Exploring Black Culture in Movies

African filmmakers bring vitality, unexpected plot twists, and fresh styles to their work. FIILM: FESTIVAL

MOVIES are an excellent means of celebrating Black History Month, since films centering on black experience have been produced for decades in Africa, the United States, and other places. The best of them cast light on the challenges and triumphs that have been integral to various black cultures.

To mark this year's commemoration of black history, the Public Theater in Manhattan is presenting ``The African Eye: Highlights of African Filmmaking,'' a series of five films made in four African nations - proof, if proof were needed, of the great vitality that characterizes much African movie production today.

The special event within this series of films is the American theatrical premi`ere of ``Touki Bouki,'' a comedy-drama made in Senegal by director Djibril Diop-Mambety almost 20 years ago, but only now finding its way onto the international circuit.

In outline, its story is a slender one: A young man and woman dream of leaving Senegal for a more glamorous life in France, decide to finance their journey by stealing the possessions of an effete gentleman they know, and wind up more discombobulated than ever in their lives and relationships.

What makes ``Touki Bouki'' resonant is Mr. Diop-Mambety's resourceful visual style, which imbues the movie's plot with layers of social, cultural, and even political meaning.

Although this is never stated in so many words, the wanderlust of the main characters is clearly due more to the pernicious legacy of colonialism, which has filled them with a bizarre nostalgia for a foreign land they've never seen, than to logical thought or practical ambition.

Also called into question by the film is the uneasy alliance between African tradition and European ideas of civilization and progress. The ending is especially poignant, as the hero comes to a dim realization that cultural forces may be pressuring him into action more forcefully than his own needs and desires, as genuine as these are.

``Touki Bouki'' is a profoundly African film, pulsing not only with buoyant sounds and colors but with a deliciously sardonic attitude toward Europeanized culture, embodied by an ancient Josephine Baker recording that keeps poking into the sound track but never gets beyond a few repetitious measures before breaking down and starting over again.

The movie's deeply African personality is also reflected by a plot twist or two that may puzzle American viewers, and by several images that some spectators may find troubling, notably a number of shots depicting the slaughter of animals for food.

OTHER films in the Public Theater series manage with similar success to engage international audiences without sacrificing their thoroughly African characteristics.

The two that have been lauded most enthusiastically by Americans are ``Yaaba'' and ``Tilai,'' both made in Burkina Faso by Idrissa Ouedraogo, and both former hits in major film festivals as well as US theaters during the past couple of years.

They tell uncomplicated stories: ``Yaaba'' is about the friendship between two children and an old woman branded as a witch, while ``Tilai'' is about a young couple whose love affair breaks a tribal law of honor.

Also uncomplicated is Mr. Ouedraogo's filmmaking style, which achieves a purity and directness unlike almost anything in Hollywood's selfconsciously sophisticated tradition.

The series is rounded out by the vividly photographed ``Yeleen,'' a supernaturally tinged story from Mali directed by Souleymane Ciss'e, and ``Faces of Women,'' a passionate drama made in the Ivory Coast by D'esir'e 'Ecar'e, who brings into play a sexual explicitness very rare for African film.

Made between 1985 and 1990 by artists of different yet comparably creative sensibilities, the carefully selected movies in the Public Theater presentation are a timely reminder of the riches to be found in black cinema from many lands.

Several other programs running here in New York (see story at left) provide a useful and fascinating context for recent accomplishments in black cinema.

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