Pan African film program showcases South Africa

Having graduated from petty crimes to carjackings, Lucky Kunene and best buddy Zakes start knocking off banks in Soweto in “Jerusalema,” South Africa’s 2009 Academy Award entry.

It’s among several South Africa-set films showing as part of the Pan African Film Festival, the National Black Arts Festival’s film component, running Wednesday through Sunday at the Woodruff Arts Center.

“Someone on the inside was always involved, and who could blame them,” Lucky (super intense Rapulana Seiphemo) says in voice over after one of the machine-guns-a-blazin’ heists that electrify this “Scarface”-styled crime drama. “You see, in the new South Africa, everyone deserves their entitlement, preferably in this lifetime.”

If that sounds like a jaundiced take on life just after the shackles of apartheid have begun to be lifted, well, “Jerusalema” (screening at 10:15 p.m. Friday) and Lucky are just getting started.

One part Robin Hood, one part Donald Trump, Lucky moves to Johannesburg and ends up outfoxing white slumlords of the gritty Hillbrow neighborhood, collecting rent in their high rises and then taking them by force, dispatching the hookers and pushers, too.

While the annual Pan African film program showcases movies from across the African diaspora, from the U.S. to Zimbabwe, this year’s strong South African showing is not a coincidence.

“South Africa is decisive in the development of black people in this world,” film festival executive director Ayuko Babu says. “If you’re a conscious educated black person, you pay attention to South Africa, sort of the way Jews pay attention to Israel.”

Preparing itself for its close-up as host of the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, the country is especially image conscious right now, Babu adds, and showing a high level of support for its film industry.

Also included among the festival’s shorts, documentaries, family films and features is “Zimbabwe” (3:10 p.m. Wednesday), a South African drama. It’s about the struggle for survival of three orphans treated like slaves in a Zimbabwean border town. The title character finds her way into South Africa seeking work, but finds more abuse.

From South Africa as well is “Skin” (4:15 p.m. Sunday), a drama that won audience and jury awards at the Los Angeles edition of the Pan African festival in February. It follows 30 years of acceptance, betrayal and reconciliation in the life a black child born in the 1950s to white Afrikanners unaware of their black ancestry.

Not all of the festival’s films are quite so intense, of course.

“13 Months of Sunshine” (5:35 p.m. Wednesday), an Ethiopian/U.S. production, courts as many clichés as any early Meg Ryan romantic comedy. Yet it works despite that and even though you can see the happy-ever-after ending coming from the moment protagonists Solomon (Sammy Amare) and Hanna (Tsion Fikreselassie) meet.

The set up is that barista Solomon, whose dream of opening his own coffee shop is going nowhere fast, gets $20,000 for marrying Hanna so she can score a green card. What’s swell is the realistic glimpse of the Ethiopian immigrant community in Los Angeles, especially the young adults with hearts in their homeland and heads struggling with what it takes to make it in the land of plenty. Their divided lives are emphasized in the way they switch from English to Amharic in the course of one sentence.

For a selection that won’t remind you of “Scarface” or “When Harry Met Sally”, there’s “Nora” (1 p.m. Thursday), 35-minute short on the life of Zimbabwe choreographer/performance artist Nora Chipaumire. With few spoken words or subtitles, this is a vivid portrait of an artist, a biography told by stomping feet, twisting torsos and haunting expressions.

Preview

Pan African Film Festival

Wednesday through Sunday, Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. $8 per film (all-film pass, $150). 404-733-5000, www.nbaf.org.

Special event: A conversation with director Robert Townsend at 8 p.m. Thursday, followed by a screening of his 1991 Motown-styled biography “The Five Heartbeats”.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.