When Diarah N’Daw-Spech looks back on the most vivid memories from three decades of the African Diaspora International Film Festival that she co-founded and programs with her husband, Reinaldo Barroso-Spech (Ed.D., ‘02), she thinks about a moment in the 2000s when violence and unrest was flaring in the African and Muslim suburbs of Paris — attracting mostly negative coverage in the U.S.
“I remember one year being at the Gramercy Theater showing a French film about the riots in the suburbs and the house was packed,” N’Daw Spech said. “And to me it was amazing that we exposed those kinds of realities from the perspective of people who were subjected to prejudice, something that people don’t know much about.”
As the film festival, known as ADIFF, prepares to celebrate its 30th year at Teachers College later this month with a packed 17-day schedule of movie screenings and panel discussions, N’Daw-Spech and Barroso-Spech agree their core idea of promoting better understanding and awareness about the global African experience through cinema has remained unchanged — even as the film lineup grows more diverse.
“There’s a universal experience that people should be introduced to,” said Barroso-Spech, recalling how the couple traveled extensively across Latin America in the early years — “not always in the best hotels,” he added with a slight chuckle — pleading with rising filmmakers in countries like Brazil and Argentina to sign off on New York screenings for films shining a light on the Afro-Latino experience.
This fall’s ADIFF lineup reads like a roadmap to the diversity of Black life around the planet, from the rise of House music here in the U.S., to a twist on a Serbian folk tale featuring African migrants, to a documentary on the life of Bahamian-American movie legend Sidney Portier, to a film based in 1962 Mali in that intersperses the dance craze for “the twist” with that nation’s tangled politics.
The 30th anniversary ADIFF runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 11, with a dizzying roster that will spotlight 89 films from 44 separate countries. To mark the anniversary, the festival is expanding its footprint across Manhattan to include seven different venues — including two on the Teachers College campus, Milbank Chapel and the Cowin Center. Some screenings at the Schomburg Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem, and Baruch College will be presented free of charge, while admission prices for other events vary. [Teachers College’s Office of the Vice President for Diversity & Community Affairs is once again a sponsor of the festival, and TC community members can attend the campus events for free with their ID.]
Another highlight of this year’s 30th anniversary event will be a retrospective of past winners of the festival’s award for films directed by women of color, spotlighting the powerful 2021 movie She Had a Dream by Raja Amari — a documentary that explores the experiences of a young Black woman in northern African society. The increasing visibility of female filmmakers, as well as the prominence of documentaries, spotlight some of the ways that both ADIFF and moviemaking in general have changed since the festival’s first year, 1993.
The cultural moment when ADIFF launched came years before the advent of Netflix and other streaming sites, when Hollywood blockbusters dominated the handful of theaters and the few international film festivals that existed were mostly Eurocentric. Barroso-Spech – who grew up in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, of Haitian and Jamaican heritage, and whose love of learning French took him to Paris – and N’Daw-Spech, who met her husband in her native France as daughter of an architect from Mali and a French mother, were young cinema enthusiasts who rarely found movies that reflected their own unique Black odysseys.
But Barroso-Spech – who was teaching French and Spanish to parochial school kids after coming to New York City with his wife in 1984, and who has been an instructor at Teachers College after earning his doctorate there – has also said the festival was inspired by his growing awareness of the power of movies to educate people, especially in breaking down cultural prejudices.
N’Daw-Spech — who worked in the Teachers College budget office for 16 years after earning her MBA degree at Columbia — said her husband was troubled by segregation in New York schools and that “there are a lot of misconceptions and lack of meaningful conversations when it comes to the understanding of the Black experience.” The power of that founding idea has helped ADIFF to expand, with an ongoing presence in Chicago and Washington as well as past festivals in Paris and on Curacao. N’Daw-Spech added that “the films presented in the festival are rooted in reality and don’t follow the commercial trends of films only for entertainment.”
The ongoing connection between ADIFF and teaching is why Barroso-Spech’s favorite part of ADIFF remains its school program, in which kids and their teachers are bussed in — sometimes from the outer boroughs or New Jersey — to attend screenings for free. “When I see all those teachers who took the time and went to the trouble of bringing those students to see the films that I have programmed,” he said, “that is a moment of joy for me.”