Some Thoughts on the film “The Daily Nation”

I thought the film directors did a commendable job in capturing the mood and character of not only life within the Nation Media Group and newspaper industry in Kenya, but also of the country as a whole. The excellent shots of the hustle and bustle of Nairobi, the chaotic traffic, the buildings, the bus terminus, shots of police and bandit encounters, images of the countryside and of old men reading the Kiswahili version of the paper, tell a story of a beautiful country burdened by poverty, illiteracy and under-development. But it also one of a people determined to stay alive and enjoy the life they are leading.

Inside the Nation Centre, we see an ultra-modern business environment with computers, state of the art printing presses, complex decision-making processes by local managers, etc. We see them outside their offices enjoying life in the clubs, a game of golf and sampling the good life. Clearly, it is a country in which modernity resides side by side with the rustic, less cosmopolitan ways of life that most us who come from there remember.

The directors take an observational approach to their documentary rather than trying to pass judgment on what they are witnessing. Unfortunately that means that we do not see the philosophical struggles and context within which the newspaper is being produced. While we see one of the newspaper’s sales managers graphically describe the poverty that exists, the politics that have contributed this poverty are not explicated in the film. In addition, the issue of press freedom is touched upon by the Chief Executive of the newspaper group, but it is not explored with the writers who are most directly affected.  However, it was never the intention of the directors to present a treatise on the politics of the country and the conditions in which business is conducted there.  In their own words, they just wanted to be the fly on the wall in the editorial rooms and printing presses, to see and record the process of producing a newspaper. They did that well, capturing some intense and some humorous moments.

Most importantly, the film makes the indisputable point that Kenya (and Africa at large) is far from being a lost cause. Its future lies with the abilities of its own people who need only a stable and enabling environment to work and make a difference.  The film does not ask the question whether the political leaders are up to the task of being able to create such an atmosphere, but it does not have to.  It does not require a genius after all to guess who is to be blamed for the endless nightmares taking place in most parts of the continent.  Despite an environment that presents endless hardships for journalists, the experience of the Daily Nation gives hope that African newspapers can maintain a high level of professionalism and longevity, given the perseverance and ambition of dedicated journalists.

Yellow Card

YELLOW CARD is now developing a life of its’ own and we are encouraging organizations across the continent to take control and run with the project. While this is very exciting, it makes it increasingly difficult to keep track of the many activities and associated spin-offs of the project.
Currently, we have the video itself dubbed into French, Portuguese, Shona, Ndebele, and Swahili, as well as the original English version.  A Pidgin English version is also in the works now for use in West Africa.  We have completed a support manual in English, and now will translate that into ten other African languages (two for each of our five target countries).  A 2-minute trailer, the “making-of” video: YELLOW FEVER, and a music video are also available.  We have a complete Press Kit, poster, and variety of promotional materials.  We are also making a 35mm print sub-titled in French for release in cinema halls in West Africa.

In April 2000, we had the world premier in Zimbabwe.  Next, we had premiers in Nairobi, Lusaka, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and four other smaller cities in Zimbabwe (Bulawayo, Mutare, Gweru, Kwekwe).  All were high profile affairs with lots of publicity and top keynote speakers.  The director and stars of the film were able to attend many of them.

We’ve just signed a couple distribution agreements in Nigeria, and will begin releasing it in mobile units soon, and a 35mm print will be shown in the largest chain of cinema halls in Nigeria.  South Africa is on deck for a huge release in coming months as well.  We are planning to launch the Portuguese version in September and will be inviting Leroy Gopal (Tiyane) for the premiere in Maputo.  We are currently supporting the attendance of Leroy at film and drama school in Johannesburg.

We are now beginning our grassroots distribution efforts and will go out to rural areas in our five main target African nations (Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia) in conjunction with national partners and hold training workshops for NGOs with video showing programs.  Every agency that attends the workshops will be given videos and all the accompanying materials. Also, we are working to see that it is broadcast on TV in at least 20 African nations in coming months.

We have just received funding for a 13-part TV series with the same characters, continuing on with their lives.  We plan to have three top African directors each do four (and one do five) episodes.  Each director will focus on one character / story line.  The scripts will be developed via a thorough process by the end of this year, and we’ll be video taping this process to share it with others working in social message filmmaking.

An evaluation / advocacy related project has also just been completed.  It involves a survey among youth in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe’s largest township community.  We have assessed how many township youth have heard about the film, how many have seen it, what they think about the film and if they can advise us on how it can be used effectively with young township audiences (a primary target audience for the project).  About 500 spot interviews were conducted and the information is presently being released.

Another distribution effort involves holding road shows in hard-to-reach rural and township areas across Zimbabwe.  YELLOW CARD is proving to be a very popular film for these screenings.  More than 80 screenings of YELLOW CARD will take place with rural and township audiences by the end of the year.

YELLOW CARD won an award from the Council on Foundations in the United States, as well as the People’s Choice Award at the Zanzibar International Festival; the Best Music Award at the Zimbabwe Southern Africa Film Festival, and the Jury Award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.  The film has been shown at dozens of festivals around the world.

Kenya Airways will be screening YELLOW CARD as part of their international in-flight entertainment, from August this year.  Also, it will be showing nationwide in the USA on Starz Encore cable in August.  We’ve engaged a South African marketing firm to work on getting YELLOW CARD broadcast throughout the world.  They just started, but have had demand for lots of screeners from all over the world.

Video Awudjo! Featured Artist, Tunde Kelani, has New Developments after AFF

On Saturday, April 21, 2001, African Film Festival (AFFNY) took on the groundbreaking task of presenting movies from Nigeria and Ghana as part of its Festival schedule. This was the first time that an organized film institution recognized the mass-produced, consumer-driven aspect of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies.  In these countries, artists have adopted video to circumvent the high cost of film production and to reach the public on a variety of important issues: the AIDS crisis, the difficulties of modern city life, environmental concerns, and rampant official corruption.  “Video films” are wildly popular in their home markets and are done in a campy, postmodern style that reflects contemporary African sensibilities shaped by globalization.  These films’ compelling and often comic mix of consumerism, sex, morality, melodrama, horror, and witchcraft creates a unique genre.

The program commenced with screenings of two Nigerian movies, Out of Bounds by Richard Mofe-Damijo and Thunderbolt by Tunde Kelani, and two Ghanaian titles, Time by Ifeanyi Oyeabor and Namisha by Ashiagbor Akwetey-Kanyi. The video-film phenomenon was further examined on Sunday, April 22, 2001 with a heated panel discussion at the Schomburg Center entitled “Battling the Distribution Dilemma.”

Video Awudjo! came on the heels of FESPACO (Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television) 2001 where a Nigerian film took second prize in the feature film category. A week after FESPACO 2001, the New York Times described the Nigerian and Ghanaian movie industries as “thriving…. generally turn a profit even thought they’re pirated within days.”

During FESPACO, AFFNY’s representatives at FESPACO met with a Nigerian journalist who had expressed his misgivings about film festivals in an article published in Nigeria.  His sentiment was that filmmakers are mere pawns in the grand scheme of making film festival organizers rich and recognized.  He also worried about the intents of AFFNY and the benefits to the Nigerian filmmaker and producer who agreed to participate in AFFNY’s Video Awudjo program.

Luckily for AFFNY and the New York audience, the filmmakers who participated in Video Awudjo didn’t share the same views (at least, not enough to exclude themselves from this groundbreaking event).

Since the AFFNY’s 2001 Festival, Mainframe Productions, headed by Tunde Kelani and Tunde Adegbola, has received success and recognition as a result of Thunderbolt’s appearance at Video Awudjo.

A representative, Natalia Tapies, of Filmaid International requested to show Thunderbolt to refugees in Kenya and Tanzania after viewing the movie at Video Awudjo!.  In addition, California Newsreel has also offered educational distribution of Thunderbolt.

Recently, Mainframe Productions reached a formal agreement with Media for Development International to exhibit and distribute four films, Yellow Card, Neria, Everyone’s Child, and More Time, in Nigeria and, in return, Media for Development will do the same in Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa with Saworoide and Thunderbolt.  Tunde Kelani expressed his delight in an email to AFFNY saying, “For us, this is the beginning of the true African cinema – where African filmmakers can interact by making their films available to audiences other than those in their own country.  I must thank you for providing the necessary support and encouragement.”

Mainframe Productions is currently in the throes of other exciting projects including a Mobile Cinema Project.  On October 1, 2001, they will premiere their latest movie.  Immediately preceding this will be a free three-day cinema carnival co-sponsored by Mainframe Productions.

In June 2001, two seminars were held in Lagos, Nigeria, to discuss the future of the Nigerian Film and Movie industry.  There was the Second Motion Picture Summit sponsored by MultiChoice (M-Net’s satellite service company) that focused on Film Content and its Distribution in Africa.  There was also the First Forum on Motion Picture, Cinema and Video in Africa sponsored by the French Cultural Center in Nigeria.

It is not a stretch to say that Video Awudjo (with the contacts and exposure that AFFNY provided) boosted the confidence of the filmmakers and producers who represented the Nigerian and Ghanaian experience at the program.  They left the Festival with renewed hope; feeling encouraged to continue making strides and overcome resource limitations to produce films that can be shared beyond the local market.

It is our hope at AFFNY that there will be more collaboration between African film producers, as with Mainframe and Media for Development, to open more markets for African Film and create more opportunities for project financing and development.

 

 

WOMEN AND CINEMA at ZIFF

As the fledgling African film industry tries to find its footing, women are emerging as some of its most ardent supporters and stakeholders across the continent. In film, women have found a forum where they can express their problems, desires, dreams, aspirations and influence people to change their attitudes, using an entertaining and informative approach.  The following article highlights women filmmakers at the 2001 Zanzibar International Film Festival of the Dhow Countries.

Close Up On Bintou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, has an immense power to keep you glued to the screen.  Its well-crafted story is not only entertaining but informative as well. The film portrays the self-elevation, against all odds, of a downtrodden housewife, Bintou, whose only wish is to earn enough money to educate her daughter.  The film highlights her frustration with her situation and her husband’s derision at her decision to enter into business, both of which propel her towards triumph.  It is a moving film that captures the plight of many women in Africa, and does so in a way that neither paints women as pure victims nor men as categorical tyrants.  During the last edition of FESPACO, Africa’s biennial premier film festival held earlier this year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Over 30 films highlighting women issues were screened during the festival and the response was impressive. The festival provided a real and dynamic space for women to display their artistic work and to raise and discuss their concerns and issues and they turned up in big numbers. Besides screening of films made by women, there were workshops and discussions that sought to establish the visibility of women in cinema, media and the arts.  The Zanzibar Film Festival short feature films competition had a total of ten films and Bintou’s tale was the clear forerunner. However, Bintou’s closest challenger was expected to come from five other short films dubbed Mama Africa series and produced by M-Net of South Africa, Zimmedia of Zimbabwe, WinStar and ITVS from the United States of America. Mama Africa, a series that was quite popular during the festival, collects for the first time, the beauty, humor, fury, frustration and the spirituality of African womanhood around the continent. Each story is radically different, vibrating with the beat of different countries and cultures of the directors involved in the production of these films.

From the rich Arabic tradition of Tunisia, Mama Africa heads south through an arid Sahelian village, across the basketball courts of Nigeria, via the open spaces of Zimbabwe, to the violent urban sprawl of South Africa.  Although diverse in approach, the whole collection is united by a common thread of understanding of what it means to be a woman in Africa. Mama Africa presents an understanding of this world told in motion picture by six remarkable African women filmmakers. The films in the series are One Evening in July from Tunisia directed by Raja Amani, Riches from Zimbabwe directed by Ingrid Sinclair, Close Up on Bintou from Burkina Faso directed by Fanta Regina Nacro, Hang Time from Nigeria that was directed by Ngozi Onwurah, Uno’s World from Namibia directed by Bridget Pickering and Raya from South Africa that was directed by Zulfa Otto-Sallies. All these films are a veritable testament to the new wave expression of African women filmmakers and their subject matter are a great contribution towards attitude change. Women are depicted as strong characters in all these films, which is a shift from what had been the norm. “Women were previously depicted as weak characters in the storylines but this is gradually changing as more take up the challenge found in motion picture,” observed Gaston Kabore, an acclaimed Burkinabe film director/ producer/writer, who was the chief guest during the Zanzibar Festival.  “Many women film makers have attempted to reverse the previously held notions of a weaker and subservient woman,” noted Letebele Masemola-Jones, the program’s production director with African Broadcasting Network. “Characters, especially those in movies written by women, are portrayed in positive light. Films are not only meant to entertain but inform and for women filmmakers this latter purpose is very important.”

While some women filmmakers have made films that were inspired by real life events, others have been made from great literary works of art written by women and fiction informed by the social, economic, religious and political activities. A Female Cabby in Siddi Bel-Abbes from Algeria is a remarkable social commentary that touches on the lives of many women in the continent.  In the story, Soumicha, a mother of three children, has to earn a living after the death of her husband who had been the solo breadwinner. She becomes the only woman taxi driver in the city of Siddi Bel-Abbes.  As the story develops, we see her working conditions in a job normally reserved for men, in a city where violence rages.  Soumicha takes us around the city, introduces us to the many contradictory aspects of this society and acquaints us in the course of her travels with other women who, like herself, are struggling for more freedom.  Riches, one of the movies in Mama Africa series, was inspired by the writer Bessie Head. It follows the flight of a coloured teacher, Molly McBride and her son Peter, from apartheid South Africa to an isolated school in Zimbabwe.  She finds life tough and the villagers hostile and conservative.  Molly’s clash with the hypocritical headmaster leaves her jobless and in despair, but a simple gesture of friendship from one of the poorest members of the community inspires her to fight back and claim her place within her new society.

Women’s issues take precedent in works by women filmmakers, but they have not shied away from tackling other thematic concerns.  “Women filmmakers are sensitive to certain things around us that gain prominence when articulated using this methodology,” noted Kabore.  “This kind of sensitivity is necessary in our industry that is growing and trying to find its own identity. We need to bring our own sensitivity to our own stories and women have shown that they have that capability.” The industry is struggling and there are many obstacles that compound film production in Africa. “The question of insufficient funds is a perennial one for African filmmakers and it is more pronounced where women filmmakers are concerned,” added Kabore. “Most have ended up doing projects that are sponsored by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and international bodies where they don’t have a lot of control in the films.” The forerunners in the industry have helped set up local and international bodies to help solve the problem of funding. The International Women in Film, Women of the Sun, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and others, have been set up to support women filmmakers to raise funds and encourage more women to join the industry at various levels. They also help in the networking, lobbying and organizing forums that will assist women’s participation in the art of telling their own stories.  Other organizations like the National Film & Video Fund of South Africa help filmmakers from marginalized groups realize their dreams. These organizations have helped make films that would otherwise never have been made, but industry experts feel that more needs to be done by our various governments to help women filmmakers realize their true potential.  However, if the quality and quantity of films made by women being showcased at ZIFF is any indication, things look bright for the future of women’s storytelling on celluloid.

Globalizing African Cinema?

Is it a mere fortuitous coincidence that the last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the re-emergence of the very same forces and ideologies of expansion, domination and control that burst onto the world scene in the last two decades of the nineteenth century? Are there parallels between the forces and ideologies of late nineteenth century capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, and late twentieth century forces and ideologies of globalization?

Berlin 1884 – confab aspirant globalizers Britain, France, Belgium, and a recently unified Germany, and the partitioning of and scramble for Africa. This gathering  marks a significant moment in the process of formal colonialism in Africa, in particular, and the systematic incorporation and subjugation of Africa into a world structure in formation dominated by European capital, systems and technology.

