Pan African Film Festival 2024: ‘Me Captain’ and ‘One Person, One Vote?’
A scene from 'Io Capitano.' | Courtesy of PAFF

The 32nd Pan African Film & Arts Festival, America’s largest Black-themed filmfest, took place last month during Black History Month, in Los Angeles. PAFF screens movies ranging from Hollywood studio productions to indies, foreign films, documentaries, low-budget productions, shorts, etc. Films span the spectrum from Oscar nominees to hard-to-find gems from Africa, the Caribbean, America, and beyond that L.A. viewers are unlikely to be able to see at any other venue. Aside from the occasional retrospective, most of them are new films that will now wend their way through the film distribution market and may pop up soon in a theater near you. Here are reviews of just a few of the films audiences will have an opportunity to see.

‘Me Captain’: Fantastic Voyage

Me Captain (Io Capitano) is listed under the heading of “Awards Season Spotlights” in PAFF’s program guide as it has been—very deservedly so—nominated for the Best International Film Academy Award. In this gripping feature based on a true story, Italian director/co-writer Matteo Garrone takes us behind the scenes of the immigration crisis rocking Europe. On the news, viewers are used to seeing these desperate migrants in battered, barely seaworthy boats at the end of their quests but, as Garrone previously told AFI festivalgoers, in Me Captain he “put the camera on the other side… . Their journey is an adventure, this is the reverse shot of what we see in Europe,” with epic odysseys that have resulted in “27,000 people dead,” due to their risky seeking of better lives against all odds.

In Me Captain Seydou (Seydou Sarr) is a 16-year-old Senegalese dreaming of leaving his early life in the former West African French colony far behind in order to migrate to Italy, where he imagines fame and fortune await him as a pop singer. Sneaking away from his loving mother and family, Seydou pays the African equivalent of “coyotes”—people traffickers—and crosses Senegal and then, eventually, the dangerous Sahara Desert by truck and foot, ending up enslaved and imprisoned in Libya.

When he finally sets sail for Italy in a rickety, overcrowded ship, the adolescent finds that he’s forced to be its pilot for a perilous journey that in comparison makes Ulysses’ jaunt across the Mediterranean look like a hop, skip, and a jump. Me Captain is a tremendously powerful film that tells the migrants’ and refugees’ side of the story. What the movie doesn’t tell us is why Seydou and so many like him are willing to undergo such hazardous, arduous journeys to seek better lives. Me Captain is very timely because Senegal is much in the news now (unlike when Seydou made his desperate journey). This West African nation has been independent for 60 years now; why can’t it provide adequately for citizens like Seydou? Is it because of the IMF? French neo-colonialism? The Senegalese national bourgeoisie? I don’t know the answer, but that’s clearly another film—probably a documentary that could be entitled: The Wretched of the Earth Redux.

One Person, One Vote?

Welcome to the Electoral College and the undemocratic states of America!

Did you know that nobody directly votes for president in America—except for a handful of electors who actually cast the deciding votes in the Electoral College? Maximina Juson’s extremely timely documentary One Person, One Vote? explains and explores this anti-democratic, archaic institution which, since 2000, has given us two presidents who lost the popular vote and went on to deliver two of the most devastating presidencies in world history, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Like a cinematic Wayback Machine, Juson’s camera travels back to the Constitutional Convention in the 1780s, using animation in this predominantly live-action nonfiction film, revealing the slaveowners and other elitists who dreaded democracy—which they derided as “mob rule”—and saddled us with one of the fatal flaws of our founding document. The Electoral College empowered elitists to make sure that the ordinary masses would never run the republic they rendered, which should properly be called what it really is: The Undemocratic States of America.

In particular, Juson goes into how the truly despicable so-called “three-fifths compromise”—which essentially designated enslaved individuals as being worth only 3/5 of a white person—ties into the whole Electoral College scheme, enabling Southern states to have a higher number of legislative representatives (and hence, electors), even as they in effect disempowered huge numbers of inhabitants from having any sort of representation in government, let alone the right to vote (until 1965, that is, and that is very tenuous now too, as we all know with the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act).

If George Orwell was alive circa 1787, he may have written: “All fifths are equal—except some fifths are more fifths than others.”

Juson, a Filipina-American, boldly exposes the roots of our rotten political system founded on the notion of “government of the elites, by the elites, and for the elitists.” In doing so, One Person, One Vote? suggests why in 2024 America is trapped in a presidential contest between two candidates whom the majority of people don’t want. She also takes a look at attempts to ameliorate and reform the oppressive Electoral College system. But what’s really needed is a revolution to bring about popular, participatory, direct democracy. Instead of looking for alternatives by examining examples of bourgeois parliamentary systems, we should consider instances of people’s power and rule: The Paris Commune; the St. Petersburg soviets (workers’ councils) in Russia in 1905 and 1917; the anarchist communes and collectives in Spain during the Spanish Civil War; the “popular power” of workers and peasants in Salvador Allende’s Chile; etc. Now, that’s another documentary I’d love to see: Mass democratic alternatives to the Undemocratic States of America. In the meantime, Juson’s film is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over America’s anti-democratic electoral system, which flunks the college of democracy.

For more info see the PAFF website.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.