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Pan African Film Festival: a year-round quest for the best

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 3/6/2013, 5 p.m.

Carter G. Woodson's initial 1926 "Negro History Week" included both the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. But even the now-expanded monthlong commemoration is too short to contain all the exciting goings-on. Case in point--the Pan African Film Festival.

If you missed it this year, the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), which has the distinction of being the largest Black History Month event in the United States, was an 11-day festival that included 154 films, representing 34 countries. It was held at the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 as an official event of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's celebration of African American Heritage Month.

In addition to films, the festival included a night of tribute in collaboration with the African American Film Critics Association, honoring "people who safeguard our images and help to inspire, engage and enlighten our world community."

Then of course, each year the walkways of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza are transformed into a marketplace--the PAFF ArtFest--which showcases an array of unique jewelry, sculpture, paintings wearable art and African artifacts.

Too bad it has come and gone so soon. But Ayuko Babu, an international legal, cultural and political consultant who specializes in African affairs, notes that based on the exposure at the festival, you may be seeing these films on TVOne or in regular theaters soon.

"We've been able to prove to the distributors ... that there's an audience, a broad audience of folks who are interested in these films," Babu said during a recent radio interview. "Last year 'Think Like a Man' went on to become the best independent film of the year."

And this year, PAFF screened "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," a documentary about activist Angela Davis, which is now set for nationwide release on April 5. Davis was a special guest at the screening after-party.

"Not many films will make a theatrical release," PAFF publicist Wyllisa Bennett said. "The reality is that some films will be bought by a studio or TV outlet, some will be distributed and some films will not find a home. But with new technology and video on demand, that is now leveling the playing field for some of these films, because now there are many digital platforms for films to be shown."

PAFF was founded in 1992 by award-winning actor Danny Glover ("The Color Purple," "Lethal Weapon"), Emmy Award-winning actress Ja'Net DuBois (best known for her role as Willona in the TV series, "Good Times") and Babu, who serves as executive director.

Babu left the country shortly after the festival ended this year to visit Burkina Faso. The country, formerly named Upper Volta, achieved independence from France in 1960 and now hosts Festival Panafricain du Cinema (FESPACO; Panafrican Film Festival), Africa's largest film festival. It brings in stars and filmmakers from across the continent.

"We are always working on next year's festival," Bennett said. "Babu and our director of programming, Asantewa Olatunji, travel to other festivals around the world. We're trying to get the best films for the festival. It's very competitive.

"We're competing for films that are shown in Cannes, Tribeca, Toronto and Sundance," she added. "Filmmakers decide on where they want to debut their film and everyone wants to get the best films for their festival.

"Although to compare us to other festivals is like comparing apples and oranges and tomatoes, at the end of the day we're all looking for fruits and vegetables," Bennett said.

"PAFF is a festival that filmmakers of color from around the world can embrace."

During the summer, filmmakers apply to submit their films via www.paff.org. Then, each year, PAFF staffers view hundreds of submissions.

"They spend their weekends looking at films," Bennett said. "During the holidays, when other people are shopping, they are watching movies. It's very intense."

PAFF is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the promotion of ethnic and racial respect and tolerance through the exhibit of films, art and creative expression that reflect positive and realistic media images.

Our Weekly was one of the media sponsors for this year's event, which is supported largely by corporations, local Black organizations and individuals.

"The biggest highlight has been the response of the people who come out to see the films," Babu said.

"This is an opportunity to enhance and enrich your experience. In 10 days, we go around the world.

"The other thing is this: as a result of slavery and colonization, African people are spread all over the planet," he continued. "Which means that a little bit of our story is in New York; a little bit of our story is in Haiti; a little bit of our story is in Nairobi; a little bit of our story is in Papua New Guinea or Australia among the Aborigine brothers and sisters; or Brazil.

"In order to understand the complex nature of the African story, you have to go around the world," Babu said. "So what's gratifying is that we can bring all those stories together, and you can sit in one place in one time and kinda see the different aspects of our story."

The festival got its start in October of 1992, just a few months after the Rodney King riots. It received a grant from then-Mayor Tom Bradley's Los Angeles Arts Recovery Funds.

It's difficult to understand other Pan African cultures, as the media can sometimes present skewed images. PAFF believes film and art can lead to better understanding and foster communication between peoples of diverse cultures, races and lifestyles, while at the same time, serve as a vehicle to initiate dialogue on the important issues of our times.

"The film competition is the most important component of the festival," said Babu. "The competition really sparks the creativity of young filmmakers and raises the bar in the storytelling on film."

This year's awards were announced on President's Day and include:
Best Feature Narrative
"Stones in the Sun" (Haiti/U.S.), directed by Patricia Benoit

Special Jury Recognition/Feature Narrative
"Things Never Said" (U.S.), directed by Charles Murray

Best Director/ First Feature
David 'Tosh' Gitonga, director of "Nairobi Half Life" (Germany/Kenya)

Special Jury Recognition/ Director, First Feature
Ya'Ke, director of "Wolf" (U.S.)

Best Documentary
"Free Angela and All Political Prisoners" (U.S./France), directed by Shola Lynch

Special Jury Recognition/Documentary
"Mugabe: Villain or Hero?" (U.K.), directed by Roy Agyemang

Best Narrative Short
"Our Rhineland" (U.S.), directed by Faren Humes

Special Jury Recognition/Short Narrative
"The Collegians" (U.S.), directed by Bryan B.A. Lewis

Best Documentary Short
"Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964" (U.S.), directed by Alvelyn Sanders

Special Jury Recognition/Short Documentary
"Africa: The Beat" (Tanzania/Spain), directed by the Samaki Wanne Collective

Festival Programmers' Award
"Babe's and Ricky's Inn" (U.S.), directed by Ramin Niami

Festival Founders' Award
"Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp" (U.S.), directed by Jorge Hinojosa

Capri Capital Partners Award
"Songs of Redemption" (Jamaica), directed by Amanda Sans and Miquel Galofré

Audience Award/Documentary
"Charles Lloyd: Arrows into Infinity" (U.S.), directed by Dorothy Darr and Jeffery Morse

Audience Award/Short Documentary
"Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964" (U.S.), directed by Alvelyn Sanders

Audience Award/Narrative Feature
"Against the Grain" (U.S.), directed by Elias Mael

Audience Award/Short Narrative
"Island Song" (U.S./Virgin Islands), directed by David Massey

Pan African Film Festival-British Academy of Film and Television Arts/LA Festival Choice Prize
"Home Again" (Canada), directed by Sudz Sutherland