A-List: Interview with Mwiza Munthali on the African film scene

Films galore! I wrote recently about the Pan-African Films Festival and am back for another round of African film talk. Two Washington, DC-based networking and advocacy organizations, TransAfrica and afrikafé, have teamed up with the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center to put on the New African Films Festival, which began on March 8 and will run until March 13. I sat down with Mwiza Munthali, TransAfrica’s public outreach director, to learn more about the African cinematic arts and why they’re important to American audiences.

TransAfrica works to promote diversity and equity in the foreign policy arena and justice for Africa and its diaspora. How does this film festival help to accomplish TransAfrica’s mission?
It gives us an opportunity to help the public broaden the information they have about African countries. One of the problems in the US is that African countries aren’t covered enough by the papers, and when they are, it’s just in a superficial way. People might come into a story in the news without understanding the historical and cultural contexts that go with it. The histories and the cultures shown in the movies give a broader framework for understanding those areas. A film can be a very powerful tool to help people think further about important issues, like “Grey Matter,” a post-war film from Rwanda which discusses how people deal with genocide, and “An African Election,” which describes the 2008 election in Ghana, when the incumbent party lost. The point is to give the public a wide perspective on the cultural and political journeys these countries are taking.

There are so many great films out there to choose from. How do you go about selecting the films for the festival?
It’s really hard. We look at the quality, subject matter, selections at other festivals, and what’s relevant to global events at the time. We pay attention to what’s happening on the continent, like the demonstrations for change we saw erupting in North Africa over the past year. Those protests led us to a Moroccan film and one coming out of Egypt called “Born on the 25th of January.” The filmmaker captured what was happening at that time from the eyes of the people who were participating. Then we have “Mama Africa,” about the South African activist and singer Miriam Makeba. The showing was on March 8, in honor of International Women’s Day.

How has African film been changing over recent years?
The industry is changing dramatically because of the video boom. It’s really become a huge film industry. We now have Nollywood in Nigeria and Hillywood in Rwanda, named after the country’s rolling hills. The big screen is really developing. This is our eighth annual festival and we never run short of films. But I have to say that even though there are a lot of African films, they’re still not widely distributed here. You can see from the website that we have a couple of directors coming. They’re here because they want to exchange with the audience about the experience they had making the film — and they hope that insight can draw attention to their projects because they just don’t get enough of it.

Which of the films in this year’s festival is your favorite? Do you have an all-time favorite African movie?
I don’t know; they all give me unique things! They’re so different, with different subjects. If you look at “Ties That Bind” from Ghana, for instance, it shows women who have taken different paths in their lives and how they connect with each other. It’s great, but so different from the movie about Miriam Makeba, who was really not given enough credit while she was alive. She brought African culture here to the US in the 1960s, when Harry Belafonte exposed her to US audiences. She really sacrificed for South Africa, singing for freedom and articulating the yearning for freedom in music. I can’t get enough of that one. “Pegasus” from Morocco is a very interesting and intriguing movie, too, that really brings you in. It highlights an issue –- violence against women –- that needs to be addressed in society. And the election films! They bring us into the political realm. How could I ever choose a favorite from all these great films?

Mwiza in library

Which festivals around the US and the world are your favorites?
In New York, there’s the African Film Festival, and in Los Angeles, there’s the Pan-African Films Festival, which happened in February. Washington, DC, has the International Film Festival. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many festivals in the US since African films don’t come across to this market as much. The biggest and best ones are on the continent itself, like the Zanzibar International Film Festival in July and the Cairo International Film Festival in Egypt later in the year. And of course there’s FESPACO, the largest one, in Burkina Faso every other year. The next one will be in 2013.

What African artists are you listening to right now?
I was just listening to Nneka, a Nigerian-German singer who is part of the African diaspora. She’s one of the new singers on the scene. She speaks out on issues that I care about — and is entertaining, too. She sings about social justice, just like the old musicians I love. Of course I always go back to the classics, like the Miriam Makebas. The message matters to me, and the music is really great music.

Why are you passionate about the African arts?
The African arts are part of me. They capture the African story and make it understandable for us and for everyone. They articulate our journey.

If you want to learn more about TransAfrica, visit their website and their Facebook page. Send an email to info@transafrica.org (to Mwiza Munthali’s attention) if you want to join the listserv. For those of you in Washington, DC, I look forward to seeing you at the festival!