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Out of Africa: African Diaspora International Film Festival Returns to New York

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The African Diaspora International Film Festival (A.D.I.F.F.) is growing up. Now in its 19th year, the 2011 festival features more than 60 movies, produced in 37 countries. Some of the highlights include The First Rasta, a documentary about the man who founded the Rastafari movement, a Woman Indies Night program and plenty of opportunities for film fans to meet filmmakers.

One of the award winning movies playing in the festival is the documentary An African Election. The feature length film follows the twists and turns of Ghana’s 2008 general election. Filmmaker Jarreth Merz perfectly embodies the diverse spirit of the A.D.I.F.F. He lives in Los Angeles, works in Rome and grew up in Ghana and Switzerland. Currently in New York for the premier of his film he took some time out to chat with me (Femi Oke) about the documentary.

The Takeaway's Femi Oke: Is there more to you making this film than being inspired by your childhood growing up in Ghana?

Filmmaker Jarreth Merz: There is more. I was always very interested in what happens in Ghana after we left in the '80s. After the first military coup happened my family moved to Switzerland. I haven’t been back to Ghana for 28 years and I always wondered what’s day to day like there? I went back looking for answers about a contemporary Ghana, a contemporary slice of Africa. I was also fed up with the way Africa is portrayed, as I know Africa is diverse and there are a lot of countries within one continent. I was just sick and tired of seeing the same old stereotypes and all the bad news. I knew there had to be more than that.

I went back to shoot this film to go down memory lane but also to find a modern, contemporary Ghana and I chose the 2008 elections for that. I went behind the scenes of the campaigning to see how an election is run in Ghana. Everyone says elections out of Africa are corrupt and they’re never going to work. A lot of times it’s true, as we saw in Zimbabwe where the elections didn’t go well. In Guinea, they didn’t go well. In Mauritania, they didn’t go well. In Kenya, it was terrible, 1,600 people died in post-election violence. It shouldn’t be happening in this day and age. So I wanted to go behind the scenes of just one of the elections on the continent and see if we could inspire people.

FO: Your access was incredible, how did you set up that kind of access?

JM: My great, great, great grandfather was the Ashanti King so we did have a calling card. We also spent a lot of time in the country, three months prior to the elections traveling with the political players. We made sure they got used to us. We made sure we gave them the feeling that we weren’t there to exploit them, because that wasn’t the point. I wanted to be able to see the process and I wanted to be as close as possible. I wanted to see how transparent they would make this process. We just got unprecedented access because I think they realized we were there to show the good.

FO: I think you got lucky with the film, because until the run-off election everything was going very smoothly … and that’s not good for you as a documentarian, surely?

JM (chuckling): It was a surprise and to me the coverage of what we finally got was a shock. We think that democracy in Ghana just works perfectly and it’s always seen as the beacon of hope and the most progressive country when it comes to democratic growth. But the film shows that we mustn’t take democracy for granted and it’s a very fragile beast that needs constant nurturing.

FO: Every Ghanaian is going to want to see the film, because it portrays characters they know and love and it covers what was a very important election for Ghana.  But who else will this film appeal to?

JM: An American audience! Here’s a story. We were in Sundance this year, the film was in competition. We screened for 500 high school students.  I was scared. I thought they were going to walk out. I was thinking they wouldn’t want to watch a film about presidential elections, let alone in Ghana. Guess what? We got a standing ovation. I was shocked in a positive sense. They said, 'Thank you so much for bringing this film because this is not only about AIDS, war, poverty and corruption. This film gives us an insight into how progressive Ghana is, how progressive Africa is. It reminds us of our obligations and responsibilities as future voters. I was flabbergasted how advanced these young people were. So I would say anyone interested in democracy and the idea that democracy has to be revisited because it’s a learning process will be interested in this film. 

FO: As a filmmaker, you have many festival venues to showcase your documentary. What drew you to the African Diaspora International Film Festival?

JM: They are doing an amazing job of bringing cultures together. They show films that you usually don’t get to see. How many movies have we all seen about the wildlife of Africa? I just want to say, 'Come on guys. There’s more to Africa and cultures influenced by Africa than what you’re showing us.' I think this festival is doing an unbelievable job of giving us a spectrum, an extremely interesting and challenging spectrum for us to learn and be entertained.

Watch Jarreth Merz's documentary at the Quad Cinema through Dec. 6. For a full schedule of all the movies in the African Diaspora International Film Festival, which runs through Dec. 13, click here.

Watch the trailer for An African Election below:

WNYC Radio is a community media sponsor of the African Diaspora International Film Festival.