International cinema and 15th African Diaspora Film Festival

Diarah N’Daw-Spech was born and educated in France where she studied Spanish in high school and English at the university. Mrs. Spech has developed a 15-year long career as an educational administrator in the USA and is currently the Financial Director for the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovations at Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a BA in economics from SUNY Albany and a MBA from Columbia University in Management and Marketing. In 1993, Mrs. Spech created with her husband the African Diaspora Film Festival (ADFF – The mission of ADFF 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 New Zealand to Jamaica. Since its inception, the festival has featured over 500 films focusing on the global Black experience, some of which secured distribution and TV contracts following their presentation in the festival. Such titles include Sankofa, The Journey of the Lion, The Keeper, Kirikou and the Sorceress, Otomo, Faraw! Mother of the Dunes, The Tracker and Dry Season/Daratt.

Cinema Without Borders: Please tell me about the history of the festival and also your involvement in the festival.
Diarah N’Daw-Spech: I am the co-director of the festival. I established the festival with my husband fifteen years ago in 1993. We basically are both immigrants in the U.S. We both come from other countries. I was born in France with heritage from and my husband was born in Cuba with heritage from Haiti, and Jamaica. We met in France, and one of our primary activities there was to go and see films. We saw films from all over the world. In Paris you have access to quite a few different types of films. My husband, who had been born in Cuba during the revolution, had been exposed to African cinema when as a young child his mother took him to the movies. We always had a very strong interest in trying to see films that would be like our own realities on the big screen. In Paris you could see that, but when we came here we realized it was not that easily accessible. So what we did as immigrants was to go to school and develop a professional career. You didn’t want to spend money and just go on cruises. We wanted to do something meaningful. We decided what we wanted to do for ourselves and for everyone else was a film festival that focused on our reality. We realized as immigrants coming in that we did not fit with what was called black here at the time in the early eighties. We wanted to show that black was a global experience and reality. It was African-American, and people from the Caribbean, and people from the African continent, Afro-Latinos, and Afro-Europeans—All of that is the black reality. Our goal was to visibly create a connection with other people here in New York City with African-Americans and people with African descent. We wanted to create a bridge across communities because we noticed that communities did not mingle with one another, especially when it came to socializing and going to cultural events. They seemed very isolated in a way. The notion of the festival was to bring people together to share our commonalities, and our common experiences and maybe with that help we can work with one another to get a better situation for all of us.

CWB: How successful do you think the festival has been over the past fifteen years? How was it received in the early years? How has it grown now in its fifteenth year?
Diarah: The festival was very well received in the first year, even to our surprise. People came that we didn’t even know. When we started this we didn’t really know anyone in the film industry in this country. We knew film and we had seen a lot of films but we didn’t know anyone in this city. We didn’t even have a PR person to do the work; We had just a student working with us. We premiered “Sankofa” which was a film that marked the history of independent African-American cinema, and we premiered this film in New York City. “Sankofa” is by Haile Gerima who is originally from Ethiopia and teaches in Washington D.C. and at Hawaii University, he teaches cinema. A lot of the African filmmakers of that generation got their training in Eastern countries such as Russia, Finland and Germany, and they have strong training in film. They have produced excellent cinema as a result of their training. We opened with that film and we continued with other films. We were preparing for an interview with the “New York Times” and we looked at the selection of films we had the first year. We were amazed because they were high quality films that have become classics. Like “Quilombo” from Carlos Diegues and “Havana”. From the very beginning we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do with the festival. What has happened was that we started in 1993 for one week, in one theatre with twenty-four films, and today fifteen years later we have six venues, one-hundred and two films, and we run for seventeen days. We have grown slowly every year. This year I believe we are getting more visibility than we had last year probably because it is the fifteen year anniversary. We also have a tremendous program this year and I think people are noticing it a little more.

CWB: How is the presence of international cinema in your festival?
Diarah: It is very strong. I would say about seventy percent of the films in the festival are international. It is not only the film; we also have filmmakers here. Currently today on the twenty-fourth of November we have one filmmaker from Ghana. We also have somebody who came from Haiti and they all flew in yesterday. So we actually fly people in. We also have Paul Leduc who is from Mexico who is coming in tomorrow. So we have a strong international presence with the filmmakers and we have a very large variety and diversity with the films. We have forty three countries in the festival representing this year—Sometimes because of co-productions and sometimes because we just have films from all over the place.

