It’s hard to believe it, but Film Africa, the annual film festival run by the Royal African Society, is now in its fifth year. It may be coming of age, but its line-up is as fresh and exciting as ever.

With a mission of showcasing the best African cinema from across the continent and the diaspora, this year’s incarnation features more than 60 titles from 27 different African countries, including several premieres. Zeinab Badawi, chair of the Royal African Society, says that she is proud of the festival’s achievement in carving out a space for African film in London and the wider UK over the last five years, and says that she hopes that the new audience award, launched this year, will help audiences and film makers connect even more deeply.

The biggest downside of the festival is the sheer choice of films to choose from – with everything from experimental features and shorts to political documentaries and comedies, how do you choose? Film Africa has helped out by selecting a couple of brilliant films for its opening and closing nights. Opening is award-winning Ivorian poetic and cinematic coming-of-age drama Run, directed by Philippe Lacote, and closing the festival is Algerian political and colonial historical epic The Man From Oran, directed by Lyes Salem, which takes the viewer through Algeria’s turbulent history following independence from France in 1962.

Both directors will be present with their films at the festival. Film Africa will host over a dozen other filmmakers from Rwanda, Angola, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Nigeria and the Diaspora, who will take part in post-screening Q&As, masterclasses and panels.

There are several strands within the festival as a whole, such as Lusophone Liberty: 40 Years On, marking 40 years of independence for Africa’s Portuguese-speaking nations. Inluded in this strand are The Blue Eyes of Yonta and My Voice from veteran Guinea-Bissau director Flora Gomes, as well as Zeze Gamboa’s The Hero, amongst other contemporary titles.

The From Africa, With Love strand is presented by the UK African film festival network – Film Africa, Africa in Motion in Scotland, Afrika Eye in Bristol, Watch Africa in Wales and the Cambridge Africa Film Festival – in association with BFI UK. Films range from Kenya’s beautiful LBGTI shorts Stories of Our Lives to classic Senegalese satire Hyenas.

The other key strand is New Narratives: Ethiopia in Transition, which will feature Lamb, the first Ethiopian feature to be screened in competition at Cannes, as well as other Ethiopian films. Director of Lamb Yared Zeleke says it is the first time he has been selected for Film Africa and that he is honoured to be invited.

Zeleke says that Lamb, at first appearances a simple story about a boy and his pet sheep, has touched audiences who have already seen it. (It has also been critically well received.)

“Audiences who have come to see Lamb, from Cannes to Toronto and most recently Oslo, have really connected with the film. People have been positive and enthusiastic, some saying that the story was not as simple as it appears with all the complex issues it deals with. Others, such as a woman in Switzerland, told me that I’ve told her childhood story.”

Film Africa will this year again major on the intersection between music and film – from the moving and transporting Beats of the Antonov from Sudanese director Hajooj Kuka to Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango by Angolan director Dom Pedro, which shows where the tango tradition truly originated; and I Shot Bi Kidude by Andy Jones, which charts the last days in the life of the oldest performer on the world stage, followed by live music from two of Zanzibar’s modern musical icons Mim Suleiman and Matona, both close friends and collaborators of Bi Kidude. Jones says that it will be a special night and that audiences can expect “without giving too much away, laughter, and tears, and a bit of mystery – all with one of Africa’s great musical icons at the centre of it all”.

Jones says that he’s been impressed by the growth of Film Africa since its inception. “The film selection on its own is really inspirational, and then with all the additional events and discussions, it’s a brilliant programme. Even in the past few years the number of great films coming from the continent has really grown and to have a home for those films in London – all over the capital where there are so many different communities – is really important. I also really like it when festivals try to programme events throughout the year, rather than just have a feast for a few days and then a famine until it comes around again and I know that that’s one of the aims of Film Africa and I hope that they will continue to grow.

Festival producer Rachael Loughlan stresses how keen Film Africa is to see more African cinema distributed in the UK as a whole, tackling the 1% market share it currently holds.

