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African Film Festival offerings may surprise, delight St. Louisans

The journey of finding yourself, the possibility of a pregnant man and a madcap trip to a hair stylist are all themes in this weekend’s African Film Festival at St. Louis’ Washington University.

Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo founded the festival 10 years ago, in her first year as assistant dean and coordinator for African Studies. This year, the event runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights andincludes three short and three full-length films, in addition to three special youth matinee films that show Saturday afternoon. All showings are free of charge.

Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo
Credit Washington University
Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo

A primary reason for launching the festival was to dispel myths and stereotypes, including …

“That it’s a country and not a continent,” Toliver-Diallo said. “That it’s a very poor country, that it’s famine and drought and wars and that women are oppressed.”

And while those issues do exist, of course, in Africa and every continent, the lives of Africans in every country are diverse and nuanced in ways that people don’t often see.

“So it’s not always concentrating on a big news event,” Toliver-Diallo said. “Just seeing how everyday people live, what is it like when you go to the market?”

Celebrating a father

Going to the market can mean many things. In Friday night’s short comedy, “Soko Sonko,” the setting is a Kenyan hair market, a collection of dozens of stalls offering different styles created with varying degrees of skill.

It’s a woman’s world, something the father of an 8-year-old girl finds out when he to takes his daughter there because his wife is sick. Within an hour or two, the hapless dad (a theme of many American TV shows from “Family Guy” to “Blackish”) is surrounded by a shouting crowed of restaurant workers, police and an unpaid hairdresser. His crying daughter wears a crown of half-braided hair. Will he be arrested? Worse, what will his wife say?

Behind the scenes of "Soko Sonko" (story continues, below).

Director Ekwa Msangi-Omari says the film is a tribute to her own father.

“I wrote this film around the tenth anniversary that my dad died,” Msangi-Omari said. “I wanted to write a story that would celebrate the close relationship that we had.”

Msangi-Omari’s pulled the story from her own young life, growing up in Kenya.

Ekwa Msangi-Omari
Credit Washington University
Ekwa Msangi-Omari

“We didn’t have quite the adventure as exciting as the one in the film but my father was the only person I knew, certainly of his generation, who would do something like take his daughter to the hair market,” Msangi-Omari said.

Msangi-Omari, who now lives in New York City, will be in town for a talk after the screening of her film.

There are more female film directors in this year’s lineup. All the short films were directed by women, except for the youth matinee selections.

Cell phones and chaos

This year’s event also includes the Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu.”The film features a young family living through a terrorist regime.

The family, who scratch out a livelihood by owning eight cows, is the lone holdout in their tent community among the dunes. Although their lives are primitive in many ways, they have cell phones (and can occasionally get service), and their existence is bathed in their love for one another.

A promotional preview of "Timbuktu" (story continues, below).

But nearby is a world of arbitrary “justice,” where music, cigarettes, soccer and even laughter are banned. Eventually, the father’s wrath and desperation ropes the family into the madness.

But most of the films are not about war but the everyday experiences of modern African life, according to Toliver-Diallo. For 10 years now, they’ve played to full houses and diverse audiences, including all kinds of film-lovers and, more recently, a growing community of African nationals.

“We want to continue to offer it as long as people want to continue to come out,” Toliver-Diallo said.


African Film Festival

When: March 27-29

Where: Brown Hall, Room 100, Washington University,

How much: Free

More information: Washington University website

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.