Documentary filmmaker Élie Séonnet marinates questions of culture and identity in his newest project, “Wax in the City.” Shot in Benin, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Holland, France and the Ivory Coast, the film considers the ways in which fashion can both shape and express identity, with a focus on African and Afro-French designers.
On Sept. 28, the film makes its U.S. debut at the SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, as part of the school’s inaugural global festival.
Séonnet will participate in an audience Q&A following the screening.
Born and raised in a Paris suburb, Séonnet always felt comfortable in mixed-culture environments. To him, the interplay of languages and backgrounds was fascinating, and often informed his film projects.
Years later, when he married his wife, an Ivory Coast native, and had two biracial, multicultural children, it became even more of a focus.
“All my films are linked to the question of identity,” Séonnet said. “It is very important for me to show the reality of these mixed cultures because people are so afraid about this, and sometimes they don’t understand because they are living in a very white neighborhood. They don’t really understand how we can live together with all our differences.”
The film delves specifically into the trend of African and Afro-French designers using wax print, often characterized by vibrant colors and batik-style printing.
“I’m definitely not in fashion,” Séonnet said.
But the BKE film company founder was curious about the relationship between clothing, public and self-image.
“Before this project, I was quite critical about fashion and people who are really thinking about how they look,” he said. “But doing this movie, I found out how important it can be.”
In research, Séonnet learned that many people’s relationships with wax print are complex, and many are changing.
In recent years, the style has seen a resurgence among those of African descent around the globe, according to Séonnet. People from across the African Diaspora “are now more and more proud of their identity, of their origins,” he said. “It’s very strong to see the way things are changing and how people who were, maybe, ashamed of African culture not long ago are now proud of this culture. That’s powerful.”
Festival organizers intend to make the event an annual tradition, according to Anne Kern, Purchase College dean for global strategy and international programs and associate professor of cinema studies.
Kern has held a spot on the faculty since 2005, but just stepped into the role of global dean in July. She and the college’s provost, Barry Pearson, along with festival curator Lydie Diakhaté, have worked tirelessly to pull the event together on a short deadline.
“It marks this turn that the college is taking boldly in the direction of global initiative,” Kern said.
Faculty hope the festival will promote global citizenship among students and help the college build international relationships. According to Kern, Benin was the perfect country to showcase, given that Purchase launched a transnational film project, in part based in Benin, in June of last year.
“That was really the beginning of Purchase College’s story with this tiny little country in West Africa,” Kern said. “From there, we’ve really expanded partnerships quickly, because it’s such an incredible place, and there are very few if any American university programs in [Benin].”
This past June, the college established a residence for Beninese artists and Purchase College students in Cotonou, the country’s unofficial economic capital.
In addition to Séonnet’s project, the festival will include an exhibition opening of “Echoes of the City: Ancestral Figures to Urban Heroes,” an exclusive pop-up shop offering Benin’s Ayodele wax fabric creations, and a talk from Grammy Award-winning singer, activist and humanitarian Angélique Kidjo, who is Beninese and was named one of The Guardian’s 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World.
The festival will also offer the U.S. debut of Benin International Musical, a seven-piece ensemble blurring voodoo rhythms with electronic melodies, hip-hop and rock influences. The concert is a Radio France project in partnership with ORTB, The EBU, Rolling Stone magazine and TV5 Monde.
Food trucks will also be on-site Sept. 28 and Sept. 29 from noon to 8 p.m.
For a full schedule of events, visit purchase.edu/globalfestival.