Africa is not a continent terrifically well known for its cinema: The money isn't really there, and many of its countries are constantly in violent flux. But that very instability and unfamiliarity is also precisely what makes African film vital and interesting and perhaps necessary; it provides documentation of a place changing so rapidly that yesterday is almost always foreign to today.
Portland's upcoming Cascade Festival of African Films, now in its 21st year, is the oldest African film festival in the nation, and also one of the largest. It has become a festival with terrific depth and breadth, from a well-meaning outsider documentary to locally made portraiture, from political avant-auteurism to an Algerian marriage farce (Masquerades) that seems like it was lifted straight from the B-list screwball romances of MGM, circa 1938. Consistent with its educational goals—it was founded by four instructors at Portland Community College—some of the films are more edifying than strictly entertaining, but the best of the films showing through the month of February offer both interest and import.
Les Saignantes (The Bloodettes)
69 [CAMEROON] This is likely to be the most polarizing film of the festival, given that it opens with a 10-minute, super-explicit sex dance atop a prone old man, jump-cut edited in dim light. Jean-Pierre Békolo's film is a sort of post-Godard, girl-positive sci-fi political satire in which high-class prostitutes achieve political goals by working a sort of sex magic on corrupt dignitaries. It's a pretty grueling experience, at times, less funny than absurd and pointedly glacial, but also single-mindedly its own strange, strange beast—sort of like a politically minded African Guy Maddin flick. Moriarty Arts and Humanities Building, Room 104, PCC Cascade Campus. 1:45 pm Thursday and 7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 10 & 12.
St. Louis Blues
76 [SENEGAL] Screened with a couple other flicks, including a beautifully Tarkovskyesque science-fiction film called Pumzi, St. Louis Blues is an amateurish musical that seems all the more sincere and affecting for being amateur—it is easy to trust people who sing about their lives out of tune, who dance out of sync in large groups. Everybody is meeting in St. Louis, Senegal, for a wrestling match, and some of them are in love. I sort of felt like I was, too; closer to a summer-stock School Daze or the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than to the hypercalculated horrors of TV's Glee, it left me in a wonderful mood. Moriarty Building. Noon Thursday, Feb. 17. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm Friday, Feb. 18.
73 [SOUTH AFRICA] Just after the FIFA World Cup proper, Streetball depicts South Africa's entry in the Homeless World Cup; the film follows two years' worth of teams sent off to compete against other homeless youth around the world. Peripheral characters are occasionally shifty or overearnest, but the homeless young men themselves are at the absolute center of the film. Moriarty Building. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 24. Director Demetrius Wren will attend the screening.
In My Genes
88 [KENYA] Director Lupita Nyong'o seems to have an odd hold over her subjects, because they tell her everything—not in the way one speaks to a camera, nor in the coded, veiled way one speaks to true friends. I mean that they tell her everything, seemingly without reservation. In My Genes, a documentary about Kenyan albinos, is bracingly intimate. While the racial issues it depicts are more than interesting all by themselves, what emerges is a hilarious and often heartbreaking humanity. An older albino farmwoman explains that she believes the color was beaten out of her skin by her father, so that the blood will no longer come to the surface. "I have heard," she says, upon first attempting to buy sunscreen, "about a lotion called 'sun.'" One of the best documentaries I expect to see all year. Moriarty Building. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 3.
SEE IT: The Cascade Festival of African Films runs from Friday, Feb. 4, to Saturday, March 5. Full schedule and additional information available at africanfilmfestival.org, or 971-722-6111, ext. 3630.