Ever wonder what youth in Richmond, CA and youth in Johannesburg, South Africa have in common, as well as what separates them? Or what Ethiopian Afro-futurist sci-fi looks like? How about a Senegalese political uprising which received scant media coverage in the US? What about an underground NY hip-hop radio show which became a cultural institution?
These questions and more will be answered by the 2015 Matatu Festival of Stories, the third installment in founder and director Michael Orange’s mission to bring easily-overlooked independent films and documentaries, many of them addressing Afrocentric themes or relating to black culture. This time out, the Matatu—an East African Swahili slang word meaning passenger taxi or minibus, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines—makes its rounds through the Diaspora, touching the West and East Coast of America, the Netherlands and its former colony Suriname, as well as East, West, and Southern Africa. The ride is rife with adventure and rich in cultural capital, and this year, the festival’s cinematic selections are enhanced by live performances, meet-ups, special guest performers, and a Matatu-inspired art show.
The Opening Night selection, “Necktie Youth,” examines a fast-emerging post-apartheid South Africa, as seen through the eyes of wealthy, suburban, Jo’Burg youth who struggle to find themselves within a newly-open society which still grapples with issues of race and class. “Necktie Youth” is a coming-of-age story which sometimes plays like the African version of “Kids” – there are graphic descriptions of sex and of drug and alcohol consumption. Viewing contemporary Johannesburg through the lens of privileged yet haunted young adults, the film has a semi-documentary feel—nearly all of it is shot in black and white. It is in some ways a perfect bookend to “Dear Mandela,” a 2013 Matatu selection, which examined the bittersweet legacy of Nelson Mandela through the eyes of the poor and politically-unfortunate.
But this is a South Africa we haven’t seen before. In “Necktie Youth,” there are no overt politics at play, and interracialism has become a natural course of events, yet the grip of the past hasn’t completely loosened. Promiscuous white women from Pretoria fetishize their black lovers while drawing boundaries between their lustful trysts and their conservative Afrikaaner parents. It’s interesting to see African youth adopt black American slang to their own, and observe their mannerisms, which speaks to the universality of youth culture as well as its regional variations.
“Romeo is Bleeding” also focuses on youth, in this case the young black people of Richmond, CA, who struggle with their own issues—a multi-generational turf war from which there seems to be no escape, the inevitable reality of violence which has become recidivist, and their abandonment by an older generation who fell prey to incarceration and/or substance abuse. The documentary ‘s narrative arc tells the story of Donte Clark, a product of Richmond’s streets whose family members are feared soldiers in the conflict between North and Central Richmond. Clark turns to spoken word poetry as a way of expressing emotions threatened with permanent numbing by losing friends to jail or bullets. He becomes a teacher and mentor to young adults, even though he’s not much older himself in calendar years. When a white friend starts a theater company, they decide to adapt Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” into a Richmond-centered tale, with the town’s two warring factions substituting for the Capulets and the Montagues.
The movie reveals the oft-held belief that the black community is unconcerned with stopping intra-hood violence to be a glaring misconception. Clark’s commitment to being a positive, shining example in the face of adversity is tested by the cyclic nature of violence itself; still he pushes forward, on a mission to prove that “love in Richmond is possible.”
Speaking of love, it’s the central theme of “Crumbs,” a wonderfully-realized story set in a post-apocalyptic future which employs elements of magical realism, like Octavia Butler and Guillermo Del Toro’s progeny. A scavenging dwarf, his love interest, Santa Claus, a shifty pawn shop owner, plastic children’s toys and Michael Jackson album covers highly valued as mystical artifacts, second-generation Nazis, and a mysterious UFO populate this madcap tale, shot in Ethiopia. The film has much to say, even if some of it is cryptic. Like most heroes, the dwarf takes a journey. But instead of achieving the stated goal of his quest, in the end, he finds something far more precious was in his possession all along. A surreal comedy, “Crumbs” is ultimately an affirmation of human compassion and emotion which posits that the future is only as bleak as we allow it to be.
