Interview with Jean-Marie Teno

Born in 1954, in Famleng, Cameroon, Jean-Marie Teno studied communication at the University of Valenciennes.  Since graduating in 1984 with a degree in filmmaking, he has been living and working in France.  Directing both documentary and fiction, Teno frequently shoots his films himself, often in the reflexive and provocative style of the first-person narrative.  Rooted in post-colonial experience, Teno’s cinematic essays interrogate societal issues facing contemporary Africa, tackling topics such as censorship, emigration, human rights and the impact of globalization on the developing world, as well as polygamy and the status of women.  The pervasive nature of corruption within society and resistance to injustice are persistent themes in much of his work. With his latest film, The Colonial Misunderstanding (2004), Teno presents a sharp critique of the role of nineteenth-century German missionaries in the colonial conquest of Africa.  Horst Rutsch spoke with Jean-Marie Teno in the course of the eleventh edition of the African Film Festival in New York on 23 April 2005.

Horst Rutsch is writer and editor of the UN Chronicle magazine published in New York (


Horst Rutsch: Let us start with the title of your film, The Colonial Misunderstanding.[i] To me, the core idea—or more specifically, the core sentiment of the film—is stated there: that one should fight injustice in order to make charity unnecessary.

Jean-Marie Teno: Yes.

HR: First of all, what made you want to make this film? What made you choose to do this subject, involving German missionary history?

JMT: Why I made this film was really something of a long process. I’ve been making films questioning the situation in Cameroon, questioning the relationship between Africa and Europe, questioning the vision that people had of Africa. It was always very difficult for me to address colonialism while living in Europe. Because whenever you address colonialism as an African, people start saying, “Oh, that’s a very difficult subject. You don’t want to talk about it.” So I asked how I could really address this issue and have people sit and be able to listen to what I have to say. My idea was really to talk about people that Europeans could identify with, and hence the missionaries. Almost every family in Europe has a missionary in their family. So when I was in Germany in the year 2000 showing my previous film A Trip to the Country,[ii] I went to the Wuppertal mission[iii]. The film started there and I showed my film in front of many missionaries and former missionaries who were living in Germany. I was very impressed by their attitude towards history and their critical attitude towards what happened in Africa and what their predecessors did there. That really encouraged me to go and look into the archives and use the missionaries as a thread to try to tell this story from an African perspective.

HR: So the film essentially started in 2000?

JMT: The idea of the film started at that moment, yes.

HR: How much research was involved?

JMT: It was a long period of research because I had to make many trips to the archives, look in them, and read many books dealing with the topic. I watched some films but there were not many. There were some films made by the missionaries. It was a long and extended period of archival study. Also, I was after certain images that I couldn’t find.

HR: Of what significance was the choice of Germany? One aspect of it is that Germany’s colonial history is shorter than others’ so it’s more “manageable,” in a sense. It’s also something that didn’t continue into the present day; this is a contrast to, say, French and English colonial histories.

JMT: Why Germany? Since Germany had one of the shortest colonial histories, Germans are perhaps more open to talking about it. It was just a small period in their history. Also, the things that happened in Germany are just so deep and so heavy. But they are talking about it. So this may be one of the reasons why talking about the colonial history is not such a big deal. Also, since the war, the events of 1935,[iv] and the Holocaust,[v] Germans have been looking at their history and there are many discussions about it. There is a big sense of historical consciousness in Germany. So, many historians went back and said, “Well, we should go and see what happened during the colonial period because things happened that no one really wants to talk about.” People also found similarities between the colonial language and the language that led to the Holocaust.

So again, why Germany? Due to these historical facts, Germans are really very special in Europe. Really, theirs is the only country that can commemorate the one hundredth year of a genocide that they committed in Africa. Last year [in 2004], there were exhibitions everywhere, there were conferences, and there was even one theme evening on television dealing with this issue. So people really talked about it in Germany. And that helped me a lot. Living in France, it’s so difficult to even talk about colonialism. People always seem to say, “Oh, these things are the past. We have to look ahead and not look at what happened because that’s very painful both for you and for us. It’s too depressing.”

HR: It’s still buried in France as a consciousness.

JMT: Yes, it’s buried and no one talks about this part of history in France.

HR: To me, your film is a very lucid lesson in history. One key moment in this history of African colonialism, of course, is the Berlin Conference.[vi] The defining moment for present-day Africa was, in a sense, settled a hundred and twenty years ago in Berlin at the conference of 1884-85. You have incorporated this aspect into the film. You shot inside the red town hall—“Rote Rathaus” as it’s called in German—the actual venue where the conference took place. What was that like? You clearly bring to the fore the idea of this unified, planned assault on Africa by the colonial powers. The systematic dividing-up of the country was something the individual rulers in Africa weren’t prepared for at that time. How do you gauge the significance of that conference?

