Arts & Entertainment

Pan African Film Festival features black-themed films from around the world

Screenshot from "Chico & Rita"

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Starting this weekend, thousands of film buffs will pack a Los Angeles multiplex to support dozens of independent movies about the African diaspora from around the world. The Pan African Film and Arts Festival returns to Baldwin Hills for its 20th anniversary. 
In 1992, festival executive director Ayuko Babu helped launch the festival at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.  

“There was a brand new theater, brand new Virgin Records store ... and we had all five screens,” Babu recalled.

Babu’s voice maintained a steady rhythm as he spoke about the history of the event that gathers filmmakers from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States.  But he paused a bit as he reflected on the way his father – who’d had an extramarital affair - shared with him a memory of visiting a “picture show.” That’s what folks called films in the 1940s.  

The movie Babu’s dad saw in Amarillo, Texas was so powerful it changed his life.  

“The story’s about a man who had children that he didn’t take care of," said Babu. "And the children had a hard life and the man had a terrible life.  And he made up his mind right then at the movies that he would take care of me and my brother.”

Babu’s father didn’t recall what movie that was or who starred in it. But he remembered the film’s powerful themes of reconciliation and responsibility. Babu said the conversation with his dad just before he died helped motivate him to launch the first Pan African Film Festival. 

Roman Michael of LA, 27, said he’s eager to show his movie to festival audiences. It’s a drama called “5 Minutes.” It’s about a black attorney’s obsession with being on time and the way that threatens his relationship with his son:

“The budget was about $30,000," Michael said. "And it was very difficult to do. I actually quit my job to pursue this vision and this dream that I had so I could really devote all my attention on it.” 

Michael fused his credit cards to pay for the film; he also knocked on lots of doors to ask for money. He wrote the script, assembled a crew and he starred in it. Tickets for at least one of Michael’s festival screenings have already sold out.

Throughout the next 10 days organizers will show about 150 movie, including features, documentaries and short films.  

Yep, plenty to choose from.  

Education consultant Graciela Italiano-Thomas is from South America. Her husband Mckinley, a retiree, was born in Mississippi. They sat together at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza food court scribbling notes in a festival program, mapping out the movies they plan to see, including "films that address mythical issues in Africa as well as women’s issues,” Italiano-Thomas said.  

Her husband chimed in.

“There’s a reference here having to do with ‘no liberation for lesbian and gay categories of individuals.' I thought that was very sensitive on the part of the film festival to bring that in and it critiques how the African American church has been remised. That was the reference.” 

Shea Harrison produced that documentary, called “LA Black Lesbians: The Black Church.”


There’s also buzz about another documentary: “The Education of Auma Obama,” which explores the President’s campaign four years ago through the eyes of his native Kenyan sister. 

Nigerian-born Branwen Okpako directed the project. 

“He needed to find out about his African roots and she was able to help him gain access to the family and to the story of the family – on with which she had to of course spend her life dealing with and balancing,” Okpako said. 

At least one festival entry is an Oscar nominee this year. It’s “Chico & Rita” – an animated musical love story set against the backdrops of Havana and New York during the 1940s. 

Chico & Rita - Official US Trailer from GKIDS on Vimeo.

Festival director Ayuko Babu said that each year, the event selects films that steer clear of stereotypical black images that he maintains Hollywood – and even successful filmmakers beyond "Tinsel Town" – tend to portray.  

Even though that kind of movie generates box office success, Babu counsels aspiring filmmakers: Don’t aim to make millions of dollars.  
“You can maintain your conscience because you don’t have to sell out... you have less compromises and you can still do conscious work,” Babu emphasized.

Festival organizers will exhibit more than just films. Patrons can attend art displays, fashion shows, children’s events and workshops sponsored by Black Enterprise and the Organization of Black Screenwriters. The Pan African festival spills out of the Rave Cinemas into the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall through February 20th.