Opening night of the 6th Annual African Diaspora International Summer Film Series at The Riverside Theater in NYC kicked off with a screening of Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story, the sad and sometimes hilarious story of six oppressed women in Egypt who triumph in the face of adversity, gender-based stereotypes and politics. It was the perfect eye-opening lead-in for what can only be described as cinematic bliss for the foreign film lover.
Founded six years ago by Diarah N’Daw-Spech and her husband Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, the summer film series is an outgrowth of the larger, more established African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF). Founded in 1993, ADIFF - now in its 19th year - was the first project spawned from the couple’s film distribution company, ArtMattan Productions. The summer series is the second project, and rounding out the trifecta is the upcoming 1st Annual Paris installment of ADIFF, September 2 through 4.
Though delighted about the festival, N’Daw-Spech says it was extremely difficult to find a place to release Scheherazade. “This year, because no theatres were willing to run Scheherazade, we added the week day screenings and had the theatrical release at Riverside. That's a very unusual way of operating because Riverside is not a regular movie theatre. But, that was the only option we found to release the film in NYC. Now, every night, people come to us and ask why this film was not released in a regular independent art house and we have to explain each time that the others refused to show it," she says.
The film, an observation of Islamist society, nonetheless, was a Critics Pick in The New York Times on Friday and received 86 percent favorable reviews. “As film distributors, we look for films with a cultural value...films that inform others. Based on the great reviews of the film, people would say we’ve done our job here,” she says. In spite of this, she explains, foreign films are, more and more, being pushed to the margin, especially the ones that deal with people of color. The downside here is that had the film been released at one of NYC's top art houses, the turnout would likely have been greater.
“Systematically, the doors are closing,” she says.
Presented by the African Diaspora International Film Festival and The Riverside Theater from August 12 to August 21, 2011, the summer series will feature 8 films and 17 screenings in 10 days and will include lively discussions with guest speakers, the opportunity to purchase hard-to-find DVDs of films from Africa and the African Diaspora and a closing dance performance. ADIFF, which will take place later this year from November 26 to December 14, is expected to showcase approximately 100 films – a far leap from the 25 it showed in its early days. Great progress, indeed, but one of the challenges continues to be funding.
“In the case of ADIFF as opposed to the summer film series, the game is played differently. ArtMattan Productions has two arms: the film distribution arm that acquires and releases films and the non-profit arm, which is the film festival. Compared to festivals from previous years, there has been a reduction in funding for non-profits. There are less resources; we may have to scale back by showing fewer films,” says N’Daw-Spech. She says the way to avoid this would be to find progressive people with deep pockets who think it’s important for these films to be seen.
In this economy, that may be the hard part. The easy part, however, is finding the films. Submissions are usually made through word of mouth; aside from this, the producing duo attends some of the biggest film festivals the industry has to offer…Sundance, Cannes, Toronto Film Festival, and the Berlin Film Festival. They also attend smaller niche festivals such as the African Film Festival in Milan and the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. “We attend festivals abroad, we watch the films, and we do the research to track down the rights owners. 60 percent of the films we show in ADIFF are from our footwork whereas 30 to 40 percent are from people who contact us. We actually do most of the work that feeds our programming,” she says.
The newest addition to this project is ADIFF Paris. “It’s a way for Blacks here in the U.S. to meet Afro-European and Afro-French Blacks. It is our hope that they exchange ideas, discuss commonalities and find ways to collaborate,” she says. Born and raised in Paris herself, N’Daw-Spech says it’s a place that has a strong footing in cinema. She hopes to expose attendees to Black Paris and create a program similar to the one she had in Curacao a few years ago. It combined tourism and film, or as N’Daw Spech says, “a cultural adventure”.
“With ADIFF Paris, we hope to continue our efforts to expand our brand and fill the void since one of the only theaters in Paris known for showing Black global films has closed recently,” she notes.
“We want to showcase in as many places as possible,” she says.
To donate, go to African Diaspora International Film Festival.
Below is a description of each film showcased in this year’s summer series:
Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story
A surprising, engrossing and thoughtful film about modern gender-politics in Egypt. A sharp observation of Egyptian society, using the classic Arabian Nights framework of a story within a story. Directed by Yousry Nasrallah, 2009, Egypt, in Arabic with English subtitles.
Fire In Babylon
The breathtaking story of how the West Indies triumphed over its colonial masters through the achievements of one of the most gifted teams in sporting history – the West Indian cricketers. Directed by Steven Riley, 2009, UK.
The Love Life of a Zombie, Presidential Candidate
A weirdly hilarious and provocative social commentary on Haiti’s corrupted politicians and resilient population, the loves of Zombia, Presidential Candidate is FESPACO 2011’s winner of the Paul Robeson Award for the Best Diaspora Film. Directed by Arnold Antonin, 2009, Haiti in Creole with English subtitles.
David is Dying
A multidimensional story of a man torn between love and sex in contemporary London. A complex drama by one of the new talented voices of Black British Cinema. Directed by Stephen Lloyd Jackson, 2011, UK.
Directors on Directing
A look at the development of filmmaking and its contribution of the social and political times form the perspective of Black filmmakers, featuring candid interviews with Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, Robert Townsend, Bill Duke, Fred Williamson, Melvin Van Peebles and other industry leaders. Directed by Jamel Wade, 2009, USA.
The inspiring story of one man's attempt to create a better life for the children of Uganda using the unlikely tool of hip-hop with a focus on b-boy culture and breakdance. This multiple award winning film features narration by Common and interviews with Mos Def, Will.I.Am, and K'Naan. Film followed by breakdance/hip-hop performance by Rhapsody James and reception. Directed by Nabil Elderkin, 2010, US/Uganda.
Son of Benkos
An entertaining documentary that explores the African culture of Colombia through music. The film presents the music of the "sons of Benkos," the descendants of Benkos, one of the most important Black leaders in the fight for freedom during the time of slavery in Colombia. Directed by Silva Lucas, 2003, Colombia/France, 52 mins, In Spanish with English subtitles
Susana Baca: Memoria Viva
Susana Baca is not only a champion in the performance and preservation of Afro-Peruvian heritage, but also an elegant singer whose shimmering voice sings of love, loss and life. Directed by Mark Dixon, 2003, Peru/Belgium, 54mins, in Spanish with English subtitles.