Gathering of cultures
With more than 160 films from such diverse origins as Mauritania, Mali, Cuba, Kenya and Ghana, the Pan African Film and Arts Festival strives to reflect a broad spectrum of the community that surrounds it.
Now in its 12th year and running mainly at the Magic Johnson Theatres at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the festival also includes exhibitions of local fine arts, crafts and fashion.
The festival kicks off Thursday with the local premiere of “Redemption,” the story of former gang member Stan “Tookie” Williams, as portrayed by Jamie Foxx. Directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall, the film also screened at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
Among its selection of films from Africa are several strong entries from North Africa. “Bedwin Hacker,” the debut feature from writer-director Nadia El Fani, presents a surprisingly contemporary view of life in a part of the world often thought of as bound by ancient tradition. The film involves a female computer hacker who jams international television frequencies with images of a cartoon camel.
Also showing is “El Kotbia” (The Bookstore), a view of life in modern-day Tunisia as told through the goings-on at a bookshop. “Anansi” is something of a companion piece to the recent “In This World,” with its depiction of the difficulties of traveling across the region’s many borders.
Festival tributes will include a lifetime achievement award for actor-director-writer Melvin Van Peebles, and a handful of his early films will screen throughout the festival. No proper history of the American independent cinema can be written without including Van Peebles’ groundbreaking work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The American-born Van Peebles had moved to France and published several novels before scrounging up grant money to adapt one of his own stories in 1968 as “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” his first feature and calling card to Hollywood. In 1970 he made “Watermelon Man,” his first film in America, which features a stand-out performance by the great comedian Godfrey Cambridge as a white insurance agent who wakes up one day to discover his body has changed overnight and he is now black.
The film becomes a biting satire on race relations as the man finds that everyone, from his wife to the bus driver to his secretary, treats him differently. While some of the film’s humor may now seem dated, it remains a daring and audacious look at what remains one of the subjects Hollywood filmmakers find most difficult to handle.
What Van Peebles did next is what truly puts him in the history books, however. Raising his own funds (and chipping in his salary from “Watermelon Man”), in 1971 he made “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song,” a wild and lurid tale of life on the streets. Dedicated to “All the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” the film touched a nerve with audiences and was a commercial success. Translating the disenfranchisement of the inner cities to the broader counter-culture, “Sweet Sweetback” became the template for countless films steeped in outlaw chic, from the Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s to the swagger of today’s gangsta rappers.
If his subsequent career has been frustratingly erratic -- the festival also screens his 1973 musical comedy “Don’t Play Us Cheap” -- his stature as a paragon of independent righteousness has only grown. His son, Mario Van Peebles, recently made a fictionalized version of the making of “Sweet Sweetback,” currently titled “Baad- asssss,” and the festival will screen a short on the making of that film.
A number of films in this year’s festival observe the emergence of an international “buppie” subculture. Both the Canadian feature “Love, Sex and Eating the Bones” and the British feature “Emotional Backgammon” each take a semi-serious look at the loves and lives of an urban, middle-class circle of friends.
Also of interest is a screening of “White Teeth,” a four-hour British television adaptation of the popular recent novel by Zadie Smith about a multicultural, multiracial community in northwest London.
The festival’s closing-night film Feb. 16 is the West Coast premiere of “One Love,” directed by Rick Elgood and Don Letts and starring Ky-Mani Marley, son of the late reggae legend Bob Marley. Letts is perhaps best known for his long-standing association with the group The Clash, and for the wealth of archival footage he shot of the band during its formative years in the late 1970s.
It was Letts, as a DJ and hip bon vivant, who fostered many of the connections between the ascending British punk music scene and Jamaican reggae. It is little surprise then to find him working with Marley’ s son in this “Romeo and Juliet"-inspired tale of a young Rastafarian wooing the daughter of a Pentecostal minister.
In exploring the common ground between punk and reggae, Letts was involved in creating a broader base from which both could draw. Striving to be more than “just” a film festival, the Pan African Film and Arts Festival is likewise an attempt to bring together people of seemingly different mediums and cultures under one collective roof.
Pan African Film Festival
What: Opening night gala, “Redemption”
Where: Pacific Theatre Stadium 12, 9500 Culver Blvd., Culver City
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Contact: (323) 295-1706 or www.paff.org.
What: All other screenings
Where: Magic Johnson Theatres, 4020 Marlton Ave., Baldwin Hills
When: Daily, beginning Friday
Ends: Feb. 16
Price: Passes, $20-$495