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Out from Africa

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - Sit in the dark, watch the screen light up and, at two festivals over the next month, you'll find yourself in Africa, but rarely in the same place twice.

Two film festivals - one at the University of Missouri St. Louis, the other at Washington University - explore the continent and other places around the world influenced by Africa.

Beginning Feb. 26, UMSL will present the Africa World Documentary Festival, which features 57 documentaries by film-makers from places such as Haiti, Guinea, Namibia, France, Jamaica and India.

Beginning March 26, Washington University will present the African Film Festival, featuring seven films and one short documentary made by African film-makers about Africa.

The documentary film festival, in its second year, was started to help audiences begin looking at African issues globally, says 'Niyi Coker Jr., E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of African/African-American Theatre in the Center for International Studies.

This year, the festival received 300 entries and the stories told don't just come from Africa, but from Africa's reach into the rest of the world, Coker says.

"We learned about the influence of African culture with almost every facet of global culture," he says.

"All the World's a Stage," is a film about the Sidis, a tribe from East Africa that's made its home in India for 800 years and, despite discrimination, has a strong identity through music.

"SOMAY KU: A Uganda Tennis Story" tells the story of the country's top tennis player, who struggles to escape a civil war and finds new challenges after coming to the U.S.

The festival, which will have screenings at the Missouri Historical Society, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Belas Artes Multicultural Center and Art Gallery, is made up of documentaries, which, Coker says, usually can be powerful.

"In most cases, the gloves are off," he says. And often, the films can be graphic and painful "because you know there's nothing fictional about it."

But fiction can have power, too, and the films at Washington University's African Film Festival tell stories about topics like gender, marriage and love in Africa. The films come from a partnership with African Film Festival New York, and this is the festival's fourth year.

The films are made by African film-makers and often use a visual vocabulary different to American viewers, says Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, assistant dean at the College of Arts and Sciences.

It takes time to tell a story, for instance, and films often feature group dialogues.

All the films show that Africa is many places, a huge continent with many countries and many stories to tell.

"The countries are so diverse," Toliver-Diallo says. "Not one is like the other."

"Paris Selon Moussa," for instance, tells the story in both Guinea and France of a villager who must go to Paris to get a new water pump for the village. The film won the Human Rights Award from the United Nations in 2003.

"Heartlines" tells the story of a man in South Africa gets a second chance to rebuild his life after a dark past.

In addition to bringing new stories from Africa, the festival also brings the work of unknown filmmakers from the continent and hopes to expose them to new audiences, Toliver-Diallo says.

As well as highlighting differences, she thinks, the films also bring out similarities.

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