Berlin 1989 – the ‘peoples revolution’. The fall of the wall and the dismantling of barriers of various forms in other places.  This new space was hijacked in order to let loose the hitherto geographically circumscribed forces and ideologies of capital, technology and domination to roam easier around the world under a new moniker, globalization. Two moments, separated by a hundred years, in the same city, with worldwide implications! Is this a case of history repeating itself? What are the implications for Africans and African cultural industries such as cinema in particular?

Globalization has become the buzz word of the fin de siècle and is likely to continue to ooze from the lips, pens and keyboards of twenty first century humanity for quite sometime.  Globalization raises a number of very important issues facing Africans today, and these challenges must be addressed consistently with imagination and conviction. I have no problems with a genuine egalitarian internationalism, predicated on respect for and acceptance of difference and diversity. But a predatory globalization, as conceived and promoted in dominant corporate and economic discourses, with their accent on a borderless, unfettered free market capitalism and their muffling of socio-cultural implications of dreary standardization, a narcissist super-power nationalism and erasure of local cultures and practices, presents problems and challenges which call for rigorous critical engagement and viable alternatives.

Globalization is presented as an innovation, a rising tide that will lift all boats. Thomas Friedman [The Lexus and the Olive Tree] describes it as a process that involves the inevitable “integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations, and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever before, and in a way that is also producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by this new system.” Mobile capital, mobile labor, mobile technology. Doug Henwood, on his part, sees globalization as “a euphemizing and imprecise substitute for imperialism.” Thus, it is not really a new thing.  Rather, the changes are incremental instead of fundamental. This is an extremely important point that should be borne in mind in any discussion of globalization. For Africans, in particular, globalization is the empires’ new clothes. Little has changed of Africa’s position from colonial to globalization eras, and the implications for African cultural industries and cinema are compelling.

Although the dominant accent has been on the economic and technological face of globalization, it is, like imperialism, all-encompassing, with a political, social and cultural face. Unlike imperialism, with its identifiable targets/manifestations/personifications, globalization is amorphous and elusive. Its presence is pervasive, constantly in motion, and not tangible. Hence, the enormity of the task to engage and control it.  Answers to questions like ‘who do we shoot?’, ‘where and who do we picket and demonstrate against?’ may not readily come by in relation to globalization. They are there, however, as events in Davos and Seattle 1999 and similar antecedents in Europe and elsewhere may have demonstrated.

Is globalization per se a bad thing? Even though I have expressed a death wish for the term globalization, the idea of cross border/cultural connections and exchanges of various forms and scales is something good for humanity and recognized as such by Africans across broad time spans and geographic spaces. African systems of thought enshrine ideas of common local, regional and global humanity and the imperative of connections. We find examples in sayings like abantu ngabantu ngabantu  (people are people only through other people), among the Nguni of Southern Africa, and nit nitay garab am (the human being is the cure of the human being), among the Wolof of Senegambia. Recent formulations such as Negritude, The African Personality and African Renaissance also privilege notions of globalization shaped in part by local, regional, and national African specificities and contributions to global systems.  As such, I don’t think it is in the best interest of Africans, nor is it their desire or is it possible to retreat from the world and its technologies. Our contribution to and investment in global humanity is too precious to abandon.

So then, understood as egalitarian internationalism – what others call ‘the other globalization’ or ‘glocalization’ –, I believe Africans should claim and articulate globalization on their own terms, with all the complexities and potential contradictions involved. Global encounters predicated on exchange and not imposition, democracy and not dictatorship, trade and not export, difference and not homogenization, partnership and not competition. I think this is much more likely to sustain globalization in the long run than the current seemingly triumphant corporate-led economic globalization whose predatory practices and insatiable appetite for indiscriminate growth in a world of finite resources may not be all that sustainable. In fact, by many estimates, they may end up depleting resources and destroying environments as well as peoples and cultures. The latter is of particular significance for people who have been historically subjected to and have been struggling against imperial regimes and now have to contend with the leveling force of the technologically super-empowered cultural industries of the sole remaining super-power, the US, as well as the globalizing structures under its control.

What options and strategies are available for people, Africans and African filmmakers and artists in the face of a seemingly triumphant globalization shot through with a large dose of Americanisms? Capitulation? Engagement? Rejection? At what costs and benefits? These are questions which do not yield simple answers. It seems to me, on the whole, that responses, thus far, favor critical and selective engagement. Few are those opting for total uncritical capitulation, rejection and disengagement, the vigor of the discourse in favor of the latter two, notwithstanding. The reasons for such choices immerse us into the complexities and diversities of African encounters and experiences with the myriad forces of globalization. I can offer only a sketch here.

The surrender of African sovereignty to global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF is one of the prominent themes in African political and economic affairs of the last two decades. This surrender – some call it constructive engagement – in the form of institution of economic structural adjustment programs, has given new life to the fundamental tenets of economic globalization – privatization, elimination of subsidies, deregulation, opening the economy to free trade, free circulation of goods and services of all kinds, competition, downsizing, etc. Weak and dependent economies, opportunism, greed and just plain helplessness, in some cases, have pushed many African governments to acquiesce in various ways to the dictates of such global institutions, placing them even more at the mercy of economic globalization. The resulting social, political, economic and cultural havoc and dislocations of such practices in Africa are too well known by now. Less apparent, though, may be the impact of such on African culture industries, particularly, cinema.

In many structurally-adjusting African countries, coercive neo-liberal economics have not only exacerbated an already difficult situation for African filmmakers, but have also unloaded bigger burdens on African filmmaking. Tax codes, budget cuts and the steady reduction and drying up of both external and internal funding sources for production and distribution continue to shackle filmmakers. Privatization has provoked the gradual disappearance of movie theaters from many an urban landscape with perhaps few exceptions, for example, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Zimbabwe and a few places in North Africa. Divestiture of government interests in movie theater ownership and management in many structurally adjusting African countries has occasioned the sale of movie houses to private entrepreneurs, many of who decide to close these down and convert them into warehouses for imported commodities such as rice, sugar, flour, cement and second hand clothing from the West. Such moves have put added pressure on the distribution and exhibition of African films on African soil, so that African films continue to be strangers in their own territories.  The requisite lifting of all measures vaguely reminiscent of protectionism has also rendered the African cinematic landscape more vulnerable to dumping of second rate foreign products.

Will African cinematic content and Africans styles of storytelling be the next victims of globalization? The debate is already in full steam, and many people see danger as well as opportunities. The dependence of African cinematic production, distribution and exhibition on European funding, especially, is, by now well known. With the steady tide of consolidation and reduction of funding sources from the north/west, some of which are now more vocal about and insistent on the imperative and, even, the inevitability of globalization — read Westernization, commercialization, etc. –, pressures to standardize and conform to “global cinematic norms” — read American/Hollywood – are on the rise. So also strategies to negotiate and resist.  Granted, this is not unique to African filmmakers, as gestures of independent filmmakers from Europe, Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world reveal, but I would argue that the burden is heavier on African filmmakers.

Faced with such manifestations of the forces of globalization, Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache, for example, poses the following question to his fellow African filmmakers regarding their relationship to Western monies: “… are we losing a sense of our own reality, are we compromising cinematic content for ‘northern’ funding?” In other words, are we giving in uncritically and without resistance to globalization? What do we make of the role of Western funders in shaping and influencing African cinematic content and style in an era of globalization? In recent times, we have been hearing more and more African filmmakers reiterate the imperative for new directions for a more viable, commercially and otherwise, cinema. Others cry out, “Be universal, or be more universal! Be Y2K compliant! Make films that are entertaining and less political! Get out of the bush, the savannah and the Sahel!” One notices a trend in the last two decades whereby some African filmmakers are more and more relocating to Europe and other places outside the continent for many reasons. This, along with the different subject matter, stories as well as styles, languages, actors and locations of some recent African films is usually pointed out as indications of moves away from local, rural, national, traditional to more cosmopolitan, universal, global and modern narratives. These are held up as the recipe for commercial success and broader appeal of African cinema. In other words, fall in line with normal global entertainment, be Y2K compliant and all else will be okay.

Is what some see as heavy handed tactics of western funders and seeming compliance/complicity of some African filmmakers leading African cinema toward a kind of compulsory homogenization that will result in what one may call an “afrimage” , an African clone of an American shaped “globimage” or the so-called “eurimage”? What becomes of the African difference in such constructs? Parallels in what is called “world music” may be instructive here. Marie Daulne of the Black female group Zap Mama, argues that “world music” is merely a label, a conspiracy, to devalue ‘authentic’ African musical styles which are ‘compelled’ to succumb to a dubious global modernity – read western styles and sounds — to enable it to cross over to European audiences. For her, not only does this downgrade the African difference, but it also works to further marginalize/ghettoize African music. Daulne refuses to bend to the expectations of “world music” and continues a practice rooted in Africana specifics but also open to the range of experiences and technologies that history has made available to her and her fella musicians. Enracinement et ouverture, rootedness and openness. I believe many, if not most, African filmmakers share such perspectives.

What do these trends portend for local, regional specificities, forms and values in cultural production? Are we witnessing the progressive meltdown of the local in the face of a narcissist super power American nationalism masking as the global norm? Are we seeing a Euro-Americanization of cultures around the world, a new more powerful, nimble and insidious form of expansion, domination and control? It may seem so in many domains, but in the area of cultural practice, I think the issue is more complex as it touches at the heart of an enduring creative tension between the local and the global. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive entities, just like conceptions of tradition and modernity as polar opposites erase the dynamism inherent in these, while also fixing Africa in a static, traditional mode and the West in a dynamic, modern mode.

The pressures on African cultural producers, filmmakers, in particular, to jump on the bandwagon of a normative global film culture and to check their local cultures at the door are, indeed, enormous and seemingly insurmountable. However, I see in recent films such as Lumumba by Raoul Peck, La Genèse by Cheikh Oumar Cissoko, Mossane by Safi Faye, Pièces d’Identités by Ngangura Mweze, Mamlambo by Palesa Lelatkla-Nkosi, La Fumée Dans Les Yeux by Francois Woukoache, Le Damier by Balufu Kanyinda, Les Silences du Palais by Moufida Tlatli, On the Edge and Rage by Newton Aduaka, and many others too numerous to list here, instances of creative and productive deployment of individual and local specificities and cultures to navigate the world. I also see in these works the magic that can result from a skillful and critical use of new technologies to narrate African experiences in different ways. Rather than surrender to an overbearing global norm and an attempt to live up to Euro-American and commercial expectations which could well turn out to be a dead end, I see purposeful and imaginative appropriation of the full range of resources and experiences of Africans, past and present, in their encounters with each other and with others from around the world.

Like the Senegalese writer and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, I insist on the right and imperative of Africans to assume the world from their own diverse positions, to creatively and productively claim and appropriate on their own terms those elements and products of humanity – regardless of origin – deemed vital and useful for their own projects. Acts of claiming and appropriation proceed from positions of various specificities – cultural, geographical, historical, individual, gender, class, race, sexual, etc., and it is from the imprints of the specific that any significant moves to the global can be made. Africans are historical beings, diverse, dynamic and always in motion. So also our cultures. Leopold Senghor at one point in time spoke of the grand notion of a civilisation de l’universel, a civilization of the universal. He also imagined a great global banquet, a global smorgasbord at which all cultures from around the world would answer present with offerings specific to each for mutual nourishment of humanity at large. Granted some may see this as utopian in a contemporary world of predatory, zero sum, winner-take-all capitalist globalization, but Senghor’s metaphor for a global humanism founded on local, national and regional specificities, a celebration of diversity, parity and exchange, may have a thing or two instruct us about the resilience, the generative and staying power the local.

A report on the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

The UN World Conference on Race (WCAR) held August 31-September 8 in Durban, South Africa, has been sidelined in the media by occlusive coverage of the September 11th World Trade Center attack.  Few of WCAR’s many critics have linked the horrific attack with the dissension over the Middle East that was fomented at Durban.  But few observers have drawn the connection that should be made between the anti-racism conference and the World Trade Center attack.

Ironically, it was President Bush, clearly not a fan of the conference, who came closest to making the connection between the two events.  In his address on terrorism before a joint session of Congress, Mr. Bush asked “every nation to join …(in the)… fight of all who believe in …pluralism, tolerance and freedom..”  Basically, his appeal was a restatement of the objective of the conference to “reaffirm principles of…international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights…

Terrorism is a political derivative of racism and related intolerances.  This was acknowledged in paragraph 18 of the NGO declaration: “…racism…and related intolerance are the basis of gross violations of human rights and hate crimes…”  Pity that our nation (and the world) should be so immediately awakened to the tragedy of isolationism just 3 days after the conference ended.

From the start, some grand purpose appeared to be in progress at Durban.  The officious opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance–even the name implied a certain munificence and scope—set a tone.  As the procession, led by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, filed into the hall of Durban’s International Convention Center (ICC), thousands of delegates from more than 150 countries stood in reverence.  Some applauded as El Jefe, Cuban President Fidel Castro walked pass.  Yassar Arafat, Algeria’s Abdelazia Bouteflika and Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila were also among the 16 heads of state in the impressive entourage.

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared “…if we leave here without agreement, we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society.”  That theme was repeated by Cuban President Castro who warned that if the conference didn’t succeed, “what lies before us can only be worse than what we have left behind.”  But it was host President Thabo Mbeki whose remarks presaged the contentious negotiations soon to follow, “…there are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white …These are a people who know what it means to be the victim of rabid racism and racial discrimination. Nobody ever chose to be a slave, to be colonised, to be racially oppressed.  The impulses of the time caused these crimes to be committed by human beings against others.

In a world where race remains a deeply divisive force, it came as no surprise that a world conference against racism would generate vigorous and even virulent political debate.  But as awful as the strife observed in Durban was the inflammatory venom put out by some mainstream media regarding conference proceedings.  At one point, UN Commissioner Mary Robinson told delegates that “the press wants us to fail”.  And so it seemed.  On 17 August, the NY Times editorialized in a piece titled  “A mean spirited UN conference”.   Later, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert thrashed the WCAR in a commentary of his called,  “In America; Doomed to Irrelevance”.   The negative tone struck in the NY Times was reprised in the London Daily Telegraph’s September 4 article,  “A hateful Conference”.

In the weeks and days leading up to the conference, US threats to boycott dominated American press coverage.  After deciding to send a low ranking delegation to Durban, Secretary of State Colin Powell summoned them back to Washington two days later.  The precipitous withdrawal was said to be in response to “hateful” anti-Israeli language in conference documents.  However some EU delegates suggested it was fear of massive reparations claims by African Americans that prompted the recall of the American delegation.  This view was shared by the African and African Descendents Caucus at the NGO Forum.  In its statement issued September 4, one day after the walkout, the Caucus charged that the US had “…rationalized its opposition to even a discussion of reparations by unfairly linking it to the demands of the Palestinian people that the national oppression and racial discrimination visited upon them by the State of Israel be condemned.”

As host nation, South Africa wanted the conference to succeed.  But not every South African favored the idea of hosting the notable event.  Some white South Africans had been alienated by a national anti-racism conference held in South Africa the year before and were skeptical of having another race conference.  On the opening day of WCAR, a coalition of South African grass roots activists, squatters, workers, and students calling themselves the Durban Forum staged a mega demonstration, more than 10000 strong, to protest the failure of the conference to address South Africa’s own economic discrimination issues.  Simultaneously, the South African

Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) held a 2-day general strike condemning the ANC Government’s moves to privitise.

