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Chicago African Diaspora Film Festival 2011

Dreams and nightmares are the highlights of this year’s fest.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE The "dream team" makes a long journey in Africa United.

“Africa doesn’t need dreams,” the pragmatic parent tells her soccer-obsessed son. “It needs to wake up.” Arriving around the ten-minute mark, the line sounds like a mission statement. Yet Africa United, a kind of de facto centerpiece of this year’s Chicago African Diaspora fest, spends the rest of its running time refuting such sentiments. The film argues that the continent does need dreams: In the face of war and sickness and economic hardship, the promise of something better, of something worth believing in, can’t be overvalued. And if every film festival needs an unapologetic crowd-pleaser, this one more than fits the bill.

A road movie that spans half a continent, the buoyant and at times excessively sentimental Africa United (Sunday 19 and Tuesday 21) seems built to elate. In it, three youths—a wanna-be footballer, his little sister and his diminutive, wise-cracking “manager”—attempt to hitchhike from Rwanda to South Africa, where the opening ceremony of the World Cup is being held. Along the way, they add new members to their “dream team,” dodge gun-toting rebels and periodically share fables, visualized in Claymation. A definite “Yes We Can” vibe informs the proceedings, one that’s reinforced by occasional, cheerleading references to President Obama himself.

Tastemakers and savvy PR pros are already scrambling to position United as this year’s Slumdog Millionaire—a reductive and dubious comparison, not least because the film is much less risible than Danny Boyle’s Best Picture winner. It’s also the slickest selection in a fest that privileges substance over style and content over form.

Now in its ninth year, the Chicago African Diaspora International Film Festival highlights independent productions from around the world, all concerned with what it means to be black in the 21st century. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to talk about the fest’s primary subject—the continual migration of people from Africa to various corners of the globe—without touching upon the legacy of slavery. That dark chapter in international history looms large over several of the most engrossing selections.

Programmed on a double bill, “Stubborn As a Mule!” and “Slave Reparations: The Final Passage” (Saturday 18 and Sunday 19) offer complementary takes on a running debate. The latter begins with a question: “Do white Americans have a moral obligation to address the pain that black people feel?” The film argues that reparations aren’t so much about repaying a debt as they are about officially acknowledging a wrongdoing and helping to mend the generation-spanning psychological trauma it’s wrought. With journalistic clearheadedness, “The Final Passage” takes on each of the common points associated with the “con” position, entrusting a small panel of interviewees to dispel misconceptions. A looser and longer affair, “Stubborn As a Mule!” intercuts its flow of facts with talking-head asides and slam-poetry interludes. The two films are crudely made—the production values recall those of a local news program—but when viewed in concert, they comprise a passionately persuasive defense.

For the historical made painfully personal, look to Shadows of the Lynching Tree (Sunday 19 and Monday 20). This cry of outrage connects our supposedly “postracial” present with a past blemished by unspeakable atrocity. Rather than reenact its horrific central narrative—a lynching in Waco, Texas, circa 1916—Carvin Eison’s documentary sets sepia-toned still images to excerpts from James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man.” The combination of these sources creates the disturbing illusion of a first-person account. And by crosscutting to footage from contemporary political rallies, Shadows also hints at what became of the children who attended these celebratory public executions. It’s the polar opposite of Africa United’s uplifting aims. Sometimes working through nightmares is more important than chasing dreams.

The Chicago African Diaspora International Film Festival runs Friday 17 through June 23 at Facets Cinematheque.

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