Africa: Films that show the wonderful combination of native African beauty in dance, form, masks, costumes and energy combined with Arabic and Western modern architecture.
Doclisboa 2011 showed a rich retrospective of documentaries on the liberation movements of the earlier Portuguese colonies in Africa such as Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. These films gave the viewer a rare opportunity to re-evaluate the European role in Africa. The Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969) by William Klein, is a true film classic yet a rather unknown film (it was just recently remastered by TV ARTE).
Shot on 35 mm with a crew of 12 outstanding cameramen or directors, the film reminds us how a documentary can be an art piece in itself. The film is a wonder combined with superb pictures, unconventional and yet strictly defined montage, amazing use of contrasting music and the exceptional subject itself, the festival. What most of us have probably forgotten by now, is that Algeria was once a very rich and powerful country in the late 60s. Algeria was then the rallying point for all the world’s revolutionaries. At that time, several Portuguese colonies were still fighting for their independence, and the South African apartheid regime continued to dominate the region. In 1969, Algiers organised what was to become the most notable cultural event in Africa, the first Pan-African Cultural Festival. Each African country is represented by one cultural group, and they sing and dance in their amazingly varied forms throughout the streets. This is another time, a time where the streets still belong to the people. Through the film we sense the intense feeling of communion as we watch artists, poets, musicians, writers, revolutionary freedom fighters talking, meeting and jamming together. The mood is infused with a militant Third World spirit. You feel the pride of being an African. What makes this film such a legendary classic? Not just the unique cultural spectacle, but also the absolute craftsmanship of the filmmakers. William Klein was commissioned by the Algerians to do the job, not just because of his anti-American stand in his earlier movies (Mr. Freedom, 1968, is still considered to be the most anti-American movie ever made), but also because of his reputation as the “father of street photography”. Besides being a top fashion photographer in Paris, he made over 250 commercials and one of his first documentaries, Muhammad Ali, was immensely popular in the freshly liberated countries of North Africa.
The original idea was to make multiple films on this festival by the best directors from several left-wing countries such as Cuba, Africa and Poland. However, they could not come to an agreement so Klein decided to hire several directors who were also cameramen like himself and who could work independently. By employing 12 highly professional filmmakers, we get a piece of every part of the festival, day and night. The film begins with a montage of archives from the wretched repression of colonial times. Naked black bodies in chains, rebels hanging from trees, European caricatures of the Africans, all this is edited against classical music contrasting with the African drums and the powerful speech of Eldridge Cleaver, the fugitive leader of the Black Panther Party. We are fully introduced to the suffering of the African continent and then plunged into the streets full of dance and pride. We are celebrating liberation and freedom. The film lets the viewer immerse himself/herself in the crowds. We are running in the streets feeling the music and the dancing and then we are in a dark backroom, quietly observing African dancers preparing themselves. We follow the anticipation in the eyes of the participants and the spectators. From the massive festival parade we jump to the beautiful intimate observation of female jazz singers (some were living in Algeria in exile), chilling out.
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