The 19th New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) kicked off on Wednesday 19 April with the opening night screening of Mama Africa, a Finnish-German documentary on South African music legend Miriam Makeba.

Presented under the theme “21st Century: The Homecoming,” the festival will explore the modern notion of home and homeland, from Makeba’s years of exile from South Africa to diasporic visions such as those set out in the New York-set Restless City.

A select group of features, shorts and documentaries, as well as experimental films and archival footage, will be shown alongside supplementary programs aimed at a broader exploration of the festival’s themes, including panel discussions, visual and performing art exhibitions and professional development workshops for artists.

As the festival coincides with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of South Africa's African National Congress, the festival will present performances of the country’s music and dance as well as film. Its notable cinematic production will be on display in the form of documentaries such as The Creators and Stocktown X: South Africa, which show South Africa’s artistic vitality, and in feature films such as Man on Ground by Akin Omotoso and How to Steal 2 Million by Charlie Vundla, which adapt the techniques of the thriller and film noir in their examination of the country’s subculture. Africa’s other cinematic powerhouse, Nollywood, will be represented by award-winning director Tunde Kelani’s Maami, a sweeping chronicle of witchcraft, melodrama, and love.

“This is a continuation of the discussion about the shape of Africa that has taken place since independence and that is now not being embraced by the younger generation,” says Mahen Bonetti, executive director and founder of African Film Festival.

“Though these young people have not in many ways been thrown a lifeline as post-independence conflict emerged, they have somehow managed, through technology, to craft their own narrative, unconsciously drawing on the past and creating something new and very modern without having disavowed the past.”

Special events and highlights include the opening night film Mama Africa by Mika Kaurismäki (Special Jury Recognition – Documentary at the 2012 Pan African Film Festival) on 11 April, and the centrepiece film Relentless by Andy Amadi Okoroafor, starring internationally renowned Nigerian-German hip-hop and soul singer Nneka on 13 April. With the US election year in full swing, NYAFF will present a film that offers a window into the African family of Barack Obama and insight into his father, with The Education of Auma Obama by Branwen Okpako, a film that won the Viewers’ Choice Award at the 2011 Africa International Film Festival and the Festival Founders’ Award at the 2012 Pan African Film Festival.

“African cinema was born in the same year as the New York Film Festival – 1963 – and it’s always been a source of great pleasure and pride for me that for 50 years our programmes have provided a vital showcase for the best in African filmmaking,” said Richard Peña, programme director at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. “We also salute our dear friends and partners at the New York African Film Festival, which for almost 20 years has worked successfully to make African cinema a reality around the United States.”

As a tribute to their growing presence in the medium, women filmmakers will have pride of place. Mariette Monpierre mixes melodrama and memoir in the Guadeloupean film Elza, while Rumbi Katedza tells a universal story of women’s struggles in Zimbabwe in the hilarious and touching Playing Warriors. In the attempt to come to grips with contemporary realities, documentary has become a favoured format, and it makes up a great proportion of this year’s offerings. In The Creators, Laura Gamse analyses the role of artists in contemporary South Africa; postcolonial and feminist strife in Kenya are at the centre of Branwen Okpako’s work The Education of Auma Obama, complemented by Jane Munene’s portrait of that country's brave matriarch Monica Wangu Wamwere: Unbroken Spirit. Cameroonian Osvalde Lewat pushes the limits of the documentary genre in her most recent experimental work in Gaza Sderot, Last Exit.

The festival will also honour the 50th anniversary of the independence of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria and Jamaica as an occasion to further explore themes of liberation and independence through attention to the role of artists as activists, to the unsung heroes and untold tales of African liberation, and to the concept of literal and figurative homecoming in the 21st century by Africans in and of the diaspora.

The popular blog Africa is a Country (africasacountry.com) will present “Africa is a Country: Talking Media and Russian Archives,” a free panel discussion, on 14 April. Featured bloggers and special guest will examine the relationship between Africa and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, as is evidenced by Russia’s extensive film archive of the continent. It will also explore the relationship between film and social media movements on the continent, such as the Tahrir revolutionary cinema, which documented the Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square, and Kony 2012.