Washington University’s African Film Festival offers a rare opportunity to pay a vicarious visit to Africa.
Watching films offers you a chance to experience something outside your own immediate surroundings. It doesn’t matter whether that other world is presented in a documentary context or embodied in a fictional film—if the director has done his job well, you can step out of your own world for an hour or two and be a visitor in someone else’s reality. To paraphrase a sentiment expressed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, films let you travel without moving your feet or needing to pack your pillow and blanket.
With that in mind, Washington University’s African Film Festival offers a rare opportunity to pay a vicarious visit to Africa. While films from Europe, Asia, and Latin America are frequently screened in cinemas and are widely available for home viewing, African films are much harder to come by. And that’s a shame, considering that Africa is the second-largest continent in terms of both population and area.
The Saturday afternoon session, dubbed a “youth matinee,” showed two films designed to appeal to children but which are also complex enough to interest an adult audience. The short animated film Legacy of Rubies (28 min.), directed by Ebele Okeye, is based on a Nigerian folktale about a young boy who is plucked from his idyllic rural life to be the next ruler of a faraway kingdom. As in all good folktales, of course, he must go on a hero’s journey and meet a series of challenges before assuming his legacy.
While I enjoyed watching Legacy of Rubies, I also found it a bit disappointing, particularly in terms of the animation. Working in 2D animation, Okeye combined two visual styles in a way I found distancing and distracting. She uses richly painted backgrounds (which are often quite beautiful) but much simpler character animation, the latter sometimes seen with wiggling outlines reminiscent of Squigglevision and sometimes with the stiff movements typical of low-budget anime. One of the character voices is also not good, sounding like someone reading a script for the first time rather than acting a part. Nonetheless, Legacy of Rubies, a Nigerian/German production, has proved popular on the festival circuit, winning prizes for Best Animation at the 2015 Africa Movie Academy Awards, as well as at many film festivals.
Adama, a feature-length (82 min.) animated film directed by Simon Rouby, also tells the story of a young boy who embarks on a life-changing journey, but in this case, the story is based on the real-life experiences of Africans who fought for the French Army during World War I. Twelve-year-old Adama lives in a remote West African village surrounded by high cliffs that both isolate and protect the villagers. Outside, according to the village elders, dwell troublesome spirits called the Nassaras, and the villagers are warned never to venture beyond the cliffs. Adama’s peaceful existence is shattered when his older brother announces that he has joined the Nassaras and displays the gold coins he received in return. After his brother leaves, Adama decides to follow him, a choice that takes him on an amazing journey to the front lines where his brother is fighting in the Battle of Verdun. On this journey, Adama’s natural pluckiness is augmented by the kindness of both Africans and Europeans as well as an enigmatic griot who provides guidance when it is most needed.
Although partly based on real historical events, there is also a strong mystical element in Adama, and this is reflected in the film’s unique look. The character animation was created using CGI based on sculptures, with the greatest detail granted the central characters. This character animation is combined with still painted backgrounds, resulting in an uncanny valley look similar to that achieved through rotoscoping. I found this look to be more disturbing than expressive, but Adama also includes some scenes of great visual interest produced through unusual techniques including blowing sand through water and manipulating ferrofluids with magnets (both techniques are demonstrated in this video). Adama has also been successful on the festival circuit, winning Best of Fest at the Chicago International Children’s Festival and being nominated for, among other things, Best Feature at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh