Mohammed Kamara remembers vividly the first time he saw a movie. He was a teenager living in Liberia, and a Land Rover bearing representatives of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization came into his West African village. With them was a cargo of 16 millimeter films and a projector. The visitors strung a sheet up in the village's center, sat everyone down and began their show. It consisted of health films -- "how to have proper nutrition, how to avoid disease," Kamara recalls with a smile -- and perhaps not the most felicitous introduction to the magic of cinema. But Kamara was captivated (some later Chaplin films helped), so much so that he passed up a chance to train as an Islamic scholar to come to the States to pursue an affair with moving pictures.
Interestingly enough, that affair has taken him back to Africa, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as the maker of a student film on African bone doctors, and now as the director of the first Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival, which begins Monday and focuses on the work of Ousmane Sembene, a Senegalese writer and director who has been a key force in the creation of an emerging African film industry. Though the festival's 11 films also include representatives from the U.S., Canada and Czechoslovakia, Sembene, who'll be in attendance to answer questions, is unquestionably the affair's star. Gulwaar, his most recent and widely praised movie, will kick the festival off.
But more than that, Sembene's aim -- to teach as well as entertain -- is the same as Kamara's, who, in 1991, founded a company called Ancestral Films to help bring a wider selection of movies about foreign cultures to Houston. Sankofa, a story of slavery that played to overflow crowds in '94, was Ancestral Films first presentation; the Pan-Cultural Film Festival is its biggest. And it's one, Kamara says, he'd like to repeat on a biannual basis.
In a way, he's trying to do for the city what the folks from the Red Cross did for him three decades ago. Only this time, he's the guy in the Land Rover, carrying the canisters of film. Kamara just hopes the level of amazement will be the same. -- Mitchell J. Shields
The Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival will be held February 19-25. For screening and ticket information, call 527-9548.
Gulwaar. Directed by Ousmane Sembene. Special showing and talk by the director 6 p.m. February 19, Museum of Fine Arts.
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