“Art is a Lived Experience”: Mahen Bonetti on 30 Years of the New York African Film Festival

For Mahen Bonetti, the cinema has long acted as a portal to another world. When growing up in Sierra Leone, it was how she could see the western world that she could only hear about in stories from both her grandfather and father since they had attended college abroad and after moving to America at 15 and subsequently making a life for herself in New York where she would use the full two hours of her lunch breaks from her marketing job to take in a matinee at the Paris Theater, she became a full-blown cinephile, making the trek to the Locarno Film Festival, where she learned of a special program devoted to “30 Years of African Cinema,” a mind-blowing experience when it not only transported her back to the places that she could only revisit in her memories but broadened her own perspective of the continent when there were so many places she had never seen before and was unaware they had ever been captured before on film.

It surely was unthinkable to Bonetti at that time that she would ultimately be at the helm of such a program now after starting the New York African Film Festival three decades ago, an outgrowth of the nonprofit she started that goes well beyond the borders of Manhattan and the springtime event to bring the riches of African cinema to the masses. With limited resources and staff, Bonetti’s outsized effort has set the table for other festivals around the U.S. to acknowledge modern masters such as Abderrahmane Sissako (“Timbuktu”) and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (“Abouna”) on an international scale while giving an early platform to the likes of future “Till” director Chinonye Chukwu (“Alaskaland”), “Saint Omer” director Alice Diop (“Towards Tenderness”), “Nanny” director Nikyatu Jusu (“African Booty Scratcher”) and “Farewell Amor” helmer Ekwa Msangi (“Kwaku Ananse”), often not only introducing these filmmakers to the public but to one another.

When reached in a rare moment of spare time in the weeks leading up to the festival, kicking off this Wednesday at Lincoln Center with Moussa Sène Absa’s trilogy-capping drama “Xalé,” about a Senegalese teen who ducks out of plans for an arranged marriage, Bonetti’s enthusiasm for how cinema can connect people remains boundless and her role as a programmer has never been limited to simply selecting films, but petitioning for visas for filmmakers to travel in to see their work appreciated and leaving no stone unturned to get the films that are important, contacting village shopkeepers for reels of rare work from the past. This rigor is always reflected in the thoughtful array of the films presented at the festival, headlined this year by a live conversation with Souleymane Cissé and a tribute to the legendary Malian filmmaker with not only screenings of “Den Muso” and “Yeelen,” which played the very first NYAFF, but the U.S. premiere of Fatou Cissé’s “A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father.”

It hasn’t been enough for Bonetti to change the way the world looks at Africa, but to push past her own vision of what it is and can be as NYAFF has increasingly opened up to filmmakers from the diaspora, with films such as Iranian-American filmmaker Zia Mohajerjasbi’s Seattle-set “Know Your Place” sitting alongside homegrown efforts such as the Sundance sensation “Mami Wata” from Nigerian director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi and Ottis Ba Mamadou’s Senegalese character study “Dent pour Dent,” and when the festival has had little regard for borders, moving between venues in New York and giving equal weight to films of varying length and approach to storytelling in terms of narrative and nonfiction, it’s only natural that they’re ringing in year 30 under the thematic banner of “Freeforms.” Graciously, Bonetti spoke about how the festival has taken shape, both this year and more broadly, recognizing the beauty to be found in every day African culture and how building a strong community of filmmakers has helped fortify NYAFF as a gathering place over the years.

A scene from “Den Muso”

Is this 30th anniversary a big milestone for you?

Well, who would imagine? It has not sunk in yet because there’s so much still left to be done and during the pandemic when we operated in that cold space of this digital machine, we tried to bring warmth to it and we were able to reach so many people who were really demanding this sort of work. It was something that at first you felt your energies did not mesh and then it did because there was this warmth being brought from both sides. Then when we turned back to the theater, I marveled about how did we ever do this for so many years? This is a lot of work. Now we’re back and I’m still marveling at how much energy it takes and resourcefulness, thinking outside the box, but being that it’s the 30th, I’m challenged to make it even more special in a way of curating a story that really encapsulates the 30 [years of the festival] — [we’re] actually 33 years old as an organization — but you want to weave that story [together] so someone gets the panorama and can find their footing in that story, so those audiences who have patronized us for years, old and new, or those who are yet to come, we can inspire them.

How did the theme of “Freeforms” come to mind?

Freeforms for us is how we relate to art as African people, and even within Africa, the diaspora, it’s a lived experience. When I went to the Met and I see this stool behind a glass vitrine, that’s what the villagers sit on, you know? You see this mask that they use when they’re doing the ceremonies that are a yearly ritual, and you realize how this art is venerated in Western culture, but for us, it’s just every day. When you wake up, there’s someone pounding the food, there’s someone doing the batik of the tablecloth that you might use for the curtains. There’s someone beating a stick on a glass bottle or someone strumming a lute, so you live it, you understand.

