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African Diaspora Film Festival

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The African Diaspora Film Festival, making its Chicago debut after more than a decade in New York City, runs Friday through Thursday, June 20 through 26, at Facets Cinematheque. Tickets are $7, $5 for Facets members; for more information call 773-281-4114. Films marked with an * are highly recommended.

FRIDAY, JUNE 20

* The Tracker

See Critic's Choice. (7:00)

The Paradise of the Fallen Angels

An aging pimp expires one night with a bottle of booze in his lap, and his low-life friends are stunned to learn that he's left behind an upper-class wife and a grown daughter. This black comedy (1999) by Egyptian director Oussama Fawzi cuts back and forth between the two groups of mourners as each conspires to erase the other's memory of the deceased, a struggle that escalates to body snatching when the pimp's friends crash the wake and abscond with the guest of honor. Of course, the only character who can reconcile the contradictory memories isn't talking, and, as Fawzi makes clear with his closing shot of rapidly approaching darkness at the end of a lit highway tunnel, an even greater mystery awaits his survivors. In Arabic with subtitles. 90 min. (JJ) (9:00)

SATURDAY, JUNE 21

* Kirikou and the Sorceress

A marvel for eye and ear, this superior animated feature by French filmmaker Michel Ocelot adapts a West African folktale about an inquisitive, fearless boy who breaks a beautiful sorceress's spell over his village. In Ocelot's hands the tale stresses the virtues of patience, determination, and independent thinking, though it's subtly propelled by themes that range from the tribal to the universal. The vividly colorful animation is not only riveting but highly attuned to African culture, drawing inspiration from ancient Egyptian art and African sculpture, as well as the work of Gustave Moreau and Henri Rousseau. In French with subtitles. 79 min. (TS) (3:00)

Tattoo Bar

Unfairly dissed by the New York Times for a "hard to keep track of" plot, this 2000 Spanish drama is an affecting study of the chaos generated by the fungibility of sex, love, drugs, money, and justice in our globalized age. Tattoo artist Francis (Miguel Molina) returns from abroad to Barcelona with his Indian girlfriend, Simona (played with a compelling mix of vivacity and self-doubt by Mercedes Ortega), who dances naked in the window of their tattoo bar. Francis's Cuban friend Mariel, whose adoring druggie wife fellates an influential bordello keeper to get him out of prison, pursues Simona, who's unhinged after Francis abandons her. Writer-director Jo Sol's mix of colorful imagery and staccato editing--some scenes are only one short shot--evokes the characters' profoundly imbalanced lives. In Spanish with subtitles. 94 min. (FC) (5:00)

Papa's Song

Set in the Netherlands and Curacao, this overheated 1999 drama blows its chance for meaningful cross-cultural commentary. The calm life of a Dutch judge and his Antillean wife, Shirley, is shattered when her spirited sister Magda, whose two boys the couple had been raising, appears to reclaim them. Attached to her nephews and herself infertile, Shirley appalls her husband by pressuring Magda to bear his child, then gradually loses her mental balance. Progressively awful revelations about the sisters' past--rape, incest, more rape--seem more exploitative than explanatory, and Sander Francken's direction fails to create a compelling narrative rhythm. In Dutch and Papiamento with subtitles. 95 min. (FC) (7:00)

Sia, the Dream of the Python

Born in Burkina Faso but now living in Paris, director Dani Kouyate is the son of a griot, a traditional African musician and storyteller, and his 2001 feature uses a seventh-century myth to comment on the power struggles, bogus moral authority, and perpetuation of lies that still plague many African nations. An emperor, hoping to reaffirm his mandate from the people, decides to sacrifice a virgin to the python god, but the unlucky virgin goes into hiding while her soldier sweetheart rushes back from the fort to rescue her. Kouyate is rather lackadaisical in laying out his subplots (a general puts the affairs of the state above his family, court counselors conspire to suppress a madman who speaks the truth); however, in the final third the elemental power of his storytelling takes over, pulling together a spellbinding tapestry of motives and dilemmas. In Bambara with subtitles. 96 min. (TS) (9:00)

SUNDAY, JUNE 22

* Kirikou and the Sorceress

See listing for Saturday, June 21. (1:00)

Almodou

Call me Eurocentric, but the story told by this 2002 Senegalese video is so Dickensian it could have been serialized in a Victorian newspaper. Based on journalistic exposes of abusive Koranic schools, it follows the trials of a young boy in Dakar (Doudou Guillaume Faye) entrusted by his parents to a Fagin-like teacher (Bassirou Diakhate) who sends his pupils out into the street to beg and beats them if they return without his daily tribute of 200 francs. The boy is befriended by a kindly street merchant, but after he hits the jackpot with a well-placed bet on the American Grand Prix his slimy teacher comes looking for him, eager to claim the cash. The direction and camerawork are rudimentary at best, but the details of street life seem authentic, and I was hooked by the bipolar tale of an innocent caught between pure and corrupt adults. In Wolof and French with subtitles. 85 min. (JJ) (3:00)

Denying Brazil

Though they're often compared to soap operas, Brazilian telenovels are more like our prime-time miniseries and command significant coverage in the national media. This 2000 documentary by writer-director Joel Zito Araujo traces the history of Afro-Brazilian characters in these hugely popular shows, and while it was all news to me, I was struck by how closely their trajectory paralleled that of black characters on American TV, with stereotypes like the nurturing mammy and the loyal bodyguard gradually giving way to more nuanced characterizations. Like many observers of American race relations, Araujo equates positive media images with social justice, though I doubt The Cosby Show ever deflected a police baton. In Portuguese with subtitles. 92 min. (JJ) (5:00)

Aleijadinho: Passion, Glory, and Torment

Loosely based on the life of Brazilian sculptor Antonio Francisco Lisboa (1738-1814), this by-the-numbers biopic follows the artist from his birth to an African mother and a Portuguese father through his illustrious career and the mysterious illness (probably syphilis) that crippled him. The most interesting element of his story--his mixed ancestry, which put him in a position to exploit his fellow Africans in the gold mines of Villa Rica--is dropped after a while, the better to focus on his physical agony, and he exists in such a rarefied world that the struggle for Brazilian independence barely grazes him. Geraldo Santos Pereira directed. In Portuguese with subtitles. 100 min. (JJ) (7:00)

MONDAY, JUNE 23

The Paradise of the Fallen Angels

See listing for Friday, June 20. (7:00)

Tattoo Bar

See listing for Saturday, June 21. (9:00)

TUESDAY, JUNE 24

Almodou

See listing for Sunday, June 22. (7:00)

Aleijadinho: Passion, Glory, and Torment

See listing for Sunday, June 22. (9:00)

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 25

Denying Brazil

See listing for Sunday, June 22. (7:00)

Papa's Song

See listing for Saturday, June 21. (9:00)

THURSDAY, JUNE 26

* The Tracker

See Critic's Choice. (7:00)

Sia, the Dream of the Python

See listing for Saturday, June 21. (9:00)

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