When it comes to writing and depicting the stories of Africans, Westerners focus on tragedy. When a story from the continent hits the front page of a major newspaper, chances are high that it will involve war, famine or political corruption. No one summed this up better than Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina who, in his satirical Granta piece "How to Write About Africa," deadpans: "Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated." He implies that there is another side to African life that we rarely see---a side that is actually quite a lot like North America, with people who adore hip-hop, send secret texts to their crushes, bullshit with their friends, make mistakes and still aspire to live a greater life.
When 27-year-old Haligonian filmmaker Noah Pink travelled to Zambia, he sought to capture these aspects of urban African humanity in the country's capital, Lusaka, and his efforts were recognized by the Cannes Film Festival. His film, ZedCrew, is screening today at the Directors' Fortnight showcase, a non-competitive showcase of world cinema that has previously hosted efforts by Werner Herzog, Spike Lee and most recently Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan's J'ai tué ma mère.
Pink is no stranger to Africa. He has worked and travelled broadly across the continent; first as a volunteer in Senegal, and later as a filmmaker, following one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys," Jacob Deng, when he returned to Sudan from his home in Halifax after an 18-year absence. He also worked in Rwanda on the film adaptation of Shake Hands with the Devil. In the summer of 2009, Pink went to Zambia to work on another documentary and heard a news story about Moroccan refugees who were found in a container ship at a Halifax port. It was a story he wanted to re-capture in Lusaka, through the lens of rap music and city life.
"In Africa, hip-hop is everywhere," he says. "In remote villages you see little kids in 50 Cent t-shirts. And Lusaka is one of the largest urban centres in Africa---it's really where all African cities will be heading in the future. I realized I wanted to do a story about it."
Pink had a single helper---co-producer Christopher Porter---one camera, one microphone and no script. "We came up with the script and the idea in Zambia," he says. "The biggest thing was working through it with the cast."
Pink plucked his cast from the streets of Lusaka and MySpace. He came across charismatic rapper Alvin Fungo, AKA Hong the Lyricist, and found two other non-actors to play the trio of aspiring rappers---Hong, Starn and Grampa---at the heart of ZedCrew. The three men are chasing better lives and think New York City is the "hip-hop mecca" that will provide the key to their success. After a disheartening experience at the American embassy and other attempts to raise funds and get illegal visas, the three decide to stow away in a container ship.
Pink hopes the film will also show the ludicrous standards that are placed upon Africans who want to leave their own country. (At the time of this interview, he was attempting to arrange a visa for Fungo to come to Cannes. Fungo managed to get the visa and last night, Pink emailed, "He stepped into the ocean for the first time two days ago. He is speechless as the hordes of Ferraris drive by.")
"It's so easy for us as Canadians to go anywhere," Pink says. "For these people, you have to go through so much red tape, it's nearly impossible. I really wanted people to see that."