MVHS grad's movie in African film fest

Local festival grows in its second year at CSMA

A documentary by a filmmaker with local ties will be among the nearly three dozen films featured in this year's Silicon Valley African Film Festival.

Opening at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View on Friday, Oct. 14, and running through Sunday, Oct. 16, the festival celebrates African filmmakers and the culture they seek to capture in their works, said Chike C. Nwoffiah, the festival's director. Now in its second year, the festival has grown substantially since last year, he said.

Nwoffiah said he is encouraged by the growth of his festival. This year, festival organizers received about 70 film submissions, which they whittled down to a bit more than 30. Last year, Nwoffiah said, only about 50 films were submitted.

This year, the festival will also feature a handful of documentaries -- a genre that was absent from last year's event.

One new face at this year's Silicon Valley African Film Festival may be recognizable to the Mountain View High School class of 1998 -- Ekwa Msangi-Omari.

Msangi-Omari was born in Oakland in 1980 and lived in Palo Alto until she was 5, when her parents, who had been Fullbright Scholars at Stanford, moved back to their native Africa, to Kenya. She moved back to the Peninsula in 1997, living with her brothers and attending Mountain View High School for the second half of her junior year and all of her senior year.

The budding writer, director and producer took her first film class at MVHS and found her calling. "I knew that I wanted to go to film school, but it was a very arbitrary idea," Msangi-Omari said. A fan of New York director Spike Lee, she applied and was accepted to New York University, where she went to study film.

After finishing school, Msangi-Omari returned to Africa, establishing a base in her old home city of Nairobi, Kenya. She set out to make films about East Africa told from the perspective of East Africans.

Though she had seen documentaries about the wildlife in East African countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, and while she had seen white actors playing foreigners with a strange African land as their backdrop, she had never seen a film about Africans, with the exception of works focused on the destitution and poverty that can be found in many African countries.

None of those categories showed the middle class, suburban life Msangi-Omari had known growing up in the Lavington Green neighborhood of Nairobi.

"Living in Mountain View, nobody knew anything about where I was from," she said. "I knew so much about America and Americans, mostly from films and TV. Yet, I came across people who knew nothing about me. That's always been a major part of who I am."

In "Taharuki," a short film written, produced and directed by Msangi-Omari, she gives her audience a peek into life during a very recent and tumultuous period in Kenyan history -- the riots and tribal warfare, which erupted after the country's rigged 2007 presidential election.

The film, which will be shown at the festival, is only 12 minutes long and has little dialogue. However, what little talking takes place is revealing. The characters alternate between English and Swahili, reflecting the country's colonial past. A man is killed for doing what he believes is right, and the entire film takes place inside a strip mall shop that sells beaded jewelry and other accessories.

This is the "real Africa," according to Nwoffia. In the West, he said, all to often the only thing shown on television or in films is "an Africa that is always on its knees, begging for something. In the films we are showing you see people just living their everyday lives."

Msangi-Omari said that she hopes her films might be instructive. "I definitely have a global audience in mind," she said. "It's important to me because it's part of my identity, of course," she said. "There are really beautiful inspirational stories to be told."

Besides the introduction of documentaries, there's another new feature at this year's festival: the American Leadership Forum Silicon Valley will be hosting a special screening of "Rwanda: Beyond the Deadly Pit," a 2010 film from director Gilbert Ndahayo about a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After the film the Leadership Forum will host a community dialogue and wine and cheese gala.

The festival is attracting bigger names this year, as well, Nwoffiah said, like award-winning South African filmmaker Zola Maseko.

"It's a sign that we are coming of age," Nwoffia said of the festival's growth.


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