How the New York African Film Festival Became a Cultural Icon

Woman smiling wearing black top and scarf
Mahen Bonetti, Founding Executive Director, NY African Film Festival

Mahen Bonetti says if she knew how hard it would be to launch the New York African Film Festival (NYAFF, https://tnj.com/africans-on-africa-film-festival/), she wouldn’t have bothered 30 years ago.

“The knives came out,” she laughs.

Bonetti grew up in New York City after arriving in exile from Sierra Leone. She developed a love for the cinema, and often went to the movies during her lunch hour at work. The idea for the festival came during the 1989 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.

“I was flipping through the catalogue and I saw ‘Thirty Years of African Film’ and I nearly fell through the floor,” Bonetti says. “I figured if I wasn’t aware of all this work by African filmmakers, a lot of other people weren’t aware and didn’t have the access to these films.”

She also knew there was a dearth of knowledge about Africa, its people and its stories.

“Africa’s stories are everyone’s stories. If you look from Argentina to Nova Scotia, Africa’s footprints are everywhere,” she insists.

Bringing those stories to New York City, her adopted hometown, became her mission. She envisioned showcasing work from African filmmakers as well as from the African Diaspora.

Thirty years later, the New York African Film Festival is a signature annual cultural event. A recently launched, africanfilmny.org, allows visitors to stream many of the films and watch live events related to the festival, including lectures, interviews, and panel discussions.

Bonetti spoke to TNJ.com at length about the festival’s journey.

TNJ.com: Besides showcasing Africa’s stories, what motivated you to launch the festival?

Bonetti: During the Reagan administration, Black people were being referred to as African-Americans so you saw all this celebration of your heritage. At the same time, all you saw on TV or read in the paper – for as long as I could remember – was the famine in Ethiopia. Where was the backstory? https://tnj.com/africa-in-transition/. It was a sense of us not controlling the story.

TNJ.com: What was your first big hurdle?

Bonetti: There were all these factions. I think it was my naiveté that pulled me through. I didn’t want to believe that we weren’t all on the same page in trying to make this happen. The knives came out. Blacks had knives out, too. Like, ‘who do you think you are to try and do this?’ I was an outlier coming into this community and making this ambitious declaration, and so our backs were against the wall. But the artists were always enthusiastic. The producers, the venue owners, the article writers – they were the ones we had to convince we weren’t there to destroy but to enhance.

TNJ.com: How did you sell the idea?

Bonetti: It was important that I go out into the community, so I went in person to the community activists, the reverends, the person running the small community center, even the person who ran the laundromat. I talked to them and told them what I was trying to do. We showed pictures, little clips. Some of them were surprised that Black people made film.

TNJ.com: Where did the seed money come from for the project?

Bonetti: We researched companies that did business in Africa and approached them. I met someone who could write grants and she wrote grants and proposals and sent them to those companies. One rejection letter after another came. They did not want to support.

Richard Peña, who was the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, heard about us. The center was building a new theater and he kept telling us not to give up. He said even if we didn’t get funding they would find a space and do the festival bare bones if necessary. Then someone from Ford Foundation called me and then called Lincoln Center. So the initial funding came from Ford Foundation.

TNJ.com: What kind of funding do you mostly use now?

Bonetti: We get city, state, and federal funding. The National Endowment for the Arts and New York State Cultural Affairs have been very helpful.

TNJ.com: What was the best part of that first festival?

Bonetti: The audience was sixty percent Black. Prior to that, the audience at Lincoln Center events based on African culture usually was eighty percent white, so it was a shock for many people to see so many Blacks at that first festival. Black people didn’t go to events at Lincoln Center because they felt there was nothing there for them. The festival was supposed to be for ten days but they extended it to one month. Well, the knives really came out after that!

TNJ.com: How did you get the word out to filmmakers?

Bonetti: We researched and reached out. Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films was a great resource. He had introduced the public to many independent filmmakers from all over the world. I didn’t know him personally and called him cold. He was very helpful and provided a lot of names. I went to the NY Public Library to do research. There was a big event in Brazil with African filmmakers that we attended. Then I also went to FESPACO (Pan African Festival of Cinema And Television) in Ouagadougu, Burkina Faso, in 1993 and the gates opened up.

TNJ.com: How did the Brooklyn Academy of Music get involved in hosting the films (https://tnj.com/new-york-african-film-festival)?

Bonetti: We first started at the Brooklyn Museum because I felt it was important to go into Brooklyn. Lincoln Center is a neutral space, but there was more of the diaspora in Brooklyn. I wanted to pay homage. I felt it was important to go into the community, to give them respect. You come back home.

TNJ.com: What are your lowest points?

Bonetti: When those who should know better think it’s easy work and sign up, but aren’t committed. It’s sad because they have no understanding of what it takes. It’s a lot of work. It’s a huge commitment.

TNJ.com: And the high points?

Bonetti: When people are paying attention and you don’t think they are. You don’t even think they were watching or were aware of what you’re doing. They surprise you by supporting and attending.

TNJ.com: What mainly accounts for the festival’s success?

Bonetti: In addition to our collaborators like Lincoln Center, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Brooklyn Academy of Music, it’s the people.

TNJ.com: Has the Covid-19 pandemic had any impact?

Bonetti: The pandemic has had some bright spots. Our website has been a long-held desire. We had so much content but we never had the money to launch one. I had to find funds to digitize our content from analog, which we had so much of. With the pandemic, all of these web designers, etcetera, who we could never afford or reach, or who did not have time for us, became available and were willing to work with the money we had. It’s not just about us. It’s about the collective.