JMT: Well, the significance of this conference is that it was really a key moment in history and people have always been somewhat unaware of it. However, many professors in Africa knew, saw, and studied the importance of the moment. Yet while they were studying, it didn’t seem to interest anybody else. So Kangué Ewané[vii] went and really read through the conference—the whole conference—

HR:  The minutes of the conference….

JMT:  Reading the minutes of the conference, you can clearly understand how the whole strategy was put together and what roles were deflected to the missionaries and to education to make those lootings somewhat permanent. And even having Africans participate and contribute to the destruction of their own country. Even today, for the older Africans who fought for real liberation, it has just been a succession of failures, one after the other. Even though we’ve achieved what you call “independence,”[viii] those who really fought for it, who wanted to challenge and change the whole system that was putting Africa under such pressure, were all defeated, killed, or put into exile. So we are still living today in the same Berlin-Conference era. You can see this even in terms of the exchanges between Europe and Africa.

Each and every time, the talk is always about the aid, the development aid. This is a very inappropriate name, actually. Consider when the Eastern countries—the Eastern European countries—were not at the same level as the Western countries. The West decided to help them so that they could improve the quality of their lives. The kind of conditions that they gave to these countries by lending money (like the Marshall Plan[ix] that America gave to Europe) has nothing in common with what they do for Africa. It’s almost like every single penny that they put in Africa is making Africa poorer and poorer every day. People know that, everybody knows that. It’s almost like the whole world doesn’t care and Africans are left to become harmless leaders who are not there democratically and who don’t represent the interests of the vast majority of people. Instead, they favor their own interests and the interests of their families.

We are in a terrible situation; more and more people are dying in Africa. It’s such a frustrating, frustrating situation. Everybody knows, but nobody does anything about it! You have these wonderful discourses, and of course, you can see that some—a few—are doing well, yet the vast majority remains in a terrible state. If we don’t leave this era of 1884 at one point, things are not going to improve. In the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world, all these institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have to change their whole mentality. That’s one of the reasons I made this film. We even have an African as the Secretary-General of the UN.[x]  But we haven’t seen much change.

HR: This is really the moment where one should fight injustice in order to make charity unnecessary.

JMT: Yes.

HR: There is still the relevance of looking at the past because the current situation has not changed, or hasn’t changed to the degree that it could. You mentioned the United Nations, so let me bring that in a bit. On the one hand, after World War II, the so-called decolonization process was handled through the UN, and it is generally considered a success story. This is because of the peaceful “unraveling,” so to speak, of colonialism from what it was before. Which role do you see for the UN? Would you see the UN as being part of the process, as you said, of bringing in something similar to a Marshall Plan?

JMT: Well, the UN is supposed to be the fair referee of what is happening around the world. So at one point or so, the UN should really not let the strong dictate the rules to the weak, thereby making them weaker every day. Of course, this is the case even when we look at recent history; for instance, what happened in Iraq. We are still living in the situation where “right is might”, the right of the stronger. I don’t know if I am putting it correctly: “La raison du plus fort.”[xi] The UN is supposed to be there to go against that. The real test of the UN is whether it is powerful enough, at some point, to really start listening to other people and not let the economic forces pull all the strings from behind. In other words, control the whole thing and let a whole continent die. I mean, it’s almost like fifty years ago; things were bad, things have improved, and we started with a program of development aid. Fifty years later, it’s almost like we went from poverty to misery in so many places.

So how come we cannot improve things in Africa? You have structured groups, people who work everywhere in the world, but how come they are not managing to change things so that people don’t become poorer and poorer everyday? The UN has a hold, but is there really any political will to address this issue? Okay, there’s enough now for everybody on this planet to live on. Why is it not possible to allow people in the south to live decently from the fruit of their work, of their labor? I don’t know if I’m making this clear . . . (laughs).

HR: It is a difficult question.

JMT: It is a very difficult question.

HR: Maybe this is also what makes your looking at the missionaries interesting because theirs was a well-intentioned mission. Yet as someone in the film says, “the missionaries and the colonizers are one.” They worked hand in hand and often not really being aware of their role. This is something that your film makes clear. The good intentions that are used and the misunderstandings which follow are why the film is aptly titled Colonial Misunderstanding. It’s a misunderstanding of their role and also of the people they’re interacting with; it’s a double misunderstanding.

