Flicks - Broad spectrum

Pan African Film Festival strives for mainstream appeal

The National Black Arts Festival's Pan African Film Festival really plays the field. It offers films by African-American and African directors, covering territory from South Africa to Harlem and treating everyone from hot-and-heavy Brooklyn lovers to Marxist revolutionaries.

Originating in Los Angeles, the festival is being presented locally by David Manuel, project director of the Woodruff Arts Center and its "Celebrate Diversity Through the Arts" initiative. The selections in this year's Pan African Film Festival, which range from the frivolous to the profound, seem geared more to mainstream tastes and are not always as strong as one would hope, considering the esteemed tradition of African filmmaking and black independents.

The main objective in programming many of the films appears to be simply representation of Africans and African-Americans, rather than a politicized or even alternative view of the world. One of the films that offers material with more depth and political integrity, however, is Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar's personal documentary Bilalian (July 20 at 5:15 p.m.), about growing up in counterculture America. But here, the counterculture isn't hippie, it's Muslim. Through the lens of her own family's involvement in the Nation of Islam, Abdul-Jabbaar examines the larger history of the faith in America and its significance as a political and social community for black Americans.

The options are numerous in this festival, from thoughtful documentaries like Bilalian to Hollywood-style legal thrillers. A Reasonable Man (July 21 at 5:30 p.m.) is in the latter category. A conventional courtroom drama and South African/British co-production, it stars and was directed by Gavin Hood, who plays a white corporate lawyer defending an African boy from a murder charge and the contention that witchcraft made him do it.

Witchcraft or ego, whatever force drove Eriq La Salle to make Crazy As Hell (July 20 at 8 p.m.), he probably shouldn't have done it. An actor known for his role as Dr. Peter Benton on "ER," La Salle's first film is a hopeless jumble. It stars a scenery-chewing Michael Beach as brilliant, unorthodox psychiatrist Dr. Ty Adams, who tries out his methods on the assorted mixed nuts at the Sedah State Mental Hospital. Cribbing profusely from the hyperbolic cinema of Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker, Crazy As Hell is a combination of Jacob's Ladder and Angel Heart, with midgets galore (a condition inexplicably synonymous with nuttiness in La Salle and Lyne's minds) and a Robert De Niro turn by La Salle as a nattily dressed mental patient who claims to be Satan.

The festival features plenty of first-time directors, traditional genre pictures and lighter fare such as William Jennings' Harlem Aria (July 21 at 8 p.m.). Anton (Gabriel Casseus) is a developmentally disabled man still living in his auntie's Harlem brownstone. He dreams of a life on the stage as an opera singer. Anton hooks up with Matthew (Christian Camargo), an alienated musical genius who plays piano in Washington Square Park, and the two become a street performance duet, Matthew on the keys, Anton belting out Verdi's "Rigoletto" to the delight of aristocratic old ladies and street thugs alike.

The only hitch in their asphalt opera house is a motor-mouthed, manipulative homeless man named Wes (Damon Wayans), who wants to manage the act and drive a wedge between white pianist and black opera singer. The profanity and incessant sexual banter doesn't suggest a kiddie market for Harlem Aria (though the bathroom humor might), but Anton's wide-eyed E.T. trust in adults definitely puts the film in the realm of feel-good, kid- oriented fantasy. A great performance by Camargo and Wayans' crude but often funny comedy stylings keep Harlem Aria afloat.

With all the New York City stories in the festival, it's nice to finally get a taste of Africa in all the tri-borough diaspora. Daresalam (July 20 at 3:15 p.m.) is a thought-provoking film from Chad and one of the best on the Pan African program. First-time director Issa Serge Coelo centers the film on the civil war that raged in one of Africa's poorest and most war-torn countries in the '70s. The film's depressing observation is how often the higher-ups profit and the citizenry continually suffer, regardless of whether a revolution is successful.

Daresalam focuses on two friends from the same village, Djimi (Haikail Zakarin) and Koni (Abdoulaye Ahmat), who enlist in a people's war against a corrupt government that extorts taxes while keeping its citizens in poverty. Coelo has not only visual flair, but a feel for some of the subtleties overlooked in other war films, which pit good against evil and oppressor against oppressed. The divisions are blurrier in Daresalam, and the impact of this thoughtful film is all the greater for admitting that the real world is far more complicated.