Mahen Bonetti, Founder and Executive Director of the African Film Festival
Mahen Bonetti was born in 1956 in Sierra Leone to a family that has experienced the ups and downs of post-colonial politics. Several of her relatives were forced into exile in the United States and England in 1970. Bonetti could only return in 1980 for the funeral of her maternal uncle, former Prime Minister Sir Albert Margai, who died in the United States. Bonetti received her bachelor of arts in administrative studies at Bradford College and pursued graduate studies in media communication at New York University. She worked at Young and Rubicam and at Newsweek's editorial and advertising division, before becoming founder and executive director of the African Film Festival Inc. in 1990. Her experiences led her to the conclusion that media could be used to encourage positive change in the world - not just to entertain, but also to educate.
"I know what Africa has given me and what she's capable of," says Bonetti. "Although everyone was talking about Africa at the end of the 1980s, there was no African voice." This paradox of culture - when images of starving African children flooded television screens while world music came into being and "African-American" emerged as a political concept of identity - led her to finding ways of fostering a cultural dialogue between Africa and the United States. Realizing that cinema would be the ideal medium for such a cultural exchange, she put all her energy into creating African Film Festival, Inc, whose mission is to educate and entertain, by promoting cross-cultural communication, cultural identity and understanding and to give Africa a voice in the twenty-first century.
She made me this really great espresso laced with a dash of coco. That is how our conversation started. She also made toast for me with butter and jam and I was more than prepared to sit back and stay for awhile.
To meet and to talk with Mahen is to be surrounded with ENERGY. I am not kidding. In her presence, nothing really seems impossible to do. She tends to her vision with such laser beam focus and such passion, that you can't help but get caught up with it too.
Her quiet strength and her inherent self confidence is really something to behold.
DR: Tell me about your life and your work.
MB: Well, I have lived in America for the past 30 years. I am originally from Sierra Leone in West Africa. I came to America because of political unrest in my country.
As you know, most countries in Africa went from colonial rule to independence in the late 1950's, early 1960's, my country being one of them. I grew up in that period. In fact Sierra Leone gained independence from the British in 1961.
I remember vividly that moment because our father, he was fantastic, he would always take us along with him when anything historic was happening in the country. I was a young child but I remember what it was like for them because they were involved in the whole political process - from colonial rule to self rule - and working with paramount chiefs, painstakingly telling them what that process meant and what was going to happen.
Paramount chiefs are like kings. They have jurisdiction over land and the government may get taxes from whatever but, the paramount chief and that group owns that land. So wherever you have mines - diamond mines, gold mines -- the paramount chief has a say as to who he negotiates with. So you have all of these foreign concerns in Africa, who are dealing, mining, etc. but, the paramount chief has struck a deal with them, at least in Sierra Leone. The government has a say but the final decision is made by the paramount chief so it was important to get them involved in the process.
We saw the transition happen.
The first ten years from 1961 to 1969 or 1970, in a lot of countries, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, many of the Anglophone speaking countries -- we experienced that "masters of our own universe" feeling. We thought this was the day, the renaissance period for us. So we lived that! That is when Africa had a lot of respect and regard; the level of education the standard of living, the quality of living. Of course everywhere in the world things happen. Movement takes place and things change.
Maybe I am frozen in that moment...
In the late 1960's, early 1970's, the Cold War set in and Africa was redistributed. Anyone who was born during that period, anyone under 35 years old, all they have known is corruption as culture, in Africa, or war or famine. And the world also sees Africa in this light. For me, I know another Africa.
Those 10 years for me, was so symbolic, in the sense of what Africa can still be today. This is what inspires me.
The New York African Film Festival returns to Film Society of Lincoln Center April 3-9 to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The festival continues at Columbia University's Institute of African Studies on Thursday, April 18 for a daylong, free scholarly public program, then heads to the Maysles Cinema Institute in Harlem May 2-6.
NYAFF closes over Memorial Day Weekend May 24-27 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music BAMcinematek - part of the dance and music festival DanceAfrica.
I know in the end that our greatest resource is our human capacity.
No one works harder than African people, contrary to what people say. I mean, they say "We are lazy. We are waiting for hand-outs." But look. In the West, when it is hot everyone goes on holiday but we are working in the sun all of the time. (Laughs)
And the women are amazing!
