Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.

Still from After the Long Rains (2023).

Historically, famous international film festivals have been notoriously difficult for African filmmakers to find success in. Festival juries in the Global North carry inherited preconceptions about Africans and our cinema, obstructing newer perspectives from entering the global landscape. These biases run through many facets of the international film industry, so any African film with a considerable budget that makes it to an international stage with its integrity intact feels like a miracle. 

The New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) is the deserved and long-established host for these miracles. The NYAFF boasts the best talents from Africa and its diaspora and broadcasts them in the world’s entertainment capital. While bigger-name film festivals have increasingly oriented themselves toward an insular industry-focused crowd, smaller-scale film festivals like the NYAFF remind us what film festivals should be: festivals for cinema. A time when industry buffs and movie fanatics join in a celebration of the medium, where filmmakers can gain recognition and propel their careers forward. 

The NYAFF may not be the only of its kind, but its advantageous location and superb curation provide African filmmakers with a unique opportunity to broadcast their films to a market often closed to them. It’s fertile ground for continental Africans and those in the diaspora in New York to encounter one another and for general film lovers to engross themselves in a diverse cinema outside the typical festival fare. 

Featuring the ambitious three-hour silent spectacle of Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted, the sprawling political thriller Over the Bridge, and the dreamlike After the Long Rains, the NYAFF is determined to screen African cinema often excluded from cinema’s biggest stages, radically creating its own prestige.

On the opening night film of NYAFF’s 31st iteration, Over the Bridge, the acclaimed Nigerian directorial debut from Tolu Ajayi, elegantly set the tone for the tenor of voices the festival would platform. 

The corruption and theft involved in large-scale procurement projects in African countries is a story many of us, unfortunately, know too well. While the news headlines and shady politicians and business people alike may dull and depress us with their multitudes, Over the Bridge is a refreshing reminder of the personal and structural consequences at play when a country’s development becomes a free-for-all for the predatory ruling classes. 

Over the Bridge follows Folarin (Ozzy Agu), a successful investment banker who serves as the spokesperson and financial head of a project to build a speed rail to connect all of Lagos. Agu imbues his performance with an eloquent poise and twinkled-eyed optimism fitting of a businessman leading a venture of its scale. He’s the boss you’d want to have, the manager you’d trust with your life, and a husband you’d love to marry—the platonic ideal for aspirant black men in the corporate world. 

Early on, the film starts to unravel Folarin’s winning persona. At home, Folarin is a brooding patriarch who loves to be misunderstood more than he appreciates understanding, leaving his wife, Jumoke (Segilola Ogidan), wanting and unfulfilled. On the business front, he is increasingly haunted by his project’s potential failure and discontent from the villagers relocated to construct the speed rail, whom he believes it would benefit. (He emphasizes in his persuasive presentations that he wants “everyone to have equal footing.”) 

The money for the speed rail project goes missing, and Folarin is forced to hide its disappearance from international investors. In classical Nollywood flair, Folarin’s moral predicament is amplified to a fever pitch that erupts into his marriage and threatens the lives of his colleagues. These melodramatic touches may alienate those unfamiliar with the Nollywood style, and not all of Over the Bridge’s Nollywood-isms stick their landing. 

Jumoke is given the short end of the stick. Her warranted frustrations with Folarin’s growing neglect become a lesson for her, rather than Folarin, to be a better spouse. Regardless, Segilola Ogidan does her commendable best to fill the gaps in her character.

The domestic part of the story may falter, but the political thriller at the heart of the film is gripping. Folarin is forced to face the consequences of corruption and deserting his morals, and scriptwriter Tosin Otudeko’s inspired choice to focus more on psychological anguish, instead of impending professional or legal repercussions, leads to a more captivating tale. 

The film’s third act is enlivened with spirituality and introspection, as Folarin’s quest for atonement saves a confusing middle chapter. Over the Bridge might be one of the strongest Nigerian films to come out this year. It’s an enticing political thriller with contemporary relevance that milks its intelligence premise for all it’s worth, and it’s worth a great deal.

While Over the Bridge is set in the bustling metropolis of modern-day Lagos in the highest halls of wealth and power, another highlight from NYAFF, After the Long Rains, brings us down to earth, focusing on the interiority of children from a humble oceanside Kenyan village.

Children have always played a significant role in African cinema. Unmoored by histories of oppression, emboldened by naïvety and the rebellious imperative of youth to question the paths walked by their elders, filled with ambitions, children have often been used as a projection of the hopes for Africa’s future.

After the Long Rains, helmed by the impossibly young Damian Hauser, understands this trope is yet to be worn thin. The main story follows the preteen Aisha, who has to decide what she wants to be when she grows up for a school project. Aisha dreams big, and the film is seen through her open, curious, and questioning eyes. Eventually, Aisha falls under the tutelage of a fisherman, who offers to help her achieve her dream of becoming an actress. 

