Mohammed Kamara believes that film is the true universal language. It certainly has been for him. As a boy in Guinea, West Africa, he was exposed to cinema through the World Health Organization and the American Red Cross. "They used to bring 16-millimeter projectors in the back of a Land Rover jeep, and they would crank it up in the middle of the village and hang up a white sheet of cloth for a screen. They were about health and education, basically."
Then a Methodist missionary built a school in his village and showed short films. "I remember seeing Charlie Chaplin. After high school I wanted to come to the United States to study about film."
Kamara did, earning a B.A. in radio-TV-film from Temple University. Then he joined the Peace Corps and went back to Africa to serve as an audiovisual technician. "That's where it really came to me that cultures have pretty much similar ways. People enjoy seeing films throughout the world."
The Pan Cultural Film Festival
Now, through his brainchild, the Pan-Cultural Film Festival, Kamara is bringing his own sense of wonder at the universality of film to others. For its third festival, the P-C is featuring "Asian American Perspectives," including films from China, India and Southeast Asia, as well as works by filmmakers of Asian heritage.
Chinese lute virtuoso Rong Cindy Tan's music will set the mood at the P-C's opening-night reception in downtown's Angelika Film Center at 5 p.m. on Thursday, February 10. But the mood might not be so mellow when audience members from differing political perspectives discuss legendary director Xie Jin's The Opium War, from the People's Republic of China.
This is septuagenarian Xie's controversial take on the 19th-century conflict that ended with Britain controlling Hong Kong. Made to celebrate the return of the city-state's sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997, The Opium War opened in both mainland China and Hong Kong shortly before the historical transition. Its reception illustrated the deep divisions between the two systems.
Some Beijing commentators called it a masterwork; others thought it insufficiently patriotic. Hong Kong critic Bono Lee said: "The rush of patriotic fervor is appetizing for those who identify with such nationalistic passion, but for the Hong Kong audience, it leaves a totally different taste in the mouth....The difference in reactions to this film between Chinese and Hong Kong audiences is testimony to the difference in thought patterns and value systems of the two lands."
The festival gives Houston audiences a chance to judge his work for themselves and to meet the man who made it.
Houstonians can also meet Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock. Her 1998 documentary, Return with Honor, is a harrowing and uplifting account of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam surviving captivity. This powerful film is especially timely with the presidential campaign of former POW John McCain, one of Mock's featured subjects.
While McCain and the other POWs were still imprisoned in Hanoi, filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha was leaving that land. Trinh came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1970 at the age of 17. She is now a prolific filmmaker, noted teacher and Chancellor's Distinguished Professor in Women's Studies and Film at the University of California at Berkeley. Trinh will present three of her highly personal visions, Surname Viet Given Name Nam, A Tale of Love and Shoot for the Contents.
Marian Luntz, curator of film and video at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the majority of the screenings will take place, believes that Trinh brings something special to the festival. "I think that if people make the leap of faith and come to her films, and hear her speak, they might end up looking at film in a whole new way. I know I did."
"This year we're featuring Asia, China, India and Southeast Asia," says fest founder Kamara. "And we try to get out in the communities and organize support, but we don't want just any work. There are certain things we look for in a film: social and artistic value. If you can take something from it. After the film is over and you go home, you still think about it for a while. Something that extends your imagination."
The work of Adoor Gopalakrishnan will certainly expand audience horizons. Acclaimed by his own country's film critics as "perhaps the most significant filmmaker in India in the generation after Satyajit Ray," Gopalakrishnan will be on hand to present the film that is considered his masterpiece, Elippathayam ("Rat Trap," 1981). It is the story of a man trapped within his own feudal world. The film won the prestigious British Film Institute Award.
The late director Djibril Diop Mambety was from Senegal, not Asia, but his The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun has a special place for viewers. Mambety, whose previous work Hyenes (1992) was nominated for a prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of an indomitable Dakar street child, a handicapped girl with no education. She decides to help feed her family by becoming a street vendor for Le Soleil, one of the city's top daily newspapers. Her winning smile and never-say-die attitude make this a special film.
"The terrific thing about the Pan-Cultural Film Festival is the exposure it provides for movies that might get lost in the shuffle of the mainstream movie marketplace," says former Houston Post film critic Joe Leydon, now a critic for Variety.
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He cites last year's festival presentation of Midaq Alley, "one the greatest Mexican films of recent years," Leydon says. "Here's an extraordinary movie, based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning writer -- and, disgracefully, it took over four years for it to receive any kind of U.S. distribution. It never saw any kind of commercial release in Houston. That's just one reason why local movie buffs should support events like the Pan-Cultural Festival."
The festival is seeking support. "We don't have any money, but the Cultural Arts Council and the Texas Commission on the Arts and individuals -- $20 here, $20 there -- are helping us to put it together," says Kamara.
He's looking for "people who are passionate about film, especially art film, and social and cultural issues." And he has found some in the Houston Endowment, and even (mirabile dictu!) at the increasingly parsimonious National Endowment for the Arts.
"Every little bit helps," he says. "This is a grassroots effort."