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Reel representation

African film fest brings full slate of features, filmmaker panels

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In the film The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021), set in Djibouti City, a man hunts for bodies, waiting to be chosen to dig graves for the dead. In return for this undertaking, Guled the gravedigger is paid a paltry sum which he uses to support Nasra, his dying wife, and emotionally distant son Mahat. It’s a heavy task to shoulder but he would do anything for his family.

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In the film The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021), set in Djibouti City, a man hunts for bodies, waiting to be chosen to dig graves for the dead. In return for this undertaking, Guled the gravedigger is paid a paltry sum which he uses to support Nasra, his dying wife, and emotionally distant son Mahat. It’s a heavy task to shoulder but he would do anything for his family.

Directed by Khadar Ahmed and starring Somali-Canadian model Yasmin Warsame, the Cannes award-nominated film will be screened at the fifth African Movie Festival in Manitoba (AM-FM).

The event takes place at the Gas Station Arts Centre today through Sunday and features 18 films chosen from 16 different African countries including South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia, as well as from the African diaspora in Qatar, Portugal, the U.S., France, the U.K. and Israel.

The festival provides a platform for a group that is rarely represented in mainstream media, says founder Ben Akoh.

The festival provides a platform for a group that is rarely represented in mainstream media, says founder Ben Akoh. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“When I look at the Prairie regions, there isn’t any festival which is focused on African cinema. A few years ago we were looking at the Manitoba space, and there wasn’t enough knowledge about Blacks in the province — cultural knowledge, educational knowledge, social understanding.

“Given the composition of Manitoba — we are a mosaic — I thought we needed to create a platform for this group. I thought a good way to do this was with cinema focusing on people telling their own stories, not stories told on their behalf.”

The films showcased in this year’s festival have been whittled down from approximately 80 submissions, a mammoth task which saw Akoh and volunteers spend more than five months watching each film before deciding on a shortlist.

“We took some time to screen the selections at this year’s festival and can attest to the quality of production, the message in them and their ability to engender dialogue on critical social, cultural and environmental issues,” Akoh says.

“I started reviewing films in March this year. Every night I would go home and from around 11 p.m. onwards would begin reviewing the films, usually going to bed at 2 a.m.”

AM-FM has grown from strength to strength. In its first year the festival screened seven films; in 2021 there were more than 24 movies shown. This year Akoh says he is focusing on the quality of the movies on offer.

“This year we gave opportunities to films out there that are really very good. We wanted to bring the best to the festival. The Gravedigger’s Wife is a film we were really impressed by. It was an official selection of the Cannes film festival and features the only Canadian name in the festival,” Akoh explains.

The lack of Canadian representation in the festival is perturbing, he admits. For the last four years the festival had submissions from Canada, but there were none this year.

“I want to see more content from Black Canadian directors, producers and actors. There is a young Canadian film producer we would always invite to submit films, but his film is also showing in other international circuits and because of restriction reasons he wasn’t able to submit this year.”

The Gravedigger’s Wife is among the 18 films being screened as part of the festival. (Supplied)

The ticketed event kicks off on Friday evening with an invite-only opening reception at 5.30 p.m. The first film screened at the festival is from South Africa, the 90-minute Atlantis, set in the township developed in the apartheid era.

On Saturday a symposium — African Films and the City: Space-making, place-making, film-making — kicks off proceedings. The academic-style discussion features Canadian panelists as well as Tunde Kelani, a prominent Nigerian (Nollywood) filmmaker who will be attending virtually.

“In addition to the films, I am looking forward to the symposium,” Akoh says. “I am curious and excited about the quality of conversations on the panel this year. Talking about the concept of filmmaking and how it aligns with the Black body — how does it align to us in terms of a place in society? It’s an important conversation to have.

“I am [also] looking forward to the post-film discussions, interactions with directors and the discussions about culture and its implications on Manitobans.”

The festival is organized by MAFF Inc., a non-profit organization with a vision to promote diversity and cross-culture through cinema, establish a platform for dialogue on Afro-Canadian issues and support the development of young Canadian film talents. MAFF Inc. is governed by a board of advisers.

“We are a bunch of volunteers putting out own money into this,” Akoh says. “We need better support; we need operational funds. We are looking for supporters and organisations who will jump on board. The festival is increasing the diversity of the province with cinema. I would like to see a theatre filled with people.

“We hope to bring even better programming to Manitobans. But mostly, to continue on our path to being the most prominent Black African film festival in the Prairie region. We aspire to show more films, and to gather the support of Winnipeggers and the various arts community.”

Av.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

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AV Kitching

AV Kitching
Reporter

AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.

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