CWB: Do you give out any awards?
Diarah: Yes we have only one award. It is a public award. It is an award for the best film given to a woman of color. It has to be a feature length film. The primary purpose for creating this award was to track, through the festival, a larger number of the films made my female filmmakers because they have a hard time financing their films. It is harder for female filmmakers of color, and even harder for female independent filmmakers of color. What we wanted to do was support them and give them an award that comes with a small cash prize that goes with it. It is basically a way of saying keep on going even though it is a struggle, and that it is important that they do this work too.

CWB: Are there any events besides the screening of the films like seminars or workshops?
Diarah: Yeah, there are two types of events going on. There is a whole section of the festival that is geared towards education. We have screening on weekdays at noon for public school kids that come free of charge to view the films and discuss them afterwards with filmmakers while they are there. That is one segment of the educational program. The other segment is we also have a class where you have prospective teachers who attend to learn how to use these films in a classroom setting to teach culture and history. They use these films as tool to convey ideas to their students. In this class students are registered full credit to attend. They participate in the professional development seminar that is held at a teachers’ college and taught my co- director, my husband Renaldo. The third part of this educational program is the panel discussions which are also open to the public but they are also for the students. The panel discussions are held at the end of the festival after people have gotten the chance to view all these films and have gotten all this information. Then it is time to sit down and talk about them. The panel discussions are not focused on industry, how to make a film, or how to get your film distributed— our focus is more around culture, identity and things like that. For example, Friday, December 7th we have a panel about African Cinema and we have African filmmakers who will be on this panel. Then we have another one we have called Arts and the African American. We have a whole program of films in the festival this year that explore the creative contribution of African-Americans to the arts; all forms of art in the U.S. and abroad and so we will have a panel discussion to talk about this. Then on Saturday we have a panel about African leaders and democracy. Again, we have a program of films that focuses on African leaders in Africa. We have films about Lumumba, Sankara, and about the new president of Liberia. We also have films about a couple of other African leaders. Then again we will have another discussion about this. We will have a filmmaker in residence and her name is Atteyat Al-Abnoudy and she is from Egypt and she will be arriving from there later on during the festival. We are going to be doing a retrospective of her work and we are going to talk with her Saturday, December 8th. The reason why we invited her as our first filmmaker in residence is because the work she does is quite important in Egypt. She is very well respected there. She does documentaries that really look at the class issues. She focuses on the people of lower classes. She also shows the rendition of black Egyptians which you don’t see a lot of in Egyptian cinema. The last panel will be about the diction of slavery in cinema, and we are going to commemorate the end of slavery over 200 years ago. We have a whole program of films around the theme of slavery— both fiction and documentary. We will have a panel discussion talking about how these films are successful in depicting slavery and what they teach people, and what information you get from them.

CWB: How easy is it for people to get to the screenings and events?
Diarah: It is quite easy. We have venues all over Manhattan. So the best way is to go to one of the venues that we have programmed there, and get the information online. People can either buy tickets online or they can go to the venues and purchase tickets at the box office on the day of the show. We have a lot of seats so we usually don’t turn people away. People can come in and see the films and speak to people and participate in the special events. Tomorrow we have a night in Haiti where we are going to present a film about Haiti and have a discussion with Jimmy Jean-Louis who is pretty well known now because he plays on “Heroes” on NBC. He is Haitian and also does a lot to work with Haitian filmmakers. He is here now in town and he will be at the screening tomorrow. Then we have an after party with music, food, and we will dance to Haitian music; it’s like a celebration! We have a number of special events like that. Next week on December 5th, we have the premiere of “Honeydripper” which is John Sayles’ last film. It will be released in theatres later on in December nationwide. John Sayles will be there with some of his cast members. Some of his caste members include Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and other well known and respected African American actors. We will have the screening, discussion and then we will have a catered reception at Josephina which is another restaurant in the neighborhood. So these are special events we have all along the festival.

CWB: The centerpiece of the festival is going to be with a film that is very important to us and it is called—
Diarah: “Youssou N’Dour “. It is part of a program that focuses on slavery. Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, a musician, decided to give a jazz concert to commemorate the humanity that part of the journey as slaves went to the U.S. and created Jazz and Gospel. He adapted his own songs to Jazz and Gospel music through recruiting musicians across Europe and the USA. He travelled to across Atlantic and to New York. He recruited musicians and they rehearsed, and they finished with a concert. The film is an absolutely beautiful film. This is going to be the centerpiece of the film festival which is going to be on Thursday November 29, 2007 at 6:30 p.m. Again, after that screening there is going to be a catered reception and an African dance party at the Bowery Bar.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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