Meanwhile in Senegal, reverberations from the Egyptian uprising which saw the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak echo throughout “Incorruptible,” a documentary tracing the 2012 election which toppled the government of Abdoulaye Wade. The conditions are similar; Wade’s administration, once revered by the Senegalese people, has become a hotbed of corruption and nepotism, falling out of touch with the demands of the long-suffering underclass for better living conditions. After Wade changes the constitution to run for a third term, a protest movement begins to gather steam. Efforts by the government to quell the insurgency using tear gas and even live bullets backfire as the Senegalese take to the streets to demand regime change. Even as mosques are targeted and tanks brought in, the opposition insists it is not seeking violent confrontation with the government, but a democratic election process. After a field of candidates, including singer Youssou N’Dour, whittles down to a run-off between Wade and challenger Malky Sall, state-backed militias engage in political violence as the government tries to tighten its grip on power – “the truth is under attack,” N’Dour says. A Wade speech where he insists the dissent is unimportant is effectively contrasted by footage of protesters throwing rocks at a billboard of the President. Y’en a Marre, a youth activism group which uses rap music as a consciousness-raising tool, helps propel Sall to victory, but warns him that their loyalty is to Senegal, not to any one politician.
“Incorruptible” offers an eye-opening view into an African Muslim population which is more interested in dialogue than terrorism – a revelation to an American mindset inundated with Islamophobic propaganda. It effectively captures a historical moment in time which may be seen as a turning point for African democracy. A sense of urgency is conveyed through handheld footage of protesters being tear-gassed; there are many poignant looks at of the faces of the Senegalese people, while a beautiful score by Akon (who also executive-produced the film) and Mark Batson captures the emotion, idealism and dignity of a revolutionary movement all but unknown to the West.
Other highlights of the festival include “Stretch and Bobbito,” a documentary about the long-running hip-hop radio show notable for breaking major hip-hop artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan; “Fashion House: Marga Weimans,” a black designer who makes waves in both the Netherlands and Suriname; “Asni: Courage, Passion and Glamor in Ethiopia,” a documentary about Asnaketch Worku, a trailblazing female vocalist who became an East African pop culture icon; and “Red Leaves,” an Ethiopian/Israeli film which addresses immigration and cultural assimilation and retention, as seen through the eyes of a 74-year old falasha, Meseganio Tadela.
As if a whole program of inspired films wasn’t enough, the Matatu concept also manifests through an equally-rich schedule of festival-related events to engage your brain, your mouth, and your body. These include a dinner at Miss Ollie’s featuring a book reading by Saul Williams, artist talks with Mahader Tesfai and Donte Clark, and jazz records spun by chef Bryant Terry; a happy hour hosted by Souls of Society, followed by performances by Williams and avant-garde outfit Black Spirituals; an evening of experimental music with Shafiq Husayn and Mark de Clive-Lowe; an excursion into “four-part communication” with Afro-jazz group Democratics; kora music by Zéna ft. Amaranth String Quartet; a live set by emerging Eritrean-American artist Eden Hagos; and a dance performance by Alonzo King Lines Ballet.
Not only is this the most action-packed Matatu to date, but the level of programming is beyond ambitious, and borders on the insane: a full week’s worth of visceral, intellectual and visual stimuli which may test your stamina. It’s almost as if Orange and festival producer Maria Judice tried to make up for the relative lack of access to Afro-futuristic culture the other 51 weeks of the year, by overstuffing the Matatu to an extreme capacity. Fasten your seat belts, Oakland, and enjoy the ride.
The Matatu Festival runs September 22-26 at various locations, including Miss Ollie’s, Flight Deck, and Starline Social Club.
A complete list of Matatu 2015 films is here.
A complete guide to Matatu events is here.
For more information about Matatu, visit here.