If you want to draw attention to a nation’s meanest, most impoverished streets, film a chase scene on them. It worked for Slumdog Millionaire, which raised awareness of the plight of Mumbai’s poorest children through a fanciful combination of crime story, romance and quiz show.
Slumdog Millionaire’s eight Academy Awards make it an exceptional example, but many films in the Pan African Film Festival take a comparable approach. Established in 1992, the festival screens more than 100 films a year from the countries of the Pan-African diaspora. The Pan African Film Festival curates the film component of the National Black Arts Festival, which this year presents three shorts programs and 19 features and documentaries from July 29-Aug. 2 at the Woodruff Arts Center. Many of the films use time-tested genres to shine a spotlight on issues that plague other cultures, while attempting to entertain audiences who might be leery of words like diaspora.
Nonfiction films address social issues — from the local to the global — in the most direct route possible, such as The End of Poverty? (3 stars, Sun., Aug. 2, 2 p.m.). Director Philippe Diaz takes on the massive subject of Third World hunger and deprivation, and why they not only perpetuate but seem to be on the increase in the early 21st century. Narrator Martin Sheen and many articulate, passionate experts trace the problems' origins to 1492 and the European sack of the Americas, and on through the colonial and industrial periods. One of the film’s many horrifying anecdotes describes a Bolivian silver mine where the workers were required, by law, to labor for six months in the mine without leaving.
You might say, “OK, I basically know all this, but if colonialism’s over and the countries are now independent, why are things still so bad?” The End of Poverty? lays out a devastating case that explains why the stack is decked against developing countries, even those that have plentiful raw materials. In some cases, countries that produce staples like coffee beans and tea leaves ship them to be more profitably processed elsewhere. Factors such as mountainous national debts and monopolization of huge conglomerates limit job opportunities and can undermine subsistence-level agriculture.
The End of Poverty? does justice to the complexities of arguably the world’s biggest and most complex problem. It can, however, be hard to follow its recap of the failures of contemporary neoliberal foreign policy and privatization. The documentary risks not just information overload, but sense-of-futility-and-despair overload as well.
In sharp contrast, Another Love Story (3 stars, Wed., July 29, 9:50 p.m.) offers a portrait of an impoverished community that proves vibrant and effervescent — at first. The film begins with a sunny Afro-Brazilian musical number in the narrow streets of a ramshackle favela. Young people gather from two different neighborhoods, with one group favoring red and yellow clothes, the other blues and greens. When they meet in an intersection, they don’t launch into choreographed combat a la West Side Story, but dance together. They’re all students at a dance studio on the border between two gangs’ turfs, but hostilities between the criminal groups begin splitting the civilians apart.
A romance develops between funk dancer Analídia (Cristina Lago) and singer/DJ Jonata (Vinícius D’Black), but unfortunately, his brother Dudu (Babu Santana) and her imprisoned father lead the two rival gangs. Director Lucia Murat overtly acknowledges the similarities with Romeo and Juliet: The dance students even watch a classic ballet of the material and talk about whether it’s realistic. Lago makes an impressive, sinuous dancer and Jonatha an appealing if bland singer (you can imagine him as a High School Musical exchange student). Neither really comes across, even through subtitles, as a particularly skilled actor. Marisa Orth carries most of the film’s dramatic weight as Fernanda, a crusading dance teacher devoted to helping the poor kids and trying to remain neutral, even when the gang leaders insist she repaint her studio to match their colors.
With rap interludes and dance numbers spilling into traffic, Another Love Story, like Fame, captures a lively musical scene, even as it offers a dispiriting picture of Fernanda’s doomed efforts to make a difference. Her idea to get the two students dance scholarships abroad offers a neat parallel to Romeo and Juliet’s attempted elopement, but the film’s tragic contrivances prove even more unlikely than Shakespeare’s.
Where Another Love Story takes inspiration from classic theater and ballet, 13 Months of Sunshine (1 star, Wed., July 29, 5:35 p.m.) emulates Green Card and other Hollywood rom-coms in its tale of Ethiopian immigrants in America. Solomon (Sammy Amare), a U.S. citizen with Ethiopian parents, agrees to marry the beautiful young Ethiopian immigrant Hanna (Tsion Fikreselassie) so she can get citizenship and he can get cash to open a coffee shop. Will maintaining the pretense of marriage cause them to fall in love? Or will Hanna be tempted by a smooth-talking player from the wicked modeling industry?
Dispiritingly amateurish, 13 Months of Sunshine follows its formulae so rigidly, it makes Tyler Perry look like Lars Von Trier. (It even ends with a declaration of love before an audience of skeptical women, just like Jerry Maguire.) Director Yehdego Abeselom overlooks some clear opportunities for humor. At one point, white immigration figures shake their heads disapprovingly when Hanna and Solomon argue during an official interview. But shouldn’t the officials take their bickering as proof of their marital status? The joke’s just sitting there.
The greater problem with the film is that Solomon and the other characters talk almost incessantly about how much they value Ethiopian culture — in general. Specific details about that culture, however, prove surprisingly rare. An early moment shows Solomon roasting his own coffee beans on the burners of his modest stove, and it’s one of the film’s few touches that feels authentic.
Jerusalema (3 stars, Fri., July 31, 10:15 p.m.), South Africa’s official entry for the 2009 Academy Awards, presents a rags-to-riches crime story in some ways as familiar as the various versions of Scarface. It also provides some intriguing perspectives on the country’s social changes. Ralph Ziman’s film — "inspired by true events” — shows highlights in the life of Lucky Kunene (played by Jafta Mamabolo as a teen and Rapulana Seiphemo as an adult). A teenager when Nelson Mandela’s presidential election marks the end of apartheid, Lucky turns to a life of crime initially to raise money for a college education. Once he joins the gang of a former anti-apartheid resistance fighter-turned-hoodlum, young Lucky graduates from carjacking to bank robbery.
After a 10-year leap, we meet Lucky as an adult running a taxi company. When one of his vehicles gets carjacked, he tells a friend he needs a gang. Next thing we know, Lucky takes out a loan for a nonprofit housing trust, which collects rents from tenants, clears buildings of criminals, and eventually forces landlords to sell their properties. Exactly where Lucky learned to run such an efficient, allegedly legal operation is never explained, but the venture makes him a slumlord millionaire, viewed by black residents as a Robin Hood and white police officers as just a hood.
Seiphemo offers a compelling central performance as Lucky, even though Jesusalema can prove frustratingly vague about the nature of his empire or whether it considers the role as a crook or a folk hero. Nevertheless, the film’s snappy editing and hot African pop on the soundtrack engage the audience. The film's setting conveys the complexity of South Africa’s racial context. At one point, a white police officer suggests that his fellow cops’ heavy-handedness in the apartheid era harmed their credibility in the present day. In a country still struggling with its legacy, Jerusalema suggests that a black man’s ability to seize power just may represent a kind of progress.