The African Film Festival is under way in New York, and two of its short films explore timely topics in unusual ways.
Mother's Day is this Sunday in the United States, and in just 22 minutes, the comedic film Soko Sonko (The Market King, in English) shows the mayhem that can ensue when you take a mother out of the picture for just one day. In the film, set in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, a father is on his way out of the door to watch a highly anticipated soccer game with his friends when he notices that his wife is sick and might not be able to take their daughter to get her hair braided (his wife is coughing loud and hard). Thankfully, he volunteers to take his baby girl to get her tresses tamed, but he approaches the task from the typical guy perspective. He plans to get it done in half the time that it typically takes his wife.
"How hard can this possibly be?" the father probably thought, judging by his calm, if rushed, demeanor. "I'll be in and out, just in time for the soccer game to begin," he may have thought.
Yeah, right. If you've ever been to a market in a major African city, you know just how robust and hectic that experience can be for laymen such as tourists or even for local fathers, who don't do the grocery shopping or run errands. Depending on the size of the market, there are approximately 100 merchants crowded in a small area, all standing in front of their stalls peddling their products loudly. Hair braiding is a very popular service, and if you're walking through a market with your hair seemingly undone, the spotlight is on you:
"Aun-teeee, come and let me make your hair. It will be veeery bu-tee-full," hustling hair-braiders shout.
Long story short, the father is in too much of a hurry to have the lady who normally braids his daughter's hair do it, because she already has a few clients waiting, so the poor dad commits cardinal sin No. 1 with regard to black kinky hair. He entrusts the task to a random hair-braider who has never styled his daughter's hair. When the stylist was done, his daughter's hair looked a little like Martin Payne's in that episode of Martin in which Martin runs away to a convent to find himself. Remember? "Nah-gee-rom-bah."
I won't give away the whole story, but let's just say that the shortcomings of the father in the Kenyan film don't end there. He inadvertently angers a few merchants and has a funny rendezvous with law enforcement. In all, it's a hilarious story about the lengths to which a man will go for his daughter, and that's exactly what director Ekwa Msangi-Omari, a Kenyan, said she wanted to portray.
"What's important to me about this film is the father-daughter relationship," Msangi-Omari told The Root. "This is a father who loves his daughter, and he loves his wife, and he wants to do right by them. I think that is something that we don't get to see that much of, sort of black African men doing right."
Msangi-Omari is right on time with regard to a need to portray African men in a healthier familial light, especially while current events—the violence occurring in South Sudan and the devastation that Boko Haram has inflicted on Nigerian civilians, schoolgirls at that—have cast a dark cloud over the entire continent. Msangi-Omari says she has had enough of the doom and gloom that has become the theme in many films telling stories that are set in or are about Africa. She deliberately chose comedy to convey real African experiences.
"My experience growing up in Africa is that people laugh all the time, even if it's pretty sinister stuff," Msangi-Omari said, adding, "That's not something that I see reflected too often."
A few films later in the festival, Aissa's Story filled the screen and transported viewers back to the real-life events of the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex case in New York City. A hotel housekeeper had accused Strauss-Kahn, the then-managing director of the International Monetary Fund, of raping her. It caused a media firestorm, in part because of the sensational factors at play: a powerful man with a reputation for taking advantage of women and getting away with it and who many thought was wielding his power against a have-not. There were these gender and socioeconomic elements, and also, race: the housekeeper was a black immigrant from Guinea.
Aissa's Story digs deeper in a fictional account, exploring an aspect of the story that people might not have considered: the accuser's relationship with her daughter. The woman isunsure about whether to cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute the powerful white man she says raped her. She feels pressure from various directions but most strongly from her own daughter, who is being ridiculed in school and wants her mother to take a stand and do something about what had happened to her.
As the lead actress wrestles with her decision, the film allows viewers to wrestle with the idea of what they might have done in her situation. It brilliantly shows that these situations are never cut-and-dried, especially when the judicial system and public opinion can be swayed by money, and stereotypes can suffocate and blur the truth.
Read more about the New York African Film Festival.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film's most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.