A-List: Four amazing movies from the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival

Happy 20th birthday to the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF)! Founded with the goal of promoting “ethnic and racial respect” through creative expression, the nonprofit corporation continues its mission this year with the screening of more than 150 films made by or about people of African descent. The line-up at this year’s Los Angeles-based film festival is diverse, featuring comedies, dramas, documentaries and action flicks from 30 countries, but as Executive Director Ayuko Babu told the Los Angeles Times, they all help to “tell our stories.” Whether it’s an inspirational tale like “The First Grader” or a thriller like “A Small Town Called Descent,” Babu explains that the films “give us a sense of where we have been and where we are going.”

You can view the full schedule of the festival here. And even though you don’t live in L.A., you can still watch the trailers and find most of them on Netflix. Here are a few of our favorites:

An African Election” documents the close presidential race between Nana Akufo-Addo and John Atta Mills in Ghana’s 2008 election cycle. The battle was a tough one, but ultimately resulted in a legitimate handover of power — reminding us that vibrant democracy is possible. Read a review of the film from ONE Blog contributor Joseph Powell. Director: Jarreth Mertz. Ghana. 2010.. Available on Netflix.

President Obama doesn’t have a monopoly on community activism in the Obama family. “The Education of Auma Obama” profiles the president’s half-sister, born and raised in Kenya, and a global activist in her own right. But the film is more than just a portrait of the president’s extended family — it’s a glimpse into the world of politically and socially engaged Africans working at the grassroots level for the collective good. You can watch a Feb. 11 interview with the film’s director here. Director: Branwen Okpako. Germany. 2011.

The First Grader” tells the remarkable story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, a Kenyan revolutionary veteran who is determined to learn how to read — at 84 years old. Inspired by the passage of a 2002 law guaranteeing free education for all, Maruge joins a classroom of six-year-olds. But his admirable wish aggravates politicians and parents who think that his learning is a waste of time and money. Director: Justin Chadwick. UK/Kenya. 2010. Available on Netflix.

Last week we featured South African trumpeter Bra Hugh, but he isn’t the only member of his family making news in the art world this year. His late wife, the internationally renowned singer Miriam Makeba, serves as the subject for “Mama Africa,” a documentary film that takes its title from her famous nickname. Makeba was among the first to bring South African music to the American popular stage. Her countless musical accolades are rivaled only by her dedication to civil rights. An outspoken critic of the apartheid regime, Makeba used her prestige to fight for equality, even when it wasn’t popular. Director: Mika Kaurasmäki. South Africa/Germany/Finland. 2011. Will be available on Netflix soon.

With a program like this, PAFF Director of Programming Asantewa Olatunji admits that “it’s going to be tough for our judges to pick winners.” No matter the outcome, the audience definitely comes out on top.

Have you seen any of these films? Which ones do you like best?