Film and History in Africa: A Critical Survey of Current Trends and Tendencies
Part of the research for this essay was made possible by the generous support of the Howard University-Sponsored Faculty Research Program in the Social Sciences, Humanities and Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Like other forms of creative expression by Africans, filmmaking constitutes a form of discourse and practice that is not just artistic and cultural, but also intellectual and political. It is a way of defining, describing and interpreting African experiences with those forces that have shaped their past and that continue to shape and influence the present. It is a product of the historical experiences of Africans, and it has direct bearing and relevance to the challenges that face African societies and people of African descent in the world in the present moment and in the future. As product of the imagination, filmmaking constitutes, at the same time, a particular mode of intellectual and political practice. Thus, in looking at filmmaking, in particular, and the other creative arts, in general, one is looking at particular insights into ways of thinking and acting on individual as well as collective realities, experiences, challenges and desires over time. African thinking and acting on their individual and collective realities, experiences, challenges and desires are diverse and complex, and cinema provides one of the most productive sites for experiencing, understanding and appreciating such diversity and complexity.
A significant portion of what constitutes African cultural, symbolic and intellectual thought and practices – be they oral, written, dramatic, visual or filmic – can be characterized as responses to and interventions in the factors and forces that have shaped Africa over time. Generally conceived as triple, these factors and forces have been described by Kwame Nkrumah and, more recently, by Ali Mazrui as (i) indigenous, (ii) Arab-Islamic and (iii) Euro-Christian. The patterns of interaction, cross-fertilization, tensions and conflicts between and among these forces over many centuries on African soil have produced a wide range of complex dynamics and transformations that have resulted in the shape of Africa at the present moment. They have also spawned diverse patterns of thought and practices in many domains of life in Africa, particularly the domain of filmmaking. African cinema functions as a mode of entertainment. At the same time, it assigns itself a pivotal role in definitions, enactment and performance of African notions and ideologies of individual as well as community and humanity, just like its counterparts, the indigenous oral narrative traditions and written literature in both African and European languages. African filmmaking co-exists and interacts with these other forms of creative practice on the level of subject matter, theme, form, style and conceptions of art and artist and their role in and relationship to society.
African participation in the global civilization of cinema as producers and transmitters of their own images is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only to the 1960s. The initial position of Africa in this civilization of cinema was that of a receiver/consumer of film products made primarily in and by the west. Many of these films also used and continue to use Africa and Africans as resources to invent and disseminate images and discourses of Africa and Africans radically at odds with the histories and actual realities of Africa and Africans. In spite of its youth and the variety of overwhelming odds against which it is struggling, cinema by Africans has grown steadily over this short period of time to become a significant part of a global cinema civilization to which it brings many significant contributions. More specifically, it is part of a worldwide film movement aimed at constructing and promoting an alternative popular cinema, one that corrects the distortions and stereotypes propagated by dominant western cinemas, and one that is more in sync with the realities, the experiences, the priorities and desires of their respective societies.
As such, a significant portion of the films that constitutes African Cinema share a few elements in common with radical film practices from other parts of the third world. These include practices such as Third Cinema as articulated by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, Imperfect Cinema as developed by Julio Garcia Espinosa and of Cinema Novo as articulated by Glauber Rocha and others. They also exhibit similarities with the work of independent African American and Black British filmmakers, and Indian filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and Mirnal Sen. These parallels are manifested not only at the level of form and theme, but also in their production, distribution and exhibition practices and challenges.
A significant development in African film culture, in the last two decades, especially, is the turn toward the subject of history. Since its inception in the 60s and 70s, a significant portion of African cinema has focused and continues to focus on issues of racism, colonial exploitation and injustice, tradition and modernity, hopes, betrayals and disaffections of independence, immigration and many other social justice issues. Historicizing these issues, as well as creating narratives based primarily on events, figures and subjects of history, has emerged in recent years as a prominent trait of African film culture, as a cursory glance at African film production in the past two decades will demonstrate.
The subject of African history is one that has commanded the attention of a steadily growing number of films by Africans in recent years. Many of these films are devoted primarily or in part to a critical engagement with and interrogation of the African past for the purpose contesting, visioning and re-visioning, to invoke Rosentone’s categories , aspects of that past from African points of view. These films also take up history as a way of reflecting on and coming to terms with the many crises and challenges confronting contemporary African societies, as well as the future.
Stories of the African past, it is generally established by now, have been rendered predominantly from the perspective of Europeans who colonized and dominated much of Africa. These dominant European versions focus predominantly on the story of Europeans in Africa and present these as authentic histories of Africa. In these versions, Europe is presented as the bringer of history and civilization to an a-historical Africa. History is thus pressed into service to rationalize and justify the project of imperial and colonial expansion as well as a civilizing mission which is portrayed as benevolent, benign and sanctioned by God. As such, these versions of history erase and exclude stories of Africa before the advent of Europeans and Arabs.
Like many African oral artists, creative writers and historians, a good number of recent African films present versions of the African past from African perspectives which contest and subvert official as well as popular European accounts, and which present more complex and balanced histories, especially the histories of slavery, imperialism, colonialism and post-colonialism. Their subject matter as well as time spans are broad, covering individual figures as well as collective movements and events in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of African history.
The approaches and styles encountered in these films are also diverse, ranging from linear realist approaches to ones that are non-linear, symbolic and, sometimes, experimental. While their interrogation and reconstruction of history draw partially and in critically transgressive ways from sources such as official documents and narratives as well as traditional Euro-centric scholarly accounts, their foundation is the African heritage of oral traditions and memory. Documentary as well as fiction, these films are less interested in a history that merely celebrates a glorious past for European consumption, what Mazrui calls “romantic gloriana”, than in a critical and purposeful reflection on and interrogation of the ways history – its varied constructions and uses – is inextricably implicated in systems of domination, subjugation and liberation of Africans, and is as well inscribed in the African present and future.
In this essay, I want to offer a sketch of the evolving parameters, approaches, strategies, styles and uses of this new history film in Africa with special reference to three films: Asientos (1996) by François Woukoache of Cameroon, Sankofa (1992) by Haile Gerima of Ethiopia and Sarraounia (1986) by Med Hondo of Mauritania. But first, a brief survey of the field in general.