JMT: It’s a double misunderstanding. It’s a very heavy misunderstanding because it puts everybody in a very uncomfortable situation. You have some moments like during the Namibian war[xii]. There was this German missionary who was willing to help his Herero people as much as himself but who finally betrayed them and almost made them lose the war. Who knows whether he was conscious of it or not? I am not going to judge that. And later, the same thing when they were in the bush, when they kept gathering these people saying, “We are going to gather you to try to save you.” And then finally when they were putting together concentration camps. In Europe at that time, the mission was to organize, to ask people to give clothes, to give things so that they could come and help the Hereros who were in the concentration camps. They were bringing these camp people blankets and everything to make the agony longer and sometimes to preach the gospel at the same time. I want the movie to address these deep conflicts that can be inside of people.

HR: Yes, a double-consciousness: being part of one and yet being aligned with another.

JMT: Yes.

HR: We should talk some more about the film. Your film goes back to the 1830s, so it predates the Berlin Conference by over fifty years. It is situated at a moment of pre- or early history; that is, at the opening of the colonial venture, so to speak.

JMT: Yes, the missionary preceded the colonialist for almost sixty to eighty years on the continent, or even sometimes one hundred years in some places.

HR: Right. There are also similarities with other colonial experiences. Say, for instance, in India where you have the missionary projects, the trade, and then the military-governmental intervention that came along with them. So the film, even though it is about Africa, is more about the logic of colonialism and what was set up. This is what is so striking, at least to me. Were you interested at all in other colonial experiences, or is this applicability more or less just a by-product of the intensity of your work here?

JMT: Colonialism is colonialism, from the people who wrote about it to the whole way it functions. Someone leaves his home and goes somewhere and decides to take control of a people, their land, and their resources. Colonialism functions exactly the same everywhere, actually. For me, it was important to deal with this logic. Also, there’s one thing that struck me, even in the news today: people start—and continue—to talk about colonialism in some parts the world. I was really shocked. I asked myself, “Is Africa part of humanity?” because if Africa was a part of humanity, how could people today be talking about colonialism in, say, Palestine? You still have the colonialist who goes to places and just colonizes space. It’s such a heavy word, you know. And we use it just like it was nothing. It’s almost like what happened in Africa never even existed. So that was also one of the reasons I made this film. I listen to the radio everyday and I’m really—I feel frustrated because I want to say, “Look, you cannot use the word just like that.” Now people have managed to make it sound like “Oh, it’s just a simple thing.” Going to other people’s lands, just building a house and deciding, “This is our home now”—how can that be acceptable? How can that be possible?

What if suddenly someone came into the US and just put a flag down and said, “This is my home.” What would Americans do? They would not even allow it to exist. For me, dealing with colonialism was really kind of generic; you saw the same thing happening in the US with the Indians, and even now when you look at what has happened in Iraq. This had some similarities with the colonial experience, at least to me. You have an army just going there, occupying, and saying they’re going to make a government and elections. They are going to leave the country with a government, but a government totally under control like what we have in Africa. Nowadays, we’re not going to have the religious thing.

There is specificity to the colonialism in Africa. They destroyed education and religion. Even the possibility of challenging this whole process remains difficult. That’s why the professor [Kangué Ewané] says that he can forgive people for having taken his land but he cannot forgive them for having touched his brain, having touched his soul, and his culture and truth.

Culture was touched deeply by his thinking. It was especially striking in the seventies. Many people, namely many African intellectuals, referred to Africans as “they.” Having been educated, they didn’t even look at themselves as being Africans anymore. That’s the extent of this kind of brainwashing. Of course, now all things are starting to change, but I’m not really sure that those who are in control and in power have made this journey mentally. Referring to their own people as if they were a “they” is the same mentality the colonialists used to consider the subject peoples. Ils avaient beaucoup de mépris.[xiii] I don’t know how to say this word in English. Mépris. Disparate.[xiv] They despise their own people, they despise their own culture, they despise—

HR: They deny it, in a sense.

JMT: They deny it and also look down on it. They look down on their people and say that this culture doesn’t even exist unless they can use it at one point. It’s sad, but it’s my blood—my angry black blood, you know.

HR: It’s interesting to talk about style because as passionate as you are as a filmmaker, as a documentary filmmaker, you are also very non-judgmental. You don’t enter into the picture; you let your subjects speak for themselves and you let it play out in front of the camera.

JMT: Yes.

HR: This is a very effective way of bringing out nuances instead of trying to label everything. What it does is create passionate discussions following the screenings. I’ve seen it often with this kind of style. American audiences react in an almost unfriendly way to it because they’re not used to this kind of impersonal, non-judgmental documentary style.

