The 23rd New York African Film Festival, which runs from May 4-10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, boasts a lineup “of African films from the continent and the Diaspora.” With such a wide geographical purview, encompassing so many potential perspectives and identities (including a Saharan remake of Purple Rain), it’s inevitable that concepts of home and belonging are preoccupations of some of the films.
The New York African Film Festival concludes next Tuesday with a shorts program, “Africa in New York,” that includes Reluctantly Queer, by the locally based Akosua Adoma Owusu. The eight-minute film is in a 60s and 70s video-diary mode, juxtaposing its protagonist’s day-to-day life with voiceover musings that flit in and out of your attention with a lapidary cadence. In the film, a Ghanian man living in America composes a letter, in voiceover, to his beloved mother, expressing his devotion to her, and expressing his anxieties at ever being accepted, and loved, as a gay man in the country where he grew up.
The film’s aesthetics are distinctly queer, and distinctly American: the white underwear, the grainy narrow-gauge black and white film, with hair in the lens and occasional overexposures of white light, recall Warhol, as if the film is reaching for the only queer tradition available to it. When the narrator lies nude in bed with his lover, the afternoon sun plays lazily on the curves of their black and white asses. Yet amid this reverie, he also looks out the window, dreamily, as his voice on the soundtrack expresses a palpable yearning for family ties, and wariness over his political status as a targeted ethnic minority. The film muses on the phenomenon of being drawn to two worlds, but fully oneself in neither.
Yet that sense of ambivalence, or duality, or whatever you want to call it, is also just a basic precondition of drama, of any situation that’s potentially fluid. Alfonso Johnson‘s Olive, also in the “Africa in New York” shorts program, is a six-minute snapshot of two unhappy couples, linked by a moment of eye contact on a Harlem sidewalk in the midst of dissolution. Wisely nearly dialogue-free, and set to a low-key, semi-synthetic slow jam slowed almost down to spoken-word, the film is shot in sexy digital black-and-white widescreen that makes even apartment clutter seem like a potential perfume ad set. It’s like an r&b video filtered through 21st century film-festival neorealism, down to a hopeful ending that feels, appropriately for the NYAFF, just like home.