It’s amazing how many movies slip through the cracks, even for seasoned movie buffs like myself who actively scan the local exhibition circuit on a weekly basis. I learned long ago the most efficient way for me to keep track of what’s playing in town is to keep a screening calendar, and anytime I hear of something I want to see, I always jot it down. (This is as close to day-timing as my temperament allows.)

Yesterday afternoon, however, as I was walking out of a coffeehouse, I happened to glimpse a small card for the Celebrate Africa 2003 festival of “Film, Business, and Music.” Looking more closely, I excitedly noted two films would be screened: Haile Gerima‘s Sankofa (1993) and Ousmane Sembene‘s Faat Kiné (2000), a film I have looked forward to seeing for three years now. Surprised, since the host theatre is one of my usual suspects, I jumped to their website and, sure enough, found no mention of the event whatsoever.

Sembene, who turns 80 this year, is often called “the father of African cinema,” but none of his films are readily available on video in North America. (The only trace of them I’ve found is at Facets Multi-Media.) Faat Kiné screens tonight.

Gerima was born in Ethiopia but graduated from the UCLA film school during its especially vibrant black filmmaking movement in the ’70s–his peers include Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Larry Clark. As Burnett explains in an interview recently published by Senses of Cinema:

“[UCLA] was a wonderful place to be and I’m glad I went there . . . You didn’t make films for commercial reasons or use your student film as a calling card for Hollywood. Hollywood wasn’t accessible to black independent filmmakers, or films by people of color, unless they were black exploitation films. You never expected anything from Hollywood. Filmmaking was for you making personal and political statements. And one of the good things about UCLA was a teacher named Elyseo Taylor who started the Ethno-Communications department, a program to bring in people of color, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Afro-Americans. I was one of the Teacher Assistants in that group and the objective was to get people of color to tell stories about their community. A lot of positive things came out of it. All the people attending the course were there making films in response to false and negative images that Hollywood films were promoting. There was an anti-Hollywood attitude–but it was more than that, the focus was on you telling your story and working out an aesthetic.”

A nine-year, independently financed project for Gerima, Sankofa is an extraordinary film, wrought with a lush, expressive style and energy that juxtaposes the brutalities endured by plantation slaves with the beauty of the landscape (Jamaica posing as Louisiana) and the spiritual will of the oppressed. Layered throughout the film is a complex musical score comprised of African drumming, electronic rhythms, and American jazz and blues. It’s a visceral and deeply moving portrait of plantation life viewed from an African perspective–no doubt intensified by the fact that Gerima never heard about the slave trade in Ethiopia until he moved to America in his twenties. The characters in Sankofa are not the typical Representatives of History, but fully developed adult personas with complex personalities and lives all their own.

Gerima explains:

“History is power. Which is why we named the film Sankofa. ‘Sankofa’ is a philosophical, mythological bird passed down from generation to generation from the Akan people of Ghana. The name means [that in order] to move forward, you must reclaim the past. In the past, you find the future and understand the present.”

Mona (intensely portrayed by Oyafunmike Ogunlano) is a fashion model who enjoys a photo shoot on a sandy beach in Cape Coast, Ghana (once the second largest slavery post in Africa). She and other tourists are confronted by a shaman drummer who challenges them to look beyond the present and engage the sufferings of the past. Visiting a castle’s remains, Mona is suddenly and mysteriously transported to a 19th century sugar plantation, where she becomes Shola, a house slave victimized by the landowners. Shola timidly develops friendships with the other slaves working on the plantation (all of whom prepare for an impending revolt), and the story revolves around the journey of self-determination each slave aspires toward.

Gerima himself appeared after the screening to field a couple of questions from the audience. He talked about his desire to create a film on the subject differently from the typical Hollywood approach, which tends to focus on the “moral dilemma” of the whites (“good” versus “bad” characters), generally leaving black characters helpless and dependent upon idealistic white saviors. (One is tempted, as this excellent Sankofa website does, to compare the film to Spielberg’s veneration of white politicians in Amistad–or his similarly disposed view of a heroic German who saves Jews in Schindler’s List.)

Gerima has remarked:

“Now what I did was flip this. I brought out the individual identities and motives of the characters, transforming ‘happy slaves’ into an African race opposed to this whole idea, by making the history of slavery full of resistance, full of rebellion. Resistance and rebellion–the plantation school of thought believed it was always provoked by outsiders, that Africans were not capable of having that human need [themselves].”

After Sankofa was completed (and was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), Gerima still could not acquire a US distributor, and therefore hand-carried the film across the country, appealing to black communities in major cities to sponsor local screenings. The film became a word-of-mouth hit that continues to receive independent bookings and generate sold-out screenings. (It’s also available on video, though Gerima said Blockbuster Video refused to carry it because they claimed they “don’t have a clientele for it.”) Gerima, currently a professor of film at Howard University in Washington D.C., often attends these screenings himself and lectures on black independent filmmaking. I can only consider myself lucky enough to have participated in one such screening last night.