JMT (laughs): They’re not used to people not telling them what is good and what is bad. The good guy has some nice aspects, but suddenly you realize that he also has a dark side. Yes, the source of life is not always completely one-sided. The motivation for me to address these kinds of issues is that they are very complicated. I was making this film so that Europeans could look at it and see what we went through. It would be so hard if I just stood there saying, “I’m an African and I’m going to tell you what you did to us.” Maybe no one would listen then. I just have to let things unfold so that people can see from different perspectives and see the whole complexity. This situation was complex and history also is complex.

HR: Let’s talk a little about your career as a documentary filmmaker. It stretches back now some twenty years. Last year, at the African Film Festival, I also saw Alex’s Wedding[xv] which to me was a very disturbing film. Again, you withheld your judgment and let the subjects speak out. It was an indictment of injustice, a power differential between men and women that is all the more powerful because it was not clearly marked from the beginning.

JMT: Yes.

HR: If I remember correctly, that was nearly a spontaneous project.

JMT: It was a totally spontaneous project, actually. I had just finished A Trip to the Country and one of the characters in the film asked me to go and videotape his wedding. I kept saying to him, no, I’m not going to do that, but he insisted. He wanted me to go and film his wedding. Finally, I accepted and I went there. On the road, I realized he was going to take his second wife and I said, “Okay….” I went and I started filming and it was really very striking for me to see how unhappy these two women were. This unhappiness was the thread. That day—that day was supposed to be a day of hope and joy, but it turned out to be such a sad day. I hope that they found joy later in their lives, but for me also, it was a very disturbing film to shoot. While I was shooting, I was not paying so much attention to these aspects; I was just seeing these two characters. After I had shot everything and started editing, I saw how sad these women were and what the situation was. At the same time, I wanted to keep this film vigorous, very simple, and a wedding film. Then, just at the final moment, I would say what was deep in [the female characters’] heart.

What was amazing was when I showed the film in FESPACO in Ouagadougou[xvi] two years ago, some people who were polygamists said to me, “I like the film very much, but why did you have to put that last sentence?”  (Laughs.)  And I said, “Well….” They said, “No, it was good until that moment.” The women who went to see the film also liked it. It is amazing how people can go into a film and just get to what they want and not see the entirety. The last sentence disturbed them, and that was—

HR: It reminded them of their blind spot.

JMT: Yes.

HR: That was one of the most striking films that I saw last year. Your most ambitious project before The Colonial Misunderstanding was Afrique, je te plumerai.[xvii]

JMT: Oh, the others also—

HR: Yes, I know, but what I’m saying is that in terms of subject matter, it just ties into The Colonial Misunderstanding perhaps more than the others.

JMT: Have you seen Vacances au pays, yet?

HR: No, I haven’t seen it.

JMT: Globally, my work from Afrique, je te plumerai looked at colonial history, trying to see what was really happening during that colonial moment—

HR: The fleecing of Africa.

JMT: Yes, the fleecing of Africa. When I finished this film, I wanted to talk about the consequences of this situation and how people existed during—and still manage now—in the very oppressive society that they inherited after independence. It’s still an oppressive society. So I made a short film called Head in the Clouds[xviii] that dealt with the informal sector, how people were trying to find ways to survive. After that film, I did another called Clando[xix] and this was a fiction that dealt with the attitudes of people who studied, were well-off, and were educated. It looked at their lack of involvement in changing society and its political system. Because they were doing well, they just kept thinking, “Well, maybe things will change by themselves. We don’t have to hurry them.” Of course, the system was doing worse. It was harming not only the poorest (who were becoming even poorer), but also the middle class (who also became poorer). Apart from a small elite who benefits and has been getting so rich, the vast majority of people who wait for things to change for themselves realize that things never change for themselves. Things can only get worse by not committing, by not getting involved in really bringing some change into the environment and the neighborhood. One has to get involved in local politics so that there will be more transparency in everything that is happening. So Clando examined these people who just thought things could change by themselves. Things never change, and one day, they will come and get you. For whatever reason, suddenly you will realize what kind of society we really live in.

After Clando, I did another film called Chef![xx] which questioned the whole attitude of authority. We live in a society where there is hierarchy at every moment. You have in the global society, social hierarchy: you have the head of state and you have the ministers. You go into an office and you need to have the chief in the office be the one responsible. You go everywhere and there’s always a chief. When you put someone at the door to open it, because he has the power to open it, he becomes a chief and behaves like one. If he does not open the door, you cannot get into your hotel or your room. He creates that need for you. He can thus get money from you to do the regular job that he’s already being paid to perform. And so, the sense of collective interest just disappears because everyone at every position is trying to see how he can secure something for himself. He’s using the service he’s supposed to provide for the collectivity (because he’s being paid) as a means of getting more money. That corruption is at every single level. You go to the post office where you’re supposed to give one dollar and get your stamp. Someone will say that to be in line, you need to give ten cents first to be able to access your cashier. So everybody is organizing his own corruption scheme.

