London Film Festival: Africa exposed

London's annual movie-fest is shaping up to be a triumph - and one continent is a big part of the reason, says Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

A rakish Scotsman and a Ugandan gave this year's London Film Festival a distinctly African flavour. After the opening night screening of The Last King of Scotland, the Ugandan actor Stephen Rwangyezi, resplendent in his traditional dress, had the audience in hysterics when he described the anticipation in Uganda that a major film was to be shot there. But the anticipation evaporated when the director arrived: "I was expecting a man with an entourage, and all we got was this boy, Kevin Macdonald."

But the Glasgow-born boy proved more than up to the task of adapting Giles Foden's novel about a doctor (James McAvoy) whose head gets turned by the charms of the notorious, yet colourful, dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) during his reign of terror in the 1970s.

Tony Blair described Africa as being a stain on the conscience of the world's wealthy nations. Chatting the next day over a coffee, Macdonald agreed that, "for whatever reason, Africa is more and more in people's minds, because of documentaries and Tony Blair's famous speech and Bill Gates's involvement. It seems like the world has become too small to ignore it. Africa has always suffered from the sense of 'the other'. Cinema has an important role to play in raising awareness of the problems faced in Africa, just like it did with the killing fields in Cambodia."

Nowhere is this made clearer than in Abderrahmane Sissako's extraordinary Bamako. This is a courtroom drama using real lawyers and judges mulling over the merits of international financial institutions. The plaintiff is the African Civil Society, which brings a case against both the World Bank and the IMF, who, they argue, have introduced a vicious and more advanced form of colonialism through the interest charged on debt. Witnesses for the plaintiffs range from the former Malian minister of culture to an unemployed teacher.

Sissako told me: "It's impossible, or highly improbable, that anyone would ever take the World Bank to court but, to get the message across, I had to be as direct and expositional as possible. When Tony Blair talks about Africa, I see this only as the words of a politician. The actions tell a different story: for example only cancelling 60 per cent of a debt that African nations have already repaid ten-fold."

Another film-maker taking a look at African history is the Australian Phillip Noyce. His Catch a Fire recounts how the freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso was radicalised by the ANC, and attempted to blow up a coalfield during apartheid-era South Africa. Festival attendees would be hard pressed to find two better performances than Derek Luke's turn as Chamusso and Tim Robbins's as an anti-terrorist police officer.

There is also a chance to catch Rachid Boucherab's drama Days of Glory. Paying tribute to the North Africans who fought for the French during the Second World War, this powerful film recently helped convince President Chirac to reinstating pensions for these troops.

The Chad-born director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's third feature, Dry Season, is a more contemporary tale. After an amnesty is declared on all crimes committed during a civil war, Atim (Ali Barkai) is sent to the capital, N'Djamena, to seek his father's killer. This absorbing tale brings into sharp focus the difficulties in forgiving past transgressions and moving on to a new world.

The focus on Africa continues all the way through to the closing night film, Babel. The Mexican film-maker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's ambitious movie, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, shows how small and interconnected the world is when a gunshot in North Africa connects disparate lives in Morocco, Japan and the United States.

Around Leicester Square and the National Film Theatre it has been difficult to miss the Cheshire-cat grin of the festival's artistic director, Sandra Hebron. She has much to smile about, having put together one of the best programmes in recent years to coincide with the event's 50th birthday. She picked Esma's Secret, which won Berlin's Golden Bear, the Locarno prize winner Fraulein and, in a last-minute addition to the programme, the Venice Golden Lion victor, Still Life.

But it is previously unheralded talents who have made the biggest impressions. Of particular note have been the activities of the cast of Shortbus, the most sexually explicit movie on display. The actors went from the showpiece screening of John Cameron Mitchell's ensemble flick, which revolves around an artistic and sex club in New York City, to perform music from its soundtrack in a club in Soho. Not stopping until the wee hours, their fun attitude and vibrancy was perfectly in step with the serendipitous atmosphere of the festival. Also making a name for herself has been the actress Carice Van Houten, with her fabulous turn as a Jewish girl masquerading as a Nazi in Paul Verhoeven's Second World War romp Black Book.

The Canadian film-maker Matt Bissonnette has captured the spirit of early Hal Hartley with his comedy Who Loves the Sun? while Joachim Trier's Reprise, about two childhood pals who dream of becoming cult authors, is beautiful to look at, and not just because all the actors look like they've either come straight off the catwalk or from band practice

On the strength of the collection assembled here, German cinema continues its purple patch. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others is a classy spy-thriller following a Stasi investigation of an East German playwright. Requiem, by Hans-Christian Schmid, and based on a true account of an exorcism performed in Germany during the Seventies, is arguably the finest horror since The Exorcist. Also excellent is Valeska Grisebach's deceptively simple provincial tale, Longing, about a fireman in love with two women.

Of the big Hollywood films, my favourite is Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction. It's an inventive tale about a tax auditor whose life is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that his life has a narrator, and, worse, the narrator can predict the things that are going to happen in his life. Will Ferrell plays the nerdy tax auditor and is terrific, just as he was at the Sky Movies gala screening of the film.

It was easy to forget that the film's co-stars, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, were also on stage at the moment when Ferrell introduced the movie wielding a sign saying "Private Function". Quirky, idiosyncratic and hilarious, it has been my favourite moment of a festival packed with highlights.

The London Film Festival continues until Tuesday (