Documentaries Feature New Ways of Seeing at the New York African Film Festival


“Cinema is an important art. It’s the art of telling the world about yourself.” These words of wisdom are offered by Congolese filmmaker Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda in LaBelle at the Movies, a new documentary about the lack of cinemas in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a highlight of the extraordinarily diverse lineup of the New York African Film Festival, currently underway at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The documentary selection is particularly far-flung, also including work from the Caribbean and South America.

Yet they’re all bound together by this simple, perhaps obvious truth that Bakupa-Kanyinda shares. LaBelle at the Movies, directed by Cecilia Zoppelletto, introduces a community of Congolese filmmakers and film enthusiasts striving to return this art form to their nation. Kinshasa, a city of 11 million, no longer has a single movie theater. The old cinemas of the 1960s are now churches, nightclubs, and furniture stores.

The long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and the subsequent civil war offer the most obvious explanations as to why this is the case, but there are more contemporary reasons as well. Religious opposition to cinemas is an issue, as is the proliferation of bootleg VHS and DVD and the determination of the TV networks to maintain their monopoly on the national media. This has stifled growth in film production, as well.

But this is all fairly technical compared to the aspirations of Bakupa-Kanyinda and his colleagues. Zoppelletto takes a trip back to the days before independence, when the Belgian colonists made racist, educational films about the character of the Congolese people. Cinema helps control the way that people are perceived, which is why the few working Congolese filmmakers continue struggling. It isn’t simply about telling the stories of African people, but telling them in a way that reinforces their own worldview. The return of cinema to the DRC would give local artists another tool to deconstruct and replace the colonial representation of Africa on screen.

This project of self-definition can be found all over the documentary slate in the festival. In Roy T. Anderson’s Queen Nanny, this manifests in a rejection of Western standards of historical narrative. Nanny, the only woman among Jamaica’s seven National Heroes, was a spiritual and military leader of the island’s Maroon community in the 17th century, when they were at constant risk of violent recapture by the island’s slaveholders.

There is almost no written record of Nanny. Instead, nearly everything comes down through oral history. Rather than going on a wild goose chase to narrow down what we can know “for sure,” Anderson embraces this oral tradition. He interviews academics, politicians, and aging descendants of Nanny’s Maroons, many of whom explain that the verified proofs insisted upon by European standards of historical accuracy miss the point entirely. If we’re all expected to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, why can’t we believe that Nanny caught colonial bullets in her behind and fired them back at British soldiers? And so Anderson fills his 59-minute film with as many voices as possible, from every age group and walk of life in Jamaica, all of them thrilled by the opportunity to contribute to this collective memory of a beloved icon of resistance.

Queen Nanny

A similar rejection of European structures of knowledge takes place in Yemanjá: Wisdom from the Heart of Brazil, though in the realm of religion. Narrated by Alice Walker and directed by Donna Carole Roberts, the film is a portrait of the Candomblé community of Salvador, a religious tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Brazil’s colonial history. Africans, brought to South America as slaves by the Portuguese, maintained their religious traditions by wrapping them in the guise of Catholicism and its saints. The resulting syncretic faith, which also borrowed from American indigenous theology, was first formalized in Salvador and remains strongest there.

Officially banned for many years, Candomblé is now making great strides to enter public life. Yemanjá features protest marches against religious prejudice, rituals, and interviews with four priests. These women, for the religion is a matriarchal one, are locally renowned figures who have helped grow their community. They also work toward building a relationship with Brazilian society that looks past prejudice and into the future. One of these mães-de-santo invites doctors to her temple for an information session on traditional African medicine. Others are active in combining the conservationist beliefs of their faith with environmentalism, pushing for the rehabilitation of parks and the preservation of Salvador’s natural resources.

Over in Haiti, meanwhile, a new literary and theological movement has been growing since the early days of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s. In the Eye of the Spiral, by filmmakers Raymond Leconte and Eve Blouin, is a broad exploration of the influence that Spiralism has had on Haitian culture and art. The spiral is the symbol of a sort of intellectual resistance, a refusal of the linearity of Western historical framework as well as a spiritual embrace of holistic, decentralized faith. Leconte and Blouin explore the relationship this perspective has with Vodun, but resist the ways in which foreign depictions of Haiti have reduced the nation to stereotypical portrayals of its rituals and mystery.

Instead, this is a film built up from the work and perspectives of artists and writers. It features narration by Annie Lenox and music by Brian Eno, but it’s anchored by interviews with founding Spiralist writer Frankétienne, who lays out the loose principles of this open-minded approach to knowledge with just the right amount of clarity. Leconte and Blouin also use a great many images of paintings made in a spiralist style, many more than in typical art documentaries. They intersperse these striking, colorful, often cosmic landscapes with documentary footage of Haiti as it is now, a beautiful island still recovering from the earthquake. Everything is chaos, Frankétienne explains, that is the natural state of the universe. What we hope for is a good sort of chaos, one that manifests in art. This rejection of the endless struggle for order is also an embrace of something else, something much more edifying and rewarding, and certainly much more beautiful.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.