HR: Right.

JMT: So society starts functioning at such a level of destruction. In the home also, you have the husband as the head of the family oppressing the whole. For me, that’s the issue and the question in Chef!: how can we function as a society if a sense of collective interest has totally disappeared?

HR: There is no good faith. Bad faith involves getting as much out as quickly as possible.

JMT: As possible. It reminded me of one essay that I read from a French guy from the 18th century, Étienne de la Boétie,[xxi] who wrote this incredible book called Discours de la Servitude VolontaireDiscourse on Voluntary Servitude—about how people accept, worship, identify with, and duplicate the attitudes of a tyrant. What they are doing is a kind of tyranny. One individual is oppressing you and in turn, you oppress other people behind you. So everybody exercises what he has, a kind of leverage over people. He uses it to oppress, and only those who can pay have access to services. So the society as a whole becomes very dysfunctional. If we decided to change the whole thing, we could keep the moment worthwhile, but instead of doing that, everybody is asking, “What is my leverage? Where can I have some power here in this system so that I can—”

HR: —squeeze out something of it.

JMT: Yes. So that’s the kind of corrupt society that comes out of these systems where there is no freedom of speech or sense of common interest. The one at the top is getting richer and richer, the one in the middle is getting richer and richer, and then there is the one for whom everything goes according to this small story: the boss sends his minister to the bank to collect one million francs—or one million dollars. When he gets to the bank, he’ll collect two million dollars. And the guy in the bank is going to put in his record that he took away two million five hundred thousand dollars to the head of state to keep some for himself. And at every level, everyone becomes—

HR: Everyone is skimming.

JMT: Skimming something. And in the end, you know, the whole country is just—they take all this and what do they do? They buy big cars because they have no roads that are made for everybody. They build houses and high fences, putting people with guns to protect them behind these walls, creating a kind of prison for themselves and letting the rest of the population suffer. It’s a very strange system.

HR: Very. Yes.

JMT: And with Vacances au pays, having seen all that, I asked myself, “What is the idea of modernity that we inherited in our whole educational system?” So Vacances au pays is a kind of journey. I start from my school where I studied. When I was there, we all used to say, “Everything coming from Europe is great.” What you have locally, if it comes from Europe, is “modern”; what you have locally that is not is “archive” and has to disappear. And it will disappear anyway. So we grew up with this whole idea. After thirty years, I do this same trip from my school to my village.

HR: The school in the city.

JMT: From school in the city, the big city of Yaoundé,[xxii] to my village where my grandparents live and where I used to go during the holidays. I was trying to see this modernity that they told us about when we were kids: the belief that everything was going to become modern. What really has become modern? Instead you see how empty the discourses in the cities are. When you get to the village and start seeing and talking to people, what they have to say makes so much sense. The people from the city come and destroy even the social structures that existed in the village. This is in order to bring about something like getting spaces to sell beer, Coca-Cola, and all that and not allowing space for people to meet and really interact the way they used to. So Vacances au pays also questions this same idea. And when I was finishing Vacances, I did Alex’s Wedding because I had this guy from the film who was asking me to do his wedding. And then Le Malentendu colonial was the next film. But after all these films, I’m going to—to move on to a fiction film and a love story. (Laughs).

HR: I guess you need that.

JMT: I need that.

HR: Perhaps we can talk about your situation as an African filmmaker who has been living in France now for…how long? Twenty years?

JMT: Twenty years, yes.

HR: Twenty years as a Cameroonian filmmaker, but at the same time, you’re an African filmmaker who looks at African themes, not just Cameroonian themes. How is this? In a sense this is also a kind of double-consciousness: you’re outside and inside. You’re passionate about the situation, the fate of Africa and of Cameroon, and at the same time you—

JMT: I live outside.

HR: You live outside, you’re not working inside. How is this? This was obviously not a choice from the beginning; it is something that must have evolved.

JMT: Actually, I went to Europe because of the possibility of studying there. And when I studied there, I could have come back to find a job and get into the system, but I didn’t like that system. I thought it was that I didn’t want to end up like many of the people that I knew who had entered the system and become civil servants. I didn’t; I couldn’t accept the idea of being a part of that. So, I decided to stay in Europe and go to Africa regularly. It’s difficult because, of course, I need to have a base to be able to become more and more creative, to have a sense of belonging to a group, to—

HR: A network of like-minded.

