An uplifting biographical drama from Ethiopia about an Olympic runner, a drama from Ghana looking at slavery from an African point of view and a documentary about an L.A. mother trying to save her daughter from gang life are among the eclectic films screening at the 19th Pan African Film Festival, which opens Wednesday in Culver City and continues through Feb. 23.
The festival, started in 1992 by actor Danny Glover, actress Ja'Net Dubois and festival executive director Ayuko Babu, will feature 121 films — 75 feature-length and 46 shorts — from 31 countries. It begins at the Culver Plaza Theatre with the American comedy "35 and Ticking," written and directed by Russ Parr, who is also a syndicated radio host. The comedy stars Nicole Ari Parker, Meagan Good and Mike Epps.
With a typical turnout of 35,000 people, the event is the largest black film festival in the United States, Babu said.
"What we are trying to do is let distributors know if you are interested in this black audience come down to see the diverse audiences we have," he said. "We probably have 80% African Americans or Pan Africans and then about 20% are Asians, whites, Latinos and Indians."
Among the films screening at the festival is one by Ava DuVernay, an L.A.-based publicist making her feature film writing and directorial debut with "I Will Follow," a drama starring Omari Hardwick and Blair Underwood about a woman who moves out of a home she shared with her aunt.
There's also "Kiss and Tell," a documentary by Darryl Pitts that examines "black love" through the eyes of African American actors and directors; "Children of God," a drama from Bermuda examining homophobia in the Caribbean; and the Nigerian film "The Figurine," the winner of the 2010 African Movie Academy Award for best picture, about three friends whose lives change when they find a mysterious figurine.
Director Davey Frankel, whose film "The Athlete" is about barefoot marathoner Abebe Bikila — the first black African to win Olympic gold —- says he relishes the chance to show off a film that "tries to portray Africa and Africans in a way that most Western media or media outside the continent doesn't give it the chance to be portrayed.
"It is always civil war or famine or genocide," said Frankel, who made "The Athlete" with Rasselas Lakew. "It is all of this negative stuff that is always linked to the continent."
Valerie Goodloe, a staff photographer for Ebony/Jet magazine, hopes her movie will make a particularly personal connection with an L.A. audience. The film, "Gang Girl: A Mother's Journey to Save Her Daughter," is a poignant documentary chronicling her attempts to get her teenage daughter out of the Bloods. The movie was named best documentary at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
"My whole reason to make the film was to help other mothers and families so they may not have to go through what we went through," says Goodloe. "This is the first I know of a gang movie that goes intimately into girls' lives and why they do it. I wanted to touch other peoples' families."
Another L.A.-centric documentary featured in the festival is "Leimert Park Voices," a look at the creative hub through the eyes of black poets, artists and musicians active in the area.
Director Leila Djansi, who is from Ghana but now is based in L.A., says the caliber of films at the festival makes her a bit anxious about screening her movie "I Sing of a Well," which examines slavery from the viewpoint of Africans.
"It's always an achievement for a filmmaker if you can get your work seen on a world stage. But it makes me nervous," she said. "There are a lot of movies in the festival and half the time you walk around thinking you have made a good movie and then you see other movies there and it's like 'wow.'"
On Thursday evening the festival will hold its Night of Tribute ceremony at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center; among the honorees will be Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad of "The Cosby Show" fame. At the close of the festival, awards will be handed out in several categories.
Previous festivals also staged popular art shows, but that event is not being held. "The economy is so bad … we didn't have enough artists to come in," Babu said. "They are really getting hit hard. Hopefully, the economy will pick up and we can have the art show again."
The Pan African Film Festival
When: Wednesday to Feb. 23
Where: Culver Plaza Theatre, 9919 Washington Blvd., Culver City