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Pan African Film Festival: Continental Shift

Critics' picks for the weekend

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If there were such a thing as a popularity contest for continents, then the current winner certainly would be Africa. It's the region on every activist's and celeb's mind, embraced by the cult of the marquee names such as Bono and Oprah. Africa has transformed into the nexus of all that needs fixing in the world: AIDS, poverty, war, sexual exploitation. It's the moral fulcrum in our global seesaw.

Since its inception in 1992, the Los Angeles-based Pan African Film Festival has been way ahead of the Afri-chic curve. Dedicated to making the continent a part of the global black consciousness, the festival addresses the totality of black experience including America, Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and Australia.

Beginning in 1998, the PAFF has organized a film series during the National Black Arts Festival. Along with its international array of films, this year's PAFF (July 23-29) also includes Rewind, a retrospective of classic African-American cinema featuring Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, and Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger and Killer of Sheep.

Some of our highlights for this year's festival:

Rwanda Rising 3 stars (Sunday, July 29, 5 p.m., Rich Theatre), with Q&A featuring Andrew Young

An appropriate reflection of this year's PAFF theme of "Healing, Reconciliation and Resolution," this documentary set in postgenocide Rwanda is the kind of programming that could certainly make for long postscreening debate. Almost as surreal as the notion of a 1994 genocide so vast that entire families were wiped out in the blink of an eye is the astounding aftermath documented in Rwanda Rising. Made by the Atlanta-based team of CB Hackworth and former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young – who produced and co-wrote the film and appears on camera throughout – the film centers on the seemingly miraculous recovery of the country a decade later and the capacity of its people to forgive even the most horrific crimes. Though the broadcast-TV production values are stodgy and the documentary can often have the boosterish feel of a Rwandan tourism-board ad, there is also plenty to recommend in this film about the country's psychological and economic healing. The implicit point is well-made that we tend to ignore and then fetishize the most horrific dimensions of the genocide and fail to recognize the humanity of its victims and their inspiring capacity to remake the world in a new way. – Felicia Feaster

A Sunday in Kigali 2 stars (Sunday, July 29, 2 p.m., Hill Auditorium)

Director Robert Favreau's overheated drama is an entirely different take on the Rwandan genocide. Often gratuitously visualizing the violence that overtook the country, A Sunday in Kigali tells the conventionalized story of an older Canadian journalist (Luc Picard) who falls in love with a stunning Tutsi hotel waitress (Fatou N'Diaye) on the eve of the genocide. The film is often a good illustration of why dwelling on this real-life nightmare, especially as a backdrop for a star-crossed love story, may not be the most dignified approach. Perhaps most disturbing is how the film takes on the character of a horror film as audiences will undoubtedly inwardly scream at Picard as he drags his feet about getting out of Rwanda. – Feaster

Salud! 3 stars (Friday, July 27, 7:50 p.m., Rich Theatre)

If you've seen the medical documentary Sicko, you may question Michael Moore's adulatory portrait of the Cuban health-care system. Salud!, with its white-coated Cuban "family doctors" making house calls, offers a second opinion that's even more positive and persuasive than Sicko's. Connie Field explores not only how Cuba built up a world-class public health system on a Third World budget, but also how it sets an example for other developing countries such as the Gambia and Honduras. Diplomatic experts such as Jimmy Carter acknowledge that Cuba's globe-trotting physicians provide international public-relations value as well as humanitarian relief. Mostly Salud! only touches on politics by exploring the solidarity the Cuban doctors feel for other poverty-stricken populations, and their stories of penniless rural patients could reduce a stone to a blubbering wreck. Salud! includes some intriguing infighting between the Cuban doctors and the native medical professions of some of the countries they visit. Mostly the film gives Cuba's health-care system such a sunny diagnosis that, to switch metaphors, you wish Field played devil's advocate a little more often. – Curt Holman

Zaïna: Rider of the Atlas 3 stars (Saturday, July 28, 1:35 p.m., Rich Theatre)

"Once upon a time," 11-year-old Zaïna (Aziza Nadir) flees her powerful, wicked stepfather (Simon Abkarian) across the North African desert with the father (Sami Bouajila of Indigenes) she didn't know she had. In this Moroccan/French/German co-production, director Bourlem Guerdjou presents an archetypal folktale of universal appeal, set among nomadic horsemen en route to a famous race. Guerdjou crafts lovely shots of the inhospitable scenery worthy of a small-scale Lawrence of Arabia, and it's welcome to see cinematic swordplay between combatants who are not indestructible pirates or martial artists. It takes awhile for the actors to warm up, but Nadir and Bouajila share some moments of lovely father-daughter bonding, inspired by the characters' love of horses. The final horse race proves impossible to resist, even though the Rocky-like stand-up-and-cheer aspects don't seem to square with this strict Muslim society's unequal treatment of the sexes. Overall, Western audiences may appreciate Zaïna's apolitical, family-friendly portrait of an easily demonized Islamic culture. – Holman

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