JMT: Yes, not only that, but also to be part of the group. If I want to make films, feature films, I also need to be among the people I am making films about. This has to really be grounded in their everyday lives, facing what they are facing, and making films out of that because I’m like an exiled filmmaker. Tomorrow, I could come make a film here in the United States., but maybe I’d need to make more feature films because that would only be stories that I’d tell while being detached. Or maybe I don’t really have any attachment with my country anymore.

I am very much attached to the situation, to the whole global situation, to see how we can have an impact and really foster change so that people can live better. In other words, real elections and not the kind of situation that we have where the money is there and people have the will to do things but nothing is happening. So, I am in exile, I am outside, but I am always inside because I read almost all the newspapers from my country through the internet. I am always trying to understand what is going on. And also, this gives me the possibility to be more effective in questioning things because I have distance.

HR: Now, about fiction films and the status of documentaries versus fiction films. Generally, fiction films are considered more as “films” than are documentaries. At least it used to be that way. I think it’s changing. A lot more people, especially with digital media, have begun to work in the documentary vein. Is that your impression?

JMT: Well, yes, we are still fighting for the status of documentary because even in many festivals, documentaries are still second class.  It’s an ongoing fight, it’s an ongoing fight.  (Laughs.)  You do have a few success stories, but these successes are probably in the US with a few people like Michael Moore[xxiii], of course, and the Enron film coming out.[xxiv] There are a few such films and more and more documentaries that are attracting public interest. But there’s still a long, long way to go. The documentaries that people go and see and which are very popular are sometimes those that cost so much more than the average documentary.

HR: I wanted to ask you about your fiction films. In a sense, your documentaries flow into the idea of how you work with fiction.

JMT:  Le Malentendu coloniale was one of the most time-consuming and heavy in terms of work and research for me. Maybe I didn’t go as far as I wished in the creative realization of the film. I was really exhausted when I finished working with this film. And also, I didn’t have the money. It’s still a very low-budget film.  I think my fictions are not going to be simple. They are going to be very story-driven. I’m going to find stories and tell the stories only if, of course, the stories do interest me and have some political level somewhere. But I am going to really go for stories, you know, and try to make them as effective as possible and really try to express myself creatively. (Laughs.)

[i] Le Malentendu colonial / The Colonial Misunderstanding  (Cameroon/Germany/France, 2004, 78 min.)  Many thanks to Nancy Kang, who assisted tremendously with the transcription and detailed footnotes to this interview.

[ii] Vacances au pays / A Trip to the Country (Cameroon, 2002, 75 min.)

[iii] Wuppertal was home to the Rhenish Mission. In the early nineteenth century, it was a centre of missionary activity and the departure point for those intending to administer to such African countries as Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, and South Africa.

[iv] Teno is presumably referring to a series of events in Germany that built up to the Holocaust. In 1935, Hitler announced the rearmament of the country in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In the fall of that year, the Nuremberg Laws were implemented. The “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor” and the Reich Citizenship Law were among those measures that orchestrated the legal disenfranchisement of Jews, rendering them state subjects instead of citizens, as well as subject to further persecutions as Hitler’s power steadily increased.

[v] The Shoah (Hebr. “catastrophic upheaval”) or Holocaust refers to the Nazi genocide of Jews and other minority groups (among them, those with ethnic, religious, ideological, and sexual orientations disfavored by the Nazis) according to Hitler’s doctrine of the “Final Solution.”

[vi] The Berlin Conference lasted from November 1884 to February 1885. Invited by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, representatives from Europe, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire met in Berlin to wrangle over African territories and resolve problems encountered thus far during the imperialist projects in the area.

[vii] Professor Ewané’s is among those voices featured in Le Malentendu colonial.

[viii] Cameroon became independent in 1960, having been colonized by England, France, as well as Germany.

[ix] The Marshall Plan, named after US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, commenced in 1947 when the United States offered a massive economic aid program designed to rebuild the economies of Western Europe.

[x] Kofi A. Annan (1938- ), seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, is originally from Ghana. His term in office spans 1 January 1997 to 31 December 2006.

[xi] “The rationale of the most powerful.” There is a double entendre here, with “right” (as in correctness, from the expression avoir raison) coinciding with the literal translation of raison (as in justified agency, “rationale” or “reason”).