It’s when we come here that we start to realize, when you’re on the outside looking in. You start to see the nightly news, where as long as I’ve been here, I saw coverage of Africa and [have been] like, “Oh my God.” And when I first came here, it was because of a political upheaval that had happened. We were those post-independence babies who saw the first wave of coups after independence in Africa and the reason we came here as opposed to going to the post-colonial country that maybe was responsible for your demise because this is what the trend was — the ones where Francophone went to France or Belgium and the Anglophone went to England because from the late ’50s to the mid ’70s, a lot of countries were gaining independence. Then that 10-year window of being masters of our own universe [from the] ’60s to early ’70s was shattered. When your former colonizers had left, then Russia and America came and played their Cold War on our continent for 40-plus years – and what is happening in Ukraine right now happened on the entire continent of Africa and dismantled so many things — so our dream has been deferred for so long, and on top of having trauma, somehow you have to build a resilience. It’s like putting pancake on your face to hide something else, and that is how we ended up here.

I discovered African cinema because I always liked going to the cinema. I would go at lunchtime and see, I saw “Ran,” “Pixote,” “Amarcord,” and then I saw Ousmane Sembene’s “Ceddo,” and I was like, “This is the answer” because I was so frustrated when that war that was taking place in Ethiopia, that’s the Cold War. That wasn’t a war we created. I thought, “Okay, that’s the reality, but why is this happening? Give me a backstory. We didn’t just wake up and started shooting and maiming each other. I want to hear that backstory — and give me the layers, the nuances.” And it was an intervention, let’s say. That’s why I started this organization, and I went in with my feet first, not knowing what I was doing. But I knew that I wanted to redress a narrative, so for me, African societies live the art form, and it has multiple functions and cultural forms and expressions. There’s no uniform style, and [“Freeforms”] is a metaphor for that diversity, not restraint.

A scene from “Know Your Place”

After all these years, do you still have the same sense of discovery when you’re programming the festival?

Oh, yes, because they say every generation tells a story of their time, and the story is as old as the world itself, but you are putting your mark on it. That baton has been passed on to you, so you are going to put on the other layer to that same experience, but in your time and it’s beautiful. When I think of the early African [filmmakers] and what they had to go through, [I think of] how resourceful they were and we don’t [really think about] the old and the new because when we’re curating the program, [we don’t insist] it can just be made two years ago, that’s it. That’s crazy. Something that made yesterday could be like dead on arrival and something made 25 years ago is as relevant as the day it was made.

Then also people are discovering works of other auteurs, especially the artists, They’re filmmakers who, especially in the continent, who have never seen a Sembene, who have never seen Safi Faye, or Raoul Peck or Ossie Davis — I’m [still] learning so much. In the ’70s, [Davis] packed his family and went to Nigeria. There were all these African-Americans and Caribbeans and there was that thriving cultural exchange taking place, and then of course there was Algeria with all the Black Panthers and all these people became leaders and artists. So there was always movement — that even started with the church. So for me, cinema is like night school. We are telling the stories no matter whether they’re good or bad and others can tell the story so long as it’s in and about Africa and it’s something that has nuance and something to say. It’s not just a voiceover.

They’re more women [in the selection now], they’re more from all regions from the continent and the diaspora and then you’re learning how wide the diaspora is. We have an Iranian-African making a film. You have Turkish-Africans because you speak of the transatlantic all the time, but Africans were taken across the Indian Ocean and they gave a lot to Iran, to Turkey, to that whole empire, the Silk Routes.

This event in itself has had a ripple effect and seems to set the table for a lot of things around the world. Is that a consideration when putting a program together?

Absolutely, because we’re looking at what’s where the gaps are. You’re doing this work because the silence is the blind spot. You challenge yourself, but also you make sure there’s this void that needs to be filled, because you know there’s a demand for it and what we have done beyond the festival is that we do year-round programming [where] we don’t have the marquee of a big blockbuster, but we have audience demand, so we’re going to party in the summer, we’re going to community spaces in the fall and we do a national traveling series, so people whose stories have been told on the continent get to see it.

A scene from “A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Father: Souleymane Cisse”

It seems particularly beautiful that you’ve got Souleymane Cisse returning to the festival after “Yeleen” was in the first edition.

It’s incredible. Sembene, Souleymane Cisse, Safi [Faye], they didn’t take prisoners [as filmmakers], but when we need them, they’re here. Souleymane came three times for us when I was desperate. [The festival] got programmed at the same time as Tribeca when they were just starting out, and it was like, who was trying to break whose back here? Come on, you’re my partner. And if I tell you my story, you’d cry for me, but somehow maybe my naïveté and maybe we have those great spirits who are just saying, “No, this is right. This [festival] should go on.” It’s about the sense of Ubuntu – I am because you are.

And first and foremost, we’re doing this work for our community to get together, and to have a space that is very welcoming and safe and the best state of the art [for these films]. I wouldn’t compromise for quality and consistency because you have to respect this is our greatest gift to the world. You can say everything about us, but Africa’s footprint is in everyone’s cultural references, so we’re doing this work to be able to validate ourselves, to shed a lot of those complexes — that sort of self-hate — and to be big enough to have that conversation, but also to celebrate what we have given the world and not wait for someone to validate us. Because sometimes you have other people say, “Why are you sharing that? Aren’t you ashamed?” And I’m like, “Who the hell should I be ashamed? [laughs] Please, don’t even start.

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