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Our guide to the Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival

Eight new dramas and documentaries make their Chicago debuts in this year's edition.

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Created by the independent distributor ArtMattan Productions, the African Diaspora Film Festival premiered in New York in 1993 and arrived in Chicago as a touring festival ten years later, thanks mainly to the efforts of Facets Cinematheque programmer Charles Coleman. Like the social migration it's named after, the fest has always been hard to pin down, and the 12th local edition is no different: the subject matter of the ten features and two shorts screening this week range from the U.S. civil rights movement (Freedom Summer) to the persecution of Egyptian Jews (Jews in Egypt) to an 18th-century slave revolt in Curaçao (Tula, the Revolt) to an Islamist kidnapping plot in Morocco (The Miscreants). Truth be told, the festival is less about the dispersal of Africans around the globe than about the spread of freedom—which seems to be taking a hell of a lot longer. J.R. Jones

Freedom Summer screens Fri 6/13 and Wed 6/18.
  • Freedom Summer screens Fri 6/13 and Wed 6/18.

[Recommended] Freedom Summer Produced for the PBS series American Experience, this potent documentary re-creates an America most of us are lucky never to have experienced: the apartheid government of the state of Mississippi, circa 1964. "Crack Mississippi and you crack the whole south" went the logic at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which invited young people from around the country to spend that summer registering black Mississippians to vote. The volunteers who appear onscreen aren't young anymore, but they still recall vividly the climate of terror that prevailed back then, not least when three of their colleagues disappeared one night in June and were found dead six weeks later. Everyone remembers that horrific crime (partly because of the fictionalized Mississippi Burning), yet writer-director Stanley Nelson, to his credit, devotes more screen time to a less notorious, more important subject: the boldly confrontational tactic of sending a shadow delegation to the Democratic National Convention that August to challenge the legitimacy of the state's chosen delegates. 115 min. J.R. Jones Tickets for the Friday screening are $15 and include a 6:30 reception. Fri 6/13, 7:30 PM, and Wed 6/18, 6 PM.

Go for Sisters Few male writer-directors have explored female characters more ardently than John Sayles (Passion Fish, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys), and this leisurely mystery features some of his best. A no-nonsense parole officer (LisaGay Hamilton) recruits an old friend hardened by the streets (Yolonda Ross) to help track down her grown son, who's been kidnapped south of the Mexican border and may have been transporting Chinese aliens into the U.S. The two women fell out in high school, but their tenuous relationship grows stronger after they hire an over-the-hill private investigator (Edward James Olmos) and the three of them venture into dangerous situations in Tijuana and Mexicali. Sayles's novelistic approach to screenwriting can yield rich, simple dialogue, though his insistence on editing his own films invariably works against him; this one slows to a crawl near the end, stopping too frequently to accommodate the women's colloquies, before he pulls it back together with a satisfying climax. J.R. Jones Sat 6/14, 3:50 PM.

Jews of Egypt screens Mon 6/16 and Thu 6/19.
  • Jews of Egypt screens Mon 6/16 and Thu 6/19.

Jews of Egypt Documentary maker Amir Ramses surveys the history of Egypt's Jewish community, which played a prominent role in secular society throughout the 19th and early-20th centuries but was almost entirely driven out of the country after the mid-1950s. The tone is more wistful than sorrowful as Ramses paints an affectionate picture of a multicultural Egypt that no longer exists (especially moving are his reflections on prewar Alexandria, which recall Youssef Chahine's great autobiographical drama Alexandria, Why?). Ramses also takes an evenhanded approach to the Middle Eastern Jews who opposed the creation of the state of Israel, fearing that it would endanger assimilationist Jews in the region. This is a compelling history lesson, though it often looks like a PowerPoint presentation. In subtitled Arabic and French. Ben Sachs 96 min. Mon 6/16, 8:30 PM, and Thu 6/19, 6 PM.

Love Triangle screens Thu 6/19.
  • Love Triangle screens Thu 6/19.

Love Triangle Laurie (Cynthia Housel) and Quinton (Byron Smith) are young lovers engaged to be married, but his sexual infidelity has created unspoken resentment between them; shortly after he pops the question, she has an affair with her lifelong friend, Justice (Markiss McFadden). This sultry, slow-burning melodrama (2013) generates a palpable suspense, though the low-budget production values, mannered performances, and hokey dialogue often result in unintended laughs. McFadden directed his own script, displaying some visual chops (there are more than a few inspired compositions) and considerable thematic ambition. The metaphorical, pseudo-Shakespearean climax includes a Mexican standoff among the three characters and a sequence that may or not be fantasy; it's completely ridiculous, but McFadden's conviction is impressive. Drew Hunt 112 min. Thu 6/19, 8 PM.

The Miscreants screens Sun 6/15.
  • The Miscreants screens Sun 6/15.

The Miscreants In this low-budget Moroccan drama (2011), three Islamic radicals kidnap a group of progressive-minded stage actors, then hole up with them in an abandoned farmhouse while awaiting orders to kill them. The movie feels like something you might watch a college theater troupe perform in a dormitory basement; the talky script addresses a number of hot-button issues, generally in hysterical fashion, and the acting is overblown but undeniably heartfelt. First-time writer-director Mohcine Besri clearly has a lot on his mind, but he can't figure out how to dramatize his ideas effectively. In Arabic with subtitles. Ben Sachs 89 min. A 5:30 reception precedes the screening. Sun 6/15, 6:30 PM.

Tango Negro, the African Roots of Tango screens Sun 6/12 and Wed 6/18
  • Tango Negro, the African Roots of Tango screens Sun 6/12 and Wed 6/18

Tango Negro, the African Roots of Tango This 2013 French documentary traces the origins of tango back to the slave trade between Africa and South America and explains how the music and dance evolved into a Latin American form with myriad styles. For a film about such a vibrant art, this is exceedingly flat, giving a dry textbook treatment to the grave subject of African culture being exploited by imperialist countries. Talking-head interviews abound, though the principal authority here is musician Juan Carlos Cáceres, mechanically relaying historical information like a human Wikipedia page. Dom Pedro directed. In French and Spanish with subtitles. Drew Hunt 93 min. Sun 6/15, 2 PM, and Wed 6/18, 8 PM.

Tula, the Revolution screens Sat 6/14 and Tue 6/17
  • Tula, the Revolution screens Sat 6/14 and Tue 6/17

Tula, the Revolt In 1795 the slave population of Curaçao, a former Danish colony in the Caribbean, staged a monthlong revolt that threw much of the island into chaos. The episode is important enough to make this 2013 Danish drama worth watching, but it's blunt and didactic, with clunky storytelling and amateurish visuals. Even Tula Rigaud (Obi Abilia), the heroic leader of the rebellion, comes off as a mouthpiece for historical information. Jeroen Leinders directed; with Danny Glover and Jeroen Krabbé. Ben Sachs 98 min. Sat 6/14, 6:15 PM, and Tue 6/17, 6 PM. 

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