Flicks - Tales from the diaspora

Pan African Film Festival emphasizes politics

As its name implies, the Pan African Film Festival's scope extends well beyond Africa. The annual Los Angeles-based festival draws entries from Africa, the United States, Europe and other corners of the world.

The National Black Arts Festival presents a portion of the Pan African festival's films, including top winners from this year's fest: best feature The Hero from Angola, and best documentary 500 Years Later, a U.S./U.K. co-production. The films display undeniable social urgency as well as some dramatic shortcomings, suggesting that the festival favors politics over aesthetics.

Screening in Atlanta July 24 at 5 p.m., The Hero(Image Image ) qualifies as an achievement simply by existing, since Angola has no native film industry. Director Zézé Gamboa follows Vitório (Makéna Diop), a decorated, 20-year veteran of civil war who lost a leg and ekes out an unemployed, homeless existence in Angola's sprawling capital. Vitório's tale overlaps with orphaned adolescent boy Manu (Milton Coelho), an indifferent student and petty thief who sells stolen goods on the black market and longs to track down his missing father. The Hero works best as a kind of tortured travelogue: We gaze at flea markets and shanty towns that seem to go on forever, and watch children play in gutted buildings and abandoned fighter planes.Poverty, post-war grief and urban unrest seem to seep from every frame, from distraught women looking for missing soldiers to anguished teachers going on strike. One educator (the beautiful Patricia Bull) emerges as The Hero's crusading mouthpiece, prone to declarations like, "All the life sectors of Angola are doing badly." Too slow, too neat and too sentimental, The Hero nevertheless features individual moments of great power.

If The Hero proves a little too simplistic, 500 Years Later (Image Image Image ), screening July 16 at 5:40 p.m. and July 19 at 8:15 p.m., takes on more complex issues than a 100-minute film can handle. Director Owen 'Alik Shahadah addresses one of the biggest, most challenging themes of world history: the legacy of slavery for present-day people of color. A kind of loose collage of music, statistics, archival footage and impassioned interviews, 500 Years Later touches on the nature of the slave trade, the inequities in the criminal justice system, the emphasis on white beauty in pop culture, the cultural shortcomings of education, the need for reparations and more. Each subtopic could support its own movie. Through its chorus of indignant voices, from Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga to a musician named "The Mighty Gabby," 500 Years Later challenges the conventional wisdom about race and history. Experts point out that West African slavery - often cited to diminish European responsibility for the slave trade - resembled indentured servitude more than forced labor. Modern studies reveal the effects of racism on self-esteem, including the 1950s psychological findings that black children, given a group of dolls, identified the white ones as "smarter" or "better."

But in touching on so many huge, fraught issues, the film rushes over material that deserves deeper exploration. One interviewee condemns the American university system as still reflecting the values of Washington and Jefferson, whom he portrays as if on a par with Hitler and Stalin. He might have a compelling argument, but we never hear the specifics.

With more emphasis on anecdotes and examples, 500 Years Later could have laid out a statement against Western racism as powerful as The Corporation's business-bashing. Instead, the film stresses the rhetoric of uplift and calls for action, yet when it talks about respecting cultural heritage and valuing education, it sounds overly obvious. You can't argue with the righteousness of 500 Years Later, but a more informative film would have been more effective. If emotions run too high in 500 Years Later, in The Hero they don't run quite high enough.

Other highlights of the festival include the opening-night program July 17 saluting filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles with the documentaries How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) and The Making of Baadasss. The festival closes July 24 with On the One, a gospel-tinged drama about twin brothers - a preacher and a gangsta rapper - from the same creative team as the stage musical Blue, currently playing at Horizon Theatre.