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The movie event of the year was "Modern Days/Ancient Nights," a celebration of 30 years of African filmmaking presented at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York's Lincoln Center, April 2-30.

Thirty-eight movies were shown in this crash course, 10 by Senegal's 70-year-old Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema, to whom the program was dedicated.

The premiere of Sembene's new film, "Guelwaar," was naturally a highlight, of the program; this brief notice is a wake-up call on its forthcoming national release. Typically, it looks closely at a small central incident, illuminating the religious and class divisions of the broader society.

Here, the burial in a Muslim cemetery of the political activist title character, a baptized Catholic, also reveals bureaucratic stupidity and a corrupt political system built on foreign aid.

Sembene clearly wants the warring factions to rediscover their sense of community and shared moral values; it is not by chance that he was the first director to have his characters speak an African language (in his case, Wolof).

A shrewdly humanist observer who works to correct a Europeanized view of African history (Europe is not my point of reference), Sembene mixes cutting satire and close observation of daily life with a feeling for African symbols and ritual speech. His movies are critiques of traditional patriarchy and show sympathetic understanding for the plight of women.

An internationally known novelist, Sembene has already begun to influence African-American directors; his artistic and political vision is rewarding, and upsetting, for any of us who want to correct our ignorance of African reality.

If he is harsh on its European heritage, he is perhaps even more critical of post-Independence African political leaders who have left the continent dependent on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Another important coming release shown during the African festival was "Samba Traore," directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso.

Ouedraogo, who scored an international success in 1989 with "Yaaba," is more lyrical than political. The new movie studies the slow recognition of guilt by its title character, a former robber who has returned to his native village to build a new life. Developing this elemental theme with the clear lines of a master, the director conveys a simple dignity that is as classical as it is African.

The program also included a generous sampling of already-established African films not readily available in the United States, including the beautiful and mysterious "Yeelen," directed by Mali's Souleymane Cisse, which Film Comment called the best African film ever made.

"Yeelen," which tells the story of a struggle between two magicians, father and son, defeats our analytic sense of understanding but will reward anyone prepared to surrender to its stylized splendor and mythic oppositions.

Not every movie I saw was masterly, but none were without rewards. "Niwan," a first feature by Clarence Delgado based on a Sembene short story, follows a young couple with a desperately sick infant, from the village to the hostile and unfamiliar city. Delgado does not sentimentalize the situation but leaves some awkward jumps in the narrative.

African films often have a leisurely pace, but the central sequence, in which the husband takes the blanketed body of his dead child on a long bus ride to the cemetery, seems to wander without a clear sense of direction.

Nevertheless, Delgado caught the rich mixture of casual cruelty and instinctive generosity among the bus passengers, suggesting many parallels to life in New York subways. When he appeared at a brief post-showing interview, responding unpretentiously to misguided criticism and saying he'd made the movie for $56,000, I couldn't help but root for him to get enough support for his next project.

Even less pretentious but more immediately rewarding was "Rabi," by Gaston Kabore, also from Burkina Faso. Nine-year-old Rabi feels a sense of dislocation in his native village and is criticized by his father for spending too much time with a turtle his father had brought home. The father takes the turtle back to the fields, but Rabi finds one of his own, much larger, which becomes his pet.

Gradually, however, helped by the wisdom of his aged grandfather, be takes his pet on a long expedition into the countryside and gives the turtle its freedom. Although Kabore doesn't turn Rabi, the grandfather or the turtle into Walt Disney figures, his relaxed storytelling conveys a message about freedom and nature even to urban Americans.

Finally, let me mention a special favorite, a 26-minute documentary by Issiaka Konate, "The Voice in the Wood," that would make a wonderful prologue for any film program on Africa.

This short film is a portrait of Mahama Konate, a well-known Burkina Faso musician, as he constructs a native instrument, the balafon, and teaches his son how to play it. Listen to the wood, he tells the child, hearing nature, his ancestors and the spirit already present in it.

The point of all this is not to feel regret that you weren't free to spend a month at Lincoln Center, but to build interest in African cinema for possible presentation at art film theaters and universities and on public television.

The good news is that this rich tradition exists, ready to delight you; the bad news is that little of it is available in video. You can organize your own festival, however, by drawing on 16mm prints of African films in the catalog of New Yorker Film s (16 W 61, New York, NY 10023).

Meanwhile, to renew contact with the world of Hollywood commercial film, I took a chance on "Dave" (Warner Bros.) at a neighborhood preview. It should become one of the summer's successes.

Director Ivan Reitman's earlier successes ("National Lampoon's Animal House," 1978, and "Ghostbusters," 1984) appealed primarily to the anarchic sensibility of adolescents. His new movie, more upbeat, should cross all generational lines.

Kevin Kline makes the most of a rich double role, playing both a cynical president and his naive, idealistic look-alike who is prevailed upon to substitute for him temporarily.

This wild premise has many analogs to plots you've seen before, but the White House framework gives it a fresh twist. And the many cameo bits by politicians, news people and entertainers - from Tip O'Neill to Nina Totenberg to Larry King - provide a glossy realism that should keep audiences alert.

The politics of "Dave" is nonpartisan - Sens. Simpson and Simon get equal time - but the film is not mindless. The president's corruption is established not by his liaison with his blond appointment secretary, but by his previous demonstration of indifference to the homeless.

In contrast, before the Secret Service enlists Dave to put his imitation of the president to practical purpose, he is working to help people get temporary jobs.

We are offered a worldly view of the workings of statecraft and the perks of office, but from the opening establishing shots of Washington, there is also respect for the majesty of government.

The film moves fast enough to keep ahead of most questions about probability and is immensely helped by a supporting cast that includes Sigourney Weaver as the president's purely ceremonial wife (who is an advocate for the homeless), a wonderfully corrupt Frank Langella as the ambitious chief of staff, Kevin Dunn as press secretary and Ben Kingsley as vice president.

Kline does well with the contrasting modes of ceremonial behavior displayed in his two roles. As president, he is an egotistical stuffed shirt following a script; as the temp-president, he gets honestly carried about by crowds and romps with dogs on the White House lawn. He even melts the formal correctness of a black Secret Service agent into genuine rapport.

Audiences cheer when Dave, after being briefed by an accountant friend - the same one on whom he'd unloaded a few extra temporary workers at the beginning of the movie - explains to his cabinet the budget cuts that will make the housing bill possible.

Reitman has said that the idea for "Dave" came to him during Oliver North's testimony at the Irangate hearings, which included reference to a presidential double. He has kept his cynicism under control, however, and the delightful balance of broad comedy, romantic charm and respect for the White House may have '90s audiences identifying with Dave the way their parents did with Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:May 21, 1993
Previous Article:Yeelen.
Next Article:Rabi.

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