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African Filmmaker Shows 'What It Feels Like To Have No Home'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay.

But, first, we want to tell you about an important film festival that kicks off today. It's offered a showcase for a generation of storytellers to bring their work to new audiences. We're talking about the New York African Film Festival. This marks its 20th year. The theme this year is Looking Back, Looking Forward.

Mahen Bonetti founded the festival and she is with us now. We also have with us Frances Bodomo. Her short film, "Boneshaker," is being featured at the event.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MAHEN BONETTI: Thank you for having us.


MARTIN: Mahen, congratulations on the 20th year of this festival.


BONETTI: Yeah. It goes by very quickly.

MARTIN: And I know that the story of how the festival came to be is a long one. It required a lot of persistence on your part, but if you could just briefly tell us how you managed to make it happen. I understand that there were people who even questioned whether there were enough African films to make a festival.

BONETTI: Absolutely. I mean, it's really unbelievable that it's 20 years already. When we first started, it was just an idea and a few people thought it was a good idea. And fast forward from 1990, trying to get some people involved and, of course, finding the support and, most importantly, finding the films because at that time we were still dealing with 35 millimeter film.

So, in 1993, we launched the New York African Film Festival and it was phenomenal and scary at the same time. There were lines around the block. There was this hunger. Anyway, so it's 20 years later.

MARTIN: Have the selections changed over time?

BONETTI: What we've seen over the years is an increase in film production, not only the Diaspora, but also on the continent. There are film cinema industries being created in regions in the continent where no one - 20 years ago, we would never look in those regions because we did not expect films coming from those countries or even filmmakers existing there and so that has been amazing.

And, in real time, I can get someone to send us a Vimeo link and we can watch their film. It's phenomenal what's going on and what is really great is that these films are being seen on the continent. Twenty years ago, that was a rarity.

MARTIN: And one of the other things I noticed about the festival - it's about African filmmakers making films about Africa, but it's also making films about the experiences of people across the Diaspora broadly defined, and "Boneshaker" is a film like that. It follows a family of Ghanaian immigrants. They travel to Louisiana - a church to try to heal a difficult child who is played by the Oscar-nominated actress Quvenzhane Wallis. I just want to play a short clip from the film. You'll also hear Caroline Idakula as her...


MARTIN: ...as her grandma.


CAROLINE IDAKULA: (as Grandma) Spirit. Spirit out.

QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (as Blessing) Let me go.

IDAKULA: (as Grandma) Out in the name of Jesus.

WALLIS: (as Blessing) Let me...

IDAKULA: (as Grandma) Out, out.

WALLIS: (as Blessing) ...go.


MARTIN: And you hear that piercing little girl scream. Oh, my goodness, I know that scream. So, Frances, tell us a little bit more about the inspiration for the film. I hear it's based on a personal experience.

BODOMO: Right. I'm a film student at NYU and, in our second year, we make a short film that takes the whole year and I thought, if I'm going to spend a whole year making a 10-minute film, then it has to be personal and so I came up with "Boneshaker," which is about the fact that I grew up - I'm from Ghana, but I grew up in Norway and in Hong Kong and in California and I now live in New York. So I wanted to make a movie about moving around and being a migrant rather than an immigrant and what that feels like and what it feels like to have no home whatsoever, let's say are always to exist between cultures.

So I thought, yeah. I want to make a movie that doesn't necessarily give an answer to what home is or what home is today, but plays more with the feeling of being in that position.

MARTIN: How did you find young Miss Wallis? I mean, that's kind of a lucky stroke, isn't it, that...


MARTIN: ...after she got so much attention being nominated for an Oscar. The youngest ever, I understand. How did that happen?

BODOMO: We shot with her in December 2011 and "Beasts" premiered the next month and so, when I was trying to cast this movie, I knew I wanted to go to Louisiana because of the landscape and the feeling of being down there and I had a few friends who had worked on "Beasts" and, you know, I asked them, could you help me find a young girl to play the lead in my film? And they said, well, you don't know yet, but we have somebody that is very talented and you should definitely audition her. And so her audition was me and her in a park in her hometown of Houma, Louisiana, playing tag and just, you know, having a fun afternoon. And, by the end of it, you're just like, this girl is so mature and so present and so talented and so interesting to be with. You just want to know what's coming next out of her mouth and so that was perfect.

MARTIN: How do you think, Frances, that you're in generation is - it's a heavy question. I apologize.


MARTIN: But how do you think your generation is changing the way we think about Africa?

BODOMO: OK. So I think that the perception of Africa, in my opinion, comes from specifically the Ethiopian hunger crisis and all these images that were made that were trying to help - let's say - but had to create this image of Africans dying and potbellied kids to raise funds to send money over to help that crisis. And my generation was the generation that was born at that time or after that time, and is very indicative of Africa moving forward. And it's also a generation where a lot of people did grow up outside of the continent, you know, like without having necessarily been born there. And I'm talking about the immediately postcolonial generation. And so we are very much of outside cultures, and so we can speak to those cultures - if that makes sense. So we're making films about Africa that not only can be seen by Africans, because this is our home and this is where we're from, but can be seen by people in America, and in Europe and Asia, anywhere and be understood on both levels. And I think that's what's new about the new generation of African filmmakers.