Despite spirited protests in the streets of the beautiful port city, thousands of delegates made their way to Durban.  Into the thick of the highly-charged political milieu, they continued to arrive, not knowing exactly what to expect of the historic endeavor.  Some of the comers were true believers, some were merely hopefuls, while others were skeptics and a bit cynical of what really could be achieved.  There were also those that questioned whether democratic South Africa was materially equipped to handle the logistics of such a mammoth event.

WCAR, the main intergovernmental conference, drew over 2500 delegates from 163 nations.  That sophisticated gathering of governmental delegates—mostly men (and a few women) in suits–was singularly impressive in its uniformity.  But there was one Canadian delegate who arrived in the full regalia of traditional attire, topped with a very large, beautifully multi-coloured feather headdress.  Hundreds of media paparazzi were also on hand and ubiquitous security personnel.

Across the street at Kingsmead Stadium, the NGO Forum (August 28-September 1) was anything but uniformed.  That parallel event of more than 7000 delegates from 150 nations was a funky grassroots affair.  On the grounds of the cricket field one could see the Dalits  (“Untouchables”) from India connecting with dreadlocked Rastafarians from Jamaica.  Blacks from the Americas and across the continent traded experiences with dozens of ethnic minorities including indigent Polynesians, Sri Lankan Tamils and the Buraku people of Japan.  The Kurds from Turkey, the Romas (“Gypsies”), the Osu and Oru people of Nigeria, Tibetan monks, British Muslims, Eskimos, American Indians and the indigenous peoples of Canada all came together.  The diversity of participation was one of the high points of being there.

As expected, the hundreds of African Americans at Durban were a strong vocal presence. Professor Manning Marable, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of African American Studies, caused a stir when he presented theories on “whiteness”, connecting it conceptually with property and theft.  And it was the African Americans who led the push for reparations for the victims of slavery.  The African and African Descendents Caucus and the December 12th Coalition were among the African American organizations that lobbied assiduously to have reparations included in the intergovernmental document.  Several African American Congressmen, members of the Black Leadership Forum, denounced the US Government for dodging the reparations issue.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism dominated negotiations in the latter days of the conference.  Those discussions caused great dissention.  And at one point it was feared that WCAR, like two previous UN race conferences in 1978 and 1983, would collapse before reaching closure.  When the US and Israeli delegations pulled out, some US diplomats expected the Europeans to follow suit.  However, the EU delegates did not leave, choosing to stay in Durban to protect their interests.  Some German officials reportedly criticized the US for pulling out and even the British called the US decision “a pity”.

At the outset, the Europeans were split on the issue of colonial responsibility.  Britain and Spain were very concerned about legal liabilities.  Both adamantly opposed apologizing for their role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  On the other hand, the Germans and the French were willing to issue some form of formal apology for their role in the slave trade and colonialization.

There was also a range of views among the African states regarding the slavery debate.  Namibia demanded an explicit apology from states that benefited from slavery and colonialism.  And Namibian delegates as well as the African Americans and some African leaders were in favor of some form of reparations.  But other African leaders, including President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal were not in favor of reparations, and instead pushed for trade benefits and foreign aid.  In order to avert a deadlock, South African delegates moved away from insistence upon an explicit apology.  In lieu of reparations for slavery victims and descendants, the South African leaders sought debt relief and foreign aid without strings for colonized African nations.

It took an extra day to reach agreement on an intergovernmental document.  Finally, on the eighth day, a compromise was reached calling upon signatories to acknowledge “that slavery is a crime against humanity and should always have been so” and expressing an apology in the form of an  “acknowledgment for the wrongs of slavery” and offering economic assistance to Africa.  By confining the conception of “slavery as a crime against humanity “ to the present and not dealing with its criminality in the past, legal liabilities were apparently avoided.  Also, in the agreement the idea of reparations was not connected to the slave trade.

The final WCAR declaration and plan of action was adopted by 163 nations.  But critics charge that the document was watered down and failed to bring attention to many causes emphasized at the conference. While the cause of the Romas was addressed in the document, other groups including the Barakumin minority of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria and minorities from Senegal and

Mauritania were excluded.  Conference president Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma expressed regret that other concerns like the issue of India’s Dalits were excluded.  President Mbeki summed up the results in this way: “None of us achieved everything we wanted, but we have stated a historical process which provides us with a solid foundation to continue the struggle for a better world for all.

By comparison, the NGO declaration went further than the intergovernmental document on many of the important issues raised in Durban.  On the issue of slavery and colonial responsibility, the NGO document was direct and unequivocal: “ We demand that the United States, Canada, and those European and Arab nations that participated in and benefited from the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trans-Sahara Slave Trade, the Trans-Indian Ocean Slave Trade, Slavery and the Colonization of Africa…(as well as)…the United Nations …shall…Ensure that…all nations, groups and their members who are the victims of crimes against humanity based on race, colour, caste, descent, ethnicity or indigenous or national origin are provided reparations…(including)… Restitution…encompassing the unconditional return of land… Monetary compensation that will repair the victims, including Africa, Africans and African descendants, by closing the economic gap created by these crimes…”

However UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson refused to recommend the final NGO document to the intergovernmental forum because of the language used regarding Israel. NGO Forum President Moshe More contextualized Robinson’s response: “…only three paragraphs (418, 419 & 420) were a bit problematic … those are the three paragraphs that the High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to, the paragraphs that she had a problem with …but I think the High Commissioner respected also that the document itself was a reflection of the voices of the victims…

As an African American filmmaker, I personally had a very visceral response to the conference.  Gathered in Durban were the minds, hearts and bodies of more than 10000 individuals assembled for the express purpose of eradicating racism. Just as expressed in the NGO declaration, this assemblage embodied “the richness of the diversity of cultures, languages, religions and peoples in the world and the potential within this diversity to create a world free of racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance…. “  That was the image I saw at dinnertime each day in the conference dining hall.

The conference also worked for me on a philosophical level.  It confirmed the existence of racism at a time when so many are in denial and it affirmed the fact that so long as racism persists in society, we all are its victims—both those upon whom racism is perpetrated as well as the perpetrators.  As noted in the NGO declaration, “racism is an ideological construct” that bestows one race with social and political power over another.  That kind of racial superiority or privilege ultimately becomes a crutch that denies to its possessor the rewards of his own efforts.

A Canadian Youth Summit delegate and reporter for the Young Peoples Press made an observation about a conference billboard she saw which read:  “YOU”RE Not A Racist, Right?” The young reporter said every conference backpacker she met remembered that quote.  And so did I.

Ultimately, Durban was a clarion call to arms in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance.  It provided us all with yet another opportunity to expand the limits of our humanity by facing ourselves concerning race.  As suggested by that billboard, each one must submit to his own scrutiny in this regard.  The consequences of not doing so could be deadly.

The Zanzibar International Film Festival 2002 – A Wanderer’s Perspective

As locations for a film festival go, it is hard to imagine a better one than  Zanzibar. The name itself conjures up images of the hyper-exotic. And it does not disappoint.  Slowly pulling into the harbor on the ferry from Dar es Salaam, one is immediately enthralled by the uncommon beauty of the place. The clean, clear, aquamarine blue of the surrounding waters and the first glimpses one  catches of Stone Town. Stepping ashore – with the crush of humanity that greets the boat, consisting of porters seeking employment to unload the vessel, assorted hustlers with schemes and services designed to help you part with your money and sundry others – you know for sure that you are indeed in Africa. That is in case the picturesque beauty of the place had momentarily teleported you elsewhere. Welcome to Zanzibar.

Running between June 28th and July 13th, The Zanzibar International Film Festival – 5th Festival of the Dhow Countries (A dhow is a traditional Arab sea-going vessel which was and is still used for fishing and transporting goods and people around the region) includes film, music and performing arts, arts exhibits, seminars and workshops, as well as special programs for women and others for children. This is a truly large-scale cultural event that is spread all over the main island of Zanzibar and the nearby sister island of Pemba. The various events of this festival extend into the villages, to give locals a chance to partake of it.

The unique charm of this festival is, without a doubt, the venues hosting the events. Film screenings are held in the Ngome Kongwe (Old Fort), a huge stone structure built circa 1700 by Omani Arabs. It includes an impressive open-air amphitheatre – the site of most screenings. Another film venue is the almost-as-impressive Beit-el-Ajaib (House of Wonders) built in 1883 it was the home of the Zanzibar’s then Sultan. An outdoor stage set up in the sea-front Forodhani Gardens, is the venue for musical performances. When not used in this service, the locals use the Forodhani Gardens as an evening promenade, outdoor barbecue and meeting place. If you are ever in Zanzibar, you must make it a point to have dinner here. The assortment of local grilled seafood is uncommonly delectable.

Starved as they seemed to be for this type of entertainment, the Zanzibaris were quite appreciative of the artistic feast presented to them. They came out in numbers for film screenings and other performances. The opening night festivities – in keeping with Arab and Islamic theme of this year’s festival, featured the Al Urmawi Group from Palestine playing the oud (an Arab guitar). There was also the Islamic rhythmic chanting of the local Maulid ya Homu group. The film festival kicked into gear with a screening of Raoul Peck’s excellent political thriller, Lumumba. Eriq Ebouaney, who played Patrice Lumumba in this film, was in attendance.

The festival featured over 140 films of various genres. Included are documentaries, dramas, comedies, experimental films and films that defy easy categorization in long and short form. There are 47 films from 21 countries in 5 juried competition categories. While the professed theme of the festival is Arab and Islamic culture, I had difficulty discerning much thematic discipline. It seemed more a joyful hodge-podge than anything else. This is by no means a diss. HIV/AIDS is one theme that was rightfully stressed.

I was reminded time and again how differently people react to films. There was a particularly curious moment during the screening of Nick Hugh’s “100 Days”, set as it was amidst the Rwanda genocide of 1994, when it seemed to me that sections of the audience were cheering a rape scene. A Swahili-speaking Tanzanian friend assured me that what I heard was not cheering. I am not entirely convinced.

Zanzibar is multi-ethnic, and the people are open and friendly. Part of the Island’s charm is its mix of people. Ali Mazrui often speaks of Africa’s “triple heritage”. There is probably no place in Africa where it is more on display than in Zanzibar. African, Arab and European influences are apparent in the style of clothing, food and architecture. One is awakened daily by the sound of muezzins calling the Moslem faithful to prayer. In Zanzibar’s case, one could probably add a fourth – Asian due to the influence of Indians who have traded and resided on the Island for centuries. The 5th Festival of the Dhow Countries was a veritable feast, an ambitious and well-executed festival set in an incomparable location.

Excerpt From No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today

It is self-evident that specific historical, cultural, socio-economic and political conjunctions result in the emergence of different race relations patterns in the Americas. Brazil and the Caribbean countries, for example, differ significantly from Peru, where people of African descent are in a distinct minority and their position can be properly understood only in relation to a numerically dominant ‘minority’ of indigenous peoples. In the discussion of race relations, however, neither Latin America nor the United States occupies a position of privilege; fluidity, we now understand, requires some rethinking and re-evaluation in light of what we have come to learn about race relations orders and how they interface with orders of power and privilege. If fluidity or ambiguity resulted in the creation of greater maneuverability for individuals, it is by no means clear that such an option was maximally beneficial to groups seeking political action and organization.

The much admired non-contentiousness of race relations patterns in Latin America is beginning to seem rather less benign than it did, if only because of the relative silence of voices from ‘below’. This is not, of course, to deny the presence of contrarian voices; the present volume contributes greatly to our knowledge of those Afro-Latin Americans who, over time and in various ways, and contrary to hegemonic ideologies that assign overriding significance to nationality (not race), have defined themselves as black and chosen actively to protest disadvantages directly attributable to their race and to propose remedial measures.

Peter Wade’s insightful discussion of Colombian race relations posits that they can be understood only in the context of the power relations involved. Indeed, it is precisely the dimension of power and its unequal distribution that frame race relations throughout the Americas.1 That Afro-Latin Americans have consistently developed cultural initiatives in response to their predicament is testimony to their unwillingness to embrace victimhood. Yet those initiatives in no way address issues of political and economic power and representation, nor do they resolve the tension between actual power and symbolic power.

The most intractable problem for both the state and society in the matter of Afro-Latin Americans is how, for the first time in their collective history, to incorporate demands of non-dominant groups into the system of governance. What lessons or inferences they may draw from the experiences of the United States – which has known continually evolving public articulations of the presence of racial discrimination and the role of state and society in enforcing, modulating and abolishing that discrimination – are not easily predicted, But charges of Americanization and, implicitly, denationalization suggest that individual societies, eager to protect themselves against corrupting influences from extraneous sources, may well justify establishing a cordon sanitaire. Latin America’s borders are permeable; thus the notion of the hermetic society, when applied specifically to Afro-Latin Americans, means, among other things, forcing a racial group to accept a narrowly conceived identity – that of nationality – while assiduously rejecting all external influences.

Given the dynamics of the real world, however, the predicament of Afro-Latin Americans may be defined as an issue of human rights. This reformulation of the issue effectively expands the conceptual and discursive parameters of the continuing discussion about race, allows for specific responses to specific situations and situates it in the context of debates and struggles that no state, and no society, will easily ignore. Yet if, as so often happens, the official response is mere lip-service, then little is to be gained; the issue of Afro-Latin America will simply languish under the rubric of a broader, more intractable problem.

The importance of this volume is that it raises the ‘visibility’ of Afro-Latin Americans from likely, and unlikely, parts of the region. All the countries covered here offer examples of the socioeconomic and political deprivation of their black populations – a deprivation that suggests absence from national and regional power structures, What makes the problems of Afro-Latin Americans particularly tricky is that in the post-colonial period there has been no explicit legal exclusion of blacks from participation at various levels of society. A closer look, however, points to pervasive areas of exclusion, some intended, others not.

Complicating the issue is the very role of the law in defining and managing race relations in the region. A fundamental fact about Latin American polities has to be confronted and ‘deconstructed’. This is that, in the absence of post-abolition legislation specifically targeting former slaves and their descendants, and in the absence of a tradition of compliance – either because such legal provisions do not exist or because the law has an ambiguous role in assuring equality of rights to all citizens – it is highly problematic to plunge headlong into recommending possible roles for the law when there has been no history of the law functioning in such a manner.

Issues of inclusion and exclusion

In any analysis of Latin American race relations, it is crucial to distinguish between dominant ideas articulated about national unity and race relations and oppositional ideas emerging from Afro-Latin American groups in a way that reflects their political heterogeneity. The role of historical memory cannot be overstated, especially in view of the fact that present-day activists are not necessarily concerned with political genealogies.

The issue of ‘group’ versus ‘individual’ rights is another problematic area, In the case of Brazil, for example, the thrust of postabolition race relations and social mobility has been predicated upon ‘individual mobility’, as was the case during slavery. This emphasis on individual strategy resulted in the emergence of individuals of stellar quality whose removal from the group did not in any way reflect the general predicament of the group, The dominant society, with no small pride, often cites these ‘honourable exceptions’ as examples of the successful working of the model, though the group from which these individuals emerged might interpret their ‘exceptionality’ rather differently.

At what point in time does the paradigm shift its focus from individual to group? And what are the hurdles that advocates of group identity and group activism have to confront?

To explore such difficult questions, contributors to this volume have sought to investigate the historical formation of Latin American race relations patterns, and so to unravel the gap between professed ideals of unity and one-peopleness, on one hand, and deeply rooted patterns of exclusion of Afros from the political, socio-economic and educational centers of the polity, on the other. Here lies a fascinating contradiction: between the incorporation into the legitimate national arena of erstwhile African-derived religious, cultural and social traditions once considered societally or politically subversive because of their ‘primitive’ provenance, and the absence of a corresponding insertion of Afro-Latin Americans into areas and structures of power and privilege from which they have traditionally been excluded.

