The Africa World Documentary Film Festival was held at the Lowman Student Center on Monday, February 15 from noon to 7 p.m.
SHSU chose to host the festival in honor of Black History Month.
Founded in 2007, the Africa World Documentary Film Festival’s objective is to promote the culture and experiences of the people of Africa through documentary film.
Normally held over the course of three days, only a handful of films could be shown due to conflicts in schedules.
Africa World is held annually at 8-10 different venues worldwide. This year, Sam Houston State University became one of the festival’s global partners and venues.
“Ota Benga,” one of the films shown in the festival, was directed by Jean-Richard Bodon, Ph.D., a professor at SHSU and Chair of the Department of Mass Communication and ‘Niyi Coker, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and director of the Africa World festival.
The documentary “Ota Benga” details the life of a young African man of the same name. In 1904, Ota Benga was taken from his home in the Congo by Belgian forces that had previously destroyed his village.
Benga was to be auctioned off at a slave market until Samuel Verner arrived and took him and several other Africans to St. Louis, Missouri. Verner was under contract to bring a number of Africans to the St. Louis World’s Fair to be displayed as inferior beings.
Ota Benga was then taken from St. Louis to the Bronx Zoo in New York. He was again put on display, this time in the ape exhibit.
Benga remained in New York City for several years until he was relocated to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he would live out the rest of his days.
Bodon said the Anthropology Days at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri inspired the idea for the film. Over the course of the Anthropology Days, people from various cultures around the world were taken or recruited from their homes and pitted against athletes in Olympic events. Ota Benga was one such person.
“He had to do the shot put against a big, white, 250 pound American, so of course he lost,” Bodon said. “They used those Olympic Games to try and demonstrate the inferiority of black people, Indian people and so on and so forth.”
It took about five years for “Ota Benga” to be filmed and edited. Bodon commented on the process behind the transformation of an idea into a full-length documentary.
“It took only one month, maybe two months to shoot it,” Bodon said. “But the editing process took a long time because we were not sure which direction we wanted to take.”
It was not until the events in Ferguson, Missouri that the co-directors knew they had found the right direction for the documentary. Bodon explained that he and Coker felt the events in Ferguson brought the story of Ota Benga to the 21 century.
Coker discussed the kind of message that Benga’s story can convey in modern times.
“The Ota Benga saga though removed and distant in 1904 provides serious lessons for us in these contemporary times in the realm of race and human relations,” Coker said. “The question becomes, how would future generations, forty and fifty years removed from ours, judge our present failures in race relations?”
Prior to the screening of “Ota Benga,” SHSU sophomore and founder of BIG Vision Production Company Daniel Dombire Nyezinah spoke to the audience about the troubled history of African filmmaking.
“Film production was initially banned by the colonial government,” Nyezinah said. “In 1963, the ban was lifted.”
Soon after the ban was lifted, the first African film was produced.
“A man by the name of Ousmane Sembène, from Senegal, produced the first film in Africa,” Nyezinah said. “The film was entitled ‘Barom Sarret.’”
Additionally, Nyezinah felt that it was important that people knew there was more to Africa than what they might have seen on the news. In order to convey his point, Nyezinah played a video that showed different aspects of life in Africa that he thought people might not know about, like a vast cityscape or a bustling mall.
“The only Africa you see on CNN is the Africa where you see people starving and fighting,” Nyezinah said. “There are two sides to every coin. If you see one side, you should be given the opportunity to see the other side of it.”
Other films shown in the festival on Monday included “Ror,” a film about a rising African rap artist, and “Mully,” a film about a Kenyan man’s life of charity and service.
Although the festival could not stay for long this year, SHSU Mass Communication Professor Tom Garrett reassured a return in the future for anyone who wants the full Africa World experience.
“What we agreed on this year was that we were only going to show a select group of 6 or 7 hours of films,” Garrett said, “and ‘Niyi said ‘let’s do it next year’ and he’ll come out and we’ll do the whole festival.”