The women in Africa are just incredible. They, for me, are the role models, at least the women in my family. The resilience of those people and the creativity...
You see that woman who, maybe every lunch time, comes down the street selling oranges or peanuts and her bank is this little knot in her skirt and she manages to educate five kids and send them to the best Universities in the world. Now that -- that is amazing!
My inspiration is coming from that.
So, we came to America and for the first 10 years I couldn't go back home and then in 1980 an uncle of mine passed away. He had been the former Prime Minister and there was a big party and we all went back. Now I go back and forth and I am discovering that I am always falling in love all over again with our continent. I am going to different countries, meeting people and that also continues to give me my inspiration because I see the movement of the continent and I see the generation of this new century and I am just so inspired! I say
"My God! There is a lot of hope for us!"
Also living here and with the emergence of technology, all of these borders and boundaries are disappearing and the immediacy of how information comes to us is just overwhelming. In that sense, what we are doing on a smaller scale is --
giving another perspective on Africa through Africans themselves; from the voices of Africans themselves.
I am really proud of that work because when you look at the larger Diaspora from Brazil up - what Black people have given to the world is -
I am celebrating that.
I always say that Africa is like this breast that everyone sucks from but no one wants to nourish, including us Africans, huh?
In our little way we are giving milk to Africa; giving it nutrition so it can continue giving milk.
DR: Would you say that you are doing what you were meant to do?
MB: Yes. The example of the family and the environment that you grow up around...I am not saying that we will ever be fitting the shoes of our parents because those are some big shoes to fill.
Each generation paves the way to make it a little better for the next, as we are doing for our children. As we are doing so our children are not ashamed of who we are or ashamed of their ancestry on the mothers side or just having this image of Africa that is always so negative and just a "downer" for them, as my daughter would say.
But I think, yes. What really, really pushed me to do this -
I mean, I have no background in film. I am not a scholar of any type. I am just someone who went and studied overviews of things in universities. I have worked in advertising and I have worked at Newsweek and at Young and Rubicam - you know I could fit in because I did administrative studies and I did Media College at NYU. I started a Masters there, which I never completed. I am hoping one day that I could write something and they will just give me credit because of all the work we have done (Laughs)
DR: But why this?
MB: I felt like, in the '80's, more than ever that, looking around, everything in contemporary culture, from Brazil up, even though, there is a mixture of all of the different ethnicities, the foundation is always Africa. For example, when Katrina happened everyone kept on talking about what the Mississippi Delta meant in terms of American culture but who were the people who brought that. You have to think about that.
So, in the '80's more than ever, there were these images of Africa like never before in the media because of what was going on in Ethiopia - "We are the world" that anthem was created to bring awareness and also relief for the famine that was taking place. Bob Geldof did the first Live Aid and it was interesting because simultaneously you had Spike Lee who had just burst out on the scene and given a second wave to African-American cinema. After Gordon Parks, Melvin VanPeebles...we had not seen anything and Spike Lee came out on the scene.
At the same time world music was very popular. There were a lot of African musicians and Brazilian musicians coming through all of the time. You had Asian kids who had Malcolm X hats. You had European kids wearing beach shells. You had African-American kids wearing Bob Marley t-shirts...and I am thinking "Here is all of this juxtaposition-ing of things." And I thought "I wonder if anyone is thinking 'What is the root of all of this'?" You see these images but at the same time, the richness that nourishes you or stimulates you culturally shares something in common with those people that you see on TV who are starving.
Do you understand?
MB: I was so frustrated.
That was also that period that the name "African-American" became official. And everyone had something to say but there was no African voice and that was really frustrating and I thought "Something has got to give! Everyone is always speaking for us!"
DR: So, what happened?
MB: And so, what happened...
I had these friends who had these chic clubs in New York and they approached me to host an evening there. They had a place called Area then they had a place called MK and I would do these parties that became so popular. I would open my rolodex and I would invite friends who would invite friends. It was a very international scene. They loved it! They even paid me which was unusual for a night club. (Laughing)
So anyway, everyone is ecstatic for the moment, perhaps because they are a little intoxicated, but the next day, they would all forget what happened. So I am thinking that there has to be something more.
DR: Uh huh. I am with you...