[xii] As treated in Le Malentendu colonial, the Hereros were victims of a genocidal war with Germany that lasted from 1904 to 1907 in Namibia. It led to the incarceration of these tribal people in concentration camps. One area of critical inquiry is the extent to which these concentration camps served as precursors to, or general models for, those constructed during the Nazi regime.

[xiii] “They had a lot of disdain.” Mépris (Fr. n.): disdain, contempt, scorn (Oxford French Dictionary)

[xiv] Disparate (Fr. n.): ill-assorted, mixed, disparate.

[xv] Le Mariage d’Alex / Alex’s Wedding (Cameroon, 2002, 45 min.)

[xvi] FESPACO: Le Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (English trans. The Ouagadougou Pan-African Film and Television Festival). FESPACO is the largest gathering of the cinematic arts in the African continent. Ouagadougou is the both the national capital of Burkina Faso and the capital of Kadiogo province. See

[xvii] Afrique, je te plumerai / Africa, I Will Fleece You (Cameroon, 1992, 88 min.)

[xviii] Tête dans les nuages / Head in the Clouds (Cameroon, 1994, 37 min.)

[xix] Clando (a.k.a. Clandestine) (Cameroon, 1996, 98 min.) A “clando” is an unlicensed (hence, illegal) cab. Germany has a presence in this film’s plot. The film’s protagonist, Sobgui, is approached by a village elder to go there in order to locate his estranged son.

[xx] Chef! / Chief!  (Cameroon, 1999, 61 min.)

[xxi] Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), French political philosopher and friend of master essayist Michel de Montaigne. The treatise Discours was written between the years 1549-53 and was first published in 1576.

[xxii] Yaoundé is the capital city of Cameroon. Teno’s ancestral village is Bandjoun in the Ghomala-speaking region of western Cameroon.

[xxiii] Michael Moore (1954- ), controversial American filmmaker, writer, and political activist born in Flint, Michigan. Was the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine.  Also known for such documentaries as Roger and Me (1989) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).

[xxiv] Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Dir. Alex Gibney (United States, 2005, 110 min.)

African Cuisine…The Abidjan Allocodrome

The night is studded with stars. Not in the sky, but at human height, swinging flimsily. Shadows flicker inside these brief yellow shafts then disappear, blurred by a screen of thick smoke, swallowed up by the surrounding darkness. A vague humming sound remains. Smells prevail. A powerful scent of charcoal, burning flesh, tainted meat and shit. The smell of Africa’s markets. The lights become clearer. A row of grills loom out of the darkness, covered in concave chickens spitting out the last of their fat. The voices become clearer, the male boom of vendors nabbing lazy buyers sitting in their cars. Too bad for the ones who don’t want to get out, for beyond this first curtain, over there where the night is deeper and the stars (simple oil lamps) skim the surface of the earth lives a unique spot : the Cocody Allocodrome.

 Situated on an open air ground opposite the main market of the very bourgeois Cocody commune in Abidjan, the Allocodrome owes its name to the local treat: allocos, that is cubes of deep-fried plantain bananas. Basic, and yet… For real alloco requires other elements to take on its full flavour. Starting with a vendor sitting in front of her battered aluminium cooking pot with a collection of brown or black-skinned bananas – epending on the extent of ripeness – spattered with bruises and mould, basically virtually rotten, piled on the muddy ground at her feet. One hand stoking the fire with a piece of cardboard and the other selling bananas, counting her money and gutting fish ready to be fried as well. Which is why the oil is so important. It has to be heavy and greasy, saturated to the hilt so that it has nothing left in common with the insipid yellow trickle of the original groundnut oil, now enhanced with the debris of fish left to float inside. The fish is what makes the alloco. The aroma of the fish in the deep fat, the fish scraps crushed to a purée with a little tomato, onion and pimento for the indispensable sauce to go with it (sold in stingy portions, incidentally) provide the sharpness that exalts the sweetness of the banana without making it sickly. Alloco is still sweet, a tasty titbit normally eaten as snack, intended more to please than to nourish, a dish of melting morsels that is feminine by nature. The young women of the house don’t accidentally come to fetch it and take it home while the men eat it on the spot, sitting on a stool next to the vendor so that he can have a perfect view of the girls coming and going. And the installation of women selling alloco at the beginning of the 70’s probably didn’t give rise to the birth of this market accidentally either. They have been presiding over its opening every day at 4 o’clock ever since.

