Film Africa 2014: Annual film festival returns with historical vengeance

Film Africa, the UK’s largest celebration of African cinema is in its 4th year, and takes place from October; here, Dele Meiji Fatunla, of the Royal African Society, which organizes the festival, gives us his take on one of the key themes of this year’s festival.

In a year that seems to be dripping with history, including the centenaries of the first world, the amalgamation of the northern and southern halves of Nigeria into one territory, and 60 years since the Algerian revolution,  it seems particularly apt that our annual film festival should feature a range of films which are strongly historical in their bent. Close to home for me is the third cinematic release by Nigeria’s leading director, Kunle Afolayan, whose film October 1st gets a London debut at the festival. October 1st is an intriguing film that manages to balance the perhaps competing demands of crime films and historical period drama. Afolayan conjures up a pre-independence Nigeria that is convincing and at the same time romantic, albeit with a dark secret in the ending, not unlike the real post-independence story of Nigeria. Yet for the real history buffs like me, one of the most exciting films is Njinga, Queen of Angola about the 17th century queen who repelled Portuguese slavers and maintained a dominant state in the territory for many years. For the first time, we are getting to see a real, deep historical representation of Africa on screen, and I really hope there’ll be more of this to come.

It’s perhaps easier to represent Africa’s relatively recent past, but tricky to do the more distant past, and do it well. Hollywood has tried once or twice, but I’m sure not many people will disagree with me that in most instances it has failed dismally; which is why these film-makers taking historical films by the horns are so exciting. I remember seeing the TV series Chaka Zulu as a kid; despite its flaws, the sort of pride and awareness of history it created in many young people like me cannot be underestimated, nor can the damage done by a more salacious take on history; I was equally impressed as a child, if not slightly terrorized by Idi Amin, a bio-pic about the Ugandan dictator, made not long after his fall from power. Yet despite the power of these films, there was always the sense that these weren’t African stories told with any deep empathy for the continent’s historical experience; which is what is exciting about both the film’s dealing with older history, and the documentaries and films dealing with more recent history. And there is a lot of recent history, there are two strands of the festival marking and celebrating two momentous but contrasting events that happened in Africa in 1994 at around the same time; the first the transformation of South Africa into a truly, democratic country for the first time in its history, and the second the deadly and tragic events of the Rwandan genocide. 20 years have passed since both events occurred, but perhaps the real legacy of those years is only beginning to be confronted now.

In South Africa’s case, the passing of Nelson Mandela opened the space for many re-appraisals of the country’s liberation experience and the much celebrated but perhaps mythic idea of the rainbow nation, and a peaceful, bloodless revolution of 1994.  1994: The Bloody Miracle from directors Meg Richards and Bert Haitsma’s documentary taps into the zeitgeist, as South Africa unravels the myths of its recent history.  It’s one of five films in the festival that interrogate the hopes, experiences and stories of South Africa in its 20 years of freedom.

The film explores the orchestrated violence that almost derailed South Africa’s democratic process before it even began, with searing testimony from many of the major players behind the violence.

If South Africa’s violence eventually took a positive turn, the same cannot be said for Rwanda in 1994, where tensions led to Africa’s worst incident of inter-ethnic violence in the 20th century. 20 years on from the genocide, Rwanda is now one of Africa’s success stories, but the legacy of the genocide remains very much alive. Through that most hopeful of genres, the love story, the Rwandan film Kinyarwanda tells a story of hope and humanity amidst the brutality; following the travails of a young Tutsi woman, and Hutu man who fall in love, and four other life stories into one larger narrative, that gives a complex story of the terror and human resilience within that very dark night of history. Another film Umudugudu strikes a more sombre tone, exploring how life is lived in the aftermath of such human brutality. Umudugudu tells the story of Esperance, who miraculously survived the massacre of over 100 people, and now lives in her village, next to Osée, the man responsible for the attack that left here with scars on her head and back that she still bears. This powerful short documentary faces this dark testimony others like it firmly and sensitively; the great memoirist and writer, Maya Angelou, wrote in her poem “Morning Yet on Creation Day” that history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again; so many of the films we’ve been privileged to feature in this year’s festival give these words salience, and show once again how important it is for Africa to tell its own stories, even when those stories are of hardship, struggle and pain that can’t be unlived, only faced; beautifully, masterfully, articulately, and cinematically.

Dele Meiji Fatunla is a writer and communications manager at the Royal African Society. Film Africa, takes place from 31st October – 9th November 2014 in London, UK.


Dele Meiji Fatunla