Some other great titles in this year’s programme are The Dream of Shahrazad (Egypt), Things of the Aimless Wanderer (Rwanda), Eye of the Storm (Burkina Faso), Necktie Youth (South Africa) and The Blue Elephant (Egypt). Notable documentaries include Mandela, My Dad, And Me, featuring Idris Elba, La Belle At The Movies (DRC/UK) and Black President (South Africa).

Film Africa will also highlight the life and work of renowned Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène, with a double bill at the British Library, featuring new documentary Sembene! (Sama Gadjigo) and his celebrated 1976 satire Xala.

Black President director Mpumelelo Mcata, who will be attending Film Africa and is also a member of South African bands BLK JKS and Motel Mari, is positive about the impact of the festival.

“African film hardly gets enough oxygen and so that dynamic creates a situation where the film industries on the continent are either pandering to western modes and ideas of film-making, or (mis)conceptions of Africa, or creating “sub-standard” productions. But with the likes of Film Africa exposing more material from the so-called dark continent, the outsider voices and the vital views start to shine through, as the novelty fades.”

Black President itself is very much an experimental film, addressing themes such as the mind of the artist and decolonisation in South Africa. With the recent impact of the #FeesMustFall movement, the film is more prescient than ever. Says Mcata: “South Africa still has a long way to go, there has been an ongoing debate in SA about redressing the inequities of the past and the movement is growing globally – see #BlackLivesMatter. These things, as [main character] Kudzi says in Black President do not happen in isolation.”

How does Mcata think it will go down with Film Africa audiences?

“Black President being such an exploratory piece, the reactions have varied quite a bit in different contexts, but are always very interesting. It’s a film that was made with very little to no preconceived ideas besides finishing it, so our expectations on how the audience will respond are just as open. We can only hope people enter the cinema with open minds and enjoy the ride.”

Closing gala film director Lyes Salem, who directed Algerian epic The Man From Oran, is also big on the benefits of an open mind. “The interest of this kind of cultural get together is that it allows the public to access films that it would not necessarily have the chance to see in the commercial cinema. The current system does not make curiosity a sure criterion for the public in choosing what films to see.”

What can people expect from his film? “To be moved and engaged by the story and to laugh. One day, near Geneva, a guy said to me after the showing of the film, that he didn’t know Algeria, that he had never been there, but had identified completely with the characters, which had really surprised him. It was strange to see him surprised like that. Generally that’s the typical audience reaction , at least of the people who speak to me. Many have said to me: “We would never have gone to see this film, we wouldn’t have thought it was for the likes of us but in fact we really liked it.”

Like Mcata, Salem is frustrated by outside attitudes to African film. “It’s annoying that the public always goes to see the same sort of films. From the point of view of society, there can often be a condescending attitude at best to Africans – ‘poor people in the Third World, one really ought to help them’ – and at worst a contemptuous and fearful attitude –  ‘all these chancers and thieves want to come over here because there’s nothing where they are’. Sure, I am drawing a bit of a caricature, but not by much.”

“The common thread in these attitudes is that they are devoid of humanity. Cinema provides that humanity.”

FESTIVAL PICKS

Blogger and commentator Minna Salami, known as Ms Afropolitan, has selected some great films by female directors to check out.

Yared Zaleke: “I am very much looking forward to seeing the films of friends, Philippe Lacote’s Run as well as Bazi Gete’s Red Leaves.”

Andy Jones: “Beats of the Antonov is one of those films which really immerses you in a different place. I saw it in Durban and when the lights came up at the end it took me a few seconds to remember that I wasn’t actually in Sudan. And The Dream of Shahrazad by François Verster I can’t wait to see. Everyone I know who has seen it absolutely raves about it so I can’t wait to catch it on the big screen.”

Mpumemelo Mcata: “So many! Including Lamb, Run, Things of The Aimless Wanderer and Sembene!

Lyes Salem: “The film Hope.”

Film Africa 2015 runs from 30 October to 8 November in 10 venues across London, including the Hackney Picturehouse, Ritzy Brixton, BFI Southbank, ICA, Ciné Lumière, the British Library and the South London Gallery. See the programme in full here and watch the Film Africa trailer here

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