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Bloodless diamonds

Non-violence and rationality reign in the MFA’s ‘African Cinema’
By BRETT MICHEL  |  February 14, 2007

DARATT: Moral ambiguities and then a tense standoff.

If the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle Blood Diamond gets remembered for anything (no offense to Djimon Hounsou, but does anyone expect it to win even one of the five Oscars it’s been nominated for?), it would be for the attention it’s drawn to the injustice that has risen alongside globalization in Africa. Unfortunately, Edward Zwick muddled his message by pausing every 10 minutes to shoot someone or blow something up –– and he’s not alone. If there’s one recent trend to be found in Hollywood, it’s the mining of Africa’s misery for uplifting — and explosive — entertainment. Lesser offenders include Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) and Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland (2006); given the three Oscar nominations and one win they have between them (with another statuette likely on the way), this trend isn’t likely to end soon.

Leave it to the Museum of Fine Arts to buck the trend with its annual “African Cinema” series. To judge from the four features that were available for preview, overt violence hovers mainly out of frame, and when it does appear, it lingers more as a threat, or something remembered, than as an orgiastic barrage of clinically detailed bullet wounds or exploding landscapes.

Chadian filmmaker Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s DARATT (2006; February 2, 6:45 pm; February 25, 12:15 pm) may feature a gun at its center, but 16-year-old Atim (Ali Barkai) can barely hold it without shaking, or aim it without closing his eyes. Sent by his grandfather, Atim (“the orphan”) travels from the countryside into the city to exact revenge on his father’s killer, Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro), a former war criminal recently granted amnesty. Nassar appears to have changed his violent ways: he speaks through a voice synthesizer and spends his days baking bread alone until he takes on the mysterious, angry Atim as an apprentice. Moral ambiguities knead their way into the relationship as Atim finds himself drawn to a father figure he’s never had; it builds to a tense standoff.

South African filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi’s DON’T F*** WITH ME I HAVE 51 BROTHERS AND SISTERS (2004; February 22, 6 pm; February 25, 10:30 am) might invoke visions of a clan of street toughs, but you won’t find a more gentle soul than Phakathi, one of more prominent of these siblings. (He’s frequently greeted with “I saw you on TV!”) Unaware of the extent of his brood until his father’s funeral, he then documents the journeys he makes to meet his new-found brothers and sisters and “11 mothers” in a charming portrait of familial love. Love is also at the heart of Senegalese filmmaker Ben Diogay Beye’s A CHILD’S LOVE STORY (2004; February 18, 11 am; February 24, 10:30 am), a sensitive walk into the first steps of adult feelings for a group of 12-year-olds in Dakar.

Another Senegalese filmmaker, veteran Ousmane Sembene (whose Moolaadé opened the 2005 festival), may not be represented this year, but his politically charged spirit can be felt in the opening-night film from the celebrated Abderrahmane Sissako. BAMAKO (2006; February 16, 7:45 pm, with producer/actor Danny Glover; February 17, noon; February 18, 3:30 pm; February 21, 4:30 pm; February 22, 2 pm) finds Sissako returning to his family’s mud-walled house in Mali to put globalization on trial. Is it a polemic? Certainly. However, no one gets shot, and nothing blows up.

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