 A place for food, encounters and laughter, the Allocodrome grew in size and popularity and inevitably became a trendy spot. At the end of the 70’s the well-off kids from the neighbourhood came here to show off their disco wear, strassy T-shirts and « rockafil jazz » shoes, followed by the hip-hop wave surfers of the 80’s, conscientiously robbed by hoods with flick-knives from here or elsewhere. It didn’t matter, because this was the place to hang for school kids and students. Especially as the anonymity brought about by the crowd, the smoke and the lack of lighting opened up no end of possibilities. A somewhat pimpy atmosphere, and a feeling that this is where it was at, reigned in this site of free-flowing beer and sometimes violent embraces – as far as the hoods were concerned – that stayed lively till the middle of the night.

 Trends changed but the Allocodrome was still going strong because it never strayed from its principle function: feeding people. To do so it used a minimalist structure, an open air earthen ground, no electricity, no running water or toilets, not even a trash can, and a simple operating system: concentrating the supply and demand of food in the same place with a variety of dishes to keep the prices low and the clients plentiful. More substantial dishes are therefore also on offer, confoundingly natural: braised chicken and fish, fried or grilled meats « bread-kebabs » and, of course, « garba », a meal for the poor or at least for those who don’t want to spend much. A small braised fish, some attiéké, a fresh tomato-based condiment, all wrapped in a piece of paper…and there you have it. A model of balance and much more subtle than you might think. The compact form of the fish in a « garba » counterbalances the light fermented manioc seeds piled into a fragile heap like a sand castle, but this impression is reversed when you take your first mouthful and discover the density of the attiéké harmonising with the subtlety of the freshwater fish.

 In order to conserve this straightforward art of eating, both regular Allocodrome customers and vendors refused to follow the bylaw passed in 1991 proclaiming the closure of the site due to insalubrity, insecurity and… unpaid commercial taxes. And because it was a blot on the luxurious Cocody landscape? The conflict was given heavy media coverage and was resolved two years later by the opening of a new Allocodrome on the same site, refurbished in keeping with the regulated norms of the commune, meaning it can now be heralded as a « Gastronomic and Cultural Centre ». A shopping centre has replaced the row of braised chicken vendors with their little starry lamps. The electric street lamps that light the place up like daytime have banished the shadows, tarmac has replaced the earth, the fixed has chased away the moveable in every respect. Each vendor has been assigned a box, duly numbered. And there’s no question of becoming an improvised host when it comes to eating on the spot; four concrete slabs have been put up to form counters. As for selling alcohol, it is now forbidden.

 But, whether it delights or not, one thing is certain: the essence of the Allocodrome has not changed a bit. Because one fundamental element resists all form of control : the food on offer. « Soucouya » is still eaten there. A dish made of grilled offal from meat that is impossible to label, let alone identify sometimes, that looks delightfully like large clots of coagulated blood, glazed by the pus-like fat seeping out of the firm flesh of the chewy soucouya with its pungent taste and smell that is totally incorrect and vehemently virile. Soucouya lovers are over the moon. They can’t be regulated by norms either.


Mark your calendars for Thursday, March 13th! Come join Doc Watchers and the New York African Film Festival at Maysles Cinema Institute as we present two important documentaries “Joy, It’s Nina” and “Menstrual Man”, in honor of Women’s History Month! (more…)

Mahen Bonetti

[aff-insert-title before= after=] Mahen Bonetti is the Founder and Executive Director of African Film Festival, Inc. As ED, she curates and facilitates all AFF programming in conjunction with AFF staff and participating partners. She has served on panels for the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ougadougou (FESPACO), the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Africa’s U.S. diplomatic offices, among others. Bonetti is the recipient of France’s Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres, an award bestowed by the French government. Mahen Bonetti is originally from Sierra Leone.

Aminata Diop

[aff-insert-title before= after=] Aminata Diop is the Program Manager and NYAFF Festival Coordinator. Aminata is a Senegalese journalist and published author based in New York City. Her first novel The Mirth of College, was published in 2011. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the cultural webzine Tamaji Magazine.

Françoise Bouffault

[aff-insert-title before= after=] Born and raised in France, Françoise is an anthropologist, writer and linguist. She has taught in Stuttgart, Germany and at the San Marcos university of Lima, Peru. She has been employed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York for twenty five years training Staff and Diplomats in acquiring language proficiency in French. In 1997, after being trained in various forms of Senegalese and Guinean dance, she produced and directed a documentary Guew Bi: Sabar Dances Of Senegal.

She has been a constant supporter of the African Film Festival since its inception in 1993, serving as facilitator for Francophone filmmakers, solicited as translator and interpreter, and consulted for her editorial and critical advice.

Dara Ojugbele

[aff-insert-title before= after=] Dara Ojugbele is the Program Assistant and NYAFF Festival Coordinator. She is also the Accessibility Coordinator for the festival and all other AFF programs. Dara is a native of New York with a background in fine arts.