Friday, April 10, 2009

NY African Film Festival: The Importance of Being Elegant

They might be the best dressed cult in the world. Led by Congolese superstar Papa Wemba, the so-called SAPE (La Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes) worship cloth—designer labels to be exact. Their strange twilight existence, living illegally in Europe while pursuing the finest in haute couture, proves quite fascinating in Cosima Spender and George Amponsah’s BBC produced documentary, The Importance of Being Elegant, screening as part of this year’s New York African Film Festival.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Africa in transition” and it is a transitional time for Wemba as Elegant opens. He has just been released from a French prison for his involvement with a human smuggling ring. Evidently, while incarcerated, Wemba accepted Jesus as his lord and savior, but not necessarily as his fashion guide. He still has a taste for flashy clothes, which he soon indulges with a shopping spree that includes a 15,000 Euro fur coat.

Life of the SAPE revolves around Wemba and their internal social status is based solely on recognition from the rumba-Afro-Pop musician. They slavishly follow his style and sing Wemba songs at karaoke bars. There is even a fierce rivalry between the SAPE factions of Paris and Brussels.

Regardless of his spiritual awakening, Wemba remains an undeniably problematic figure. To hear the flamboyantly clad singer decry materialism would be insulting, if it were not so unintentionally hilarious. However, he is in fine voice throughout Elegant, cutting some fantastic tracks for an upcoming record and laying down some killer grooves during a concert performance, which helps explain, to a limited extent, the SAPE’s allegiance to their idol.

While Spender (the grand-daughter of poet Stephen Spender) and Amponsah open a compelling window into one of the world’s weirder subcultures, they leave many questions unanswered. Just what do the SAPE do during the day and given the dubious legal status of most sapeurs, where does the money for their designer threads come from? One also cannot help wondering just what the money Wemba and his followers spend on clothes could do for Congo if they sent it home instead.

Even though it backs off the really tough questions, Elegant is an eye-opening documentary. As profiled by Spender and Ampnsah, the SAPE come across like harmless variants of the Clockwork Orange dandies. They seem to inhabit an environment where the distinction between an entourage and a cult is hopelessly blurred. While Elegant might leave audiences wanting deeper investigational efforts, they will not be bored by the film. They should also thoroughly enjoy Wemba’s music (perhaps in spite of themselves).

Elegant screens again tomorrow (4/11) at the Walter Reade Theater. The first leg of the festival runs through April 15th, with another round of films screening at BAM over the Memorial Day weekend, including Michel Ocelot’s animated fable, Azur & Asmar on May 25th.