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African Diaspora International Film Festival 2011

Rounding up reviews of An African Election, The First Rasta and The Story of Lovers Rock.
The Daily

The 19th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival opened in New York on Friday but has only caught my attention today because a modest batch of reviews of what look to be some pretty intriguing documentaries have appeared in the last day or two. The festival runs through December 13.

"In the fleet-footed, engagingly volatile documentary An African Election, the director Jarreth Merz hurls himself into the thick of a political contest defined by high hopes and even higher anxieties," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times. "For almost three months in 2008, Mr Merz followed the unsteady progress of the presidential race in Ghana, a country energized by the recent discovery of oil and still reeling from the aftermath of catastrophic floods. To capture the national turmoil, the filmmaker (who grew up in Ghana) assembles a colorful gallery of political insiders, including the candidates — Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party, and John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress — and a lively assortment of commentators, journalists and regular citizens."

"Even those who closely follow African (or global) politics will likely be bowled over by the real-life plot twists unfolding before Merz's camera," predicts Ernest Hardy in the Voice. "What makes the film especially resonate now is the frustration with the status quo that is consistently voiced by the people on the street. And at the end of the turmoil, frustration gives way to a man smiling and saying, 'The masses can change governments.'"

An African Election has just been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

"Riffing on an unlikely nexus of black radicalism and white college students, the satirical newspaper The Onion once ran an item headlined 'Bob Marley Rises From Grave to Free Frat Boys From Bonds of Oppression,'" recalls Paul Brunick in the NYT. "By popularizing reggae internationally, Marley became the global ambassador for Rastafarians, a Jamaican spiritual movement formed from the union of black nationalism and messianic Christianity. Yet the wide circulation of Rasta iconography — not to mention ceremonial clouds of ganja smoke — has stripped it of its original context and political content. The First Rasta, a documentary by the French journalist Hélène Lee, attempts to correct this cultural amnesia."

Diego Costa in Slant: "The First Rasta tells the life of Rastafarianism's founder, Leonard Percival Howell, from precocious anti-colonialist (he witnesses a murder as a child and refuses to collaborate with Jamaica's justice system) to world traveler and social visionary. Utilizing archival footage, police reports, traditional voiceover narration, and interviews with Howell's followers, acquaintances, and relatives, director Hélène Lee, who's also written a book about the subject matter, goes beyond the clichés associated with Rasta."

"Lovers Rock began as a small record company mostly associated with a romantic, swoony kind of British reggae that was pointedly apolitical, meaning that the music was political in a deceptively indirect sense," begins Chuck Bowen in Slant. "Blossoming in Britain in the 1970s, Lovers Rock was a genre that spoke of the persecution of the Jamaican immigrants, who were often banned from pubs and in danger of being beaten or framed for crimes both petty and severe. Essentially playing to people on cultural home arrest, this music was the soundtrack to the British-Jamaican house parties that constituted much of their social scene."

Rachel Saltz in the NYT: "Menelik Shabazz's uneven documentary The Story of Lover's Rock is interested in who made the music, and who made out to it; where it came from; and what it meant to a generation of blacks born and educated in a frequently hostile Britain. That's actually a lot of stories, and it's not surprising that the film jumps around a bit and can be sketchy."

See the site for info on screenings in the UK, too.

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