A lonely photographer that struggles to distinguish fantasy from reality; a man who can’t seem to use his music to turn his life around; a man who will submit himself to a humiliating unknown in order to save his kid sister; a man who has exchanged his wife for a prettier, younger model; an artist that can’t chase away his demons and an old man who has all but succumbed to his demons.
The male protagonists of the six short films featured in African Metropolis are not heroes by any stretch of the imagination. They are flawed characters, some of them more sympathetic than others yet all, unquestionably, human.
It’s high time that urban African films began to make the headlines. While fifty percent of Africans live in urban centres, a number which is set to rise steadily over the next couple of decades, around the world, people still view the continent as a land of sprawling savannahs, scenic sunsets, wildlife and people who dance around in circles wearing masks and chanting.
To be fair though, there is one scene in “To Repel Ghosts”, the Ivorian film in the collection, that has a group of women covered in white powder dancing around in a circle on the beach, exorcising spirits. The film is based on a true story and attempts to recreate the 1986 voyage of the New York artist Jean Michel Basquiat to Abdijan, where he had been invited to exhibit his work. The movie, written and directed by Phillipe Lacôte, depicts Basquiat as a confused, bewildered shadow of man, haunted by the ghosts of his past which take the shape of a naked woman who recurs on different occasions throughout the twenty minute film.
African Metropolis showcases films from Nairobi, Cairo, Lagos, Dakar, Abdijan and Johannesburg. Each film is unequivocally different from the other and uses the medium to explore different facets of life in African cities, many of which have much in common but which cannot be viewed as the same. The challenges, opportunities and coping mechanisms of people in the cities can be recognised and shared by people all over the world because poverty does not only exist in Africa. Yet it would be misleading to classify the films as only covering issues pertaining to poverty.
Max, for example, the anti-hero of Jimmy Chuchu’s film “Homecoming”, lives a comfortable middle-class life as a photographer and his problems are by no means dictated by his economic status. The Nairobi-based visual artist’s film, is dominated by a distinctly sci-fi footprint which is underlined by its eerie light and soft-focus locations, although the surprising “catch” at the end is altogether of this world. This is one of a recent slew of movies that will make fellow Kenyans proud. Produced by award-winning genre-defying Wanuri Kahiuwho’s 2009 sci-fi film Pumzi made ripples in and out of the country and the New York-based filmmaker Idil ibrahim, “Homecoming” is superbly shot, tightly edited and above-all succumbs to no stereotypes.
On a more sentimental side, “Berea” the South African film directed by Vincent Moloi, is beautiful in its depictions of an ageing Jewish gentleman who’s solitary existence in a dark apartment in a marginalised neighbourhood of the the city, is only interrupted by two women: one who brings him food but for whom he will not open the door and one who brings him, presumably, sex and the company of a person with whom to enjoy a weekly kosher meal. The film is linear and possibly more Western in its approach to story telling than the others in the series. Whether this matters or not, what counts is that it is difficult not to be moved by its characters and their respective plights.
Without falling into the trap of highlighting the salacious, it’s worth pointing out that one of the stories does not feature a heavily-dominated male cast and is in fact the tale of two women who bond, on more levels than one, in the face of unfavourable conditions.
If you have had your curiosity tickled by the hints of what to expect in African Metropolis, you can view all six of the films this coming weekend at three different venues across Nairobi.
This Friday the 18th of July, the Goethe-Institut will project the series between one and nine pm. The evening screening of Homecoming will be its premiere on Kenyan ground and Jimmy Chuchu will be there to introduce the piece and answer questions later. On saturday, starting at 10am it will be possible to view the films each in its own room and the event will also be followed by discussions which will start at 2pm. Finally, on Sunday, it’s worth heading down to PAWA254 early because starting from 1pm there will be spoken word performances and live art running through the afternoon before the evening screenings at 7pm.
This article originally appeared in upnairobi.com in July 2014