To put the issue provocatively: what have been the real rewards for Afro-Brazilians, for example, now that the dominant society, including exclusive hotels, serves feijoada and the whitest-looking Brazilians are practitioners of Candomble? Has this legitimating of Afro-Brazilian traditions fundamentally altered the imbalance in power relations between Afro-Brazilians as a group and the dominant society? Is the dominant society thinking ‘nationally, collectively’ but continuing to act racially, exclusively?

Balancing historical, cultural and political realities

Is slavery still relevant? Yes and no. To argue that one cannot continue to talk back to slavery and its socio-racial economic structures to account for the conditions of Afro-Latin Americans does not mean that it ipso facto ceases to be relevant, especially in view of the images and roles linked to slavery. The archaism of slave relations and their supplanting by ‘modernizing’ economic and social relations have not resulted in the emergence of new societies in which status linked to slave origin has totally disappeared. The earlier optimistic expectations about the potential of class relations to undermine archaic socio-racial structures have not entirely materialized.

What is intriguing in this connection is the continuing hold of structures of power and prestige on Latin American societies, irrespective of the relative size of the ‘white’ population. Whether or not the societal push is to negate, or maintain distance from, blackness or to confine expressions of connection to blackness to the merely symbolic – particularly among those who are not identifiably black – the open articulation of pride in blackness is nowhere acceptable. Specific national permutations on ‘relations to blackness’ (positive or negative) can provide important insights.

If Dominicans, for example, cannot contemplate blackness without the historical ‘spectre’ of Haiti and its present-day consequences, collectively and individually, how, specifically, are black Dominicans affected? Does the designation indio resolve the problem for them? Do Dominicans of a darker hue constantly face the problem of being mistaken for closet Haitians? The interesting and even insightful notion that Dominican national identity makes sense only in relation to Haiti – to be Dominican is to be not Haitian – does not sufficiently explain the long-range consequences for individual Dominicans.

History, nationality and Afro-identity

The impressive presence of historical Africa in the cultural, religious, folkloric and culinary spheres, so richly documented in the preceding chapters, attests to the strength of both the original bearers of these forms and their descendants; it demonstrates, too, the ability of nations to absorb these legacies. To imagine or attempt to establish that from the time of their inception the incorporation of these traditions occurred in a linear fashion is to engage in selective historical evaluation. It is arguably the case that the very process of incorporation reveals certain basic contradictions in the relationship of the dominant society and its black population. Take, as examples, two definitive institutions in the cultural life of Brazil – Carnival and Candomble. To survey either merely from the perspective of the past ten years is to ignore a complex history of repression of traditions that were of African provenance. That these institutions moved from the clandestine to the marginal to their present status as national institutions is indeed remarkable.

The real problem for Afro-Latin Americans is how successfully to juggle common nationality and the struggle to attain public legitimacy for Afro-identity. Legislation as a regulator of race relations in the post-colonial period can be only part of the solution, as blacks have not been excluded by law from full participation in the society. What is required is not a compilation of constitutional provisions as evidence of the role of law in guaranteeing rights. Given the interplay between (a) laws, customs, etiquette and publicly articulated views about the ideals of interracial harmony and (b) the reality of racial segmentation, not much would be gained by this. Afro-Latin Americans are already, indeed, full members of the ‘nation’. How, therefore, can they structure their questions and demands in strictly legalistic terms? Can they challenge, or change through the mediation of the law, something that has been neither legal nor illegal? Does there exist anywhere in Latin America the modern-day equivalent of the system of customary law established in British colonial Africa – a body of traditional precepts and practices that, though unwritten, came to acquire the force of law?

Entry into government service, particularly the foreign service, as it affects Afro-Latin Americans offers an interesting challenge to the researcher. In Brazil one faces the sheer impossibility of finding anyone who will even acknowledge that race is a not insignificant factor in explaining the absence of blacks from the diplomatic service.  Indeed, one even marvels at the sheer ingenuity of the rationalizations offered: to wit, nationality – Brazilianness – binds a multiracial society that enjoys exceptionally smooth relations among its many racial groups, which include a large number of people of mixed blood, and an absence of overt racial tensions. Nationality singularly and effectively eliminates the need for other identities, particularly those whose inherent volatility poses a threat to national unity. Here, too, one can look for comparisons with the exceptional cases of the United States and South Africa.

One commonly hears from non-Afro-Latin Americans perhaps overconfident denials that blacks – be they servants, soccer players, musicians – have any abiding interest in black issues or movements. They speak, too, of their access to Afro-derived religious and cultural institutions, remarkable for its ease when one considers the uneasy divisions of, say, North American society. But what of the Afros themselves – can one imagine a space in which they at times think and act independently of the overarching race-free, classless national identity? Given the power of that identity, all-inclusive yet respectful of implicitly racial privileges, it is not surprising that a certain caution prevails among blacks who in other systems or circumstances might choose to mobilize around race or Africanity.

It is encouraging to learn that Afro-Dominicans, for example, exhibit a reasonable degree of self-esteem in a negrophobic society. But we perhaps risk over-sentimentalization when we note that extensive racial mixing produces offspring who though visibly of different shades – one black, the other white – identify themselves as biological siblings.

Comparative perspectives

There is no evidence to suggest that significant numbers of people of African ancestry anywhere in the Americas actively contemplate voting with their feet. However unsatisfactory existing conditions for those of their kind, they tend not to abandon their home countries to seek other national identities. How to explain this? Afros undoubtedly derive some benefit from the flexible system of racial designations. In postcolonial Latin America, blacks have not been the targets of physical lynchings and other racially motivated acts of violence. The de facto segregation of Panama’s Canal Zone was never the norm in the rest of Latin America. Nor did exclusionary practices – in schools, in clubs, in residential area – enjoy the kind of legal sanction associated with racial segregation in the United States. Yet, as Abdias do Nascimento has consistently argued, ‘lynching’ has far deeper meaning than the actual physical act. There is a special case to be made for (re)conceptualizing the role of violence as a determinant of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ race relations. A recurrent refrain in his writings since the mid-1940s is that racial violence is multifaceted and extremely subtle. To deny access to structures of education, health and political participation, he observes, constitutes violent actions for those on the receiving end. Such a conceptualization of violence and its role in race relations has the potential of liberating our understanding of the Latin American situation.

The point speaks directly to comparisons between the United States and Latin America. Meaningful comparisons cannot be selectively applied to only the most conspicuous aspects of race relations, especially those regulated by the force of law. Nor can comparisons be magically terminated at some point in the 1950s when the world was left to wonder at images of National Guard troops escorting a little black girl to school in the US South to the taunts and jeers of whites. What happened after such shocking events is central to the comparison. Why, it needs to be asked, do institutions of higher learning in Latin America have so few black students, a paucity made even more astonishing when one compares their numbers with their counterparts in the United States? No amount of ‘flexibility’, ‘smoothness’ or ‘lack of tension’ in racial matters can adequately explain away what is clearly a problem.

In a widely discussed case the daughter of the governor of the state of Espirito Santo, an Afro-Brazilian, was denied entry to an elevator designated for use by residents of a high-rise apartment building and, presumably, their guests. The story, a characteristic example of what one observer has very aptly termed ‘vertical apartheid’, rings a familiar note to the many blacks who have themselves been assumed to be service personnel irrespective of their dress or demeanor. The governor’s legal counsel chose not to argue the case on the basis of existing anti-racist legislation, as they well understood the difficulties of successful prosecution in a legal climate where precedents are few and, perhaps even more important, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. Lack of precedent here is linked to the conspicuous absence of multiracial civil rights organizations. The struggle for racial justice presupposes some notion of racial injustice; and as Latin American self-conceptions do not include that crucial notion, prominent multiracial organizations dedicated to racial justice are seen to be fundamentally oxymoronic and crass in their attempt to apply inappropriate North American racial paradigms to their societies.

Future examinations of present-day Afro-Latin Americans need to seek actively to extend the framework of the process to one that permits global comparison. That framework will have no a priori victors or successes contrasted with worst-possible cases; it will, one hopes, open the way for Afro-Latin Americans themselves to establish links with other peoples of African ancestry in transnational encounters much like the recent gathering in Uruguay discussed in the Postscript to this volume. The salient feature of these meetings is not the search for ready-made, all-purpose solutions; rather, it is the airing of reflections and histories that transcend individual cases.

A possible future research area would be, for example, inter- and intra-Dominican relations in communities outside the national territory. Do Dominicans in the United States hold steadfastly to the single commonality of Dominicanness, irrespective of race or color? What happens when they come into contact with other Latin Americans whose socio-racial mix may not be so directly linked to a Haitian factor but whose societies nonetheless confer privilege, status and power on those who are of lighter hues? What happens when in the United States Dominicans and other Latin Americans confront the rigidly binary division of racial lines? But even this binarism is more complicated than it would appear.

Even more productive would be an exploration of both overt and covert differences, posing the question, Are there in fact certain constants in race relations throughout the Americas, constants implicit in oft-repeated phrases: ‘money whitens’; ‘in the other Americas an individual has a greater possibility to be whatever he or she chooses or desires’; ‘there is certainly greater racial mixture in Latin America’; ‘after all, we are all at least symbolically hybridized or mesticized’? What the literature lacks is an in-depth comparative inquiry, across cultures, that does not give disproportionate credence to colonial nomenclatures, idealized expressions of nationhood or peoplehood that extol race mixture while ignoring the clearly color-based rank order of preference.

No amount of verbal elegance – or money – can ‘whiten’ a Pele, a Benedita da Silva or a Pena Gomez and still qualify as an accurate description of reality outside specific national contexts. Emphasizing the particularity of national etiquettes matters precisely because national histories and cultural practices are never to be ignored. However, as soon as individuals or groups cross national boundaries, those etiquettes and practices, be they concrete or symbolic, cannot be maintained in their innocence or originality. Does the indio Dominican or the Brazilian moreno who insists on being so identified find that North Americans, say, or Europeans, or continental Africans accept these categorizations? Indeed, it would be highly instructive to record American responses to the application of these labels to large numbers of their own, not simply a minority of honorable exceptions.

In 1989 a popular women’s program on Venezuelan television discussed the question ‘Is it punishment to be a black woman in Venezuela?’ The participants – a well-known politician, a physician, a model and sibling athletes – offered a range of perspectives. In its modest way the program sheds light on the discussion of race and gender in present-day Latin America. How interesting it would be to compare the program with advocacy initiatives undertaken by, say, Afro-Brazilian women’s organizations, together with examples drawn from other national groups.

Visibility, or non-invisibility, is a multifaceted and variable phenomenon. In Peru, where the salient divide is between the indigenous and the mesticized components of the population, any disadvantages associated with blackness pale in comparison to the individual and collective weight of those disadvantages endured by the majority indigenous population. What Peru does share with other Latin American countries is the privileging of whiteness. In this particular race relations universe a study of indigenous-Afro relations in specific situations, over the centuries, could well contribute to our understanding of comparative race relations. Similar work could be done on Ecuador.

On matters of race and color the novice observer does well to tread lightly when approaching societies and systems such as those in Latin America. Non-whiteness and blackness, one quickly learns, are not interchangeable concepts; never assume blackness, and determine, with delicacy, the individual’s personal identification, which may not be consistent with that assigned him or her by others. For the Latin American, a similar challenge awaits in North America, say, or even continental Africa, where what is perceived as ‘white’ may very well be, to the person concerned, ‘black’.

Looking to the future

‘Revealing’ the true number of blacks in specific societies, in an effort to establish their numerical majority, does not ipso facto translate into power-holding or even power sharing. Yet Afro-Latin Americans can bring to the study of comparative race relations their unique ability to interrogate Latin American paradigms both in theory and in practice. Those who in varying ways, and often in hostile conditions, struggle to be both true nationals and dear-eyed critics risk accusations of sullying the national image with imported ideas. Unlike their fellow nationals, they are oddly expected to limit their socio-political and even cultural thoughts and actions to approved ideals. The success of their struggle ultimately hinges on the legitimacy of a black perspective in national public discourse.

By focusing on the Afro-Latin American experience, then, this volume will, we hope, provide a real service. This will be to reopen the historical debate on comparative race relations in the Americas and to transcend the reductionism characteristic of earlier works that imposes a simple binarism – be it religion, history or culture – on what we now understand to be a complex reality. As we are confronted with the ever-increasing Latin Americanization of migrations to North America, the complexities and contradictions of each side’s race relations become more fully exposed, making it possible to frame new questions and thus to avoid hackneyed explanations based on ideally constructed images rather than realities in which Latin Americans of African ancestry make themselves heard.

The battle to insert a politically active Afro-identity into the public discourse continues, and the authors of this book hope to have made a useful contribution to this struggle. In this context, ‘no longer invisible’ should be seen more in a political sense than in merely demographic, cultural or religious terms. It is not that politics and political participation are the sole definers; but without them the battle is only half won, and the fundamental role of power is not sufficiently accounted for or taken into consideration.

The country studies in this book [No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today] point to the rich heritage of Afro-Latin America and to enduring similarities in the position of Afro-Latin Americans in their societies, particular national conditions and background notwithstanding. The Cuban example both fascinates and frustrates. The only Latin American country to confront racism publicly, Cuba has undertaken concrete measures to integrate Afro-Cubans into institutions and areas of Cuban life from which they were traditionally excluded. It cannot, however, be assumed that race or racial factors have become non-issues. In a period of worsening economic conditions the society is coping with extraordinary pressures that impact negatively on the kinds of initiatives from which Afro-Cubans have derived considerable benefit. The discussion of recent events in Colombia, especially the struggles of Afro-Colombians to attain fuller inclusion in the national polity and its institutions, points to prospects for renewed political participation. Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua reveal complexities related to their histories, and to specific permutations of language, culture and identity tied to the non-Hispanic Caribbean. And the inclusion here of the story of Afro-Bolivians, Afro-Mexicans and Afro-Uruguayans is in itself a noteworthy achievement; discussions of the Afro presence in Latin America will now have information, long missing from the literature, on countries that have, to date, been given little or no prominence or thought.

Of particular interest are the multiple meanings of Africa for Afro-Latin Americans. Nowhere in the Americas has there ever existed a unidimensionally positive image of Africa. It is to be hoped that this collection will generate interest in researching the general and specific consequences of African descent for Afro-Latin Americans.

Recommendations

This volume could well be the foundation for the development of a data bank that stores information on the history, culture, politics and education of Afro-Latin Americans. For emerging grassroots non-governmental organizations the information provided would be invaluable in their struggle for legitimacy.

The book provides much useful information that could also serve as the scholarly base for film documentaries and other projects examining the history, culture and politics of the societies discussed here. By raising common issues it lays the groundwork for comparable transnational programs and areas of cooperation.

Might one hope for a program – sponsored, say, by UNESCO or the Organization of American States, that seeks not just to catalogue distinct historical events but, first and foremost, to identify and monitor (currency being of primary importance here) the intersections of history, economics, politics and culture among nations with populations of African descent? The African Diaspora Research Project based at Michigan State University serves as a useful model. That project has, inter alia, brought together scholars and graduate students who jointly explore interdisciplinary issues pertaining to the African diaspora. A good point of departure might be Norman Whitten’s proposal for reactivating studies of Afro-Ecuadorian communities.

For scholars and non-specialists alike, a perennial problem in their search for information on Afro-Latin Americans is locating materials. This book, at the minimum, provides a source of recent provenance that is widely available, and as such, it will contribute mightily to what one hopes will be a move closer to center stage for a much neglected group.

