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Local film on Somali girls highlights 25th Cascade Festival of African Films
Photos and Story by James Hill
After 25 years, the Cascade Festival of African Films is going local.
Portland Community College’s Cascade Festival of African Films is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a poignant local film about Somali girls from southeast Portland who come together to play basketball in a local recreation league. The documentary “Lessons of Basketball and War,” examines the roots of conflict between Somali ethnic groups and the challenges faced by those who attempt to resolve it here in Portland. The film has been an official selection for the 2014 Global Peace, Richmond International and Red Rock film festivals.
“Lessons” highlights a busy festival, which will feature 34 films and host 10 visiting film directors this February. The longest-running annual African film festival in the United States runs from Friday, Feb. 6 through Sunday, March 8 and shows films ranging from full-length features to documentaries and short films. More than 5,000 people attend the festival annually. All films will be shown in the Moriarty Arts and Humanities Building Auditorium at PCC’s Cascade Campus (705 N. Killingsworth St.) with the opening night and the centerpiece film screenings at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy Blvd.). It is free and open to the public.
“The Cascade Festival of African Films is one of the most exciting and treasured educational and cultural events in Portland,” said long-time film festival organizer Mary Holmstrom, who is a native of South Africa. “Not only does CFAF enlighten and educate Americans about Africa through films by Africans, but it also provides Portland-area African immigrants and refugees with the opportunity to be represented and understood when their respective cultures are brought to life on the big screen.”
This year, the Cascade Festival of African Films offers a Retrospective Series of the festival’s top-10 films through its 25-year history on each Sunday of the schedule. In addition, there will be a Student Fest for high school and college-age students, and Family Fest featuring films for children. Women Filmmakers Week will welcome four female directors to PCC for panel discussions about their films.
Ron Bourke will be there. He’s the local Portland writer, director and producer, who made “Lessons of Basketball and War.” After reading an article in The Oregonian newspaper about a Somali girls basketball team put together by then Hosford Middle School Principal Kevin Bacon, the idea to make the documentary was born.
Bourke said “Lessons of Basketball and War” explores universal issues of violence, prejudice, cultural identity and conflict resolution as seen through the eyes of the girls, who are refugees from war and famine in Somalia. The film shows how the team, mostly Muslim, dealt with the sexualized, celebrity-obsessed America and the issues of the ethnic animosity that followed them to America from Somalia. This documentary follows a year in their lives and those of the educators and volunteers who helped them.
“In our world today, vast populations are being uprooted, repressed and even exterminated in the name of religion,” Bourke said. “But there are examples of how seemingly hostile cultural or religious groups are able to coexist or even thrive. This story about a small group of Somali, Muslim, refugee girls being dropped into our predominantly rich Christian society offered a chance to see this confluence of cultures from a relatively fresh point of view.”
Bourke’s film crew shot over a nine-month period, several times a week, beginning with the early practices where the coach had to explain the rules of basketball to the girls with limited language understanding between the two. The film follows this process of learning on and off the basketball court through a 10-game competitive season, ending with the graduation of several of the girls from middle school. The film will be shown at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 28 as part of the festival’s Student Fest Matinee at the Moriarty Auditorium, Cascade Campus.
“I’m honored to have my film featured at this year’s festival and I am glad to have a screening here in Portland so that many of those involved with the production can have an opportunity to share it with family and friends,” he said.
Kevin Bacon will be there as well. In 2008, he was the Hosford principal (now principal at Boise-Eliot/Humboldt) who noticed a group of Somali girls having pickup basketball games away from other students. They never tried out for the organized school teams due to confidence, cultural barriers and the revealing uniforms, he said. Bacon noticed that even though there was friction between the Somali groups within the school, they would still rather hang out with each other than make friends with their predominantly African-American classmates. This exclusion gave him the idea of forming a hoops team to play in the Portland Parks’ seventh-grade league.
“I thought that maybe through having an experience of being part of a team they would feel comfortable going out for the traditional school teams as they continue to move through school,” said Bacon, who was the team’s coach.
There was plenty to do. Bacon had to get the parents’ approval and work with them to make culturally approved uniforms with head scarves and tunics. In the team practices, the former teacher had to dust off his teaching skills to teach the finer points of the game. On top of their own internal difference, the girls had to deal with the parks and recreation teams they faced, who may not of understood their look.
“I had to implement teaching strategies that teachers use in the classroom to really stress vocabulary and use visuals of concepts I was trying communicate,” he said. “The girls were super excited. Their commitment was there and they thought they were movie stars because of the film crew. It was fun.”
But how did the team, with all of it internal tribal differences, perform? Did the girls overcome them and play together?
“You got to watch the movie,” said a smiling Bacon.