Films offer rare views of Africa, Jamaica


A visit to disease-ravaged Uganda. A drama about the European slave trade, told from the perspective of the Africans who did the trading. A comedy touching on the role of women in Senegalese society. And a documentary about how Jamaica is suffering under the practices of the World Bank.

The African Diaspora II: More New Black Cinema from Africa and Beyond, a four-film series opening tonight at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, is more than just a look at films by or about Africans. It is, says organizer Gabe Wardell, an attempt to expose Baltimore film audiences to works that might otherwise pass them by, as well as to remind them that Afrocentric cinema encompasses a wide variety of viewpoints.

"One of the main objectives is to try to work outside of the mindset that there is such a thing as a single voice," says Wardell, who also programs Cinema Sundays at the Charles. "We want to expose these films and filmmakers to the community in general."

Toward that end, Wardell has booked four films, all Baltimore premieres. Two are the work of black African directors, one hails from Iran, and the fourth is by an American and focuses on an island off the North American coast.

The series kicks off tonight with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's A.B.C. Africa, a first-person account of his 10-day visit to Uganda at the request of the United Nation's International Fund for Agricultural Development. With a hand-held camera, Kiarostami visits village streets, community centers, even an AIDS hospital. What he discovers is a country decimated by disease - out of a population of 22 million in 1991 (when the last census was taken), 4 million people have died or been infected by the AIDS virus.

Hardest hit have been the men and children. Kiarostami's camera shows community after community practically bereft of men, so many having died of the disease. And health officials estimate that 1.6 million children have been left without one or both parents. The combined result: It's not unusual to find neighborhoods where a lone elderly woman must care for scores of orphaned children.

A.B.C. Africa certainly chronicles its share of heartbreak, most memorably during Kiarostami's visit to the hospital. Emaciated children are seen crying, screaming. Health workers are forced to make do with scant resources; one woman is shown emotionlessly fashioning a casket out of a blanket and a cardboard box.

But the film also shows a vibrant, if devastated, culture. Women still dance in the streets, young men still make music, kids still mug for the cameras. Hope has not been lost.

While Kiarostami does take us places we haven't been, his film stubbornly refuses to place what we're seeing in any context. Few people are interviewed, hardly any background is provided, and the only point of view the director takes is a tourist's: He's impressed by what he sees, often moved. But the effect is more that of a travelogue than a documentary.

Still, the film introduces us to a corner of the world few of us have ever experienced. Certainly, none of us have experienced them in quite this way.

"We've seen this sort of thing from an outsider's point of view, but probably not from a Muslim's point of view," Wardell notes.

Other films in the series:

Adanggaman (Feb. 14), from Ivory Coast director Roger Gnoan M'Bala, is a drama that examines the controversial role some black Africans played in supplying bodies for the European slave trade.

Faat-Kine (Feb. 21), from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, is a comedy (with underlying social commentary) centering on a woman who runs a business, supports her mother and sends her two children to college, all without the help of the no-good men in her life.

Life and Debt (Feb. 28), from American director Stephanie Black, is a documentary look at how the supposedly well-meaning practices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have crippled Jamaica and helped foster an endless cycle of poverty.

"There is a multiplicity of voices within black communities throughout the world," says Wardell. "If we can open up a person's eyes to what is happening in other parts of the world, then we're doing our job."

All films begin at 7:15 p.m. at the Preclinical Teaching Building's Mountcastle Auditorium, at the corner of Wolfe and Monument streets. Information: 410-955-3363.

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