MB: So, every summer we go to Europe to visit Luca's relatives. Luca is my husband. Next door to Luca; where he is from is Locarno. They have the largest out door screening. This is envious! We do these outdoor screenings in the park in Harlem and Brooklyn now but this is as large as a city block - the screen. It's incredible and it's in a piazza and there is a lake next to it. It is something magical to be watching films like that. That was the fourth largest film festival in Europe. There was Cannes, Berlin, Venice and then Locarno. There are more coming now but at that time, it would have been considered the fourth largest festival. They do their festival every August. It is a world focused festival and they have always been very welcoming of African directors and also the Iranians, in fact.
So, that year I went.
It was 1989. I went there to see Sex Lies and Videotape. And I am flipping through the schedule and I see Thirty Years of African Cinema and I am thinking "Oh my God! I didn't even know that we had that much cinema!"
Prior to that, every two or three years the New York Film Festival, New Directors, New Film, New Yorker Films, who are distributors in America would bring an African film through, and you would see a review in The New York Times or The Village Voice and we of course, having an interest, would see it and spread the word quickly. But by the time you got the word out, the film had come and gone.
Because how does that information reach who it should? There was always this interest that people of African descent are not interested in film of African descent but, I will get back to that.
So anyway, I am in Locarno. And I had seen African films in New York but I didn't know that there was such a large body; an archive. I immediately called the organizer, a woman, the next day because I said "This is it! This is the answer! This is the most powerful tool. It is so immediate. You can reach so many people at a time and these films are made by Africans!"
DR: Listening to you talk about how it all came together from nothing is Inspiring.
MB: From that to getting here is a very long story and it would take to long to explain but I will summarize for you.
One day I met her - the organizer. She came and she brought me literature that was so heavy she couldn't even carry it all. There were lectures and symposiums and it was interesting because there was this reverence that the world or the Europeans had for African art. But what is always missing in this discussion is the African person having anything to do with it. I thought "This is it!"
I had no experience in any of this - cinema, the academic world of cinema but -
I jumped in with my feet first and my heart and I came back and, anyone who would listen, I would speak to. This is something that we had to do.
(I thought that we would have a theater that would just run films, just to sow you how naïve I was.)
DR: Do you consider yourself a dreamer?
MB: I think that Black people dream. We like to dream. I wish that I didn't dream so much and I wish that I wasn't such a gambler.
So, I went back to Europe that December. Meanwhile, keeping in communication with the organizers. They said you have to go see the Minister of Corporation and Development in France so you can imagine...
But this is what is interesting about this whole thing -- This paradox. We are independent, right? But still, in order for me to speak to the filmmakers I have to go through the French Minister of Corporation and Development.
It's like, at one point until recently, before the technology, if you had to call Guinea from Sierra Leone, Guinea is right next door, I would call England. England would connect France and France would connect me to Guinea. And that is how you still fly in Africa if you want to move around quickly. Isn't that wild? It is cheaper to go back to Europe and then come back to a country next door to you, then to wait for a plane that is going next door to you for three days. And you pay an astronomical amount of money. It is wild! It is totally unbelievable! But that is also something that we have to fix.
I am very self-critical. We have to start with ourselves. From the time that the world started, there has always been interference in Africa. But what are we doing as Black people to rally and to unite and take charge, despite whatever obstacles or enemies in the way?
I had an appointment, the 3rd of January, so I went back to Europe. I took the night train from Switzerland to Paris. I got into Paris by morning and that is when I realized that I was pregnant. This was all new to me because I had lived such a lifestyle that was singular. I was changing physically as well as psychologically.
Then I got a call from Luca that my Mom had died. I had to go to Africa that next day but I had the appointment that afternoon. My mother would have wanted me to keep that appointment. My Mom was one of the women to create the Social Welfare Office for Women's Affairs in Sierra Leone. That is what I come from. So, I went.
it was such a surreal meeting but that is when the whole thing started taking shape...From that meeting to 1992 when we got our first breakthrough was a long story but here we are!
We launched the festival in 1993. It was scary, exciting and I was very unsure of what the outcome would be because it had never been done on this scale. Richard Pena at Lincoln Center kept reassuring me
"Mahen, don't worry. You have done your best."
