The Good, the Bad and the Not So Pretty

The African Diaspora Film Festival -- Seventeen Years and Counting

by Loretta H. Campbell

jon hendricks

An African filmmaker holding a camera is a revolutionary act,” says Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, cofounder of the African Diaspora Film Festival (ADFF). He is quoting the renowned Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

Indeed, film can be the great equalizer simply by documenting the humanity of a people.

It follows that those who distribute or present Afro-centric films can be seen as rebels. Such is the case with Reinaldo and his wife Diarah N’Daw-Spech, founding partners of ArtMattan Productions, in New York City, the distribution company which oversees their creation of the African Diaspora Film Festival founded seventeen years ago. Business partners, the Spechs developed ADFF, one of the first film festivals of its kind in the world, to address the problem of the near invisibility of films by and about black people. “Although we live in a multi-racial society, we [Black people] are not central. We are peripheral,” he explains.

ADFF addresses this through its distribution and presentation of foreign and independent films. Among the films that speak to the ADFF agenda of inclusiveness is the documentary Blues March, Soldier Jon Hendrix, directed by Malte Rauch.

The film, screened at “The Best of the African Diaspora Film Festival” hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in February, 2010, examines the hardships of Black American soldiers during World War II.

In it, celebrated jazz vocalist Hendrix bears witness to the traumas of segregation by blacks, accompanied by the additional horrors of war.

ADFF further outlines the problems of Black civilians at home during this era. In Up From The Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream, another presentation for the festival, one witnesses hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrating from the South to northern cities. Narrated by Cicely Tyson, this documentary describes the exodus of Black people that permanently altered the demographics of America.

Reinaldo sees a parallel between the migration of African Americans during that period and the struggles of Black people and indigenous peoples around the world.

Two of the films in the ADFF collection speak to this comparison. In the documentary Migration of Beauty, by Chris Flaherty, Ethiopians who have migrated from their homeland to escape political oppression begin to build communities in Washington, D.C. The subject of forced migration is also detailed in Vincente Serrano’s, A Forgotten Injustice. In it, he uncovers the little known forced expulsion of Mexican Americans from the U.S. during the 1930s.

Despite this, these people have fought to maintain and preserve their cultural identities as evidenced in two films shown at the February festival.

In the Cultures of Resistance Program, two filmmakers -- Pam Sporn, with her documentary, With a Stroke of the Chaveta and Maya Jensen, with her documentary Solidarity in Saya: an Afro-Bolivian Music Movement -- went to Cuba and Bolivia respectively and showed us how certain cultural traditions are at the foundation of the survival of specific groups in each country.

One of the issues that the ADFF keeps in the forefront of its ongoing discussion about film is the commonality of Africans in the diaspora, and people of color everywhere. Reinaldo describes the ADFF as a “bridge between the various cultures.” The ArtMattan mission statement elaborates on this.

“ADFF’s mission is to expand the traditional views and perceptions of what the Black experience is by showcasing films depicting the richness and diversity of the global Black experience from Peru to Zimbabwe, and from the USA to Jamaica.”

In some regards, the Spechs are the embodiment of this agenda. Diarah, who is French and Malian, is fluent and literate in two languages. She has a B.A. in economics from SUNY, Albany and a M.B.A. from Columbia University in Management and Marketing. She and Reinaldo select all of the films in the festival and co-develop the publicity and marketing of these films, as well as co-hosting the festival screenings.

Reinaldo, a native of Cuba and of Haitian and Jamaican descent, is fluent and literate in three languages. He holds degrees from Universities in Cuba, France, Spain and the United States in both Foreign Languages and Black Literature. He obtained his doctorate degree from Teachers College, at Columbia University, where he teaches a course on film and coordinates a film club for teachers.

By the Spechs’ estimation, ADFF has been a vehicle for over a thousand films. They have added to their archives by attending festivals and screenings worldwide, and by having filmmakers ask to have their work distributed by ArtMattan. The ADFF has led them to numerous distribution deals. Besides BAM, the Spechs have partnered with Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and National Geographic in Washington, D.C. Moreover, ADFF is the recipient of two Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Festival Awards (2004 and 2006). In recent years, the ADFF has been presented in Jersey City, Chicago, Curaçao, the Netherlands, and Washington, D.C.

Yet, even with growing and well-deserved accolades, the Spechs’ themselves feel invisible.

Diarah and Reinaldo feel discriminated against by the independent and foreign film communities. They are not in the loop when it comes to festivals, networking, or opportunities of that kind even though they would like to be, Diarah outlines. “In one case, a white independent film producer asked us to buy independent Black films for his company. He didn’t want to partner with us or to help us as a colleague.” There are what Reinaldo refers to as “layers” in this business. “Networking and business goes on much like it does in back room deals in businesses where whites exclude Blacks.”

Both add that they have had to fight to get screen time for the ADFF. Diarah says, “There was never any explanation as to why. Or when there was one, it was very subjective.”

Of course, more recognition would bring financial support. To date, ArtMattan and ADFF have survived with grants, ticket sales, sponsors, and film distribution. In fact, ArtMattan started with money from Reinaldo’s family. However, the Spechs want to build ArtMattan and ADFF into self-supporting enterprises.

One way is to take the films to a wider audience. In addition to the festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Berlin and Ouagadougou, the Spechs plan to cultivate commercial movie-goers. They feel this will add to their existing audiences, which to date are primarily in specialty houses, museums, film festivals, and universities.

To accomplish this, they have a wish list, which includes:

  1. A mass media team sensitive to the goals and agenda of the ADFF because they are distributors and attend festivals.
  2. Multi-lingual team members with an understanding of various cultures.
  3. Patrons who can endow the ADFF.

This is more than a wish list. It is the strategic plan that will bring ArtMattan and the ADFF the kind of funding and visibility they deserve.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer’s Union.

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