The Mississippi River 9th Ward Film and Arts Festival presents an array of films, panel discussions and events. One unique event is a visit by Gilles Porte, a French director who has undertaken an overwhelmingly cute project to film children drawing themselves. His ongoing work is documented in the film Dessine Toi (pictured), and New Orleans children will be the first American children to participate in the project.
While Dessine Toi is irrepressibly upbeat, some of the other films are more lurid and serious. Venus Noire (Black Venus) is a French/Tunisian film about the South African woman who is known as Hottentot Venus. Born Saartjie Baartman in 1770s, she was taken to Paris and London and shamefully paraded as a sort of freak, and her treatment and characterization have been studied for their combined racism, sexism and fetishism. Shirley Adams: Portrait of a Mother is a sensitive drama about a South African woman who cares for a son crippled in a gang shootout. Also screening are Central do Brasil and Africa United, a family-friendly film about Rwandan children trekking across the continent to attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
In Dessine Toi, Porte traveled the globe to film children drawing self portraits. He chose to work mostly with children not yet able to read or write. As they drew themselves, he surreptitiously filmed them from the other side of the two-way glass pane, capturing their joy, frustration and curiosity as they attempted to draw themselves. The filmmakers also turned some of the illustrations into animations, adding more whimsical scenes to the film.
The story of Hottentot Venus is one of outrageous inhumanity, and director Abdellatif Kechiche's dramatization captures both the lurid voyeurism and Baartman's silent vigil to survive her treatment. She was lured to Europe with a promise of riches, but she was not a performer or sideshow freak, so much as a woman objectified for her protruding hips and buttocks and pendulous labia. Later she became a prostitute. Europeans gawked at her body, projecting a vision of savage otherness onto her, and scientists and doctors made all sorts of bogus claims about race from their similarly prurient observations. (Her remains were on display in France until 1976.) Cuban-born actress Yahima Torres has been lauded for her portrayal of Baartman. The film is in French with English subtitles.
In a more somber and sensitive film, Shirley Adams is a black South African woman whose son has been crippled by a gunshot. Left a quadripelegic, he is angry and barely has the will to live. His father abandons the family, and Shirley cannot afford medication or food. When a white medical volunteer arrives to help, even that has its indignities, but Shirley's devotion to caring for her son guides her.
The festival is presented by the New Orleans Afrikan Film and Arts Festival. For a schedule and list of panel discussions, visit www.neworleansafrikanfilmfest.org. — Will Coviello
Mississippi River 9th Ward Film and Arts Festival