Two of the films that debuted at prestigious film festivals in New York this year are gaining recognition for their stirring subject matter and the fact that they are the works of women. The first film, All About Darfur, depicts the horrific conditions in that strife-torn area of Sudan. Produced and directed by Taghreed Elsanhouri, who hails from northern Sudan, it was shown during the 13th Annual New York African Film Festival April 20–May 29. Presented in Arabic with English subtitles, All About Darfur is the only documentary film to date about the wrenching crisis in Darfur. Elsanhouri spoke with everyday Sudanese in outdoor tea shops, markets and refugee camps, recording their stories of what is happening to them and others in the troubled area.
Elsanhouri has much to say about why she made the film. “I was there a year ago and in Elfasher people are in refugee camps and they all tell the same story of fleeing their homes in fear for their lives and that they have lost their livelihoods. I want viewers to have some understanding of the complexity of the crisis, that it is not simply a matter of Arabs and Africans, as has been portrayed in the press, but that the crisis is a combination of political, economic and racial factors that have all come to a head to create the situation,” she says. “And I want the film to open a debate about intervention and why it is so problematic in our world today. I passionately wanted to tell the story from the point of view of those affected because I felt that the mainstream media were not giving them the chance to speak for themselves and I felt that was, in a way, disempowering. Also, I wanted to show the dignity and courage of the people of Darfur as they face this crisis. I wanted to make a film that would not inspire pity but inspire respect and compassion in the viewer.”
The second film, Shoot the Messenger, is the work of screenwriter Sharon Foster and director Ngozi Onwurah, both Black British women. It debuted in the category of International Narrative Feature at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, which ran from April 25 to May 7. According to Foster, she and Onwurah were the only British filmmakers in the festival.
Shoot the Messenger tells the story of Joe, a Black man, who leaves a very successful job to become a high school teacher so that he can teach young Black boys. He is tough on his students, and soon realizes that they do not like him for that very reason. One student accuses Joe of assaulting him and Joe is suspended. The case goes to trial and he is found guilty when three of his students lie in court. When Joe is experiencing his lowest moments, an elderly Black woman befriends him and takes him to her church. They become good friends, and she allows him to accompany her on visits to her son in prison. The experience prompts Joe to ask why Black people are in the state they are in.
The film, which the Village Voice declared one of the top 40 to watch in the festival, has a number of important points, Foster says. “You can be a teacher but you can’t be God. That’s Joe’s hubris; he forgets he’s dealing with human beings. Even though he meant well, you can’t force people to learn if they don’t want to, because some young people will bite the hand that feeds them,” she says.
Although no firm plans have been made for either film to appear on the big screen in the United States, both surely will be around, even if in private or limited showings. Keep an eye out for them.