Pan African Film Festival closes with filmmaker awards 

By Cynthia Gibson

Contributing Writer

After 12 days, more than 150 films, dozens of panel discussions, workshops, seminars, special presentations, an art festival, a children’s, student and spokenword festival, the 2023 Pan African Film Festival came to a close Feb. 20.  

“If your presence doesn’t make an impact, then your absence won’t make a difference,” Pan African Film Festival Director of Communications Jasmyne Cannick said at the Filmmaker’s Award Brunch.  Fourteen filmmakers were honored for the impact their films made on the festival jury, programmers, executives and tens of thousands of people who attended.

Associate Programming Director N. Mabasa Mathope said he and a team of four programming associates reviewed  several hundred films before forwarding them to a jury for award selection.

Six films — three documentaries and three narratives — were selected for the Jury Awards. 

The Best Short Narrative Award was presented to “True Story: God Tells Bad Jokes,” directed by Matthew Law, a film about a male therapist and his male patient who work out the mental issues that plague them both.

A documentary that reclaims the 1,000–year old tradition of Black surfing and aquatic culture, “Wade in the Water: A Journey into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture,” directed by David Mesfin, received the Best First Feature Documentary Award.

Director Harriet Marin Jones won the Best Feature Documentary Award for “King of Kings:  Chasing Edward Jones,” a film chronicling her search for the truth about her charismatic Black grandfather who rose to the heights of financial and political prominence in Depression-era Chicago. 

“A song From the Dark,” the story of a woman who hires a spirit hunter to expel a spirit tormenting her family, after her estranged husband dies, won Best First Feature Narrative Award for director Ogo Okpue.

Other Jury Award winning films included Best Feature Narrative, “Rye Lane” directed by Rane Allen-Miller and directors Andrew Abrahams and Herb Ferrette’s film “American Justice on Trial: People vs. Newton American Justice,” received the Best Short Documentary Award.

Pan African Film Festival Executives’ Award and Programmers’ Awards were presented to eight films in four categories: Best Narrative Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best Short Documentary.

During the Filmmakers Awards Brunch, pre-recorded acceptance speeches of Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King,” “Love and Basketball”) who received the Djeli Award and Jonathan Majors (“Devotion,” “The Harder They Fall”) who was honored with the Canada Lee Award, were played.  

Actress Angela Lewis (“Snowfall”) and City Councilwoman Heather Hutt were present to receive the Beah Richards Award and Community Service Award, respectively.

In her acceptance speech, Lewis told why she accepted the role of “Louie,” the drug dealer she has portrayed for five seasons on FX’s popular drama, “Snowfall.” The series tells the origin story of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, how it came into the community and its impact on the residents of South Los Angeles. It was created by the late director John Singleton  (“Boyz in the Hood”).

“I felt like she had a story to tell,” Lewis said. “She had dreams that were always shut down. She was always told ‘no.’ She didn’t have the opportunities that I had.

 “I didn’t trust that if I said no to this role, that the next person was going to do the same deep dive and was going to love her and protect her the way that I felt I needed to … so I said yes to Louie,” she added.

Hutt acknowledged the importance of Black film and vowed to continue to support the film festival.

“I have three sons and they are artists,” she said. “My brother works in the arts as well, so we understand what art does for people. We know that [Black] films did real well during the pandemic because we were all at home watching them,

“This is the right platform and I will continue to make an investment as a sponsor to make sure this goes on for years because we need this in our community.”

The festival’s final weekend included several panels on the film industry: “Film Packaging,” “Behind the Music:  The influence of Music on TV, Film + Social Media” and “Representation Roundtable: A Conversation with Black Agents, Managers, Attorneys and Publicists” all drew large audiences. In addition to the panels, the festival concluded with Spokenword Fest, a fashion show, a spotlight film and the closing night feature film.

“To Live and Die and Live,” staring Amin Joseph (“Snowfall”) and directed by Qasim Basir was the closing night film. The film tells the story of Muhammad (Joseph), a Hollywood film director who returns home to Detroit for the funeral of his stepfather. Secretly battling an addiction, Muhammad struggles to cope while trying to shoulder the needs of family and friends who see him as a leader and provider. 

As with “Chevalier,” the festival’s opening night film, “To Live and Die and Live,” was also screened before a sold-out audience. Amin said the film is about making difficult choices and moving forward.

“Life is about second chances more than anything,” he said. “Sometimes in order for us to have a new lease on life, we have to forgive ourselves. I feel like Muhammad is transitioning.

“Alcoholism, drug abuse and just the way that he loves himself, he has to challenge himself to love himself better and by doing that perhaps he’ll love his community and his family better, as well.”

At the festival’s Filmmakers Brunch, Co-founder and Executive Director Ayuko Babu said the stories of the African diaspora are present around the world and need to be told to provide context. 

“We have to have storytellers to stop, tell us who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Babu said.  “That sounds really simple, but it‘s absolutely true. … We’ve got a little bit of our story everywhere.”

Festival organizers have announced that a virtual encore screening of popular films from the 2023 festival will be available on demand.  The PAFF Virtual Encore will take place between Feb. 21 and March 31 and include festival award winners and films screened to sold-out audiences to provide another opportunity for viewing. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at  

A PAFF Virtual Cinema pass also is available.

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