Africa and Afro-Latin America: reconnecting the two through mutual exchanges of learning and information would surely count as one of the more fruitful outcomes of any effort to shed light on Afro-Latin Americans. A cooperative research undertaking involving perhaps UNESCO, the Organization of American States, and the Organization of African Unity, would seek to collect oral histories, published texts, films, and the like, organize them thematically and disseminate them in both Africa and Latin America. Individual countries working cooperatively could initiate film and video projects. The challenge here would be to reach a broad audience nationally and transnationally.

Fundamental to any understanding of Afro-Latin Americans is, I believe, the question of Africa. Deeply embedded in centuries-old shame, the idea of this continent has a central, though rarely considered, role in the complex relations among its descendants in the diaspora and the larger societies in which they live. The real and imagined meanings of Africa in all its richness and contradictoriness beg to be contemplated not as aspects of a single phenomenon but as factors in the dynamic of Afro-Latin American life today.

Notes

1. Wade, P., Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Radal Identity in Colombia, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 3.

Select bibliography

Barbalet, J.M., Citizenship – Concepts in Social Thought: Rights, Struggle and Class Inequality, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Castro, N.A., “Inequalities In a racial paradise: labor opportunities among blacks and whites In Bahia, Brazil,” SPURS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spring 1994, pp. 6-8.

Dzidzlenyo, A., “Brazilian race relations studies: old problems, new ideas?’, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 19, no. 2,1993, pp. 109-29.

Edwards, J., Where Race Counts: The Morality of Racial Preference in Britain and America, London and New York, Routledge, 1995.

Fiske, J., Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change, Minneapolis, MN, and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Guimaraes, A.S., “Race, racism and groups of color in Brazil,” unpublished paper, Atlanta, GA, Latin American Studies Association, March 1994.

Hall, J.A. and Ikenberry, G.J., The State: Concepts in Nodal Thought, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Hanchard, M., Orpheus and Power. The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1945-88, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1994.

Hellwig, D. (ed.), African-American Reflections on Brazil’s Radal Paradise, Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press, 1992.

Higginbotham, A.L. Jr, “Seeking pluralism in judicial systems: the American experience and the South African challenge,” Duke Law Journal, vol. 42, no. 5, 1993, pp. 1023-68.

Horne, G., Reversing Discrimination: The Case for Affirmative Action, New York, International Publishers, 1992.

Merelman, R.M., Representing Black Culture: Racial Conflict and Cultural Politics in the United States, New York and London, Routledge, 1995.

Nascimento, A. do and Larkin, E., Africans in Brazil: A Pan-African Perspective, Trenton, NJ, Africa World Press, 1992.

Oboler, S., Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Portocarrero, G., Racismo y mestizaje, Lima, Edicion Maruja Martinez/Eduardo Caceres, 1993.

Reichmann, R., “Brazil’s denial of race,” Report on the Americas: Brazil, North American Congress on Latin America, vol. 27, no. 6, May/June 1995.

Winant, H., “Rethinking race in Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies, no. 24, 1992, pp. 173-92.

Xavier, A. and Pestana, M., “Survival guide for blacks in Brazil,” contribution to the Discussion of Racism in the Constitutional Revision supported by Geledes Black Women’s Institute, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1993.

No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today is a Minority Rights Publication, London, 1995.

Anani Dzidzienyo is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University.  He has taught courses on Blacks in Latin American History and Society, Afro-Brazilians and the Brazilian polity, Comparative Politics of Africa and Latin America, and the Afro-Luso-Brazilian Triangle.  His publications include The Position of Blacks in Brazilian Society (MRG report, 1971, 1978, 1979), Activity and Inactivity in the Politics of Afro-Latin America (SECOLAS, 1978), “Africa-Latin America Relations: A Reconsideration of Mobility” (1985), and “Brazilian Race Relations: Old Problems/New Ideas?” (1993).

Karmen Gei: Political Sex Icon

The Hollywood film industry helps create a lexicon of concepts and images used to define a woman’s sexual power. In America, this multibillion dollar industry encourages the use of exercise, makeup, and breast augmentation to transcend human limitations (e.g. temporality and corporeality) and empower the self.  It deifies a female protagonist who relies on her sexuality and good looks to obtain the accoutrements of success.  This “uber-woman” is an easy character to detect.  She can be identified by many, if not all, of the following characteristics: long hair, a thin or physically fit body, shapely legs, round breasts, clear skin, a sway in her hips, and an overt sexual energy.  Mainstream American cinematic narratives use this sexual icon as a simple source of visual pleasure.  In Joe Ramaka’s film Karmen Gei the sexual icon is portrayed in another manner.  Karmen, the protagonist of the film, uses her sexual power to obtain not only personal pleasure, but to stimulate cultural subversion and incite political dissent.

Each sexual/romantic relationship Karmen engages is an example of a pursuit of Karmen’s personal desire and an act of political rebellion.

The earliest relationship we encounter is with the prison warden Angelique.  Karmen is imprisoned in a women’s penitentiary and, in the first scene, she dances seductively in the center of a drum circle.  She wears a large black cloak and exposes a blood red garter at the top of her thigh.  The prison warden, Angelique, is the object of Karmen’s gaze.  At first the warden resists Karmen’s advances but Angelique is quickly entranced by Karmen’s magnetism.  By seducing the warden, Karmen fulfills two of her personal requirements: her desire to satiate her sexual impulse and her longing to obtain her freedom. In the following scene the two women lie in bed engaged in a passionate tryst.  Over time Angelique falls in love with Karmen and Karmen is given her freedom.  The women’s romantic relationship is the politically subversive element of this relationship.  Merimée’s classic Carmen is transformed from heterosexual to bisexual as Karmen finds her true love in the body of Angelique. The other prisoners exclaim from their cells that men and women must beware now that Karmen is free.

Her second love begins as soon as she leaves the prison.  We are invited into a wedding celebration of a politician’s daughter and the soldier Lamine.  Karmen appears as a ceremonial dancer and immediately begins to seduce the groom.  Karmen undulates her body as she approaches the couple. Lamine is mesmerized by Karmen and is smitten the moment she throws a red trimmed scarf at him.  During the dance, Karmen confronts the bride and lures her into a lover’s competition.  As she pushes the bride to the ground, Karmen renounces the corrupt political party, and is arrested for her contempt.  The bride’s father is insulted by Lamine’s lack of action strips him of his political authority and throws him in jail.  That night Karmen breaks Lamine out, entices him into her bed, and is again personally satiated in the arms of a lover.  The appropriation and adulteration of Lamine is an indicator of Karmen’s ability to seize political control. Lamine is obsessed with Karmen and will do anything to be near her. She uses the opportunity to sleep with him, induct him into her band of thieves, and make him disrespect, steal from, and kill the politicians he once worked for.  Karmen uses her sexuality to disrupt the smooth machinations of this political system and in this way admonishes the corrupt Senegalese government.

The third relationship she has is with Massigi.  After breaking Lamine out of jail, Karmen returns to her mother’s bar to rest.  Massigi immediately comes into the establishment to serenade her with songs of love and devotion.  Karmen, who is upstairs in the midst of love making, comes down, glistening with sweat, and wearing a loosely fitted red garment. When Massigi is near her, Karmen is no longer a sexual vixen but full of joy and child-like happiness.  In one scene, the pair stroll down the beach together and laugh light heartedly as the walk.  The moment tragedy strikes, she goes to him for comfort, stability, and mending.  He is the stability to balance her freedom.  When the police come to Karmen’s mother’s bar to look for Lamine, Massigi sublimates their efforts to search the premises by politicizing the situation.  Massigi’s love for Karmen compels him to protect her interest with his words.  He reprimands the government officials for their lack of respect for Karmen’s mother and insults them for disregarding tradition.  Massigi helps to harbor a fugitive; this is the power of Karmen’s love.

Although the film uses a powerful strategy of coupling sexual power and political dissent, it ends with Karmen crippled and destroyed by the power that made her thrive.  At the end of the story, all of the symbols of her sexual authority lose their potency.  The first incident is the death of her true love, Angelique.  Angelique realizes that she will never have Karmen and commits suicide by drowning.  Due to her love for Angelique, Karmen becomes reclusive and soon recognizes her inability to completely love Massigi.  Although unable to love him, she maintains her relationship with Massigi and in the final sequence of scenes, she walks through the local market with him.  As she walks, she has a terrible premonition and begins to run from a faceless danger.  She runs to the theater house where she is confronted by death and murdered by her obsessive lover Lamine.  Employing the classic narrative conclusion of the femme fatale who is inevitably punished for her sexual liberty, Karmen is murdered by a man who had professed his undying love for her.  The song Karmen sang throughout the film which references the inability to tame an untamable bird proves to be true.   The untamable bird in this situation are love and sex whose power coupled destroy her.

Although Karmen falls to her death, we are left with a unique symbol of sexuality.  Ramaka represents Karmen as a sexually and politically vibrant woman who has the ability to fuse political action and an idealized sexualized body.  This strategy, where real issues are challenged and discussed using mainstream media techniques, allows for a wider audience to appreciate and understand the necessity of a social awareness and a political voice.

Interview with Branwen Okpako by Andrew Dosunmu

A.D.: What do you want people to take out of your themes? And what experience do you want people to get?

B.O.:  Okay, let me not be vain about it: I want people to leave Dirt for Dinner having learned something about the way German society functions and a little bit about the history of Germany from the time of socialism of the DDR or the GDR up-to-date. And with the use of this man’s life, Sam Meffire’s life, you basically get a kind of, a kind of personal and yet political historical overview of the last thirty years in German history: you know, socialism, reunification and post-reunification Germany, with this personal story of a black German man’s struggle to exist in this society. And it tells you a little bit about how the media works. I think that’s also a very important aspect of it, because you’re going to watch a film about someone’s life and the film is constantly telling you “Don’t believe everything you hear in the media. Don’t believe the way the media organizes information and organizes a story, gives you a message”. So you are basically being asked also to be slightly skeptical even about what I am saying in my film.

A.D.: And for you, being someone obviously not German and making the film in Germany, what’s that been like obviously, as an African woman making a film in Germany?

B.O.: As an African, one is always used to going into foreign societies and feeling one’s way and finding out the way things function, the way the system works and how to fit into it. So because of the instinct that we Africans have, I am almost like equipped with the ability to be able to sense what’s going on in the society and I have had the opportunity to use my African eye to look at German society from the outside, obviously looking at people of African origin as well, so it is not completely nothing to do with me. I am looking at foreign society from an African point of view. I am doing that almost like an anthropological study. They came to Africa so often to come and analyze us and study our societies and our culture and all that. I’m flipping it over and doing it the other way around. I am an African coming to anthropologically study their societies. And they accepted me actually, I have been lucky enough that they accept my point of view as valuable to them.

A.D.: For Dirt for Dinner, how do German audiences react to what you show them- what’s their reaction?

B.O.: It was very successful when it came out. It won lots of prizes and it was shown several times. It was very, very, well received which made me immediately very suspicious of my own film because I like “If they like it, what’s wrong with it”. And I as I was saying to you earlier, there are elements in that film that white society loves to hold on to and they feel comfortable in. One of them is a black man in jail. And the idea that you go into the detail of getting to the bottom of why did this man ended up in jail?, what elements led to that? And we find out that politicians were involved in pumping him up as the symbol of this and that, in a multicultural society and everything and when push came to shove, they dropped him. And he was somebody who had to cope with racism and isolation throughout it all. So you had whole a social analysis from a foreign black point of view, but there was always this comforting aspect with the fact that he’s a big black man, but he’s in jail- so you don’t have to worry about it. And at the end of the film, happy end: he stays in jail. And I’m beginning to see it that way too, that that might be part of the reason why that they liked the film. Its dealing with important issues for white society to deal. It is important for them to realize that racism is actually not even in their interest, because what they are doing is making people so isolated from society that they turn on society and they become dangerous to society. So it’s that as well, but at the end of the day, the reassuring aspect of it is “we got him and he’s can’t get us”.

A.D.: Interesting. He’s not in any more, he’s out?

B.O.: Yeah, he’s out.

A.D. As a filmmaker, what sort of things influence you, what cinema languages influence- what inspires you as a filmmaker, visually and subject matters at well?

B.O.: At the moment, I am writing a film about the poet Christopher Okigbo and that to me is…

A.D.: Could you elaborate on that for the benefit of those who don’t know who that is?

B.O.: Christopher Okigbo was a poet who lived between 1935 and 1967, and he died during the Biafran war as a soldier on the Baifran side, an Ibo poet, as Nigerian poet. He was not very prolific, he wrote quite a slim volume of poems but he’s recognized all over the world as being one of the greatest African poets to ever write in the English language and his poetry is amazing. I am telling his story because it does not fall into any of those stereotypical boxes for a start- he is not an African the way we have seen Africans before. He is an intellectual, he is a poet, a very cool guy, a real “awon” boy. He’s everything you don’t see, he is modern Africa- he’s an exciting, modern African. And his life, again like the life of Sam, traces a very important historical period, this time in the case of Nigeria: from colonial to post-colonial times. Actually those are parallels (Sam is also a poet actually). And it’s good-somebody’s life that actually encompasses a very important changing moment in history- the birth of Nigeria and then of course its demise into the civil war- a kind of exciting story. And what’s inspiring me at the moment is poetry and music, and not filmmakers anymore. I am kind of out of filmmaking and filmmakers and images. I am tired of it. Nowadays we are bombarded with these bloody pictures all the time, and we are being told “Seeing is believing”, but of course I can’t believe what I see. Just because I see an astronaut bouncing around on some T.V. channel doesn’t mean that somebody went to the Moon. I am beginning to disbelief images and image making is  my business, so I am trying to win my faith back actually with this project.

A.D.:  Fantasic. That’s a very good point- you are trying to, in effect, get influenced by yourself, organically. Would you like to make films in Africa one day, being an African woman? Most of your films are set here (in the west)- is that something you would like to do?

B.O.: Yes, another very important thing about this Christopher Okigbo Film, is that it’s going to my first time to make a film back home in Nigeria. It’s dealing with the issues that are very alive in Nigeria today- the civil war, and the conflicts between so-called different nationalities within Nigerian boarders. These are conflicts that started in 1960 and have not yet been resolved. This is a very profound and important topic for Nigeria and I trying to have the guts now to face it. It’s really scary obviously. People always used to ask me, why don’t you go to Africa and make films”? And I’m like “One day, when I know how to make films, I will dare to go and make films in Africa”. Because you don’t want to put a bad movie out there about Africa, there are enough of those. Not by African filmmakers-there are fantastic films African filmmakers, but, you know, from that outside point of view. Of course, I want to make films in Africa. That’s my aim. Even you and I are planning to work together as well.

A.D.: Inch’Allah.

B.O.: That’s something I am very much looking forward to because I think that that’s also the feature of this medium- it’s no longer one ego, and no longer one pair of eyes but it is being more African about it in the sense of making art together as a group, and collaborating. I am looking forward to working with you, and getting some of your style. And we can also look out for each other, in terms of how real are we being, how influenced are we being. We can back each other up as well, looking for the genuine image.

A.D.: Completely. I guess this is kind of your process of how you work. You get this story and- can you elaborate more on that? Your creative process- do you write a story, do you have people in mind, or ideas in mind that you would want to work on and take time to work on- through the financial part of it as well?

B.O.: Well so far, if I can see a pattern, because you know, every project has its own life and every project has its own process, a pattern starts with the idea and with writing, and with where you are yourself, and your own personal development.

A.D.: What I meant was do you often have ideas that you sit in and you go “I really want to make this”? And you go out and look for the finance. Or often, which way does it really work? Or does somebody come up to you with an idea and you think, “Okay, let me go this way”?

