Tuesday, May 10, 2011

EbertFest 2011: The African Films

Saturday's 4-movie line up at EbertFest 2011 was as powerful a movie-going day as I've ever personally experienced. Wow, wow, wow, with both the movies and the stellar Q&A panels. And Roger kicked us off that day with two emotional Africa-centric movies.

1. A Small Act

This documentary, based on a true and heart-warming story, was my clear favorite film of EbertFest 2011.

Not just for the titular story of the foreground heroes Hilde, Chris, and Chris's sister. That background story is both easy to tell and compelling. It goes like this. Hilde Back survived the holocaust that here parents did not. Rescued from that, she arrives in Sweden and becomes a school teacher at a school where the headmaster signs them up for a program supporting school kids in Kenya. She diligently pays her $15 per month to sponsor a child, by name - Chris Mbutu. What she doesn't know is what happens to Chris. We know. By virtue of the sponsorship, Chris was able to attend secondary school in "the village". From there to college in Nairobi, from there on to graduate from Harvard Law, and from there to a post with the UN in human rights advocacy. Chris then founds his own organization to sponsor Kenyan students, and names it after Hilde Back. Through that organization, he's able to multiply her original small act of charity. The film documents the meeting of Chris and Hilde, with her getting to know what her act wrought. Wonderful.

The key line of the film, for me - which I tweeted immediately after the show, was:

Chris: "Whoever saved Hilde saved many more." Wow.

EbertFest bonus: Hilde back came to the festival, watched the movie with us, and was featured in the Q&A session afterwards with writer/director Jennifer Arnold and DP Patricia Lee.

All of that is terrific and heartwarming. How did it get made? Jennifer Arnold shared during the Q&A that she went to college for a year in Nairobi, and that her next-door dormmate was Chris Mbutu's sister - who also was sponsored and also graduated from Harvard Law and was also a founder of the Hilde Back foundation. Hearing her story, Arnold set off to tell it in her documentary. Drafting DP Lee to film it with her.

They could have told the heart-warming historical story of Chris and Hilde and we would have oooh'd and ahhh'd. What makes "A Small Act" a compelling film is the driving narrative of the current real life students who are competing for this year's scholarship.

What wonderful students they are. We get to know Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline who have a difficult life today in the village. Their hope, and their family's hope, lies in earning one of this year's Hilde Back scholarships. Win it, earn it, and they have hope of a better future. Failing in that task dooms them and their family to continued deep poverty. They are carrying their family on their backs as the study hour after hour in mud houses by oil lamp. They are studying for the one national exam that dominates their life. Will they make the cutoff mark of 380 on the exam, and have a future? They can't all. Chris says in the film "We can't save them all. But we can save one. We can maybe save 10." The tension builds as these stoic students study hard, then test, then wait for the marks, and finally arrive at the scholarship awards meeting with Chris and his sister and their board. Who will win?

I admired Hilde and Chris. Her small act of charity is blossoming through Chris's foundation and the growing funds they are receiving as a result of this wonderful documentary. I admire them all.

But I loved these students. Very young children who carry so much burden and who work so hard with so little. It was deeply inspirational. This film should be shown in every elementary school in America. Now.

2. "Life, Above All"

This fictional film set in South Africa and dealing with the difficult subject of HIV/AIDS affects in a small village was a perfect follow on to "A Small Act". A powerful twofer.

South African director Oliver Smitz attended EbertFest with his star 13-year old star (now 16) Khomotso Manyaka, who was delightful. How did she carry the whole film, being in almost every scene, having never acted before? "It came naturally. I just showed up every day and did what Oliver told me".

Manyaka plays Chanda. A young woman whose parents are in medical crisis. Whose neighbors are fearful as to the nature of the illnesses. Whose schoolmate and friend Esther is making poor but necessary choices of income at the truck stop. Chanda carries the weight of the world on her young shoulders, and does so with grace and will beyond her years.

"Life, Above All" is not so much a treatise on AIDS, although that provides the dramatic tension of the plot. It's a story of growing up too soon in the hard realities of life. It's a story of survival-level courage in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Chanda and her mother do what they have to do, and find the courage to do it.

I was most taken by the relationship between Chanda (Manyaka) and her classmate Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). Will Chanda stand with her friend even as the town shuns her? Both are non-actors - and real-life friends - plucked from the village where the film was shot by director Smitz. Wow. They shone onscreen.

3. The EbertFest experience of these films

I am not from Africa, but from the American Midwest. I do not have a lot of personal knowledge of Africa or it's diverse issues. Seeing these two films, back-to-back, broadened my horizons considerably and I'm grateful to have had that experience.

I was moved by both Q&A panels, which I watched up close from the 3rd row. Hilde Back and Khomotso Manyaka in turn took the stage and looked out at the crowd in awe. "I'm not used to this much attention", demurred Hilde. They were very sweet.

1 comment:

  1. If we had voted on Best Actress nominations for the festival, mine would have gone to Khomotso Manyaka (and this is with Tilda Swinton in rotation). She was incredible. Kudos to the director (Oliver Smitz) on that film, too, for he got great performances out of all of the actresses and actors.

    True story: Due to a chronic runny nose, I always make sure I stuff a lot of tissues in my pockets before I go out. I ran out of them by the end of A Small Act.