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Africa World Documentary Film Festival

Building a bridge between cultures with film

Ephrem Andemariam (left), program coordinator of Africa and African American Studies at UMSL, started the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in 2007. With him is Dr. Niyi Coker, the festival's director and E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Africa and African American Studies. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
January 28, 2015
In a world full of misunderstanding and negativity, Dr. Niyi Coker and Ephrem Andemariam hope to build a bridge between cultures with their Africa World Documentary Film Festival.

Coker, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor, Africa and African American Studies, is the festival's director. Andemariam, program coordinator of Africa and African American Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), started the festival in 2007.

"We saw there was a need for documentary filmmakers to do special work on the African world not the continent of Africa, but the world to express African thought, history and cosmology," Coker said. "Africans are not just limited to the continent now, and people are yearning to understand their connections.

"Documentaries can do a great job in crossing those borders and bring that information to people, especially those who can't travel," he said.

In 2007, Coker went to the Hollywood Film Festival and saw that the documentary section was quite small.

"A Goat for a Vote" will be screened Friday, Feb. 6, 10:30 a.m., at the Missouri History Museum. Set in Kenya, the documentary tells the story of election to the school presidency — a position that brings with it the possibility of power and prestige. (click for larger version)
"Some filmmakers of African descent came around one evening and said we should have a film festival of our own," Coker said.

The idea was born and the first festival was held that year at the Tivoli Theater.

"We partnered with the Contemporary Museum of Art for the first one," Andemariam said. "Then we went to Nigeria. Since then it's become more international and we will be showing throughout the world."

Coker said there are Africans in the United States, China, Brazil and all over the world who have not been to the continent of Africa or who have been removed for a while.

He said that the festival has grown through the years even though the documentary film usually appeals to a smaller market.

"The documentary is a genre that a lot of people aren't familiar with," Coker said. "They think it's too pedagogical. They want to be entertained, not preached to or be depressed.

"That first year, we were able to get a lot of academics, people who do research, and some community members and students to come out, but it has caught on," Coker continued. "We have a loyal audience who look for it year after year, and people who accidentally heard about it and come to see it. While the audience level is not yet where we want it to be, it is respectable. People say St. Louis is a hard town to get people to come out for something different. But they will get energized and think, 'Wow, this is happening in St. Louis!'"

The festival has featured films narrated by Robert Redford, Danny Glover and Meg Ryan. A film this year is narrated by Isaiah Washington. In 2009, the festival film "Music by Prudence" won the Academy Award for best documentary short.

"Deeper Than Black"

In "Deeper Than Black," a Ghanaian-American filmmaker looks to bridge the divide between his African pedigree and American birthright. (click for larger version)
Each year, the festival highlights some films of particular relevance. Andemariam said one of these films is "Deeper Than Black" about a young man born here to parents from Ghana.

"He is trying to define himself is he African American or just African?" he said. "We want to bring this to the forefront."

Another is "In His Own Home" about a Ghanaian doctoral student shot by police breaking into his apartment. Because of childhood polio, he walked with a metal cane, and was charged with resisting arrest.

"This happened at the University of Florida," Andemariam said. "We have a campus here, so we could continue the discussion of the topic of race that people seem to be hiding from, and they could understand and see the relationships and challenges."

"Colors: Bangin' in South Carolina" details the deadliest gang feud in the history of Columbia, S.C.— a feud inherited from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. (click for larger version)
"Bangin' in South Carolina" details the deadliest gang feud in the history of Columbia, S.C. The story follows Terrence Davis, formerly the leader of one the largest Crips gangs in South Carolina history by the time he was 17 years old. Lost in a world of murder, violence and drugs, Davis figured out a way to climb out and pursued a career in directing.

"A lot of young black men and women grapple with the issue of not just identity but heritage," Coker said. "Once those issues are resolved it would go a long way in enhancing the education they receive in school, enhancing their self-esteem and their motivation to study and move out into their communities.

"For instance, when a child is adopted, why do you have so many children trying to find out who they are, where they came from?" Coker said. "If you don't have that anchorage in your life, who you are, it's very difficult to move ahead without self-destructive tendencies, and that's been overlooked."

Different Version of Africa

(click for larger version)
Some of the films are directed to middle school and high school youth.

"They learn about African children and say, 'Oh, their parents talk to them like my parents talk to me,'" Coker said. "Then they see that these children have to pay to go to school and they don't have to. Those children can't buy sneakers and these children can."

"Most of our kids learn about the world and Africa from media and movies, and learn about the continent and black culture in a negative or stereotype view," Andemariam said. "This is the first time for youngsters to see the different version of Africa. They show challenges and how they are met.

"When we give them these types of films that not only deal with issues and the struggles here, and they see films about the history of African Americans in the South, they can connect the dots," he said.

"Basically, these films show how we are different from each other, but how our experiences are shared, and they reach out to people of diverse backgrounds, knowledge and history."

The festival is sponsored and funded by the E. Desmond Lee Professorship in African/African-American studies at UMSL.

It will be presented at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, from Feb. 6 to 8. From there, it will go to Philadelphia, Barbados, Jamaica, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa and London. It will make a return trip to St. Louis in March and April.

Attendees will have an opportunity to take part in film discussions between the showings.

For more information, visit www.africaworldfilmfestival.com.

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