Navigating Dreams and Reality

 “There are so many aspects to what language and art can do for making us feel at home.” 
- Toni Morrison in The Foreigner’s Home

Author and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s words also apply to cinema. This is apparent in Jake Meginsky’s and Neil Young’s visual poem on legendary American free-jazz drummer Milford Graves (Milford Graves Full Mantis). And in Ousmane William Mbaye’s documentary (Kemtiyu, Cheikh Anta) about ignored African scientist Cheikh Anta Diop, who developed a method of translating all African languages aged just 12. And in the video clips by Nigerian Afrobeat director Clarence Peters.

After 2017’s Black Rebels programme, Pan-African Cinema Today (PACT) follows the trail back to its roots: Africa. PACT is African (diaspora in) cinema’s home with features, documentaries, short film programmes, VR, talks and a workshop.

Pan-Africa and Pan-Africanism
“Memory is the weapon of black people”, said filmmaker Haile Gerima. The links between the African continent and the diaspora are indicated using the term Pan-Africa. The African diaspora in Europe, the Caribbean as well as in North and South America that resulted from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, still retains its African roots. The iconic film Sankofa (1993) by filmmaker (and festival guest) Haile Gerima brings this history back to life with cinematic intensity.

PACT pays ample attention to the resulting influential, visionary movement called Pan-Africanism, which was nurtured by coinciding developments in Africa and its diaspora. The decolonisation of African nation states and the rise of black consciousness in the African diaspora were both caused by a desire for freedom. No film marks this episode in (cinematic) history better than Black Girl (1966) by Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema.

The Reality Behind the Dream

“And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying: ‘Freedom! Freedom! […] And I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: ‘Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I’m free at last’.”
- Martin Luther King Jr.

This excerpt from ‘The Birth of a New Nation’, a speech King gave six years before ‘I Have a Dream’, illustrates the impact of Pan-Africanism. King had recently returned from the Ghanaian capital and witnessed how Kwame Nkrumah became the first president of an independent African country. His experience deeply influenced his thinking about the struggle for liberty: his dream was closer to fulfilment than ever.

That this did not just apply to King, but also to many others, can be seen in detail in Shirikiana Aina’s documentary Footprints of Pan Africanism, but its impact resounds throughout PACT. W.E.B. Du Bois, Pan-Africanism’s spiritual father, is one of those portrayed in the Pan-African Cinema Lounge, the installation at V2_ by British curator June Givanni. Especially for PACT, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has compiled a programme entitled The Color Line: African American Agency in Cultural Representation, that refers to a Du Bois quote “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. The museum will show newly commissioned work, such as Ava DuVernay’s August 28th, and other unique material, including work on Malcolm X, the man who – in contrast to King – didn’t describe the dream, but the nightmare.

The Killing of a Dream
That nightmare is the subject of many films, including Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, a political thriller about the assassination of Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba. Most succinctly, it is brought together in Footprints of Pan Africanism which lists Pan-Africanists who have been killed, including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who visited Nkrumah in Ghana a year before his death.

Other factors that snuffed out the African dream have been brought together in two films: Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada, featuring Marlon Brando, and Milo Rau’s The Congo Tribunal that meticulously analyses the nightmare of the former Congo. Both films reveal what has never changed for many Africans: profit still trumps ethics and justice, and the fact that the poor still pay the highest price.

Bridging the Gap
Nevertheless, Pan-African ideals never died out and many contemporary films show how full of life African cinema is, with an up-and-coming film industry that is already the second largest on the planet: Nollywood. Guest curator Nadia Dentdon’s compilation programme Beyond Nollywood will highlight the new movement in independent Nigerian cinema that is challenging Nollywood as far as style and content are concerned.

The pact between Africa and the diaspora is consolidated in the special programmes by and with The Nest Collective from Nairobi. Confirmation of the pact between Africa and the diaspora can be found in the special programmes by and with The Nest Collective from Nairobi. Alongside screening their films, including Stories of Our Lives featuring members of the LGBTQI community in Kenya, they will partner in the talk show Bridging the Gap. A six-hour talk show that will take you, filmmakers and performers on a journey through the heart of Pan-Africa’s past, present and future. 

Text: Tessa Boerman