigerian director of the movie, Confusion Na Wa. The cameras follow the events that happen after a cell phone gets stolen by two opportunistic Grifters. After checking the contents of the phone, they decide to blackmail the phone’s original owner, a decision that has a ripple effect on all the characters of the film.

“The film is a reflection of where I come from. I come from Jos in Nigeria’s plateau state. It is a multicultural society teeming with Ibos, Hausas, and Yorubas all in the same city. Though some of the events that occur in the film are sometimes disturbing, it isn’t unrealistic to imagine it happening exactly like that in any city in Nigeria today.”

Gyang says he started on his career back in 2006 after coming out of film school and immediately got a job working with the BBC on a television series in Nigeria. He says working there helped hone his writing skills and visual storytelling. He also says picking the right projects and trying to tell the story the right way has helped him stay prolific.

He formed a production company, Cinema Kpatakpata with Thomas Rowland-Rees, who co-wrote and produced Confusion Na Wa.

OC Ukeje, Actor, Confusion Na Wa, Half of a Yellow Sun at the 21st New York African Film Festival

OC Ukeje

“I really would like to work outside the shores of Nigeria as much as I can on very good projects. We are trying to secure management and representation in parts of the world where film matters. I’m going to be doing this for a long time, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Ukeje is an actor with his star on the rise. He’s the lead actor in Gyang’s Confusion Na Wa and he also had a small role in the sweeping epic, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Ukeje says he’s been trying to make it into the mainstream for 13 years.

“It hasn’t happened for me quickly. I’ve been in the background since 2001 and I did stage for four, five years of my career. I had to figure out how to merge stage and screen in Nigeria. Then I did a realty TV show in 2006 and a movie off of that in 2007-2008 and then there was nothing but silence. Nobody was looking to hire me. So I did an acting workshop in LA and when I came back it just happened that things suddenly collided and I got my first real break in 2012.”

Ukeje also talks about being a part of the cast of Half of a Yellow Sun, about the movie being kept in limbo in Nigeria and what it means to him to have been a part of it.

“I’m happy about that because it’s an important film for me as a Nigerian. I really don’t know what the issue is about the censor board banning it. It’s an adaptation of a book that has been selling for years in the country and has been recognized around the world. It’s really also a love story, so I don’t understand what their gripe is with the film. I wish the censorship board will do more in ratings and gradings of films as opposed to censoring because we have a lot of films that they don’t even have the time to censor, and it goes straight to DVD and nobody clamps down on those. It takes your mind back to conversations that people have not had especially for those of us who were born after the war and it helps to touch on history.”

About Confusion Na Wa, he says, the film is “really how six peoples’ lives are interconnected and it explains how if you are in New York or London or anywhere else in the world, there is an inter-connectivity that eventually brings us together.”

“I’m tied to someone here and I don’t know how.  It’s taken me 13 years of my career to meet some of the people I’m meeting here today. It just goes to show the inter-connectivity amongst people,” he adds.

Both Bandele and Ukeje weighed in on the #bringbackourgirls campaign for the abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls who have been missing longer than a month.

Ukeje says, “It’s sad. I feel like we are on the negative side of the number line and it’s very disturbing. If we continue like, this it’s only a matter of time before it spreads and then no one is guaranteed safety. I hope we can find these girls and bring them back so we can get back to addressing things that affect us as people in the country.”

Bandele says, “I don’t know that they’ve been sold, or married off, but it’s tragic that they are being held God-knows-where. I watched the video that Boko Haram put out and it seemed to me, I speak Hausa, the guy appeared to be clowning, he seems to be repeating back to the media what the media has been saying, like he’s some weird comedian. Nigeria is a very complex, complicated country. The president is getting a lot of flak and he deserves it, but he’s presiding over a country that is almost ungovernable.”

Half of a Yellow Sun will be released in theaters in the United States starting May 16.

The festival concluded its spectacular run at Lincoln Center Wednesday with the sweeping epic Sarraounia.

It moves to the Cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem May 15-18. The 21st NYAFF closes over Memorial day weekend, May 23-26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM Cinematik as part of the dance and music festival DanceAfrica.

Mahen Bonetti, NYAFF founder with Monterey Media's Jere Rae-Mansfield

Says Bonetti, “I think it’s the golden age for Africa. We are going to be a billion people in three years, we are now 700 million people who are tapped into technology, its the future. Choosing the filmmakers is always so incredibly tough, we have to make hard choices, we have to present the best there is and it’s hard to make the decision because I know what others go through, but in fairness to those who have worked really hard and who have done something compelling and can compete on an international level.  What I need for the future of the festival is someone crazier than me and younger than me and comes in the next few years and takes over.”

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