Films such as, Back of the Moon starring, Moneoa Moshesh (left) and Richard Lukunku, are featured in the African Diaspora International Film Festival. (Courtesy Photo)

By Lenore T. Adkins
Special to the AFRO

For nearly three decades, the African Diaspora International Film Festival has screened movies capturing the richness and diversity of the Black experience all over the world.

But this year, the festival, which stopped in Washington for 13 years, is going virtual because the COVID-19 pandemic has made traveling and gathering in large crowds with fellow cinephiles unsafe. 

“You feel very destabilized when you’ve been doing something for 27 years in a way and then you have to reinvent yourself,” said Diarah N’Daw-Spech of France, who co-founded the festival with her Cuban husband, Reinaldo Barroso-Spech. “It’s a challenge.”

The 28th annual film festival runs now through Dec. 13 and taking it online meant rethinking the logistics. 

Typically, the New York-based couple find material by jetting to high-profile film festivals all over the world. But the pandemic pushed everything online in March, giving the couple a chance to virtually attend film festivals they normally go to and others they haven’t been to in the past. 

Panel discussions that normally follow some films at the festival will move to the Zoom room. Putting the festival online broadens its reach by connecting with people all over the country. Last year, the festival rolled into Washington, New York City, Chicago and Paris, limiting it to live spectators in those cities. 

And because its audience is primarily people of African descent, a group that’s disproportionately affected by COVID-19, the couple is only charging $2 a ticket.

“We didn’t want anyone to feel excluded because of the financial pressure related to COVID,” N’Daw-Spech said.

The festival comes as the world continues to grapple with racism, following George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day weekend. The uproar surrounding his murder sparked racial justice protests in the United States and around the world. 

“We’ve always worked on showing films that show that Black lives matter,” N’Daw-Spech, said in explaining the festival’s relevance. “That’s been our mission from the beginning.” 

This year’s lineup brings 75 narratives and documentaries from 30 countries, including Barbados, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States.  

Here are N’Daw-Spech’s top five picks:

Back of the Moon (2019)

This love story, set in apartheid-era South Africa, follows a ruthless, but intellectual French poetry-reading gangster called Badman, who falls in love with Eve, a beautiful songbird. The story is set in 1958 Sophiatown, the day before police throw Black families out of the famous Johannesburg suburb that was a hub for Black culture. “It’s a very significant moment for South African history,” N’Daw-Spech explained. “It’s a love story set at a very specific time.” 

The First Nation Program 

It’s important for people from Africa and First Nations to remember they have a lot in common: Europeans stole their land and its riches and subjugated the people in multiple ways. The program, starting Dec. 3, at 7 p.m., aims to educate viewers on that shared history and includes a panel discussion with First Nations people and 10 films from Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States that honor their legacy. 

Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (1981) 

Martin Luther King Jr. may be a household name, but the same isn’t necessarily true of Ella Baker, an unsung organizer of the Civil Rights Movement who was King’s friend and advisor. During her five-decade career in activism, she worked alongside other luminaries, including W.E.B. DuBois, and Thurgood Marshall and mentored up-and-coming leaders such as Rosa Parks and Diane Nash. The documentary sheds light on her activism and influence — Fundi is a Swahili word for someone who passes skills from one generation to the next. “During the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to recognize that there are a lot of Black women behind the scenes who are instrumental in pushing for social change,” N’Daw-Spech said.

The Mali-Cuba Connection (2019)

Back when Mali was still a socialist country and aligned itself with the communist bloc, it had rich cultural exchanges with Cuba, which is still a communist country. This musical documentary begins during the Cold War, when 10 musicians from Mali were sent to Cuba to study music and boost ties between the two countries. These musicians became the ensemble Las Maravillas de Mali and fused Afro-Cuban music with Malian music to create a revolutionary new sound. 

Art, Resistance and Activism Program

This program is a collection of 18 films that celebrate various forms of art as a means for activism and social change. Artist activists profiled include singer Miriam Makeba, and poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Sonia Sanchez. Don’t miss the related panel discussion scheduled for Dec. 13 at 3 p.m.