Next week the 15th annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival gets underway and, with reliable breadth, it features more than 140 films reflecting a wide range of styles, subjects, genres and viewpoints regarding the experience of Africans and the African diaspora.
The opening-night film, "Rwanda Rising," (at the Directors Guild of America), should be a spirited event indeed, since it spotlights the incredible resurgence and engine of reconciliation that has helped rebuild the country since the 1994 genocide that wiped out 800,000 people.
It's essentially the story of a part of the world striving for economic heaven after political and personal hell, and shifting from the division of extreme prejudice to the community of — as noticed on a developer's plan for a $6-million Kigali city park — an "extreme sports camp." Featuring former United Nations Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young as tour guide/observer/promoter (he also produced), this crisply edited effort is less an objective documentary than a sales pitch for investment in the country — if Quincy Jones is buying, shouldn't you? — but the overall effect of seeing Rwandans living lives of hope, with in some cases inexplicable forgiveness, is undeniably stirring.
For a movie whose aim is to revisit the horror of the Tutsi massacres, however, the French-language Canadian feature "A Sunday in Kigali" is queasy going, not just for the dramatization of the lead-up and aftermath of those three wretched months, but for the cliché of doomed romance — between a white documentarian (Luc Picard) and a beautiful Hutu waitress (Fatou N'Diaye) mistaken for Tutsi — that's supposed to deepen the tragedy.
1994 was also, of course, the year South Africa freed itself from apartheid, but for a young generation of activists their country is still in a psychological vise-hold, struggling to move forward. The documentary "Masizakhe: Let Us Build Together" — a hodgepodge of talking-head remembrances, societal diagnoses and emotional performances — takes a look at the cultural imperatives that groups like Ghetto Youth Uprising are calling for, using spoken word, hip-hop and art to continue a nationwide healing.
One of the strongest films in the lineup is a French/Belgian/Italian/Israeli feature, another tale born of misery, but brought full circle into awakening and acceptance. Director Radu Mihaileanu's epic "Live & Become" begins with an Ethiopian boy in a Sudanese refugee camp who pretends to be a Jewish orphan — a Falasha, as Ethiopian Jews are known — at the behest of his starving mother so that he can be saved in a rescue operation by Israel's Mossad. Adopted by a politically minded but non-religious Jewish family — who ironically worry that they aren't devout enough for their new charge — young Schlomo (excellently played over the years by actors Moshe Agazai, Mosche Abebe and Sirak M. Sabahat) grows up having to deal with the burden of his deception, the skin color that defines his outsider status, his secret longing for his homeland, but also a sincere, complex identification with the tenets of Judaism he comes to know.
Covering much ground about familial love, adolescent romance, religion and ethnic differences, "Live & Become" is long but rewarding, rich in humor and warmth, and abuzz with the turmoil of juggling multiple identities that is a critical element of these cross-cultural times.
Steering things toward our own environs is Jeannette Lindsay's music-filled, arts-focused, personality-sweetened ode "Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central." It lays out the history — thanks to the testimony of people like Kamau Daaood, the late Richard Fulton and John Outterbridge — of the vibrant, rejuvenating rhythms emanating from the storied and ever-vulnerable arts district, where the Brockman Gallery gave voice to post-civil-rights-era black artists, gang members became spoken-wordsmiths, and Vietnam vet Fulton served some of his first cups of 5th Street Dick's coffee to National Guard troops after the 1992 Rodney King riots.
The East Coast hip-hop scene finds representation in the superficially entertaining doc "Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan," made with protect-ya-image verve by one of the rap supergroup's video directors, Gerald K. Barclay. It doesn't dig too deep beyond Staten Island pride and the novelty of a nine-MC-strong crew as to why the Wu-Tang's spare, violent and surreally funny rap struck such a chord, but there are good stories, plenty of crazy, head-bob-inducing footage to enjoy, and genuine pathos toward the sad end of Russell Jones, a.k.a. Ol' Dirty Bastard, an unhinged original.
With purpose Adele Horne's eye-and-ear-opening documentary "The Tailenders," which L.A. Filmforum is showing Sunday with Horne in person, is a movie about the rigor of a message, but framed with open-ended questions.
It focuses on the studious work of Global Recordings Network, a missionary outfit founded in L.A. in 1939 that has striven to record Bible stories in the more than 8,000 languages to be found on Earth, an effort that has helped preserve dialects in every corner of the Earth. They're at over 5,500 so far, and Horne follows the group to the Solomon Islands, Mexico, India and the migrant fields of Baja California to document their ingeniously low-tech, high-resolve methods of controlling mass communication, but also how their shrewdly marketed evangelism fits in — and/or doesn't — with the economic realities, political concerns and survival issues of indigenous peoples.
A movie about no less than sound and our world, it is by turns ghostly, raw, beautiful and perplexing, like the ingeniously strange handmade record players and tape machines GRN invents, or the visualization of sonic ripples. A nominee for this year's Independent Spirit Awards' Truer Than Fiction award, Horne's "The Tailenders" is a bewitchingly artful connect-the-dots achievement.