I didn’t officially study film until 2002 when I got back to NYC and enrolled in The New School, and over time took master classes with John Waters and D. A. Pennebaker. However, I worked at my first film festival while living in Philly and attending Rutgers University, Camden Campus, just across the river in New Jersey. I was there doing my Masters in Public Administration, a course of study with a focus in community work that would supposedly prepare me for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up going to Cameroon with my wife after Tonga, Latin America and other destinations had been proposed and ruled out for various reasons. In Yaoundé I met Bassek Ba Kobhio, a Cameroonian filmmaker and founder of Écrans noirs, a traveling Central African festival. I suggested bringing a group of young volunteers to the Yaoundé festival from where we were living in the East Province, in the small lumber town of Batouri. That worked and somewhere along the way I met the Secretary General of FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso who was visiting the 2000 Écrans noirs. He invited me to come and work on the 2001 FESPACO in the Press Office, where I wrote an English-language text for the festival’s daily newspaper. I would later go back to Ougadougou for the 2005 festival when Eric Kabera and I were curating the 1st Rwanda festival that started later that year with activities in all 6 provincial capitals and a refugee camp near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (see photo). The festival in Cyangugu was cancelled when it conflicted with President Paul Kagame’s motorcade passing through the capital of Rusizi District in Rwanda’s Western Province. I was annoyed. Kagame is known for his lack of ceremony, and I had seen him driving his kids to school on several occasions in Kigali. Alas the security handlers made this decision without his knowing I gathered.
Between Cameroon and Rwanda, there was also working with Imruh Bakari at the 2003 Festival of the Dhow Countries (a.k.a. Zanzibar International Film Festival) based in Freddy Mercury’s native Stonetown. I managed community screenings that went outside of the capital city and to Zanzibar’s second island of Pemba. Giving a workshop at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival in Harare. Distance consulting with a Zambian colleague for a future festival in Lusaka; we met in Harare to do some planning. Sent films to the Amakula Festival in Uganda from Khartoum, Sudan. Nollywood ‘field research’ in Enugu and Lagos (Surulere) where I met my old pal Kabat Egbon, Tunde Kelani, Black Arrow and others.
The Club of Rome sent me to the WSIS meeting in Tunis, Tunisia and I made a side trip to Carthage so that I could see the ‘twin site’ as I understood it: The Carthage Film Days and FESPACO happen in alternating years and have done so since the 1960s when these events served as the staging grounds for Africa’s participation in the 3rd Cinema movement, which somehow acted as a ‘cultural scene’ in and for ‘non-aligned’ countries. But that is a simplification.
The 2004 World Social Forum was in Mumbai, India. The Forum and a Documentary Festival used a line coined by Arundhati Roy, ‘Other Worlds Are Breathing’. I was the festival coordinator with Gargi Sen and the Magic Lantern Foundation. We had two large rooms in a shed on the Forum grounds. We could seat up to 700. Arundhati was in the audience for the screening of The Corporation. I asked her if she would consider giving a few words after the screening since the filmmaker was not there. She accepted. When I moved from Cairo to São Paulo, I began work with Casa das Caldeiras — a larger cultural space in which freeDimensional was in residency — to plan a presentation at the 2008 World Social Forum in Belém in the state of Para, Brasil. The World Social Forum was born in Porto Alegre, Brasil.
Around the time of the Rwanda festival’s run in Kigali, Raoul Peck’s Sometimes in April was to play at the stadium. I suppose I was ambivalent about going and then ran late. Kagame foiled my plans again. His motorcade had just entered and no one else could enter the stadium. I was an extra — a journalist I think — in Shooting Dogs, the Brit genocide film with William Hurt and Hugh Dancy, but my piece was cut. And, somehow went to the UNHCR premeire of Hotel Rwanda in NYC with the likes of Paul Rusesabagina and Wyclef Jean. I ran into Lee Hirsch who made Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony some years before, which screened in Zanzibar. He’d had a bad moped accident there and I suppose we became friends because I knew how to access health care. He introduced me to Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) at the screening, and we tried to find a way for him to come to the Rwanda festival to no avail. I originally met Naeem Mohaiemen at the Mumbai Forum and festival, and we screened a film of his in Rwanda. I also met Prerana Reddy at the Mumbai Forum and continue to work with her until today on a project in NYC for artist safe haven. My former wife and I ended up writing the film study guide for student viewing of Hotel Rwanda at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). For a while I stayed in touch with the daughter of the filmmaker, Terry George. At the time she was working on a project with the TriBeCa Film Institute that might have intersected with the Rwanda Cinema Centre and thus the festival. Rwanda was a new film market in those days, just a decade after the genocide, and the festival as well as on site film production (not all ‘genocide’ films were filmed in Rwanda) worked in tandem with an emerging Rwandan cinema, a shift for which Eric Kabera’s Rwanda Cinema Centre was seen to be on the forefront. While based in Rwanda and managing the launch of the festival, I worked with a now longtime friend, Jesse Hawkes who had a project called RHAPSIDA, which wanted to make a film on AIDS. We were planning a small project adjacent to the festival through which young filmmakers could practice the craft. With the help of the Clinton Foundation, we made a film entitled Ingabire with Jesse’s project. Jesse just came to São Paulo to visit my project here, Lanchonete.org.
I moved from Rwanda to Sudan where I worked for an aid organization. At night and on the weekends I began meeting artists and filmmakers, my typical m.o. upon arrival to a new place. I had the good fortune to meet Gadalla Gubara and his daughter Sara one night at the French Cultural Center’s screening of his film, Tajouj. I later brokered the sale of Tajouj to the Film Resource Unit in South Africa. The proceeds supported Sara going to Tehran for post-production on a newer film. I played a small role in the conservation of Gad’s Studio. Through Gadalla I met other filmmakers, such as Ibrahim Shiddad whose films I shipped to Uganda for the Amakula Festival in Kampala.
Uganda is a part of the story even if I’ve never been there. My grandmother’s brother, my Uncle Allen was the first US ambassador there after Idi Amin’s rule. Different than the foreign service of today, Uncle Allen matriculated up from the navy and spent 30 of his 34 years in African posts. I heard about him as a child and suppose my imagination got the better of me. He now lives with his wife Barbara — a marine biologist, I think — outside of Washington D.C. and serves as a docent in the Smithsonian Museum’s African art collection, where he’s donated some of the works he collected during his foreign service.