Mahen Bonetti, founder of the New York African Film Festival has an annual dilemma. From a program of over 30 films, she has to pick one to be the opening feature. The film has to be so enticing the audience is eager to come back to see more. That's a lot of pressure, but Bonetti is used to it. She's been selecting African films for New Yorkers for the last eighteen years.
When I visit the NYAFF office Bonetti tells me her secret to programming opening night. She aims to appeal to both fans of African cinema and people who may be seeing their very first African film. This year the honor goes to the documentary, "Kinshasa Symphony," a film about the Democratic Republic of Congo's only symphony orchestra and its musicians. If you're shocked that there's a 200-strong orchestra performing the likes of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven in a region better known, for conflict, corruption and chaos that's the point! "Kinshasa Symphony" challenges many of the usual images and stories that come out of Congo. Bonetti describes the documentary simply as being "triumphant."
It takes almost a year to program the African Film Festival. There are competitions and other festivals to scope out, research trips and hundreds of movies to watch. Despite the workload, Bonetti remembers the first time she saw "Kinshasa Symphony." It was two in the morning
when she settled down to watch the DVD.
"I watched it twice! I cried, it's one of these films that makes you so emotional" she says, "because you think against all odds here are these people who are really trying to bring relief not only to themselves but to an entire nation."
When the documentary opens the New York African Film Festival on April 6, the orchestra's founder and conductor Armand Diangienda will be on stage for a special audience question and answer session. The German filmmakers who made the film insisted that Diangienda be the special festival guest and not them. Turning down a trip to New York was an easy decision, because they feel the true stars of the documentary are Armand Diangienda and the orchestra he created.
The story of the orchestra is so compelling, that Diangienda has been filmed a number of times. When we spoke recently though, he told me that making "Kinshasa Symphony" was a unique experience.
"In the film you see the work, but also you see the everyday life of the musicians who are playing in the orchestra," hey says. "It shows clearly how difficult life is for the musicians, but also how committed they are."
Mahen Bonetti says of Diangienda:"Everybody needs a bit of Armand's spirit to rub off on them. He's my new best friend hero!"
Her enthusiasm for the conductor made me smile, because they haven't met yet. But Bonetti already knows she will like the man she's only ever seen on film.
"Kinshasa Symphony" plays April 6th and April 8th at the Walter Reade Theater in Manhattan, with special guest Armand Diangienda.