Cascade Festival of African Film

Stage and Studio
program date: 
Mon, 02/09/2009

Now until March 7, theaters around Portland are screening dozens of feature and documentary films by directors from throughout Africa as part of the 19th annual Cascade Festival of African Film. The longest-running of its kind, the Portland Community College-sponsored festival coincides with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

In the festival’s centerpiece film, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, director Charles Burnett portrays Namibia’s difficult battle against apartheid-era South Africa, a decades-long fight that finally resulted in Namibia’s independence in 1990. The film is one of 22 screening at this year’s festival, and though the story is likely to be an unfamiliar one to most Americans, festival organizer Wiley Barnett says this is precisely the point.

“It’s more than just entertainment,” says Barnett. “Our idea was not only to enjoy a film that was well made and well done, but also to make it an educational experience.” To that end, the festival features a talk-back with Burnett following the February 20 screening of Namibia at Hollywood Theatre. According to Barnett, the films conclude with “a little dialogue time where we can get people’s reactions and impressions, people can raise questions about what they didn’t quite understand – some cultural phenomenon from Guinea or Burkina Faso – so they can begin to understand a little more.”

Barnett says the variety of films represented at the festival reflects the great cultural and political diversity of Africa itself, a diversity often overlooked in American representations of the continent. According to Barnett, the human feel of film as a medium is uniquely suited to opening minds to a continent too frequently reduced to one homogenous block in American media. Barnett says the films provide much-needed insights into distinctively African topics, not from “the point of view of what an American would think about it, but what an African person from Liberia or Nigeria would think about it and make a movie about it.”

According to festival co-director Mary Holmström, the festival’s many documentaries are on “such a variety of subjects, from Taarab music in Zanzibar to a very interesting documentary about Cuba’s involvement in the African liberation movement.” Iron Ladies of Liberia, about Africa’s first elected female head of state, and FESPACO, about the largest pan-African film festival in the world, are two more documentaries that provide new perspectives into the culture and politics of the continent.

The festival’s greatest strength, however, remains the sense of community it fosters. According to Holmström, “people can feel a part of it and feel as if they’re contributing to it in a variety of ways, and because it brings also a great diversity of people to the festival, it’s a real opportunity to connect with each other.”

All 22 films of this volunteer-run festival are free and open to the public. Films are playing on the Pacific Community College Cascade campus, at McMenamin’s Kennedy School and at Hollywood Theatre.

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