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Africa Direct: Never underestimate the power of short film

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 31 December 2021 14:52

Actors perform a scene at night while filming 'October 1', a police thriller directed by Kunle Afolayan, at a rural location in Akure, southwest Nigeria
Actors perform a scene at night while filming "October 1", a police thriller directed by Kunle Afolayan, at a rural location in Akure, southwest Nigeria August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Africa Direct is an immersive and continent-spanning series launched by 'Al Jazeera English' that looks for 30 short documentaries which tell nuanced narratives of contemporary living in different African countries.

With this objective in mind, influential South African executive Steve Markovitz was tasked with working with series producers Angele Diabang and Brian Tilly to commission a diverse team of all-African filmmaking talent based on the continent to execute.

The first films in the series were launched online on 30 November, with the rest to be released in tranches into the new year.

We took a deep dive into the Africa Direct project and came up with five of the finest films from the series. The character-driven projects provide interesting snapshots, not just of the respective human subjects but also of the environments in which they exist.

The Bookmaker (Ethiopia)

Still from ‘The Bookmaker’

In the opening frames of Girum Berehanetsehay’s The Bookmaker, up in the Ankober mountains of Ethiopia, Archbishop Kalehiwot Habtewold charges five of his disciples to go into the village to buy up decent goatskin. The skin is a raw material for the ancient craft of parchment bookmaking which the elder clergyman practices.

The Bookmaker trails the clergyman at home and work as he attempts to break down his attraction for the painstaking but ultimately rewarding process that can often last an entire decade. Berehanetsehay captures the big skies, the mist and high altitudes that surround his subjects present a vivid snapshot of a profession that appears fixed in its time capsule.

Watch here.

The Cave (Algeria)

Still from ‘The Cave’

In the remote Algerian town of Sidi Bel Abbès, puppeteer Houcine Bensemicha and his artist father have created a nurturing centre for artists and audiences to pursue their passions and engage with the arts. With the charming The Cave, director El Kheyer Zidani tells a feel-good story of the artistic life and reveals an inspiring example of how creative communities can be created and nurtured.

The film starts simply enough, focusing on the bond between a father and son, both as family members and artists. From the conversations and loose banter between both men, Zidani can flesh out a narrative of ordinary people creating communities of care even when there isn’t always support by way of government policy or assistance.

Watch here.

Desert Libraries (Mali)

Still from ‘Desert Libraries’

Andrey S Diarra’s Desert Libraries may be the most cinematic – and accomplished – of the Africa Direct films. Using brilliant cinematography, written outlines and a character-led narrative that discards the traditional talking heads, Diarra shines a spotlight on the fast-disappearing art of copying ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.

For convenience, Desert Libraries zeroes in on Boubacar Saddeck Najim, one of the few remaining copyists in the storied city ardently working to replicate precious manuscripts for posterity. But the film is really a big picture look at the cultural and academic history of Timbuktu and the challenge of holding on to ancient traditions, even as the wheel of modernity continues to grind forward.

Watch here.

Happiness (Cameroon)

Still from ‘Happiness’

The most heartwarming story in the series is this lovely dispatch from Yaounde, Cameroon where a charismatic deputy mayor has developed a reputation for officiating dramatic wedding ceremonies. As deputy mayor, Claude Samuel Monthé announces to the congregation while officiating yet another wedding – just one in his packed schedule of about twenty every month – his region is popular among couples because “it’s the only town hall in Cameroon, in heaven and on earth that has a dancing mayor.”

Director Valaire Fossi plants himself at a corner unobtrusively and watches Monthé at work. Whether he is signing documents, putting on a full-on performance or admonishing a couple he has just wedded, Monthé is never less than compelling.

Watch here.

On the White Nile (South Sudan)

Still from ‘On the White Nile’

Director Akuol de Mabior was filming a separate project in Juba Port, somewhere in South Sudan’s capital when she ran into fisherwoman Rebecca Lith Chol, the primary subject of her film On the White Nile. It is easy to see why de Mabior would be fascinated by the fishing boat captain. Instantly arresting and confident, Rebecca comes across as a commanding yet totally feminine figure existing in a male-dominated field.

In the 13-minute short, de Mabior captures the essence of her protagonist, putting across a spare but engaging profile of a fiercely independent woman making her way the best way she knows how. The entire film hangs around Rebecca and the interior of her life is complex enough to allow for a multi-dimensional profile.

Watch here.

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