It’s been a quarter of a century since Mahen Bonetti founded the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Bonetti remembers how esoteric African film was in 1990 when she first began preparing for its launch. “Most people back then, outside of the arthouse community, were not thinking about African cinema. These films were very specific to a certain audience, so if you were not privy to that information, you did not even know something like this existed. If you were not reading The Village Voice or the art section of The New York Times by the time you got the information, the film had come and gone.”

This year’s New York African Film Festival, which runs through May 22, celebrates its 25th year at Lincoln Center. It will feature Valérie Osouf’s highly anticipated portrait of the world-renowned filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako (“Life on Earth,” “Bamako,” “Timbuktu”) and many other critically praised films such as the coming of age tale “Wallay” about a rebellious French teen sent to his father’s homeland of Burkina Faso in an effort to straighten him out. As in previous years, the festival program will include screenings and discussions with filmmakers and artists, panels, an art exhibit and additional events at locations around the city. This year’s festival will also celebrate what would have been famed South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Fittingly, a significant number of this year’s filmmakers hail from South Africa, a nation with a burgeoning film industry. South Africa’s love affair with film began at about the same time as America’s at around the turn of the 20th century.

By 1910, the first full length South African feature, “The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery,” was released. In 1958, the internationally acclaimed “Come Back Africa,” featuring Miriam Makeba, was made on location in Johannesburg by American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. An indictment of apartheid, the South African government allowed Rogosin to make the film because he had tricked them into believing that he was making a musical. “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “Tsotsi” were films made by and about South Africans that have become classics.

Today, South Africa boasts a growing number of film production facilities, and a rapidly increasing number of films are being shot in the country. It seems poised to become a major player in film production. South Africa’s current filmmakers are the ones who appear on the brink of truly forging an identity for South African film. They cite heavy American influences. Director Michael Matthews, whose thrilling and thought-provoking western “Five Fingers for Marseilles” will make its New York premiere at this year’s festival, reveals, “Growing up it was really American stuff I looked to—directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock.” Ideally for Matthews, South African film will “focus on telling entertaining and compelling stories that have a unique angle. We want to find more of where entertainment meets African cinema. Have it feel unique and authentic but hit the beats so it’s a bit more relatable for international audiences and still have something worth saying.”

John Barker, whose political satire “Wonder Boy for President” about a millennial coerced by corrupt characters into running for president is screening at this year’s festival, counts Spike Lee as the person who inspired him. “A huge influence on my career is Spike Lee. For me ‘Do The Right Thing’ showed a clash of cultures that I felt represented South Africa in certain ways.” Barker’s outlook when it comes to South Africa’s film industry is sanguine. “When I made ‘Bunny Chow’ 10 years ago, there were three South African films being made. Now, there are 60-plus films being made, and also the quality of the films has changed. In Cannes at the moment there are six South African films showing and a lot of films have gone to Tribeca Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. We just have to hold on to the people that fund our films and grow them as much as possible.”

The New York African Film Festival holds a special place in Barker’s heart. He commented, “The New York African Film Festival has selected two of my films and it means a hell of a lot that they support my films.”

Stephina Zwane’s slick, stylish, upbeat and optimistic “Baby Mamas” is also screening at this year’s festival, and its ultra modern feel and contemporary take on a hot button social issue is an indicator of how South African film continues to evolve. She explained, “I wanted to portray my friends and my mom and my grandmother. I wanted to create a piece that celebrated them.” She’s in agreement that women of the African Diaspora can use film to learn from one another. “We have a lot of similarities but we haven’t been given the opportunity to know each other.”

Zwane also sees great things happening in South African film. “The film industry in South Africa is definitely growing with international companies coming to film in South Africa. As a result, we have some of the best crew in the world. We are one of the few countries in the world that give filmmakers funding and that is amazing.” The actress turned filmmaker mentioned, however, that the level of bureaucracy necessary to access funding can be prohibitive. “You have young filmmakers who end up being discouraged by the amount of paperwork and paperwork they don’t understand and no one is holding your hand. There is a need to find a way to simplify the process.”

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