The 2022 edition of the Africa Film Trinidad and Tobago (AFTT), which took place in Port of Spain from May 24-28, showcased a mix of contemporary and classic films from the continent, alongside local and regional films highlighting issues relevant to the Afro-Caribbean experience.
Now in its eighth year, the festival is much more than a movie screening event. With its grassroots feel and commitment to inclusivity, the event is creating a diverse and dynamic space that reflects the Caribbean's cultural reality — through film, music, art and literature — while paying homage to “the tone, landscape, colour, complexity and beauty of Africa.”
I attended some of this year's AFTT events [full disclosure: a film I co-produced was screened at the festival] and spoke with filmmaker and founder Asha Lovelace about the bridges of communication and collaboration she is building between the worlds of Caribbean and African film, and why is it so important for regional audiences.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): How and when did you decide to start the Africa Film Festival and why did you feel it was necessary for Trinidad and Tobago to have a festival of this nature?
Asha Lovelace (AL): In 2013, I was invited to be part of the jury at FESPACO (Pan-African Film and Television Festival) in Burkina Faso, one of the most significant film festivals of African cinema in the world. It was quite an experience! The opening took place at a massive stadium, full of people from every walk of life — from those on the red carpet, to people strolling in without shoes. Everyone was included, excited, and there to watch films from across the African continent and beyond.
That festival offered me entry to a world of diverse African films, with unique aesthetics, endorsed by their countries and enjoyed by their own people. They took deep pride in these films and in telling their own stories, in their own way, something they were unable to do in colonial times.
As a filmmaker working to bring Caribbean stories, told by Caribbean people, to the screen, I was inspired to see the support offered by the festival to films and filmmakers across Africa. As I sat there in that packed stadium, I realised that African cinema can offer us models for developing a rich and vibrant industry right here at home in the Caribbean.
Not only do we have a connection to Africa — physical, historical and ongoing — it is largely African people who have established the base of what the Caribbean is. Coming from a similar colonial experience, African people have been addressing the same kinds of questions that we in this region have to address as we struggle to recuperate our psyche. With AFTT, we wanted to reconnect with Africa and to give us something to see of ourselves that we have been estranged from.
JMF: At this year’s launch you talked about the role of the AFTT in reframing how Black people are perceived. Tell us about that in the context of multicultural Trinidad and Tobago.
AL: With all its complexity and diversity, I cannot think of a continent that has been more vilified in recent history, and at the same time, whose people have served as such a source of creativity and inspiration for the world. In an attempt to liberate African people from the view imposed by generations of colonial denunciation, AFTT gives us a chance to see an African view of the world, which will, in fact, help us to shape our own world view, not only for people of African origin, but for all of us in this very complex and cosmopolitan society. We can all address the essential humanity and requirement for human dignity and justice for all.
JMF: How does the collaboration with African filmmakers work?
AL: I have been the regional secretary for the Caribbean diaspora for FEPACI, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers since 2013 and this association has brought me in close contact with filmmakers and film festivals across the continent and beyond. This has certainly helped with being in the know about new films, and has also led to collaborations and exchanges with content between festivals.
This year, we collaborated with the Real Time International Film Festival in Nigeria and had a fantastic panel discussion on Nollywood and the Trinidad and Tobago film industry. Finally, a co-production treaty was announced, as well as the first Trinidad and Tobago/Nigeria film production that is already in the development stages.
JMF: I loved how the films I saw had a very different aesthetic than the mainstream, Hollywood-type movies many of us are accustomed to seeing. The feel is fresh, rooted in a different perspective, and still strong in terms of the universality of the storytelling. What can the regional film industry learn from this?
AL: Everything! That is precisely the point. AFTT is a carefully curated festival that gives us access to not only the creativity and diversity of African storytelling through various genres, but these films also offer different perspectives, models, themes and aesthetic qualities.
As we address the telling of our own stories, these films can provide support and instil some confidence in our filmmakers, in the themes we address, the techniques we employ and the way we set about to make films. We can be inspired both as filmmakers and spectators by these African films; we can learn from them and we can see ourselves in them.
JMF: Like Bollywood, African cinema has grown because it has audiences to support it in terms of scale. Might there be a lesson here for Caribbean filmmakers?
AL: Absolutely! These industries are also heavily supported by the diaspora. We have a long history of Bollywood films in Trinidad, for example. This has been a way for Indians to remain connected to the mother land and to tap in culturally to what was happening there. More recently, we have been consuming a large number of […] Nollywood films in Trinidad and Tobago.
Likewise, we can tap into the very same markets and utilise the same distribution streams. We have been looking towards Hollywood and North America for validation and an entry point into their industry and the heavily controlled distribution chains, but we have these other vast markets available for us to explore and capitalise on.
I suspect it will be a more viable route and perhaps even more rewarding.
JMF: The event makes a point of supporting young artists who are not necessarily filmmakers (artists, fashion designers, musicians etc.), as well as nurturing kids who may well become the storytellers of tomorrow. Why is this important to you?
AL: Filmmaking is the most modern form of storytelling and it incorporates various other art forms such as writing, visual art, music, photography, etc.
It is important for us to provide a space for young creatives where they can actively participate not only as spectators, but a space where they can exhibit, collaborate, discuss, sell and more importantly, see themselves as part of something worthwhile.
JMF: What makes AFTT different and why should people be interested in being a part of it?
AL: AFTT is meant to be a fresh source of inspiration. It is meant to validate the telling of our own stories, to inspire us to tell our own stories in our own way. What we have been trying to do is to help us to appreciate ourselves and our stories.
Here, we see filmmakers who — with a fraction of the resources available to Hollywood — create movies that draw on a wealth of stories and images from the continent. AFTT is committed to giving our local filmmakers, including those who have been previously ignored, the inspiration, encouragement and platform to exhibit and share their work.
JMF: Tell us about the community outreach aspect of the festival and what you believe it has accomplished.
AL: AFTT was born out of a desire to share, celebrate, inspire and be inspired, connect and reconnect through stories and film. Taking the festival out into various communities continues to be a priority. Film festivals can sometimes have a stigma of being exclusive, artsy, even elitist, and this is something that we want to avoid. AFTT is for everyone.
Film is the art form with the greatest mass appeal. It is important to us that we share these stories with as many people as we can. We cannot leave out the people in rural areas. We want to make this as accessible as possible to everyone. For those who cannot come, we will bring it to you.
Up until 2019 (before COVID-19) we would launch the festival at the Brian Lara Promenade on a Friday evening, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of people making their way home, with a free pop-up screening. This was always a great start to our festival week, but more than anything else it was a declaration and an invitation for everyone and anyone to participate and feel a part of the festival.
JMF: What are you most proud of about the festival?
AL: AFTT is growing in every way. I am proud of that expansion and growth. I am proud of what we have created and of the energy and vibe that envelops the festival. One of my most proudest moments was when two young filmmakers asked to screen their films at AFTT. They came to us saying, ‘We feel at home here.’
JMF: Where do you see AFTT going in the future?
AL: I see AFTT as the hub of Black cinema in the region, with editions in various islands. It is my hope that AFTT helps us in the Caribbean to see Africa as more than a distant place from our history, but a representation of a living connection to people from over 50 countries with a vast array of cultures, and a reminder that Africa is here with us — all of us.