Hauser serves as the film’s director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. His cinematography of the golden sun-soaked coast is magical. Mostly shot during the day with natural lighting, the documentary-esque cinematography makes the small village the film is set in feel organic, with a life and history of its own. The film’s visual language is also sprinkled with more expressive and experimental camera techniques. 

For all its impressive technical flourishes, After the Long Rains rests on shaky foundations. The script is riddled with contrivances and, frankly, regressive portrayals of Kenyans. Aisha sees snow (presumably for the first time) while watching television and decides she wants to become an actress so she can travel to Europe and experience snow in person. (No mention is made of the snow at Mount Kilimanjaro, which is, at best, a bus ride away from her village.) Somehow, she’s advised to learn to become a fisher, so she can become an actress, so she can travel to Europe. The leaps in logic are never clear, and one wonders why Aisha doesn’t want to become a fisher for its own sake. 

This coming-of-age tale is undeniably enchanting, but it’s undermined by sophomoric execution. It could be explained away by Hauser’s inexperience and near unilateral control of the film, but Aisha’s contrived ambitions speak to more sinister undertones—namely, the way the film patronizes (or rather, ignores) African modernity. The picture’s earnest attempts to understand how the youth in this Kenyan village can build a more “progressive” future for themselves feel outdated. Modern Kenyans, including aspiring actors and those who dream of snow, have more than a few realistic means to achieve their ambitions independent of the mystique of Europe.

After the Long Rains is bursting with promising ideas and technical prowess, and its potential rips at the seams trying to reconcile them all at once. The film is about growing pains and the aspirations of the youth in a small Kenyan village to escape outdated traditions. For Hauser, undoubtedly one of Africa’s rising talents, the film could be a piece in his own coming-of-age journey if it helps him to outgrow the regressive depictions of Africans that burdened his European predecessors.

By contrast, Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted breaks new ground in its daring depiction of the cinematically underexplored Northern Cape of South Africa.

A film like Time Spent with Cats feels like it shouldn’t exist. The South African film industry has struggled to form an identity independent from Hollywood impersonations and low-risk enterprises. Clocking in at three hours, Time Spent with Cats is daunting. If conventional wisdom espouses that a bad film can never be short enough and a great one can never be long enough, this ambitious directorial debut from Clive Will sits somewhere in the middle. It feels like a huge swing in the right direction; it might not be a home run, but it’s one impressive inning. 

Time Spent with Cats chronicles Joe, a perpetually in-and-out-of-work nomad who attempts to build a helicopter out of scrap materials, much to the annoyance of the members of his community.

Clive Will strips his cinematic arsenal to the medium’s bare essentials with sparse dialogue, long passages of silence, and a layered soundscape that bristles the ear with texture, mirroring the barren landscape of South Africa’s Northern Cape that serves as the film’s backdrop. The director unabashedly pays homage to masters of slow-cinema Robert Bresson and Béla Tarr. Tarr’s influence is most apparent in the film’s spellbinding rendering of a barren and melancholic atmosphere. The film is shot in black-and-white, effective in its striking ability to contour the cratered terrain of the South African Karoo blanketed by the unforgiving white-hot sun. 

Time Spent with Cats effortlessly lulls you into its Northern Cape mirage. Like its slow-cinema  predecessors, the film may suggest the futility of narrative in cinema; however, what the films of Bresson and Tarr abandoned in plot, they amend through some form of philosophical meditation. There’s scarcely a story to be found in this odyssey, and there are periods over its demanding runtime that one wonders where exactly the film is going, yet a majestic sequence soon follows to sweep you from your doubt. These saving graces do become rarer and less potent as the film trudges through its final hour. 

It’s in this final hour that it becomes painfully apparent that Time Spent with Cats is unsure of what it wants to say. Events throughout the film are tenuously related to one another, and certain plot developments are unconvincing. It’s able to execute a remarkably ethereal mood, yet it fails to complement it with any coherent or compelling observations on the world it’s set in or the characters who live in it. 

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted may not be for everyone, and it may very well ask too much from its audience. It did from me, and by the end, I was more than grateful I obliged. Time spent with this film is time not wasted.

Djibril Diop Mambety once said, “I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema.” Africa’s earliest filmmakers in the mid-20th century were preoccupied with how their respective countries and people would self-actualize at the advent of independence. Young African filmmakers, generations removed from independence struggles, have different concerns—namely, to widen imposed and self-inflicted limitations on African imagination. 

The films that stood out from this year’s New York African Film Festival came from young directors, with two directorial debuts and one sophomore film. Over the Bridge skillfully Africanized the political thriller, After the Long Rains elegantly expands Africa’s tradition of magical realist cinema, and Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted is an experimental marvel in South African independent cinema. New African filmmakers are taking heed of Mambety’s call, and for as long as they do, they’ll find a home at the New York African Film Festival.

Further Reading