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Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video

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This festival of films and videos by black artists from around the world runs Friday, August 4, through Thursday, August 17, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Tickets are $7, $3 for film center members; a festival pass, good for all programs, is $50. For further information, call 312-443-3737. Films marked with a 4 are highly recommended.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 4

Haramuya

A gentle portrait of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, emerges from these interwoven vignettes of marginalized townspeople trying to eke out a living after the West African franc was devalued in 1994. Writer-director Drissa Touré refuses to subordinate the details of his characters' lives to the artificial arc of a dominant narrative: a man's motor scooter is stolen, a boy gets a bad haircut, a father tries to teach his sons Islam, a girl persuades her mother to leave her life as a madam, and all are given equal weight. The film is a window to the chaotic, disorganized spaces of its poor shantytowns, where few people have real jobs and most resort to improvised scams. In contrast to the "city symphony" films of the 1920s, with their rhythmically organized celebrations of technology, this 1995 feature (Toure's second) is a hymn to the human--if the city is a mechanism, it's one that has already collapsed. 87 min. (FC) (6:00)

Metal

Christopher E. Brown's 1999 portrait of a poor family in the San Francisco neighborhood of Hunter's Point avoids narrative contrivances, its understated performances and austere camera work capturing the look and feel of life as it's actually lived. Ray, an unemployed auto mechanic, spends his days laboring over an old truck in front of his house, his failure to repair it a metaphor for the near hopelessness of his situation. As he and his wife leave the dinner table to argue behind a closed door, the camera stays with their two kids, who hear the whole thing. The characters seem trapped in repetitive situations, which gives a good sense of the drabness of the family's struggle, and many scenes are only a single shot, separated by brief blackouts that not only intensify the images but remind us of filmmaking's inevitable elisions. Brown, an American raised in South Africa, pays homage to Charles Burnett and John Cassavetes in the credits. 88 min. (FC) Producer Adryenn Ashley will attend the screening. On the same program, The M Train (1998), a four-minute film by Germaine Lewis. (8:00)

SATURDAY, AUGUST 5

Faraw! Mother of the Dunes

Abdoulaye Ascofare wrote and directed this 1997 Malian film, dedicated to his mother, about Zamiatou (Aminata Ousmane), mother of three and wife of a completely disabled husband in a poor desert settlement. Her daughter wants to work for the Europeans who live nearby; Zamiatou realizes that such jobs are often a front for prostitution and withholds her permission even when the family's food runs out. Instead the mother becomes a water seller, riding a donkey long distances to provide for her family. Ousmane carries herself boldly, proudly, undaunted by the greatest difficulties. The cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis, who works with Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, captures the desert's stupefying vastness, which makes Zamiatou's survival seem all the more heroic--as do the acidic and likely all-too-true portrayals of the cynical Europeans who employ native girls for sex. 90 min. (FC) (4:00)

Princess Tam Tam

Josephine Baker plays a poor African woman educated and trained by a white writer and passed off as an Indian princess. This 1935 French feature was directed by Edmond T. Greville and written by Baker's manager and lover, Pepito Abatino. It's an intriguing follow-up to her previous French feature Zou Zou, ideologically and otherwise. 77 min. (JR) A 35-millimeter print will be shown. (6:00)

Search for Hansen and Steps of the Gods

Madison Davis Lacy's 53-minute video Steps of the Gods (an episode from the forthcoming PBS series "Free to Dance") chronicles the work of African-American choreographers Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Tally Beatty, Donald McKayle, and Alvin Ailey from the late 1930s until 1960, a period when segregation made touring difficult and the institutions of modern dance were controlled by whites. Its performance footage--Caribbean dance shot by Dunham in the late 30s, recordings of historic dancers, and contemporary revivals of their work--is often spectacular, the dancers stealing the show with their passion or meditative focus. Unfortunately the clips are too brief and too fragmented, a common problem in such documentaries. In Search for Hansen (1999, 43 min.) video maker Justin Bryant explores the work of Harlem photographer Austin Hansen, who documented life on the streets of Harlem from 1928 until 1996; the photographs are intriguing, but the talking heads' testimony regarding Hansen's life and work are often banal. (FC) Bryant and Kris Jefferson, associate producer of "Free to Dance," will attend the screening. (8:00)

SUNDAY, AUGUST 6

Haramuya

See listing under Friday, August 4. (3:00)

Actress

Five winsome African-American women pursue Hollywood acting careers in this 89-minute documentary by Daniel Yost (cowriter of Drugstore Cowboy). With their mix of effusion, narcissism, and cynicism they don't seem much different from white starlets, and while none of them seems daunted by the industry's racial stereotypes or perceived bias against "ethnic" actors, their willingness to conform is a sad commentary. Yost captures the LA scene with the jaundiced eye of a veteran, and though it's unclear whether any of the women has the talent or charisma to claw her way to the top, Tangi Miller subsequently landed a part on the TV series Felicity, which for a Hollywood newcomer is worth bragging about. On the same program, Judy Judy, a five-minute short by local filmmaker Cal Ward Jr. that clumsily appropriates a famous scene from Vertigo (in which a crazed James Stewart urges Kim Novak to transform herself into his blond ideal) to satirize black men's obsession with white women. (TS) Yost and Ward will attend the screening. (5:00)

TUESDAY, AUGUST 8

Faraw! Mother of the Dunes

See listing under Saturday, August 5. (7:00)

THURSDAY, AUGUST 10

Guttaperc

A ten-year-old boy, spending the summer on Barbados with his grandparents, is caught between his grandfather, a builder who's cooperating with developers and the government to launch a resort, and a local wise woman and shaman, who wants to preserve the ancestral land in its pristine state. Filmmaker Andrew Millington, a native of the Caribbean island who's now living in Boston, apprenticed with Haile Gerima on Sankofa, and he shows promise as a fabulist for the African diaspora, indulging his nostalgia for his homeland's beauty and customs with artfully composed visuals and neatly conveying the child's perspective with low-angle shots of the grown-ups' gestures and glances. But his 1999 film is weighed down by its stilted dialogue, stiff acting, and reverential tone; both the grandfather and the wise woman sound like ideologues, and just in case we miss the dichotomy between them, Millington uses the fork of a slingshot (called guttaperc in the local dialect) to symbolize the crossroads faced by the islanders. With Richard Weekes and Leone Forbes. 84 min. (TS) Millington will attend the screening. (6:00)

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