Death and life

Archetypal tales and vibrant cinematic voices reign at the African Film Festival

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Mwas (Joseph Wairimu, center) and friends live on the edge in Nairobi Half Life.

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM This week, the African Film Festival National Traveling Series touches down at the Pacific Film Archive, bearing seven features and a number of shorts. The only film to have previous local distribution is Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George, about a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn whose marriage is tested when the wife — played by Walking Dead badass Danai Gurira; her husband is Jim Jarmusch muse Isaach De Bankolé — fails to become pregnant with the son her in-laws demand. The gorgeous photography earned Bradford Young (who also lensed Ain't Them Bodies Saints) a cinematography prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, and, appealing cast aside, his work is the main reason to catch George on the big screen.

The strongest film in the festival is the one that closes it: David Tosh Gitonga's crime drama Nairobi Half Life, submitted by Kenya as its first Best Foreign Language Film contender last year. Though it didn't make the Oscar shortlist (frankly, it was a tough year for foreign films, with Amour claiming all major accolades), it's easy to see why it made the cut. It's the not-unfamiliar tale of a rural dreamer named Mwas (the charismatic Joseph Wairimu) who sets out to pursue an acting career in the big city ("where the devil lives," according to his mother). His improv skills are on point, but he is completely gullible, which makes him a prime target as soon as he arrives in "Nairobbery."

Urban life offers many hard lessons, whether it's Mwas finding his place in the gang he joins as a means of survival, or overcoming the snooty dismissals of the professional actors he enounters at theatrical auditions. In both realms, he gets in over his head, but he's a quick thinker and a talented hustler, which gives him an edge his opponents tend to underestimate. If Nairobi Half Life's script leans a little heavily on Mwas being caught between two worlds (alternate title suggestion: Nairobi Double Life), its energy is infectious and its presentation is polished — props to producer Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run, 2012's Cloud Atlas), whose One Fine Day Film Workshop guided its making.

Director Lonesome Solo's more rough-hewn and downbeat Burn It Up Djassa also weaves a tale of desperation that culminates in violence, this time in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's largest metropolis. Again, there's a conflicted young man at its center: Tony, or "Dabagaou" (as he's known in the 'hood), whose rise from cigarette seller to killer on the run is shared via a streetwise narrator who lays down story beats like a hip-hop version of Shakespeare; his scenes are the most cinematic amid what feels like an otherwise largely improvised effort. And indeed, Burn It Up Djassa builds to a tragedy of Bardian proportions. You'll see it coming, but it's wrenching nonetheless.

Death is the main character in Alain Gomis' Dakar-set Tey, or "today," which takes place in a world that resembles ours but with one key supernatural difference: Those who are about to die are given 24-hour advance notice. One morning, seemingly healthy fortysomething Satché wakes up with the grim knowledge that this is his last day. By the same mysterious power, those closest to him — his family, friends, a bitter former lover, and his wife (though not, it seems, his young children) — are also made aware. Though there's a certain amount of wailing from his older relatives, Satché accepts his fate, drifting through a day that begins with a sort of living funeral, in which both praise and criticism are lobbed at him, and leads into a raucous street parade and hang time with friends.

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