NYAFF as an idea emerged in the 1980s from Mahen's desire to show positive, diverse and realistic visual representation of Africa in the United States, in contrast to the dominant media images of misery and strife. While the festival concept had not yet formulated, she had already begun to look for a way to make a contribution towards correcting these misconceptions about Africa. As the film festival took shape in the 1990s its main objective was to use the medium of cinema to promote awareness about Africa and educate both Americans and Africans living in the United States. At the same time, it has always been committed to the development of an international audience for African films. The scope and scale of NYAFF expands to reflect the ever-changing realities of Africa and the African Diaspora, as well as new developments in African cinema practices.
And while in cinema one often finds a dominance of men, within NYAFF there is a high visibility of women in all spheres. Women have always played an integral role--from the very top of the small organization to the board of directors and advisory board, in the selection of films, and the articles and interviews in the impressive Through African Eyes publication series.
Mahen had this to say to my question during our interview: "As a woman, do you feel that you have a sensibility towards African women's works? Could you talk about the visual image of African women and the representation of African women in the film industry and also share your impressions on films by African women, the sensibility, themes, tendencies?" (From Sisters of the Screen: Women of African on Film, Video and Television, Beti Ellerson, 2000).
I think Africa is a woman and everything that is working in Africa is because women are behind it. They also have a sensitivity and the rhythm. Women are more three-dimensional, they are deeper, and in Africa, that complexity comes from a woman. I find that the subjects that the African women deal with are different from those of African-American women's films, much less Hollywood. Here in the States, one doesn't expect to see things like polygamy, female genital mutilation, or women in Tanzania crushing stone. You feel their passion, you feel their confusion, you share it with them. Safi Faye's film Mossane is a beautiful film; there you have three generations of women. I also felt lucky; she let me show it this year. I love the relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter.
No aspect of African cinema is more miraculous than the most unbidden emergence of female filmmakers on the continent. What makes film the most immediate, the most direct of all art forms is its ability to transport, to place one instantaneously in someone else's situation. Their films sometimes focus on the challenges of adjustment and this is why audiences can identify. Whether they are depicting upheavals or celebrating life, they show "little people" trying to "do the right thing."
I believe the female African filmmaker has a defined perception of her world and because of this her films translate. It can move from one language into others. They have tenacity, resourcefulness, and buoyancy. Their situation requires all these qualities.
I also believe that, in using the cinematic medium, we find that in their films, women are best able to recapture, help define the true essence of African culture and African people. They address issues in a sense that are taken away from imposed colonial values or colonial distortions and point of view.