Out and About: Portraits of new African-Americans

In one of Filmon Mebrahtu’s films, an African taxi driver expresses frustration and fear after a Senegalese driver is killed on the job. In another, a hair braiding salon owner laments the lively social life she left behind in her native Mali. Shot in cinema verité style, Mebrahtu’s documentaries focus on the day-to-day lives of African immigrants living in Philadelphia, rather than on the turbulent political situations under which they may have lived.

“My goal is to create a three-dimensional character,” he said. “I think what many people like about this is that it’s not issue-driven. I’m very sensitive to the fact that a lot of immigrants have had traumatic experiences coming here.”

Mebrahtu’s own journey here took him from his birthplace in the African country of Eritrea to college in the U.S. and a career in electrical engineering. In the late 1990s he quit his job for a more expressive career. After moving to Philadelphia in January of 2000, he volunteered with an art program for children from Eritrea, but it wasn’t until Mebrahtu, 36, volunteered at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema at International House in 2000 that he became interested in video.

Quick takes on everyday life

Mebrahtu’s short videos—they average around five minutes—are touching and deeply personal, with the subjects often looking directly at the camera. In Mebrahtu’s “Rencontrer” series—portraits of people from West Philly’s African immigrant neighborhoods—he turned his camera again on the everyday, capturing both the tension between immigrants and those born in America, and the joys and possibilities in daily life.

Three “Rencontrer” segments have been screened over the past few months at International House. Now audiences can see the remaining shorts, along with a wide selection of films from the continent, as part of I-House’s Africa Film Series. Mebrahtu, who also curated the series, said he chose films about the contemporary reality of Africa, all of which have won awards at major African film festivals.

Included are Ousmane Sembene’s “Faat Kine” (Senegal, 2000), the story of a single mother whose life is shaped by both tribal customs and her own ambition, Mweze Ngangura’s “Pieces d’identités” (Congo/Belgium, 1998), a modern fairy tale that addresses identity issues in the African Diaspora, and “Guimba the Tyrant” by Cheick Oumar Sissoko (Mali, 1995), a film that deftly contrasts Africa’s wealth with its tremendous poverty.

Up next, on March 4, is Raoul Peck’s “Lumumba” (Haiti, 2000), about Congo’s charismatic first leader, who lasted only two months in office. Mebrahtu will screen his own “Rencontrer: Siddiq,” before Peck’s film. “By teaming the feature film with the short, you realize Africa’s a lot closer,” he said. “Africa’s not just some exotic place that’s far off.”

Understand the uprooted

All of Mebrahtu’s work showcasing the immigrant experience is done through his non-profit organization, Reel Voices. His goal for Reel Voices is threefold: to document the lives of African immigrants, to hold workshops to help community members document their own lives and activities, and, eventually, to create a venue or collective for their own work. “It’s time now where we should be part of Philadelphia life in general,” said Mebrahtu, referring to the 50,000-plus African immigrant community in the city.

As these communities grow, so may the tension between traditional values and newer ones. The hair braiding salon owner, for example, is financially stable, but because of her long work hours she suffers a disrupted social life. Vibrant socialization, said Mebrahtu, is a cornerstone of many African communities. This simple story, told in a direct, intimate way, resonates long after its five-minute screening time.

“Being uprooted is not trivial,” said Mebrahtu. “Everything that I do is driven toward understanding. Tolerance comes from understanding and everything flows out of that.”

For more information on Reel Voices, visit the web site at www.reelvoices.org. Information on the International House Africa Film Series can be found at www.ihousephilly.org.

Originally published on February 26, 2004