B.O.: Well, it’s a combination of both. With my first film somebody came to me with a newspaper cutting about Sam and said, “Look, this is important, this is a black man, he’s one of us, he’s gone off the rails- find out why and make a film about it”. Someone really demanded that of me. That “You’re a filmmaker, do something useful for us”. So that was the impulse that sent me off researching that story. With the next story, it organically happened that while I was researching the documentary, I felt the need to develop a fiction story so that I could keep the creativity going and keep my imagination alive, and not put to much imagination into the documentary- it had to kind of make itself. So I started writing the other one. And now with Christopher Okigbo, somebody saw my film in New York and came up to me and said “Look, I’d like you to make a documentary about Christopher Okigbo with my Production company.” And that started Christopher Okigbo. Now it’s developing not into a documentary but more like a fiction film. So you know, its very organic- things are born out of each other- I came to New York to show one film, I met you, we started talking about another thing, we wanted to work together, then I got back to Germany and started writing about what we could do together, and then a story came up that fitted into the idea of you and I working together in New York and Lagos and stuff like that. So it’s organic, its life- art presents itself to you as you just continue your life and then you keep on trying to write. I’m writing like three stories at the moment.  And then at one point somebody “Bites one”, you know, somebody with money, or somebody with inspiration, or somebody with motivation bites on to one and says “Okay lets do this” and then you continue that…

A.D.: I guess that is everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you’d like to end this with?

B.O.: I would like you to say something

AD: (Laughs) You would like me to say something? No, I’m listening! (More laughing). You know, that’s the whole point, you know? I’m listening- you know absorbing everything.

B.O.: Yeah but you have been watching my films. You know my films, you know my whole process and everything about me. So, what would you say, do you think that I’ve got one thing that I’m really trying to say or do you think I’m just drifting?

AD: No, I think you’ve got lots you’ve got to say. And that’s what, I admire about your work very much- that conscience about it- but its not about me is it? Hello? Are yeah there?

B.O.:  Yeah. Thank you for saying that.

A..D.: What did you say?

B.O.: Thank you for saying that and thank you for the great honor to be interviewed by you.

We the Living

South African theater, jazz, video and commercial film director Ian Gabriel’s first feature, Forgiveness, offers a sensitive probing of the realities of Apartheid and its human toll and legacy.

One of twenty-four films from twelve countries at the multi-media twelfth annual New York African Film Festival shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a month later the Brooklyn Academy of Music, its story derives from Greg Latter’s simple, incisive script. Developed over two-and-a-half years and several drafts, in conjunction with Ian and (producer) Cindy Gabriel’s Giant Films and DV8 — dedicated to bringing out “genuinely South African digital feature films” — the veteran scriptwriter’s vision is set, not in the country’s tourist-poster hills and beaches, but on the windy Western Cape and Karroo. It is, importantly, six years after the TRC, when the heart and soul’s definition of “amnesty” is painfully wrung out. Equally relevant is the stern Dutch Calvinistic bent of the republic’s small towns, in this case the aptly named real-life fishing village, Paternoster, precariously between unforgiving landscape and sea.

Religious and cultural myth comes into play in Cross and fish, blood and confession, conversion, shared bread and wine, seashells, nets, wounds, flagellant garden-hose whips, as well as the silent stranger, weapons, the self-appointed posse. Such suggestions enrich but are left subtle, so that character and interaction emerge paramount. The physical background broods and reinforces, too, as Nadine Gordimer’s “ghost of the fecund earth,” but dun colors of high definition later blown to 35 mm result in a bleached sepia feeling, a strange appropriate tone for this stage.

Giulio Biccari’s camera catches an unshaven greying man taking nerve pills through a road-stained windshield, an outsider arriving in the hard-luck village and giving out that he is a realtor. Father Dalton (Jeremy Crutchley) knows who the visitor really is, doubts his sincere impulses, but has arranged a meeting with the coloured, Afrikaans-dialect speaking Grootboom family. The man is Tertius Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), an ex-policeman granted official amnesty for the killing ten years earlier of elder son, university student Daniel Grootboom.

Commission verdict notwithstanding, the conscience-stricken Boer seeks to explain to the crippled family, not to justify but to atone, not to God but, as with Judaism’s high holy day Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, to the injured human party. The family, too, have perpetuated an untruth about the boy’s death, though their reactions as individuals differ. Nursing his own sentiments of guilt, fisherman father Hendrik Grootboom (Zane Meas) recognizes the other’s suffering humanity; mother Magda (Denise Newman) has withdrawn from light and life, while teenagers Sannie (Quanita Adams) and Ernest (Christo Davids) not very silently harbor anger and vengeance. To that latter end, the daughter pay-telephones Daniel’s three ANC “political terrorist” friends: coloured Llewellyn Mientjies (Elton Landrew), black dreadlocked Zuko (Hugh Masebenza) and white Luke (Lionel Newton).

With their own personal secrets and lies, the three set out on a two-day drive for revenge and Biblical justice. During that time, Coetzee’s anguished presence brings about change, as priest and family reevaluate past and present, most notably Magda, who will regain central matriarchal strength and impart life to her household after lovingly dancing with her husband to “Tell It Like It Is.”

Within the evil of the past, there were choices, moral choices. Zuko made one, for instance, which led to Daniel’s making another. Present has its roots in that past, and Sannie chooses to choose, as does younger Ernest. But while decision seems individual, it ripples out to intersect concentric circles from others’ choices. Compassionate Calvinism-haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great chain of humanity will be unbroken, humbling acceptance and penance exacted of all, and, imperfect but persistent, life will go forward.

Sithengi’s fight for supremacy in Africa could cost it its identity

Southern African International Film and Television Market, Sithengi, could lose its identity as it re-brands itself as Cape Town World Cinema Festival.

Pundits argue that Sithengi is trying to do too many things at the same time and that its vision could get blurred—if not lost—in the clutter.

It is good that South Africa has recognised the prestige—and commercial harvest—she stands to win by making Sithengi the world’s favourite African film market and exhibition mecca. But they should avoid biting more than she can chew.

For instance, organisers of the festival and market try to cater to the needs of everyone from a children’s festival to country-specific mini festivals—Indonesian, Italian, German—workshops, feature and documentary film co-production fora, and Animation festivals, among others.

Among the highlights of the 9th Sithengi and Cape Town World Cinema (November 12-20, 2004) were the launch of the Berlin World Cinema Fund, Hivos-Sithengi Film Fund, Sithengi Talent Campus, and the meeting of organisers and managers of African film festivals.

Sponsored to the tune of 500 000 Euros per year, the Berlin World Cinema Fund will run for three years.

Grants of up to 100 000 Euros are available to filmmakers from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia. But the fund can be accessed if a German partner is involved, although co-production is not a requirement.

“The necessity of a German partner”, said Dorothee Wenner of the Berlin Film Festival, “is not to keep money and investment in Germany, but to ensure the European afterlife of the films and theatrical release for them. Films could be launched at the Berlinale or at other German Film Festivals.”

The Berlin World Cinema is expected to support documentary and feature films with a German connection.

The 9th Sithengi also saw South Africa sign a co-production treaty with Germany.

Another partnership struck between Sithengi and Berlinale was in the hosting of the Talent Campus for African filmmakers.

During the inaugural Talent Campus held in conjunction with the Berlin Film Festival, Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting talked about innovation and digital technology.

With filmmakers now being able to shoot digitally, edit digitally and even provide a digital master for most film festivals, Broderick said, there need not be a rush to make a film print, except for theatrical distribution.

He stressed that filmmakers should not “ask what is the lowest budget you can make a film for but rather, what’s the lowest budget a film can be made well for?”

More than 60 aspiring filmmakers interacted with local and international experts in strategic workshops.

South Africa explored co-production possibilities with Nigeria, Brazil and Sweden during Sithengi.

While the Berlin World Cinema will support documentaries and features with a German connection, the HIVOS-Sithengi fund will benefit filmmakers in the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) states. But Tanzania, that belongs both to SADC and East African Community, is excluded.

Also taking place at 9th Sithengi was a meeting of organisers of film festivals in Africa.

Those present were drawn from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, United States and Italy.

The more than 10 participants present resolved to establish regional organisations corresponding to East, South, West, North and Central Africa that would eventually be affiliated to the envisaged continental one at the 19th Pan African Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in 2005.

The objectives of the continental organisation—modeled alongside the New Partnership for Development of Africa (NEPAD) and the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes (FEPACI) frame work—the meeting resolved, is to build capacity, come up with an agreed upon code of ethics and regulations to govern the various festivals and also bring about networking and collaboration among African players for synergy.

It was agreed that the festivals would establish a discussion list, exchange website links and try to standardise the way the various festivals around Africa are run in order to help promote African films. However nothing much has happened since November 2004 meeting.

Another idea that players in the African audiovisual sector welcomed at Sithengi was the appeal to African governments to regulate broadcasting through quotas of local content.

Addressing an audiovisual media distribution workshop, Patricia Scarlet of Canada said African governments should set up quotas for all broadcasters to facilitate the growth of film in Africa. If people cannot define themselves, show images of themselves to the world, it means they will be dominated by American values to the detriment of cultural diversity of the world.

She paid tribute to Nigerian home video model saying it is serving the West African nation well; that they should continue making films in their own way till such a time when the audiovisual sector will have developed to stand on its own in the world of filmmaking.

During a seminar on what African television stations are buying, it was agreed anything African can be regarded as local but ZNBC categorically stated that anything that one requires a passport to go and buy does not qualify to be regarded as local. The same sentiments were echoed by Victor Mphande of Malawi TV who said his station is very traditional and respects the Malawian culture very much. However, because of its infancy (5 years old), there are no production houses in Malawi thereby introducing another discussion of training local people to produce films for local consumption. There were issues about prices and quality for local programmes to be acquired by the local broadcaster. In some cases a local product might not find its way to the TV because of its poor quality or the broadcaster dictates the price which might not make the producer happy. It was suggested that the way around this was to co-produce the programmes.

Rita Mbanga who was representing NBC mentioned that NBC was interested mainly in animation programmes for children and some soaps. She said she was buying these programmes for US$200 – US$300 per “good” programme from the local producers and she thinks that is a reasonable price.

Most of the TV stations in the conference seemed to be vague on how much money they spend on a local programme in their respective countries. All they could say was that they “negotiate” with the producers.

Public broadcaster, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), issued commissioning briefs to the value of ZAR120 million as pay-TV broadcaster M-Net launched its New Directions 2005 project that will see the making of four short dramas and one documentary.

At the Documentary and Feature Film Co-production Fora with many international commissioning editors and acquisition executives on their panels, South African Vincent Moloi won Hubert Bals Foundation’s Best Documentary Film project for his work-in progress, Men of Gold and a Pair of Boots and a Bicycle while Zimbabweans Jacki Cahi and

Rumbi Katedza won the Goteborg bursary to develop their feature film, Playing Warriors.

Table Mountain Motion Picture Studios, the largest independent sound stage complex in Cape Town, was opened to coincide with 9th Sithengi.

More than 1900 delegates from 45 countries attended Sithengi and CTWC in 2004.

Michael Auret, the managing director of Sithengi and festival director of the CTWCF, said: “South Africa’s 10th anniversary of democracy is seeing a catapult of local and African films. The health and vigour of the South African industry is mirrored by Sithengi and CTWCF.”

Although many Africans welcome the emergence of Sithengi as an alternative to the French-dominated FESPACO, others like Malian filmmaker and academic Manthia Diawara does not think Anglo-phone Sithengi can counter FESPACO that he says has been taken over by France.

“While many African films have little chance of being accepted at FESPACO, South Africa is not the home for African cinema because it has European aesthetic values and mentality. You need a truly African film festival that is respected by Africans to counter both FESPACO and Southern African International Film and Television Market (Sithengi) that is being re-branded as Cape Town World Cinema Festival.”

He suggests that a truly African film festival be situated in East Africa in Nairobi, Kampala or Dar es Salaam.

The success of such a festival, Diawara suggests, would depend on well-defined programmes and identity.

“For example, it could specialise in African documentary, African experimental film, or commercial African cinema. Issues of market and aesthetics could come in periodically.”

Ogova Ondego in an arts and lifestyle critic specialising in African audiovisual productions. He publishes http://www.ArtMatters.Info that focuses on visual and performing arts and culture in eastern Africa.

Colonies, l’Empire des signes

« Colonies, les cicatrices de l’histoire » : la programmation fleuve qui se tient jusqu’au 30 avril Forum des Images ouvre une brèche, loin de toute…cicatrisation. En marge des fictions, pléthoriques mais connues, les films d’archives inédites françaises, belges, américaines, hollandaises, britanniques – ont donné à voir, au-delà de la banalité du mal colonial, une multiplicité de regards. >>

Journées coloniales au Forum des images. Sorties du néant des cinémathèques, collections privées, greniers de particuliers, à peine dépoussiérées, les archives s’exhibent sur les écrans parisiens. La France, Mère des Arts, des Armes et des Lois, montre ses sauvages : mouquères dépoitraillées, danseuses khmères en séance d’habillage, tirailleurs sénégalais hilares, en live ou sur les boîtes Banania, Arabes en prière ou au défilé, cavaliers en parade, athlètes gonflant leurs pectoraux, négrillons plongeant dans le bassin à phoques de l’Exposition coloniale. Images marquées au sceau du cabinet de curiosités. L’étranger est étrange : voyez le grimper aux arbres, aidé d’une simple ceinture, fourmi minuscule en haut des dattiers (Les industries du Congo, 1926). Dévorer un arrivage de poisson cru, dans les tranchées de la Grande Guerre (Soldats mélanésiens, 1914-1918). Films d’archiviste, soumis aux deux tempos du collectionneur. Dans un premier temps : empiler, amasser, collationner. Puis : déployer la taxinomie de l’Empire, celle qui ordonne, classe et hiérarchise :« Les Laotiennes ne manquant pas de tenue, sans arriver au raffinement des danseuses thaï. » (Peuples d’Indochine, 1947). L’étrangeté, le mystère que recèlent ces images,  la caméra ne cherche pas à le percer. Au sens strict du terme  (« prodige, chose incroyable »), l’Africain, l’Arabe, sont des monstres. Devant la caméra, le Colonisé se ne présente pas : il représente. Quoi ? Un état zéro de la civilisation, le cadre vide sur lequel l’Empire peut désormais imprimer sa marque.

Pour les cameramen de l’empire, plutôt qu’un territoire géographique, les colonies sont avant tout le terrain d’exhibition idéal de l’idéologie sociale, morale et culturelle occidentale. Le cinéma devient ainsi instrument de déchiffrage –donc de contrôle- du monde, permettant de ramener la périphérie (l’Afrique) vers le centre (la Métropole). Ainsi s’exhibe, sous sa double face, la logique coloniale. Exciter une « curiosité lyrique de la différence » (Jacques Berque) pour mieux l’intégrer ensuite dans l’imaginaire, la mythologie occidentale. Actualités ou films amateurs, toutes ces archives obéissent à un double mouvement : la condition de la jouissance du spectateur ne s’y soutient que d’une culture des petites différences. Charge à la voix off de rabattre du connu sur cet inconnu. Ainsi de ces danseurs annamites dont la danse « s’apparente tout à fait à notre tango » (Bornéo, 1928). A l’instar de Flaubert qui, de la Tunisie, ne vit que ruines romaines et fantôme de Didon, Zwobada et Cocteau célèbrent dans Noces de sable (1949) « les noces d’un Tristan et d’une Isolde aux cheveux noirs ».  Griaule lui-même ne se prive pas de ce genre de passerelles. Dans Techniques chez les Noirs (1939), il filme la construction de la case à palabres, le forgeron au travail, le tissage des nattes, la culture de l’oignon, « comparable à celle de nos potagers traditionnels » Va et vient, frottement  permanent du mystérieux et de la proximité : « L’une des grandes activités du Noir est semblable à celle de nos paysans : le marché. »

Le silence fait sur les violences coloniales, comme plus tard sur les insurrections et les guerres, scelle l’identification colonisation=civilisation. La caméra devient le prolongement du geste du médecin ou de l’instituteur. Ces corps qu’elle filme ne sont pas des corps déshabillés, mais Adam & Eve offrant sans honte l’évidence de leur nudité (même si celle-ci est rétrospectivement tout à fait sujette à caution). L’état de nature devient ainsi la condition d’un voyeurisme multicartes s’offrant, de Bornéo au Cambodge, de Tombouctou à Djibouti, seins nus et fesses rebondies.

