At this year’s African Film Festival, ‘Visions of Freedom’ turns aspiration into possibility

This year’s festival featured films that interrogate race in France, reimagine artificial intelligence as an ally against social injustice, and show a Nigerian village’s struggle for water.

Freda / Gessica Généus

You wouldn’t know it by looking at the banners of upcoming and current shows lining the Broadway sidewalk outside the Lincoln Center, yet the inaugural African Film Festival landed back in town in mid-May. Founded by Mahen Bonetti — who was born in Sierra Leone, and whose family was exiled to the US in the late 1970s — the festival is going into its third decade of celebrating African auteurs. This year’s theme was “Visions of Freedom,” an aspiration that turned into possibility as films that were years in the making premiered to applause, appreciation, and excitement at the breadth of cinematic talent exploring Black stories across the globe. The festival featured an interrogation of race in France via Tout Simplement Noir (Simply Black) from French director Jean-Pascal Zadi, a 3D animated sci-fi short from Anatola Araba that reimagined artificial intelligence as an ally against social inequities, a filmmaking master class led by venerated Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, and Marche sur L’eau (Above Water) from Senegalese-born actor-director Aïssa Maïga.

During the opening night, it was clear from the crowd filling the Walter Reede theater that even without much fanfare or front-end advertising, the festival pulled New Yorkers from their separate boroughs to converge into Manhattan, grateful for the return of in-person festivities after two years of virtual separation. To set the tone, Bonetti tapped Gessica Généus, another actor-director whose directorial debut Freda had just completed an acclaimed run across Europe, with a stop-over at Cannes. It recently became only the second Haitian film put forward for an Academy Award.

The festival was created for films such as Freda, a wide-eyed, aching narrative that scales the centers and corners of life in Haiti to reveal portraits of survivors, comrades, and devout believers. Généus touches on the compounding effects of state-wide corruption (decaying infrastructure, poor education systems, civil unrest) the generational traumas of sexual assault, the motivations behind skin bleaching, and the insidious effects of colorism. There’s something about the way her camera focuses on the characters, whether still or in motion, then pans out to reveal the influences behind each action. The approach finds their strength and hearts, even as they flinch and weep — because how many times can a country break your heart and still ask you to have faith? For lead actors Fabiola Remy and Nehemie Bastien, who play a mother and daughter with a thorny relationship, this was their first time acting in a film; the same is true for a crew that was 90% Haitian and learning the mechanics and labor of filmmaking.

With dialogue primarily in Kreyol, the guerilla film-making process that went into making Freda echoed that of Gerima’s own Sankofa, which struggled to find funding because potential backers were bothered by its layered depictions of rage, love, and hope among Black people living on a plantation. While looking to finance Freda’s expensive festival runs — a necessary task to foster international interest — Généus was asked to rewrite her female characters to make them more socially conventional, likable and blemish-free. “They wouldn’t say these things outright, but I would see from the things they wanted me to change, that these are not the types of people they wanted,” she told the theater audience in a Q&A after the screening, where people had snapped, chuckled, and clapped throughout the film. “If I had made the changes I would have started writing a different script, and we are not going to do that.”

Généus also used footage of the 2018 political protests that she captured alongside her partner while running from gunshots, sharing that the film was her testimony of the students “who go back again and again and again, because wouldn’t you fight for your life?” It was the realities of a mundanity that is interrupted by the terror that Généus wanted to show, and she knew that Kreyol, the language all Haitians speak, would be the one used to voice their experiences, even if that meant less support.

“In most families in Haiti we speak Kreyol, we don’t speak French even though both languages are very present in the country,” she tells me. “It wouldn’t have been true to myself to change that aspect because it’s the core aspect of who we are. And if you are presenting yourself to the world, you can not neglect the language you have created, and that you have used to set yourself free.” Généus remembers listening to locals who as they saw the film being made, caught snatches of Kreyol and concluded that the project would never leave their island. “When they see that the film went to Cannes it blows their minds which is ridiculous, because we should not be surprised that we sent our own film in our own language,” she says. “But we’ve always felt it was too low to exist in such an environment.”

Although Kreyol is at the center of Haitian culture, it has been marginalized for the sake of mobility, as French is viewed as the language that will grant legitimacy and boundless opportunities. Haitian schools teach in French which constantly baffles Généus. “Children come to school speaking Kreyol and are taught in French meaning they have to learn the language, while also learning in the language,” she emphasizes. One of the film’s standout scenes features a group of students debating Haiti’s current state while tracing the legacy of French colonialism, and while some lean toward peaceful discussions with national leaders, others demand force in the vein of 17th-century Haitian hero Jean Jacques-Dessalines, who stormed across the island beheading French colonizers. This entire scene was shot without a script, and Généus allowed the actors who are also real-life Haitian activists to just speak as they would off-camera. Pascale Solages, one of the people cast to play a student and the only one able to attend the festival, is a childhood friend of Généus, and stepped into the film because it was an opportunity to be heard. “What you saw in the movie is our life, our daily fight in the country,” she says. “It’s talking about our work in the country for the last four years, about how we live, and can’t live as women, feminists, political activists, and Haitians.”

This trained focus on the interior lives of Black women is one that intertwines across borders with Marche sur L’eau from Aïssa Maïga, which premiered at the festival after showing in France last year. The documentary follows the Wodaabe people living in Tatiste, a small village in northwestern Niger, whose search for water has become an inescapable and defining part of their lives. Through Houlaye, a 12-year-old girl with an arresting gaze, we see the physical toil and emotional remnants that come from growing up as the land you know seemingly turns against you. The cracked riverbeds and dried wells mean that fathers travel farther from home to find pastures for livestock, and mothers cross the borders into Togo and Nigeria searching for jobs. The children are left behind and the girls are tasked with watching over the family, painstakingly aware that as water disappears, so does their way of living.

“It’s women and young girls who are responsible for raising the children, feeding them, taking care of their health, and so there’s a huge weight on their shoulders,” Maïga tells me. “Climate change and water shortages has made that even harder and I think it’s critical to show, because in western countries there’s not really a realization of how climate change affects the everyday lives, especially of women in these areas, who are not the ones responsible for this disaster.” The film shows the villagers walking at least 20 kilometers a day to the nearest well, with no guarantee that there will be enough water for their families; children skip school because they are too tired from looking for water, as their searches take them further from home. Scientists have proven that water will increasingly become scarce, and when that day comes what will happen to the Wodaabe and others like them?

In the 3D animated short, Afro Algorithms, from Anatola Araba starring Ava Raiin, Robin Quivers and Hoji Fortuna, (the latter’s own film A Lisbon Affair is also showing at the festival) an AI (Artificial Intelligence) has been granted the right to rule the world, with an instinct to remake it, so girls like Houlaye are pulled from the periphery. Araba, who grew up in New York, was determined to reflect the layered sites of oppression Black people face within the data-driven present and future. “This film is meant to show a world where AI can be used to help people who have been historically marginalized, and who can automate it so that it can work for their safety,” Araba tells me. “AI is essentially about data, and anyone with a past can have data, and use that to change their lives.”

While these films are currently unavailable to stream, the festival will continue until June 2, with several films receiving multiple screenings. Looking at the work available for viewing, intentional or not, there is an enviable curation of women-led productions, that considered various visions of freedom, long before Bonetti made that the theme. Their stories were the fulcrum for discussions on climate justice, tech innovations, and democracy, making the urgency clear and spotlighting our capacity to rebuild systems that stretch beyond what we need, and encompass what we can imagine.