Festival of African Cinema

Wed-Thurs March 5-13 at Seattle Art Museum, Rainier Valley Cultural Center, and 911 Media Arts Center.

Go to www.rakumi.org for full schedule.

Again and again, in African novels and films, the big question, the one that absorbs the artist, and according to which all other problems are contextualized, is not racism, slavery, or tribalism, or even colonialism (at least not directly); it is instead modernity, which in the present late-postcolonial stage has been reconfigured into the terms of the worldwide economic and cultural matrix that is either celebrated or abhorred as globalization.

Since the early '70s, there has been lots of talk in the West about the end of modernity and the arrival of postmodernity, which, as regards the society, is primarily defined by the relocation of factory work from the affluent North to the impoverished South, and the rapid international circulation of commodities/capital. On the cultural level, it has been defined by the dominance of American entertainment, foods, values, and styles. Modernity had its capital in 19th-century Paris; postmodernity has its capital in 20th-century Los Angeles.

For Africa, however, the arrival of the current global order was not exceptional; that is to say, the implications of globalization are not very different from modernization. It doesn't matter that the locus of influence has shifted from Europe to America since the late '40s; the ultimate meaning and consequences of globalization are identical to modernity: the radical transformation of traditional African society--with all of its sacred ways, beliefs, rigid class systems--into the present world order that's dominated by corporate capital. This is not to say that African societies were static until the arrival of modernity; they were always in motion, always changing, and even at times developing technologically (a brief look at 18th- and 19th-century Southern Africa would clearly demonstrate this). But it's the sudden speed of the transformation that has caused so much internal and external confusion.

The opening film for the second annual Northwest Festival of African Cinema, Waiting for Happiness, wastes little time getting to the heart of the matter. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako and set in the small country of Mauritania, the film offers a visually striking study of the effects of modernity on a small desert town by the sea. Everything here is in complete disorder; the past and present are not organized as such, or better yet, they do not form distinct epistemological, chronological blocks but instead are scattered across the society like wind-blown leaves and trash. In this society, color TVs are drawn by donkeys; classically trained African players practice here, Chinese traders sing karaoke just over there. The electricians look like clerics; women in traditional Arabic clothes casually smoke American cigarettes; wild sand dunes lie next to crowded sand-colored buildings; young black whores have older white lovers in Paris; ancient mothers have trendy sons who only speak French and are hypnotized by dumb French game shows. The only order to all of this is the steady, massive economy of merchant ships approaching or departing from the city's ports.

Waiting for Happiness is by no means alone in its attempt to visualize and articulate the crisis of modern medicine, capitalism, and education within the African complex. Indeed, upon perusing the festival's schedule one will find several blurbs that position modernity as the core concern of a given film. For example: "[A man] decides to modernize his barbershop to attract the younger generation... he is not prepared for the consequences" (A Barber's Wisdom, Nigeria); "This is a light-hearted film that challenges ideas of modernity" (The White Handkerchief, Nigeria); and, "The film provides one of the most affectionate portraits of African youth poised precariously on the cusp of modernity" (Dôlé, Gabon).

Though not as beautiful as Waiting for Happiness, Dôlé's content is more political. To critique European modernity, it employs another kind of modernity--black Americanization. Directed by Imunga Ivanga and set in the green capital of Gabon, Libreville, the film is about an African rap group that's trying to break out of Third World poverty. They want money, or dôlé, which means money. One modernity (that of global capital) has chained their society to the rigid money order, or "cash nexus." Another modernity (that of black American music and hiphop culture) offers them the language to rebel against that money order. But still, hiphop culture--its music, fashions, and even language (you need instructions in French or English to rhyme like the real rap rebels)--is not free; the group's members desperately need cash to become better and more effective hiphoppers.

There is no near solution to the mounting contradictions of modernity. African filmmakers, such as the ones featured in this festival, can only attack the subject and then retreat to ascertain the results of their raid--are they now closer to or further away from the essence of this most puzzling social process? Whatever the case may be, the films are always worth watching.