Autant de corps morcelés, soumis à un double discours maître, celui de la voix off n’étant au fond que le redoublement de la mise en scène qui s’exprime depuis le hors champ, déformant les corps dans des postures sans naturel, dirigeant gestes et regards, ordonnant sourires et rictus. On souligne souvent la maladresse de la mise en scène des films coloniaux, leur côté « petit théâtre filmé », sans voir que ce rudimentaire n’est pas nécessairement involontaire. Ces populations, telles qu’on les filme, limitées à un geste, un pas de danse, un accessoire, masque ou chapeau, sont déjà étrangères à leur monde. Page blanche surgissant sur un fond non moins neutre, l’indigène apparaît ainsi comme le sujet idéal, celui sur laquelle l’esprit des Lumières trouve sa complète utilité.

Ainsi l’occupation devient-elle l’opération de remplissage d’un vide géographique, économique et humain. Le contrechamp direct de ces images n’est pas le Blanc, idéal inatteignable, mais le Nègre assimilé, à l’image de ces Etudiants d’outre-mer (1962) que l’on voit fraterniser, main dans la main, avec des Français(es). Dans Le Bled, de Renoir, film de commande, destiné à célébrer le centenaire de la conquête de l’Algérie, un riche colon emmène son neveu visiter ses terres, lorsque soudain, des champs labourés, surgit une patrouille de soldats. Miracle discret, évidence de la surimpression : ici, c’est l’Histoire en marche qui surgit, bloc de passé qui s’incruste, littéralement, dans le champ, avec l’évidence de la bonne conscience jules-ferryste.

Les Britanniques n’ont pas tant de complexes. Pour eux, filmer le « Royal Tour » (à Ceylan, en Ouganda, en Jamaïque, chez les Zoulous), revient à enregistrer les danses tribales et leur exact contrechamp : Elizabeth II. Royaumes tribaux vs royauté britannique : signes d’une royauté à double face, où s’autolégitime la fondation du Protectorat. S’il faut chercher l’esprit des Lumière, c’est chez les Hollandais. Produits par l’Etat (comme les Actualités françaises et britanniques), leurs films manifestent pour les populations filmées un intérêt transcendant folklore tribal et religieux, là où les Français persistent à ne voir que grands enfants hilares, mousmés, timides négresses. Lumière contre Lumières ? Dans Danses religieuses (1929), Willy Mullens filme deux fillettes subissant un rite initiatique. Au moment où l’assistance entre en transes, la caméra plonge dans le groupe. Ciné-vérité, dont il faudra, en France, attendre Rouch et ses Maîtres-fous pour retrouver l’intensité.

Sembène the Ceddo

The Elephant had a toothache, as they would say in the Ivory Coast: the “Father of African film” left us during the night of the 9th of June 2007, aged 84, as a result of a long illness that prevented him from attending the 2007 Fespaco. Tribute-portrait of a man who called himself a non-believer, a ceddo

Young Ousmane was not predisposed to become the master of African cinema. His family, fishermen from Zinguidor, wasn’t wealthy or from a noble background. But when he was born in 1923, Casamance had just been “pacified”, after three centuries of active resistance. He grew up in a dominated world, then, but one that kept on fighting for its emancipation. Sembène’s novel O pays, mon bon peuple (1957) echoes this tradition of battle, as well as his film Emitaï (1971), inspired by Queen Aline Sitoe Diatta’s refusal to pay the rice tax levied by the French settlers.

Sembène rebelled against colonial violence from a very young age. The memorable slap he gave his schoolteacher to protest against a groundless accusation when he was only fifteen brought him back to the hard reality of a fisherman’s life: “After being expelled, my father taught me how to fish and smoke a pipe”. Schooled by life, he became a mason and a mechanic in Dakar. In 1942, he was called up in the 6th Colonial Artillery Regiment and discovered new facets of colonization in Africa and Europe. Back in Dakar in 1946, he took part in the Dakar-Niger railway strike that he described brilliantly in God’s Bits of Wood (1960). A boat-person ahead of time, he stowed away illegally for France in 1948 and became a stevedore in Marseilles. He became a member of the General Confederation of Labour trade union and joined the Communist Party in 1950. He stayed there until the independence of Senegal.

He figured his commitment to class struggle came from his culture: “Pushing men to think about the conditions of their lives”. He took stand in his writing, described his experience as an immigrant worker in The Black Docker (1956) or the hesitations of an African doctor who wants to preserve the assets of traditional medication in L’harmattan (1963). But he quickly realized how little influence African litterature had in Africa: “Books are limited by the purchasing power. Images have an immediate impact on people; books don’t”.(1) This realization was a turning-point: after studying at the Gorki Institute in Moscow, he directed Borom Sarret in 1962. In this 19-minute-long account of a Dakar cart driver’s tragic day, he produced a sort of manifesto of what African cinema was to become: the portrayal of common people instead of heroes, the clash between the old and the new, denouncing the corruption, the powers that be and the elites. He inaugurated a programme: reconquering African territory and the values likely to support its independence. Cinema, he used to say, should be the “evening class” for the African youth.

His cinema, a lesson in questioning, attacks the corruption of the ruling class, the new bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy. Niyae (1965) depicts the customary chiefs’ hypocrisy; The Money Order (1968), which analyses the bent workings of the Senegalese society through an ordinary man’s trials in trying to cash a money order from France, is an appeal to “change all of that”; whereas Xala (1976) shows the privileged classes’ powerlessness to solve the country’s issues through a middle-class man’s incapacity to “consummate” his recent marriage.

His films, a lesson in emancipation, show his concern for women’s role. Black Girl (1966) is an extraordinary meditation upon subservience through the tragic destiny of a maid hired by White people. In Emitaï and Ceddo (1978), he presents liberating women. “In Africa, he told me, it is not women who need liberating but women who need to liberate men!”. That was his life and the subject of his last films. In 2000, with Faat Kiné, he started a trilogy on “daily heroism”, whose two first parts were dedicated to the African woman’s condition. The third part, The Brotherhood of Rats, was in the pipeline. Faat Kiné is a modern personality who raises her children alone after her husband has left her. The second part, Moolade (2003), epic and powerful, toured the world. Four little girls run away to avoid excision and find refuge with Collé Ardo (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who offers them hospitality (the moolaadé) depsite the village’s and her husbands’ pressure. A beautiful tribute to a lifetime commitment, the film was awarded the Best Foreign Film award by the American critics, the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at the Cannes Festival, the Special Jury Prize at the Marrakech International Film Festival 2004, etc.

His films, a lesson in demystification, orchestrate a violent rejection of all religious indocrination. No religion is spared: animism when it justifies resignation in the face of the settler’s demands in Emitaï, Islam when it becomes hegemonic in Ceddo, charlatan diviners in Xala, etc.

Sembène called himself a non-believer and wrote it in red letters on his house in Dakar! He militated in favor of independence, liberation and African unity despite all of the obstacles and his message always remained unchanged. He spoke to his people and claimed he was not very concerned about his films’ success in the North: “Europe is not my centre!”

With Guelwaar (1992), which fiercely opposes Western aid, he engaged in a reflection for the coming generations. However, what he acknowledged was bitter: “After forty years of independence, it’s a jungle!” Far from being defeatist, he embodied an impressive hope for change and readily quoted philosopher Alain: “Pessimism is an outburst of temper, optimism stems from will”.

He pinned this hope on the assertion of an independent Africa: “Under the pressure of the media, Africans who have only balls of manioc in their hands start to talk about globalization!” By filming inCamp at Thiaroye (1988) the tragedy of the demobilized soldiers murdered by the French army that refused to pay them, Sembène called up history to assert a memory, that of the oppressed people who drew the dignity to exist from their culture.

The Cannes Film Festival payed tribute to him in 2005 by asking him to hold the prestigious Cinema Lesson reserved each year for a great international filmmaker. (2)True to himself, he spoke his mind. In particular, he declared: “I would like there to be ruptures between France and the Francophones. The signed texts are not valid. When you share a bed with someone, tell him/her where your abscess is”. That didn’t prevent France from awarding him the Légion d’honneur the following year. As for Sembène, he kept on dreaming of bringing to the screen the life of Samory Touré, the Mandinka sovereign of Wassoulou who fought against colonization – a film with extras and costumes that requested a budget that he never managed to raise.

In his advice to the young filmmakers of the Média Centre of Dakar (3), he stressed the need to learn: “Learn, and learn again! Even at my age, I keep on learning.” We too have never stopped learning from him. He is a baobab that has lain down, the first great African filmmaker, a tireless activist, a pioneer and a spokesman, a father to many, the symbol of an era for others; in all events, a precursor. His character was legendary, demanding as he was with himself, feared by actors but nonetheless fascinating in their eyes. An artist. An extraordinary ceddo.

Excerpts from interviews

Will you want to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery?

Who’s going to commerate it? From which point of view? What on earth will Europe be able to commemorate? The end of horror? Kings restored it, the Republic went on with it…Priest Grégoire? He was a candidate at Saint Louis but wasn’t elected. It’s up to the Africans to analyze this period of slavery. Even that is being taken away from them! To what extent were Africans involved in this? And the Arab world? Slavery is still alive: children are being sold illegally! I would like Africans to be brave and analyze this issue, but without letting the West intervene: let it be a witness only.

Like the priest in Ceddo who is never allowed to speak…

His presence is enough! With his get-up, we know he is there. Why should we let him speak? To say what?

Jack Lang said that the West should ask for forgiveness…

The Pope went to Corea to ask for forgiveness: it’s already been done! Why do Westerners keep on asking for forgiveness? In whose name? I tell Africans: you can forgive but you cannot forget. Asking for forgiveness is part of the Western culture of absolution. I don’t believe them! Africans were accomplices on every level of this chain of slavery but when you say that, they get mad!

Today, don’t you think that these issues are ripe and ready to be tackled?

The man is always ripe if he knows how to think. That would imply that we weren’t ripe yesterday. So will we be rotten the day after tomorrow?

Sembène and writing:

Do you first work on the book or on the film ?

I work on both and that is what’s difficult. One influences the other. For exemple, I’ve been working on a small scene for a week. Literary-wise, it’s a success but film-wise, I’m still working on it because it’s difficult: I need to find a few seconds. It’s not about emotion anymore: it’s about a mathematical frame to manage to express things. All the while keeping in mind that I’m adressing Senegalese as well as Limpopo farmers!

What is the most difficult: writing or filming?

Filming is very difficult: apart from the work on the screenplay, you have to rush around trying to find the money, the actors, the costumes and rehearse. For writing, everything is in my head: I have the setting I want, the actors, the expression and the terms I want.

What is your favorite film?

My next film!

Translated by Céline Dewaele.

14th Annual African Film Festival

Celebrating its 14th year, the New York African Film Festival continues to exemplify the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s commitment to international cinema. Annually, programmer Mahen Bonetti expands perceptions of African people, culture and cinema, articulating the artistic commonalities of the continent while identifying regional distinctions.In this year’s festival, modernity versus tradition, African identity, immigration and exile, effects of war, and women’s empowerment were explored through 47 features, spanning sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and the Diaspora.

2007 commemorates the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence (the 1st sub-Saharan nation to gain sovereignty) by “reflecting back” on liberation struggles and the painful legacy of colonialism. Striking thematic use was made of French, British, Russian and African archival newsreels documenting the Pan-African quest for self-rule. Dating from the 1950s/60s, the fragments (many sequences are only 1–2 minutes long) are narrated in the voice of both empire and of travelogues. Viewed retrospectively, the paternalistic rhetoric (“Good luck to Kenya in her new role!”) and colorful descriptions are poignant. Named with such titles as “Africans Get Authority” (SA, 1959), “Africans Demand Liberation” (GH/GN, 1958), these films record optimistic, nascent liberation movements, many of which subsequently failed. Known players appear: the diminutive Haile Selassie in epaulettes; Mobutu, in his leopard hat; Kenyatta and the brutalized Patrice Lumumba over whose face is a haunting commentary: “ . . . feel that he is dead . . . failing of the UN forces . . . civil war that will go on for years.”

These colonial antiques were fascinating in relation to the self-representation in African-made films such as Testament (GH, 1988), John Akromfrah’s meditation on pessimism after the Nkrumah regime, which layers newsreel soundtrack over scenes of a returned exile negotiating an altered political landscape. The iconography of “independence”—briefcases, sunglasses, military pomp, “native” ceremony— resurfaces in two allegorical films: Kongi’s Harvest (GH/US, 1970) directed by Ossie Davis, adapted from Wole Soyinka’s play, and in Fanta Maria Nacro’s Shakespearean Night of Truth (BF, 2007). Made 37 years apart, both are set in fictional African countries where a crucial ceremony ignites conflict between the goal of unification and the maintenance of tribal identity. In Kongi’s Harvest, at the Celebration of the New Yam, a megalomaniac dictator, played by Soyinka (resembling Malcolm X and Lumumba), vows to coerce the people into unity. Lacking the poetry of the play, Kongi’s Harvest has a fun, retro, afromodernist style including patterned, animated titles by designers Chermayeff & Geismar. Night of Truth, conversely, critiques the peaceful, Pan-Africanist accord that sacrifices ancestral identity through an intense, theatrical story which builds to a violent conclusion.
A festival highlight was the retrospective of Nacro’s entertaining and socially conscious shorts: the seminal A Certain Morning (BF, 1991), a cinematic collision between Africa and Europe; Puknini (BF, 1995), a playful critique of infidelity; an AIDs fable, Konate’s Gift (BF, 1998); and Bintou (BF, 2000), which unfolds like a Lubitsch musical, propelled by a xalam as the abused Bintou, seeking to finance her daughter’s education, receives a friendly “micro-loan” to start a millet-sprouting business. Familial harmony prevails, with a happy ending of (women’s) economic independence. Clouds Over Conakry (Cheick Fantamady, GN, 2007) premiered, showing affluent Guineans grappling with both tradition and rising Islamic fundamentalism as a father pressures his son to become an imam. Paris Selon Moussa (GN/FR, 2003), starring director Cheik Doukouré, chronicled a resourceful villager detained in Paris who joins immigrants seeking sanctuary in a church. Both films are engaging but each ends with sudden tragedy that borders on melodrama. Also premiering was Max and Mona (Teddy Mattera, SA, 2004), a screwball comedy touching on soccer, transgender and the criminal underworld, whose quirky South African characters are never reduced to caricature. Daniel Taye Workou’s short, Menged (ET, 2007), based on a traditional folk tale, satirizes Ethiopian issues, including the paternalism of international aid, as a father and son travel by mule (and vice versa!) to market. Another short from an under-represented country was Meokgo & the Stickfighter (Teboho Malatshi, LS, 2006), an elegant, ghostly love story set in Lesotho’s Maluti mountains.

