A Sydney woman is about to realise her dream of launching a celebration of African cinema.
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3 Apr 2012 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2014 - 12:40 PM

To initiate a film festival normally would require a well-resourced administration, the support of sponsors and at least one tier of government, film industry experience plus a lot of determination and gumption.

The organiser (singular) of the first annual African Film Festival Australia has the latter two qualities in abundance, but zero sponsors, government assistance or industry background.

The event, which unspools in Sydney from April 5-8 and in Melbourne from April 11-15, is the brainchild of Samira Ibrahim, a young Sydney woman who migrated to Australia from her native Somalia with her family in 1997, when she was 10. The festival is virtually a solo enterprise for Ms Ibrahim, with the assistance of several volunteers.

A graduate in social sciences from the University of Sydney, Samira got the idea of the African festival a year ago. “I go to a lot of film festivals and there weren't many African films screening,” she told SBS Movies.

“I'm now realising what a crazy idea that was. I had to convince a lot of people to come on board. I'm getting lots of support from Melbourne which has a large Somali community.”

She's raised the money to stage the festival from private donations and from the proceeds of screening two documentaries in Sydney last year: War Child, which followed hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal as he returned to Sudan where he served as a child soldier; and Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon, which profiled Nigerian political revolutionary, musician, composer and performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died from an AIDS-related illness in 1997.

Sensibly, the neophyte festival director is making a modest start, screening several features and a collection of shorts at the Dendy's Opera Quay in Sydney and at the Red Bennies theatre in Melbourne's South Yarra.

The opening night features the Australian premiere of Restless City, first time Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu's drama about an immigrant from Senegal who lives in Harlem, dreams of being a musician and ekes out a living selling CDs on the street, mainly to fellow West African immigrants.

The documentary Democracy in Dakar follows rappers, DJs, journalists, professors and people on the street before, during and after the controversial 2007 presidential election in Senegal and examines hip-hop's role in the political process.

[Read review of Democracy in Dakar]

The shorts are Kengere (Uganda), which uses puppets to chronicle a massacre of civilians perpetrated by government soldiers in 1989; Money Tree (Sierra Leone/US), an animation about an African boy who tries to escape poverty by planting an orchid of stolen money; Say Grace Before Drowning (Sierra Leone/US), an account of a woman's struggle to overcome the insanity of war as she tries to adjust to life in the US; Shooting Freetown (Sierra Leone/UK), which follows three people forging their way in film and music a decade after Sierra Leone's civil war; and Black Swan Theory (US), the saga of a woman, a psychiatric casualty of war, who returns to the US and believes she must hunt or become the hunted.

Liberia 77 (Liberia/Canada) follows two Canadian brothers, both photographers, who return to their birthplace after 30 years and two civil wars (Melbourne only).

[Read review of Liberia 77]

Closing the festival is the Australian premiere of Kinshasa Symphony (pictured), a German doco which focuses on members of a 200-strong orchestra in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they rehearse the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for an upcoming outdoor concert.

[Read review of Kinshasa Symphony]

Social media played a prominent part in Samira's search for the features, as she explains. “Google is very useful, plus I looked at other festivals and at YouTube and I followed some African filmmakers on Twitter.” The short films resulted from an open call for submissions last year.

Elaborating on her selections, she said, “One of the aims of the festival is to really challenge what people think about the continent. A lot of films portray Africa as a negative place. There's not just misery on the continent. Restless City is a very beautiful film which shows the African diaspora. Democracy in Dakar shows how music has been used as a political tool in West Africa.”

Despite her lack of experience, she didn't find it difficult to persuade the venues to host the event. “The one in Melbourne had never done a film screening so I think they were just looking to expand their audience,” she said. “The Dendy has always been fantastic.” There'll be around 150 tickets available for each session.

She acknowledges she's had advice and assistance on sourcing films and marketing from the organisers of the Sydney Latin American Film Festival and the Possible Worlds – Sydney Canadian Film Festival.

There will be a party atmosphere at the opening night in Sydney and at the closing night in Melbourne, featuring performances by all-girl band SAEA Banyana (the first name meaning South Africa, Ethiopia and Angola, their countries of origin) and Afrobiotics, respectively.

She's determined not only to make the festival an annual event but to expand to other capital cities and to regional Australia, especially in areas which have a sizable expat African community. Next year she's keen to have additional screenings in Sydney's Western suburbs.

Proud of her African roots, she'd like to travel more widely on the continent, having only been to Kenya apart from her native Somalia.

Aside from the festival, she works for the non-profit Australian Somalia Community Organisation, which aims to help the community integrate and prosper through employment, education, housing, cultural and social support.

For more information visit the official website.