We spoke to Atandwa Kani at the opening night of The New York African Film Festival

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the opening night of The New York African Film Festival which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.   

New York - Marvel’s Black Panther has been called a cultural phenomenon. Scratch that. It is a cultural phenomenon, that, as Tre Johnson of Vox wrote, represents a “gorgeous, groundbreaking celebration of black culture.”

And so, this year’s red carpet at the New York African Film Festival felt maybe a little bit more celebratory than usual as stars like South Africa’s Atandwa Kani and John Barker, Waiting to Exhale actor Leon Robinson, and The Daily Show’s Gina Yashere attended the festival’s opening night. 

Black Panther has enjoyed historic box office success, and the star-studded film’s run is not over yet. Nor is its influence. Kani, who plays a young T’Chaka in the film which also stars his father, John Kani, and actors Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o, says that with the success of Black Panther “we are able to see that the black skin works on screen. We have powerful black-skinned women with no hair who are ruling a nation and making men kneel before them, and that's never happened before.” The African Film Festival, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is imperative to bringing more of these stories to the forefront, he says. 

“There are lives, stories, narratives, and trajectories across Africa that have taken a back seat. Once you bring these narratives and stories and minds to the forefront, perhaps we can trickle out certain individuals that can lead a nation,” says Kani. He adds that if we can accept that it works on screen, as Black Panther has irrefutably shown, storytelling will become increasingly diverse. “This film festival says that the world is not only in this secluded place called America. The world doesn't only exist here.”


A STRONG SOUTH AFRICAN PRESENCE

And indeed, there are so, so many stories to tell. Mahen Bonetti, the festival’s founder, started with 532 submissions before finally selecting a slate of 75 compelling features, documentaries and short films. Among these is a South African collection that includes Stephina Zwane’s Baby Mamas with Thembisa Mdoda, Dineo Ranaka, Salamina Mosese and Kay Smith and John Barker’s Wonder Boy for President. There is also a South African shorts program that includes Meokgo and The Stick Fighter.

Bonetti and her team watched every single submission, which she stresses is not only important in terms of fairness but also to give feedback to the filmmakers. “And you spot talent! And I think that’s our strength. I'm proud to say that some of that talent have turned into great successes.”

In stark contrast to the festival’s American counterparts, Bonetti says about half of the filmmakers in the festival are women. In addition, about half of the filmmakers are younger than 35. 

The festival’s opening film, Borders, ended to a rousing applause from the audience, which included New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray, who also attended the inaugural New York African Film Festival in 1993. 

Borders, by Apolline Traoré, follows four women as they travel from Mali to Nigeria and the challenges and atrocities they face on the journey. Traoré says she was inspired to make the movie because she wanted to show how women survive in the face of relentless uncertainty, corruption, danger and hardship. 

The festival is divided into three legs, beginning with the films presented at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It then continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinématek, and ends in Maysles Cinema in Harlem on 10 June.