But I kept wondering what the rejection would look like. What kept me going was that I had a few friends who really just helped me do research or helped write proposals and Luca was paying these phone bills and I thought "I better do something, anything, because people have invested! And they still do and it makes a world of difference. For the filmmakers it is so important that we are here and for Africa in general.
Generally there is this big noise initially about anything related to African culture and then,
there is a scandal and you really fight not to contribute to that...
DR: So then, how would you say that you have contributed so far?
MB: Well, I think that it is bigger than me.
I always feel like that. I feel it's just that I am mad enough to be in the driver's seat with blindfolds on and whoever wants to follow me in that car...
I think that in terms of giving another perspective, I think that is so important.
Back to this thing that I said earlier about the feeling that no one of African descent was interested in seeing films about Africans. When those films, would show, we would go and 80% of the audience was Europeans or Whites, 10% Africans and 10% the rest of the world. But the thing is, how the information is disseminated; how it filters into the community is a whole other dynamic and we painstakingly did research. We did that work. We wanted to reach the community.
People like to see themselves on the screen. People like to hear their own stories and when that light goes off and that film comes on, you are there with that person on the screen because you share so much in common. People love that. Whether the character is controversial or good or bad, people relate, because it is human character that makes up the world. The cultural barriers can disappear...you can go 3,000 miles away and someone laughs and their body language...they remind you...you know you are the same.
DR: What has been a driving force for you?
MB: We really, really respected our community. We had faith in our community. We put a lot of faith in our community and up to this day --
We never take people for granted.
We never take people for granted. And, they have really been loyal. In Africa we kill and maim each other but when it comes to our national side, we ban together. It is very schizophrenic.
DR: How do you deal with setbacks?
MB: Everyday can be a setback if you let it be. But I know that I must have been a great gambler in my other life. I think you can will the thing. If it was meant to be, it will happen. If not, something else comes. I feel that I can not play around with what I am doing because that would be blasphemy. I have taken this upon myself. This is a big, big, big thing. So I am really careful about not screwing up or not doing something that is not right.
DR: What continues to challenge you?
MB: I have other dreams also. I would love to produce but every year -
The ground is still so fragile. I don't feel that the foundation is secure enough. And also finding someone else that could take charge and do what I am doing now. I am wearing so many hats...
DR: Would you say that you are successful by your own definition of success?
MB: I think that Africa is successful in the sense that...people think Tarzan when they think of African film. That is why a film like Tsotsi, even if it is not necessarily representative of something, you can not deny that a film like this gave exposure to, at least the ability and the talent of Africans.
So, I feel in that sense, YES, because we are successful in that we've made a new wedge in that art house, that high art, that cinema world. And what is even more incredible is that we haven't even scratched the surface. You wouldn't even believe the talent coming out of Africa. And that is what motivates me! We are a funny people. We are a smart people. We are beautiful and so talented and so resourceful and that just blows me away. Half of the films in this festival and people coming are under 35 years old. They are intelligent, they have lived in both worlds and they opt to go back home. They have so much going for them. And so in that sense we are successful. Also we are developing audiences. We have an international series so that when a movie like Tsotsi opens there are people around the country who know. It resonates.
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
because of what we did a hundred years earlier, we have created not only cinema but a whole cultural appreciation within ourselves for our culture and our art. And,
our artists can make a living from that.
AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL INC.
Over the last twenty years ago, AFF has honored its mission by creating diverse programs that aid and empower audiences and filmmakers alike, including our annual New York African Film Festival, which is co-presented with Film Society of Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music, our co-curated local, national and international African film and multi-media programs for a variety of cultural, academic and art institutions. Offering year-round programming, AFF showcases new and classic films to thousands, through such programs as the African Film Festival National Traveling Series that visits 13 cities across the United States, and the international program done in collaboration with partners in Brazil, Jamaica, Australia, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Furthermore, AFF also runs a series of Community-based screenings in which AFF partners with local cultural organizations to present films in a community setting, such as in New York City Parks. In addition to the aforementioned programming, AFF also has several ongoing projects under the umbrella of educational programming, which includes in-school film presentations and discussions at The East Harlem School at Exodus House and a special screening of African films for AFF’s Young Adults Education Program, which brings together New York City middle and high school students each year to a special matinee program during the annual New York African Film Festival.
African Film Festival, Inc. (AFF) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) arts organization.
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