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Reel Life: new lessons from African folklore:

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Filmmaker Zeinabu Irene Davis is fascinated with African folklore and its cinematic possibilities. She discovered the continent's vast trove of tales, both oral and written, while studying in Kenya as part of her undergraduate education.

Davis, who now teaches film at Northwestern, found African stories share a metaphorical technique, but different regions use it to further different concerns. "In South Africa there are a lot of references to large white monsters, veiled allusions to the colonials and what they did. In other parts, menace comes in other forms."

The menace in Davis's latest work--a half-hour children's film titled Mother of the River--is slavery. She decided on her subject three years ago while teaching a course in media literacy. "It was around the time of the miniseries Queen, based on Alex Haley's biography of his grandmother," Davis says. "And a little girl in the class said she'd like to live in that time period. Everything was so romantic to her. Obviously she didn't understand what slavery was all about."

One difference between African and African-American folk stories, Davis says, is that "even under colonialism, Africans lived on their own land. Here we suffer from racial discrimination and feel displaced. We still don't know where we came from. We must create our own traditions."

In Mother of the River Davis and her Haitian-born husband, Marc Chery, have transplanted a well-known Haitian tale to a South Carolina plantation in the 1850s. "Dofimae, the protagonist, is a young slave girl who one day wanders into the woods and meets a mysterious woman who calls herself Mother of the River," Davis explains. The woman gives Dofimae two eggs--magical, potent symbols of Congolese origin that Davis says "represent fertility and other possibilities. In the south, black people used to practice rituals using eggs to bless themselves and put a hex on their enemies."

In the Haitian version of Mother, a variation on a Nigerian story, there are two girls, one good and one bad, "who experience awakenings of different sorts." In Davis's version, told in a lyrical, contemplative tone, Dofimae must learn to make decisions about her own actions, to be independent and honorable.

Davis sees herself carrying the torch for African-American women whose contributions to film history have gone unappreciated. "There was the evangelist Eloite Gist, whose message films about evils of sins, in my opinion, are more sophisticated than Oscar Micheaux's," she says, also citing writer Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological shorts.

Part of the Film Center's Black Harvest Festival, Mother of the River will be screened Friday at 8:30 PM along with Wedding Bell Blues by Katherine Nero and When It Rains by Charles Burnett. A discussion with Davis follows. It will be shown again Saturday at 3:30 PM with Beyond the Agenda by Laini Dakar and Sweet Potato Ride by Kimberly Green and Camille Tucker. The festival runs through July 18 at the Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson. See the sidebar in the Section Two movie listings for this week's offerings. Call 443-3733 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Gilson.

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