In 1990, Mahen Bonetti took a leap of faith and founded the African Film Festival. Though she didn’t have industry experience, she did have a deep belief in cinema as a tool for activism, and she knew that the representation of Africa and Africans needed to be changed. Fast forward to 2021—the AAF is now in its 31st year and has launched an online archive that has made African cinema more accessible to all. We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mahen about the AFF’s founding, her incredible work and mission, and the power of cinema to affect change.
1. When did you first fall in love with cinema?
I arrived in the U.S. in the early 70s and one of the first arthouse movies I saw was ‘The Harder They Come’, directed by Perry Henzell. I also became friends with a creative set that introduced me not only to cinema, but also to music, art and poetry.
2. It’s been more than 30 years since you founded the African Film Festival (AFF). What first motivated you to launch the festival in 1990?
I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the moving image. The motivational force for me to start the AFF was due to frustration. I was tired of the gaze, the side-kick portrayal of Africans in the moving image. My intervention, which was tied to the role of cinema, was to find a way to counter these representations of Africa and Africans. So for me cinema is a tool of activism, for self-definition. Through this medium, Africa has a face and Africa is speaking for herself.
3. A film festival is a majorly collective event—it involves bringing people together and showcasing new stories, and it certainly requires a lot of teamwork and collaboration. Can you speak a bit about the importance of collective art ventures?
As a film programmer, I am an active participant in many aspects of the process. It is my job to connect stakeholders in every aspect of the process, from producers to directors to distributors and audiences. Despite resource challenges, which might determine the scale of production, honest storytelling resonates universally. I must ask the question, where is the common thread that connects us all? Where is the human dimension, which makes a film relatable, which moves people positively or negatively, and which allows a film to travel? My job is to put my finger on our common pulse, to locate the pulse in films, and connect people to it. In doing so, we create a demand for more.
4. How has AFF—or African cinema at large—evolved over the years? And/or are there any new trends that make you particularly excited about the future of African cinema?
Young people world-wide, have become empowered because of the expertise at using film and new media and have transformed society both on the continent and in the diaspora. Their cell phones are not only mobile phones, but are mobile studios. They’ve subverted governments, fighting with the tools they have. They might be disillusioned, but are willing to take action, take an initiative to make change happen. In the past, when a coup d’etat took place, there would be a blackout and some somber music would play on the radio or tv, but now, these youths put their cell phones into action and take to the streets.
As for AFF, we strive to remain relevant and have recently rebuilt our website, which we consider ‘a portal to the African continent and her diaspora.’ We also believe that our filmmakers consider AFF their home away from home!
5. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on cultural events like film festivals, but we’ve also seen how pivoting to virtual has increased accessibility. Do you think this will have a lasting effect on film festivals and other cultural gatherings?
We have experienced a surge of interest in our online programming, as well as renewed attention to our social media, and we now have an opportunity to reach new audiences online. Our virtual programs include curated online film screenings, featuring films that have been audience favorites over the years. AFF has access to a vast archive of past programming, interviews with significant cultural figures, filmmaker master classes and tutorials, colonial and Russian archival footage, and of course, classic and contemporary African film--all of which can be made available online. The most significant advantage of have this online presence, is that it makes these programs available to those whose stories are being told and to the global community at large. I believe that in future, virtual programming will continue to exist with in-person presentations, which is a good thing!
6. What do you think film as a medium has the power to do that other media do not?
It is beautiful when folks are curious and make discoveries about their world and at same time discover their history and geography and their culture (whilst being entertained). It can only help give them a sense of themselves and also appreciate and respect other cultures….and this is really the power of cinema.
7. What are some of your favorite films, and why?
This is a tricky for me (it would be like me saying who my favourite child is :). I will list one film that has played a role in my 30-year journey as the founder and director of AFF.
The opening night film of the inaugural New York African Film Festival in 1993 was Guelwaar (1992), Directed by Ousmane Sembene, Guelwaar embodied all the themes that were the motivational force for me to start the NYAFF and hopefully help to quell my frustration. Tradition and modernity were jostling for position within the themes of gender, religion, greed, rebellion and for me Sembene was saying, this is our story and we should owe it as well. Sembene never lost hope for a better African story and he goes on to quote the philosopher Alain: “Pessimism is an outburst of temper, optimism stems from will”.
8. What do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
I still hold on to the belief that anything is possible if it is for the common good. I am constantly thinking about how can we engage folks in robust conversation, that inspires them to go out into their communities and do something that helps their lot in life. In order to ensure that my dream/wish is not too off the mark, I will take a dance class and then take a walk afterwards, usually with a friend who I talk with about my next big idea :) and my desire to improve our world.
9. What do you wear to feel the most free and confident?
It is second nature for me to put on my boubou/caftan and I am ready to go anywhere and not feel underdressed or overdressed.
10. How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?
I am constantly on the go, multi-tasking and so taking care of my health has become more paramount, especially in the past year. My daily regime includes eating a clove or two of raw garlic, raw ginger and turmeric. In terms of my space, I do try to keep it clutter-free, but this is not an easy feat…. The two spaces in my home that have to always remain clean and neat though are my kitchen and bathrooms.
11. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved or inspired by?
I re-read ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ by Scholastique Mukasonga recently, (which has been adapted to film and which we presented in the 28th NYAFF this year). I was also sent to boarding school in the provinces, after the first post-independence coup took place in Sierra Leone, the country of birth. Such experiences scar some of us for life, whilst some of us propel those experiences to change our environment for the greater good.
12. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Don’t ever give up your freedom and this advice was given to me by the late Ousmane Sembene, the father of contemporary African cinema.
13. When you launched AFF, you didn’t have a professional background in film. What advice would you give to someone who has a dream or a vision, but might feel they lack the experience to carry it out?
The learning curve will likely be steep, however, you must be honest with yourself as to why you want to undertake a mission, maintain a strong conviction in your undertaking and know that your commitment will be a daily exercise in testing your strength and determination.
14. What are you seeking more of this year?
A holiday, sleep and an outpouring of great cinema!
Learn more about African Film Festival: here
Mahen Bonetti is wearing the Roma dress, which can be found: here