Distant voices

AFI Fest's newest series shines the spotlight on films from the second-largest continent.

A year after South African director Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" won AFI Fest's international competition -- before going on to collect the Oscar for best foreign-language film -- event organizers introduce African Voices, a new series devoted to works by filmmakers from a continent that is often overlooked for its cinematic accomplishments.

"We noticed over the last few years a breadth of diverse voices coming from Africa, and we just didn't have a place in our existing showcases," AFI director of programming Nancy Collet says. "We really wanted to give these filmmakers an opportunity to be presented on a global scale at a big international film festival."

The series includes "Shoot the Messenger," a BBC Films movie from British-Nigerian director Ngozi Onwurah, two South African films -- John Barker's "Bunny Chow: Know Thyself" and Norman Maake's "Homecoming" -- and three films from North Africa: Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory," a World War II epic about North African soldiers drafted to fight the Nazis in France; first-time Egyptian feature filmmaker Marwan Hamed's "The Yocoubian Building"; and Tunisian director Nacer Khemir's "Bab'Aziz."

African Voices producer Sharifa Johka emphasizes how important it was to capture the continent's diversity in the festival's programming. "People forget that Africa is a large continent with multiple communities," she says. "We tried to assemble a collection that would reflect that spectrum."

When asked to identify the greatest challenge for African filmmakers in getting U.S. distribution, Onwurah laughs and says, "Where to start? Everything!" Expectations are important, she believes. "American audiences have to understand that they are going to see something a little bit different," she says. "It's not (Paramount's) 'Mission: Impossible 3.'"

Both Johka and Onwurah point to the low-budget, straight-to-video model developed by the growing Nigerian film community as a possible pathway to independent film production across Africa. "Cinema releases are so expensive," Onwurah says. "Video releases start to break down some of those barriers."

Meanwhile, Johka suggests that the preponderance of African themes and settings in recent American films such as Fox Searchlight's September offering "The Last King of Scotland" and Warner Bros. Pictures' planned December release "Blood Diamond" is no coincidence. "I think it's reflective of a sentiment that we're one world, we're one people, and let's discover the stories from everywhere and (present) them in a way that they can be consumed by audiences."