MARTIN: But Mahen, you know, the festival also allows the opportunity to see films that are, if not classics, that certainly ought to be classics, and to give people a chance to view them, right, in the big screen format. And I think it's also it's honoring the late Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Could you tell us a little bit more about why he's so significant for people who aren't familiar with his work?

BONETTI: It all started with Ousmane Sembene, for me. And there's a tremendous amount of respect for him in all quarters, because he really championed the little people who and women and those people are the backbone of our continent. And he puts a mirror to our face, you know? He said OK, now that we're gaining independence in our countries, what are we going to do? We're moving into this space that's been vacated by the colonialists. How are we going to treat each other? What are we going to accomplish as the collective? And I feel that Frances's generation is also posing that question. And when she was speaking of her generation, being born post the Ethiopian crisis or during that time, her counterpart and the continent has also gone through a huge crisis in a lot of countries. So there's this disconnect. And for them, they communicate, they're the technology babies, I'll say. So there's that communication going through between Frances and her counterparts on the continent, and it's very dynamic. And this is what gives me a lot of hope.

MARTIN: There's another hot new director that you are featuring at the festival.

BONETTI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: David 'Tosh' Gitonga has a new film, "Nairobi Half Life," getting a lot of buzz playing at the festival, about a young man who moves to Nairobi in hopes of becoming an actor, but then things go awry.

BONETTI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: OK. Here's a clip from the trailer and then you can tell us a little bit more about why you like this film.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) (Foreign Language Spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) (Foreign Language Spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Arrest them. Arrest them.

(as character) (Foreign Language Spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) It feels like I have to live two different people every day.

BONETTI: As with Frances's film, it's this generation still struggling this tradition and modernity in a way. And it's such a coincidence that the elections shows took place in David's country and the young people played a big role in the outcome of that election. And there's a sense of entitlement, also, because they realize they have to take charge of their future and the fate of their country going forward. Even in my country, Sierra Leone, they've seen the film. It's premiered in about 46 various cities within the United States, but we have the New York premiere, of course. And so you find these young people who really want to be good, who want to make a difference, and the challenges that opposed. And it's very hopeful and it's beautifully shot, and I think it will appeal to the general public. This is what I love about those two films. So we're niche, but we're not just speaking to a younger generation. We're speaking to the family unit.

MARTIN: Mahen, I wanted to ask you about that, because obviously some of these films will feel very different...

BONETTI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...to you, depending on where you grew up, where you're from, whether you have the experience of being a Diaspora yourself or just being, you know, born here or grown there, that kind of thing. What do you - and so it's hard to generalize, but what are you hoping people will draw from this festival, especially if they get a chance to view more than one film?

BONETTI: Well, as you mentioned, you know, Ousmane Sembene, he's the pillar. So the bookends are the pillars, you know, Mambretti, Abderrahmane Sissako, Oswald(ph), and in between we have the emerging generation. So we approach it as weaving a story. If someone has just come in for the first time or is just going to see one film, they pick up the thread. And that fleeting moment after seeing a film, depending on what you want to do or even just telling someone about it, this is what we hope we accomplish. And I want to believe we do good programs.


BODOMO: Definitely.

BONETTI: And our selection really is her percentage of not only our industry, but the human condition, you know, as we know it today. Because you can go into film and the lights go off, you don't speak the language, but there's something that you connect to.

MARTIN: What about people who can't travel to New York to see the festival, to go to the theaters to see the films they are at the theater? Is there any way that people can get access to some of these films?

BONETTI: We do it year-round programming. We do a national traveling series. We do summer outdoor series in New York. We do in school programs. But also, whoever has an interest could contact us and hopefully bring the series to their town or their city. We also inform people of maybe a filmmaker coming through their town or the possibility of inviting them.

MARTIN: Frances, what's next for you? I understand that you have another project in the works.

BODOMO: Yeah. I recently finished shooting my next film, which is entitled "Afronauts."

MARTIN: "Afronauts"



MARTIN: I love it already. Tell us about it.

BODOMO: So it's basically based on a true story of the Zambian astronauts who, in the '60s, were trying to join the space program. And in my movie it's more about how a group of exiles who deserve, let's say, or want more than anyone, this new home or the promise of the space race, without resources, band together to try and beat America to the moon. And it takes place on the night of the American moon landing, so it's high stakes.

MARTIN: It's high stakes.


MARTIN: That sounds terrific. And when will we be able to see it?

BODOMO: I am actually doing a Kickstarter to try and raise funds to do post. So I hope to send it out in June and maybe premiered it in 2014.

MARTIN: OK. Well, maybe it will be in the next film Festival, hopefully, so we can see it.

BONETTI: Absolutely. Thumbs up. My thumbs are going up.

BODOMO: Exactly. Exactly. New York African Film Festival 2014.

BONETTI: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Mahen Bonetti is the founder and executed director of the New York African Film Festival, and it's celebrating its 20th year. Frances Bodomo is a film director and writer. Her short film "Boneshaker" is being shown at this year's event. They both were kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for joining us and congratulations to you both.

BODOMO: Thank you very much.

BONETTI: Thank you. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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