Planet Africa’s ground control

Programmer chooses films from large, diverse continent.

National Post, September 12, 2002   

Gaylene Gould has programmed the Planet Africa series at the Toronto film festival for the last three of its eight years. Putting this year’s program together took nine months and yielded nine films. For each of those nine, Gould says she rejected at least 10 others.


“It gets easier,” she says. “The first year, you’re scared. The second, you get more confident. This year, I know what I’ve chosen and why. People may disagree with my choices, but I know why I made them. You do hit a point where you’re seeing bad film after bad film and you get discouraged — seeing that much bad art is depressing — and there’s a point where you think your series will only have three films in it.”


How does Gould separate the gold from the dross? She says the process is driven by instinct more than a complex cinematic esthetic. And it’s not something programmers compare. “We’re asked how we do it all the time,” she says. “But we never discuss it.”


Finding a set of pictures that cover the spectrum of artistic possibilities that film offers is important. And in the case of Planet Africa, there’s also the challenge of representing the different cultures on the continent.


“Look at the continent of Africa,” Gould says. “There’s a huge black population, a huge Arabic population in the north, and a huge white population in the south.” One of the pictures that generated early buzz comes from that region. Jason Xenopoulos’s Promised Land plumbs the public, political and private conflicts an expatriate South African finds when he returns to his family’s farm after decades in England. Its stark landscapes mix bleak heroism with menace and foreboding.


Planet Africa also traces cinematic expression throughout Europe, the United States and the Caribbean — crucial for Gould: “That link has always been missed out. The Caribbean is a phenomenally cinematic place. The culture is orally transmitted, so people are natural storytellers. History and mythology still live day to day. It’s so ripe for cinema, but it really hasn’t happened.”


She draws a parallel between the region’s developing cinematic impact and its continuing musical influence. “Chris Blackwell of Island Pictures has been producing popular Jamaican films like Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop, both of which premiered at Planet Africa,” she says. “Caribbean audiences flock to those films. We have a Jamaican film this year called Shottas starring Wyclef Jean and Ky-Mani Marley, Bob Marley’s son. Audiences are going to come to that, no problem.”


Finding movies that audiences will respond to, of course, is central to the exercise. “I’m always very interested in the link between the audience and a film, what happens to an audience when they see a film and where it can take them.”


Often, says Gould, she’ll select a film largely because she’s curious to see what an audience will make of it. And before she’s anything else, Gould is an audience member herself — one who knows how important the cultural connections movies forge can be.


Growing up in Leicester in England’s Midlands in the 1970s, she first became entranced by musicals at Saturday matinees. “But I stayed up late watching weird French films on BBC2 as well,” she says. “I didn’t understand them at first, but they fascinated me.” Her work as a documentary director helps her understand the challenges filmmakers face, as well as how to break it gently to people whose pictures don’t get chosen. “At the end of it, when you’ve pulled your program together, you’re always amazed at the number of people who are drawn to this. That’s the thing that leaves you wanting to do it again. This is a really powerful industry, if this many people want to get into it, and so many people want to see the films. It’s worth fighting for.”