It was an absolute pleasure interviewing the founder of Silicon Valley’s African Film Festival Chike C Nwoffiah.
Living in the California Bay Area and having worked as a managing hostess at an African restaurant ‘The Ostrich’ in the Dutch city Utrecht, it was likely written in the stars that I would get in contact with Chike. My personal view of Africa was for a large part shaped by the owner of the restaurant Lucy, who I considered as my family, my African colleagues, the entertainment and the visitors. I always dreamt of traveling the continent to experience parts of the wonderful stories I was told, while I took the media’s narrative on Africa with a grain of salt.
The topics brought up by this inspiring cinematic and theatrical director and artist, strike a note with my life’s story, how my country of birth is portrayed and decades of traveling and moving around this beautiful world.
Now let’s shine a light on Chike while he takes the stage in this interview. Mentally go into your brightest African zone, have an open mind and enjoy this journey.
How did this whole idea of the film festival get started?
A little over 10 years ago, I was on the faculty of Menlo college in Atherton California where I taught African history. One of my goals was bringing films into the classroom to open up conversations and deceptions about Africa. A lot of my mainly American and some international non-African students had not been exposed to a diverse point of view about Africa.
Often times they encountered Africa only through the headlines of news and typical National Geographic type imaging. These for the most part are very dark images of Africa, like a very poor and diseased continent. Basically a place where there is nothing else to do but die, suffer war and all of that. It was really a rude awakening for many of them when I would bring these short films, primarily made by young African filmmakers, that showed everyday life in contemporary African society.
A lot of my students were so taken, excited and inspired by it in a way that they connected and saw themselves as colleagues or people like themselves conducting everyday lives.It really began to speak to me as someone who was born and brought up on the continent before moving to the US for about 25+ years, since I saw a reflection of what my students were awakening to. There is a force here where we encounter very narrow an opaque interpretations and assumptions of Africa this country. Initially is very shocking but sooner or later you come to realize that this is really the Africa that is known outside the continent and that it is the reality people here are faced with. People get all the information about Africa through these kind of very deluded and degrading portrayals of the continent by Western media. When we encounter that, we would then engage in one on one conversations or in my case being invited to panels or forums to speak more openly about the African perceptions.
The power of the media, the power of images mean a lot to me. When I saw the students were reacting to the new images, I decided to take the conversation into the bigger community. So that is how initially about 8 years ago I decided to curate a 1 day showcase and screening of films from the continent and hopefully use it as a way to engage people in a new conversation about Africa. We had our very first film festival on a Saturday, screening about 10 to 15 films that day and people were riveted and taken by it. In fact, the majority of the people that came were the ones that insisted that we needed to do it again.
That reception and encouragement really inspired me. A few joined the team to plan it for the next year and so we did a 2nd, 3rd and here we are on our 8th year of doing this. It started as a 1 day annual event, growing into a full 3 day program screening around 70 films from 29 different African countries. It has turned into a wonderful celebration of Africa through the lenses of Africa’s seasoned and emerging filmmakers.
Do you visit or get involved with other film festivals?
I find myself often heavily involved in social commentary films, documentaries and I directed a documentary piece about black hospitals in America called “A Jewel in History“. This was acquired by UC Berkeley and distributed as educational curriculum piece for private schools or public health.
I also did a documentary about race killing that happened in Alabama in 1962 called “A Killing in Choctaw”. That film traveled overseas as well as across the country and received a full page review in the NYT when it came out.
I did a feature film called “Sabar – life is a Dance” which is a love story set in the context of an African dance movement in Oakland. It had a successful run at different film festivals.
Prior to that I did an experimental dramatic piece way back when, called Tantu which was a rites of passage, coming of age story about an African American boy transitioning into manhood and all that it entails. I don’t have a lot of space on my calendar these days, but whenever I can and not actively producing a film, I try to consult with filmmakers. I spent the last 5 years more trying to develop talent.
I was in Malawi a couple of years ago, doing some film workshops with high school students on how to tell their stories.
March of this year I was Sierra Leone teaching students digital storytelling. When I was in Nigeria this August, shooting my new film, I hired a lot of young people as interns.
I love to empower them and walk them through how to tell their stories, since it is something that is very dear to my heart. Making sure that the younger generation can, especially with the amazing current current technology, create their stories.
How was the film festival this year compared to last?
Wonderful. I am just so humbled and honoured really that we stayed with this project, where every single year we see growth and every year is better than the year before.
The first 7 years we presented this festival with our incredible partners in Mountain View at the Community School of Music and Arts. Uniquely for this year was that we moved the festival to San Jose and therefore was our first time in a new venue since inception. It was held in San Jose’s Historic Hoover Theatre and it was phenomenal.
San Jose provided us a lot of new and exciting opportunities like easier transportation from and to the venue, proximity to the international airport and many more hotel options making it easier for visiting filmmakers and guests from out of town.
From a basic infrastructure layout of our festival we enjoyed a much higher quality and attendance went up considerably also due to San Jose’s larger population and the fact that the city of San Jose whom were very supportive overall became a major funder of the festival.
We came of age, so to speak.