Pan African Film & Arts Festival celebrates 20th anniversary

Ayuko Babu, cofounder and executive director of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, which kicks off its 20th anniversary Thursday evening, peppers his conversation with the word "explosion."

"We African people, we intend to tell our stories whether it is on the continent of Africa or the diaspora of the United States or the diaspora of Haiti," he said. "People are really intent on telling our story, giving us a sense of where we have been and where we are going. It is exploding all over the planet. There is an explosion in the Caribbean and an explosion in Brazil. There is an explosion of young independent African American filmmakers. It is a feeling that we must tell our stories."

The festival, which takes place through Feb. 20 mainly at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza's Rave Cinemas, will feature 150 feature films and shorts. The majority, said Babu, are made by "people who are getting out there, putting the money together and making the film."

Typical is African-German director Branwen Okpako, who made the documentary "The Education of Auma Obama," chronicling the life of the president's older half sister who was born and raised in Kenya. "She got on the plane and went to Kenya," Babu said of the director.

Other films of note in the festival include the thriller "96 Minutes," marking the feature debut of award-winning short director Aimee Lagos; Mika Kaurasmaki's "Mama Africa," a documentary on the legendary South African singer and political activist Miriam Makeba; the supernatural thriller "Donovan's Echo," which stars festival cofounder Danny Glover; "Chico & Rita," an Oscar-nominated animated film from Cuba; "We the Party," Mario Van Peebles' hip-hop dramedy; and Sam Pollard's documentary "Slavery by Another Name," about the forced labor practices in the south after the end of the Civil War.

Babu also scheduled "popcorn" films in the mix "so people won't say you are just showing documentaries."

The festival opens at the ArcLight in Hollywood with the romantic comedy "Think Like a Man," based on Steve Harvey's book and starring Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart and Gabrielle Union. The Screen Gems film opens in April. (It's the only film not at the Rave Cinemas).

The festival closes with a film from veteran African American director Neema Barnette. Her latest feature, "Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day," stars Blair Underwood and Sharon Leal as a married couple whose secrets are revealed when their daughter is kidnapped.

Ten years ago, Barnette's female-driven prison drama, "Civil Brand," was the opening night presentation at the Pan African Film Festival. Its success critically and theatrically after the festival led to her getting a production deal at Sony.

" 'Civil Brand' showed me that if you put the truth out there, black people will come baby," she said. "This is a different kind of movie [than 'Civil Brand']. This is a story about a woman who had lifted herself up once by her bootstraps and something happens in her life that changes everything. It opens up like a can of worms." The film opens theatrically on April 13.

The festival also features an art show, a children's festival, a fashion show and a spoken word festival. Festival organizers expect as many as 100,000 people to attend all the events and screenings.

Babu hopes many of the films at the festival will find a life in theaters and on video.

"Distributors are beginning to sense they can make money on these movies. A lot of African Americans will sell their films to African TV. They are concerned about showing their populations more of a deeper understanding of America. They know that comes from the independent filmmaker, so they will be here looking at films."

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