When Alice Stephens came to Columbia College to teach film in 1993, she quickly decided that the school needed a festival of African films. "They have a humanness," says Stephens, who has a PhD in psychology. "The storytelling tradition is very powerful there. We need to expand our view. It's very limiting if you're just getting Cineplex Odeon movies."
Last year she organized the first African Film Festival, and it drew more than 3,000 people over one weekend. "There was such a tremendous response that we couldn't accommodate everyone." So this year's festival has been expanded to two weekends and now includes African-American and Caribbean films.
After working for her brother Charles's Project Black Cinema festival in Sarasota, Florida, Stephens became a champion of African films, many of which aren't even distributed in their native countries. "A lot of cities get Indian melodramas and Hollywood movies," she says. Stephens traveled to Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia and found that their films shared "a certain vibrancy because they don't have millions of dollars. Production facilities barely exist in Africa. The directors have to be much better at getting it right without a lot of takes. They have to have a good eye because they aren't going to reshoot."
Stephens explains that the French-speaking countries have been at it the longest, at least since the 1960s. "France has helped a lot," she says. "They have special screenings at Cannes." Now that Chicago's festival is in its second year, she hopes the audience will grow for African movies, and perhaps a larger audience will bring these films here more often. "Right now, it's feast or famine. You see them for two weekends and you won't see them for another year."
The second annual African Film Festival takes place over the next two weekends, April 19 through 28. It starts at 7 this Friday with Sugar Cane Alley, a 1983 film from Martinique directed by Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season); it will be screened in Columbia College's Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan. This weekend's other movies will be shown from 9 AM to 8 PM Saturday and 10 AM to 5 PM Sunday. (Sunday is dedicated to children's films.) All screenings are free and will be held at Columbia's Collins Theater, 624 S. Michigan, the Hokin Hall Theater, 623 S. Wabash, and the Ferguson Theater. For more information, see the Section Two movie listings or call 663-1600, ext. 5287.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.