Scene from The First Grader
Inexperienced actor Oliver Litondo portraying the true story of Kimani Maruge, a man who enrolled into a Kenyan school in an attempt to learn to read in The First Grader.

Africa may be the cradle of civilization, but it has only recently begun to make movies that have enticed the world.

Now the Palm Springs International Film Festival is making African cinema its focus.

“The African Cinema Showcase is like Africa getting (its stories) off its chest,” said Darryl Macdonald, the director of the film festival, “the stories it has to tell about the recent past, the colonial times and the almost immediate past where countries woke up and reconciliation went on and Aids emerged and so on.

“Africa has a tradition of great storytelling and it's only relatively recently that that storytelling ability has turned to film. And because of that the cinema is incredibly fresh. It's like they're discovering the tools of cinema and utilizing them to tell stories the way they want to tell stories.”

Michael Wilson, a Paris-born director of the documentary on modern South Africa, Reconciliation: Mandela's Miracle, says Africa has had its own cinema since the late 1950s or early 1960s, but most of that was based in French-speaking West Africa.

“The reason being that the African filmmakers received subsidies from the cultural minister in France,” he said. “Most of these films were made with French money and French crews and slowly the filmmakers were able to develop their own careers with that support. On the English side of Africa, things were a little slow. South Africa was known mostly as a country ideal for commercials. Cape Town, I think, is the world capital of (television) commercials. But there were few local talents as far as local filmmakers.”

The rest of Africa has developed new cinema, Wilson said, because inexpensive new technology has given them tools to tell their stories.

“What I know of African filmmakers, they're really interested in their own culture,” he said. “Their films are very much about what they experience in their daily lives or their own history. I'm not sure there is a sense that a filmmaker making a film on the Ivory Coast necessarily expresses the perspective of South Africans.”

But Macdonald sees one commonality to the films he and his team have selected.  “The striking thing about these films, is, despite the subject matter they deal with, so many of the stories are told from a hopeful, positive perspective,” he said.

Director of programming Helen du Toit points to the closing night film, The First Grader, about an old freedom fighter who takes advantage of his government's offer for a free education, and Kinshasa Symphony, as examples of that African perspective.

The latter, screened at Palm Springs High School, “is so life affirming,” she said. “All these people join the choir, some of them start to make their own instruments. It's just so inspiring to see how music can pull a community together.”

“A group of disparate kids come together and trek all across Africa to get to South Africa and the World Cup,” said Macdonald, “and along the way encounter every one of the issues modern Africa deals with — yet in such a positive life-affirming way, it makes me think there's something in the African spirit.  “It's not easy to lump all those different African countries in one unified whole, but truly I think people in Africa have dealt with so much adversity over the centuries that they just take it as a part of life. Their world doesn't revolve around the negative.”