Documentaries included Death of Two Sons (US/GN, 2000) by American director Micah Schaffer, paralleling the life of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, gunned down by New York City police in 1999, and Jessie Thyne, a Peace Corps volunteer who lived and worked with Diallo’s family and was killed in a car accident months later. The two never met but both were lost to violence particular to their environments. In A Love During the War (Osvalde Lewat-Hallad, CG, 2005), a journalist is haunted by the pervasive impact of rape and separation during the Congo-Kinshasha war. Africans and African-Americans (Wairimu Kiambuthi, KE/US, 2006), although technically unsophisticated, covers the under-examined, complex relationship of Africans to Americans of African descent. Rostov-Luanda (ML, 1997) is another personal quest, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako (who made last year’s hit, Bamako), concerning his search through Angola for a lost friend.

Finally, one of the best films was choreographers Joan Frosch and Alla Kovgan’s beautiful Movement (R)evolution Africa (various countries/ US, 2007) which advanced notions of traditional African movement in modern dance that confronted issues of the body, identity, genocide and political ideologies. “My only true country is my body,” a dancer concludes. The packed, closing night feature, Bling, A Planet Rock (Raquel Cepeda, SL/US, 2007), links the eponymous hip-hop jewels to the mining of conflict diamonds that have fuelled Sierra Leone’s civil war. Cepeda crosscuts a contemporary mine director’s rationalization (mirroring statements in a 1960s BBC exposé) and conditions observed by Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon, jeweler Paul Wall, and Tego Calderon. Yearly, the festival fills a simple and deep desire – to see black people on screen, portrayed in myriad ways. Go and see an African film.

AFRICAN FILM FEST STAGES A “CRUEL” QUICK HIT

The 17th New York African Film Festival got underway again last week with the premiere of a stunning 8-minute satire on revolution and oil seizure titled “Dr. Cruel,” a joint venture of film maker Teco Benson of Nigeria, and Jakob Boeskov of Denmark.

“Dr. Cruel” unveils a Scandinavian terrorist, also played by Boeskov, and a group of revolutionaries who call themselves the Afro-Icelandic Liberation Front. The Front is holding hostage a white oil executive at a hideout in Nigeria.

On the horizon is the Zealand Oil company and its lush coffers. The sullen revolutionaries hold press conferences and tote guns. I search the streets of Lagos looking for Patty Hearst’s chic black beret.

This is a quickie film, and when the curtain fell I sat dazed. Then the age 30-something white guy sitting next to me who had said he was a Wall Street trader, yelled out “Great!”

The film was shown in collaboration with Creative Time, an artist support group, to a packed crowd at the Lounge at 310 Bowery on the Lower East Side.

But I kept looking straight ahead, hoping for more, toying with the notion of whether a real film with a message can be shown in 8 minutes flat. Boeskov, who wrote the script for the film and was on hand, seemingly read my mind.

He rose and told the crowd that the movie was about those who come to save people but in the end become corrupt themselves.

He said that he turned to Benson to produce the film because he was impressed by the Nigerian film maker’s avant ideas. He noted that in Nigeria films are being turned out cheap and fast, making the industry more democratic than virtually anywhere else. And many of these films are short. That’s that’s probably explains why the country’s booming film industry is known as “Nollywood,” on the heels of Hollywood, of course.

“It is time to steal from black people again,” Boeskev then said to polite chuckles from the affluent young white crowd. “Just like Picasso’s art was inspired by the black experience, so is my film,” he added.

Boeskev was referring to the cubist art movement that Picasso stole from the exquisite masks, sculpture, carved doors and textiles of the Dogon people of Mali, Africa. Just a couple weeks ago one of Picasso’s paintings sold for an astronomical $106.5 million, setting a  record.  Many pieces of art from the Dogon region fell into the hands of colonials and imperialists who also fetched a pretty penny from the elegant works.Time for restitution to impoverished Mali too.

Now back to that film: In the audience was Mahen Bonetti, the erudite founder and director of the New York African Film Festival, who was obviously pleased by the large turnout.

“We go where anyone will have us!” Bonetti exclaimed.

I instantly knew what she meant. When I came to the city more decades ago than I care to remember, the section of the city known as the Bowery was crowded with the down and out. The ‘hood is now gentrified, the young at heart’s turf; the splitting image of say, Minneapolis or Vancouver. Chic restaurants and bars abound. And such is life.

“Dr. Cruel” will be shown again at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 13, when the African Film Festival moves to the New Museum at 235 Bowery, at Prince Street between Stanton and Rivington Streets, also on the Lower East Side. The full length film, “Bunny Chow,” which hails from South Africa, is also on the agenda that same night.

In addition, a plethora of other African films will be shown at the New Museum on Saturday, May 15, and on Sunday, May 16, including short films from across the continent: Niger, Cameroon, the Congo, Ethiopia, Morocco and Egypt. No films will be shown at the New Museum on Friday, May 14.

The New York African Film Festival moves to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for its final fabulous leg on Friday, May 28; Saturday, May 29;  Sunday, May 30, and May 31, Memorial Day.

“If there is a secret, it is the love and passion I feel for my profession.”

…For me, all the aspects of my work as a creator complement and respond to one another. An independent filmmaker like me, who does not have much in the way of means to produce his films, needs to be versatile, to be able to work the camera, to know how to draw, to design the set, and to make whatever is needed for it. I feel that everything is linked, and that what is essential is to be able to express oneself, to go from an idea to a film, to tell a story and realize one’s vision…and like many other filmmakers, I am forced to work tremendously for my films to exist.

Gaston: But all the same, it seems that you are unique among those traveling this path, considering the diversity of your projects and the longevity of your career. I find your work fascinating; do you not find it so?

Moustapha: To tell you the truth, I see myself a little like the youth of your country, Burkina Faso: when I go to Ouagadougou, I am shocked and amazed by what they create with wire, boxes, pieces of plastic, and plenty of other found materials. It’s really extraordinary! Like them, I believe that nature gave me the gift of being skilled with my hands. Every day I try to create something from my imagination. It is lonely work, and people do not always appreciate the importance of what I am doing. It is only now, after I have worked tirelessly for so long, that people are starting to recognize the value of all I have tried to do. It is true that, today, I receive many invitations from festivals, and that teams come all the way to Tawa to shoot films about me and my work. I assure you that it has not been easy. Though today I am accorded certain recognition, I will always stay the same, with my passion and my pleasure to invent, to direct, and to communicate my vision.

Gaston: How did all of this start?

Moustapha: Oh, it started a very long time ago! I would say that my career started at the end of the 1940s, when I put on shows with ombres chinoises, or shadow puppets. This fascinated the audience. At that time, cinema hardly existed in Niger, but I understood that what I was doing with shadow puppetry was practically cinema, and so I continued in that direction. I believe that I have always been lucky enough to succeed at doing what I have wanted to do; I find that once I have the will to do something, fortune is on my side, and I find the people and the opportunities that I need to help me accomplish my projects.

Gaston: You call it luck, but is it not first and foremost your passion and your determination that make your projects possible?

Moustapha: I am a Muslim, and in my religion, we call that luck. You see, when you called me to discuss your desire to interview me, you were not sure that you would be able to come to Niger . . . but finally you were able to come, and I consider myself lucky that you are here. Here, I also have other friends who have joined me to welcome you, and who have paid for the meal that we had together. I think that all of this reflects the convergence of positive things that helps me to move forward in the right direction.

Gaston: From where do you derive your energy?

Moustapha: I love to create, I love to give life . . . Really, it is the pleasure of doing things that pushes me forward. I do not know how to stay seated, doing nothing.

Gaston: You have been creating, filming, and telling stories for over sixty years. What is the secret to the long life of your career?

Moustapha: If there is a secret, it is the love and passion I feel for my profession, and it is the pleasure that I derive from it. I never stop inventing things, trying to tell stories, day in and day out. I observe my society, and together my observations and my curiosity feed my imagination.

Gaston: How have African audiences received your films?

Moustapha: Everywhere that my films have been shown for Africans, it has been marvelous. Just last year, I was in Senegal screening my films at the Douta Seck Cultural Center, and the reaction of the audience was extraordinary. After the screening, I had a discussion with the audience, which was very gratifying. Again this year they have asked me to send three films to be shown at that same festival, because their audiences demand it.

Gaston: Do your films circulate within Africa as much as you would like?

Moustapha: Not enough . . . My films circulate, but not as much as I would hope, because there are many difficulties . . . You know the situation in Africa. First of all, African television stations don’t buy our films—they want us to donate them for free, because the stations are used to receiving programs for free from European countries. I would estimate that Africans don’t even see 5 percent of the films that are made in Africa. Most of what is shown comes from outside of Africa. If people in our own countries won’t even buy our films, how are we going to make a living?

There is also the system of “bartering,” which allows African television to get great deals on programs thanks to international advertisers. Then finally there is video piracy, which is a real cancer and which destroys any chance we have of making a profit from our films within our own countries: when one of our films is shown on television, there are people who record them on VHS tapes or DVD, then sell them right under our noses and make money without our really being able to fight against it. Our governments need to take charge, to pass laws, and to take advantage of all legal measures available to them in the fight against piracy. We cannot let these things continue, or else the film industry, and particularly the industry of animation, will never really develop in Africa.

Once I was able to discuss this with the director of a Senegalese television station, and he told me the following: “Yes, Moustapha, we saw your films, they are beautiful, and we would really like to be able to program them. The problem is that there are very few animated African films, and so we would not be able to maintain an animated program for very long; that is why we don’t want to start, because when the public continues to request animated African films, we will not be able to satisfy the demand.”

I replied to him and said that everything must start somewhere, and to count into the tens or hundreds or thousands, you always have to start at one. I also told him that if television takes the initial step forward of showing animated African films, we would see more animated films being produced.

To demonstrate how determined I have been, I subtitled my film Kokoa in Wolof and gave it to a Senegalese filmmaker, who was able to pass it on to Senegalese television—but I still have not received any word of the money from the sale. I made a similar attempt in Mali by having one of my films dubbed in Bambara, but the person to whom I gave the film has never given me any news. I think that if we want to advance, we have to be serious about it at each level, and everyone involved needs to be true to their words, to respect the contract or the terms of the partnership.

Gaston: Moustapha Alassane, can you explain to me how cinema in Niger suddenly broke down, even though Niger was one of the pioneering forces of African cinema?

Moustapha: What you are saying there is true for many things: track and field, boxing, cycling, soccer, etc. We can ask the same question of all these activities: why have they not developed in Niger? These types of things must be driven by men and women; there need to be people who believe in them, who fight for them, if we are to see results.

For example, I have never received any money from the Nigerien government to make one of my films, and I am obligated to go and collect money from all sorts of places, left and right—and I am left to primarily count on myself. With my experience and the recognition that I’ve had over the years, it is a little easier for me; but a young person who starts as a filmmaker has barely any chance of finding the support necessary to make a live-action feature film, and even less chance of finding support for an animated film. The Nigerien government absolutely needs to put policies in place to support film and audiovisual production, and to reinforce the infrastructure and tools necessary for the distribution of our films. The Nigerien national television must also find a way to support Nigerien producers, since it is in need of programs with local content. The State and the government must understand that film and other areas of audiovisual production are economic sectors that can provide local jobs and contribute to development—not to mention the cultural and social importance of local cinema, or the visibility that our films offer to our country.

As we speak, there are young people who really want to get things moving, and they have asked me to play the symbolic role of president in their movement. I accepted because everyone, young and old, needs to lend a hand to push things forward…

About the director

Moustapha Alassane is widely recognized as Niger’s first filmmaker and as the doyen of African animation. After studying art in Niamey, Niger, he met the French filmmaker Jean Rouch and began to focus on filmmaking. In 1965 Alassane directed La mort de Gandji, which is widely thought to be the first animated film by a West African director. In 1972 he directed his first feature film, F.v.v.a. (Femmes, villas, voiture, argent), which denounced the social climbing of the new social classes. Alassane was director of the film department of Niamey University for fifteen years, and he was honored with the Légion d’Honneur at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

 

 

A Bold Transmission: Ekwa Msangi Interviews Lupita Nyong’o, Judy Kibinge and Wanuri Kahiu

…Ekwa: I have three female Kenyan filmmakers sitting here, and as far as I’ve heard living outside of the country, all of the headliners have had female names. So are there just no male filmmakers in Kenya?

Judy: There are a fair number of guys, I must say, but lots of women—maybe two-thirds women and one-third men.

Lupita: If you look at our storytelling culture, women told the stories. It was your grandmother that you listened to telling stories as you sat around by the fire, so perhaps women have been pioneers in the field, more ahead of the game, because storytelling is considered a woman’s role.

Wanuri: My mother told me the most ridiculous tales, and I think up until I was, like, fourteen or fifteen, I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth or not. [Everyone laughs.] Honest to God! Many things she used to tell me: “You know, Wanuri, your breasts will never grow until leeches . . .” [Laughter.] Honest to God, I just didn’t know! And her being a doctor, I expected her to tell the truth to a certain extent. But also just hearing women talk about people—I think that the way we women relate has influenced my love for people and the story.

Lupita: Yeah, and because of that, women’s early success feeds on itself. If you look at Kenya as the paternalistic society that it has become—but still there were women making films from the beginning—chances are high that more women will get into filmmaking as time goes on, right? Sooner than they’ll become matatu [public minivan] drivers!

Judy: You’re right. What I find interesting is you can’t separate the art of storytelling from literature, yet the writers of the sixties and the seventies were men. Why have we women come into storytelling as filmmakers?

My own family is very interesting, in fact. My mom’s side has lots of writers and artists. I had an uncle who wrote lots of books—he was a lecturer at the University in literature—and I have other uncles who’ve written lots of books. It’s the men who were telling the stories through literature.

Ekwa: What audiences are you thinking of when you’re making films? Are you targeting particular audiences?

Wanuri: This is what I learned in film school, and I think it’s a really handy lesson: I have to think about an audience, but I have to trust my instincts as well. Somebody told me, “You might think you are the most unique person in the world, you might think that nobody else thinks like you, has ideas like you . . . but you’re not that special. If you laugh for some reason, if you cry for any reason, be guaranteed there are a hundred thousand people who will cry for the same reason you’re crying or laugh for the same reason you’re laughing. So when you’re writing, try not to think about your audience. Think about what you want, and what is a genuine emotion for you. Because if you put the genuineness of the emotion into the film, then audiences will respond to that pure emotion, will respond to what you’re saying as a result.” And that’s because—honest to God—we’re not that special. We’re not that random, we’re not that isolated, that you will have a feeling or an idea that somebody will not be able to relate to.

Lupita: When I was a young filmmaker making In My Genes, I was making it for a Kenyan audience, but I really did not focus on that. I was committed first and foremost to the main character. When I met her, I knew my film had to be about her. I also knew the film had to demystify albinism. I talked to people who thought my idea was interesting, but asked, “How are you going to do that?” I didn’t know. I didn’t have a script; I just had this idea. So I’d say, “Well, I’m thinking that the main character—who’s blind and weaves these kiondos [handwoven baskets]—will be deconstructing her life while she’s constructing a basket.” People just didn’t get it—even I wasn’t sure what I wanted. But I had a gut feeling that this is the way it needed to be. So I did not focus on the audience—I just made the film based on what I needed to say, and what I needed to say came from my own ignorance of the topic. I knew very little about albinism when I started the film, and learned so much in the process of making the film, and I wanted my audience to go on that same journey. So, really, I was referring to myself as I made the film. Considering myself as a viewer, what would I like to see?

It really limits me to think consciously about what audience a film is going to reach, because I cannot put myself in some sort of ambiguous group of people. It’s very hard, it’s a very abstract thing to do, and it takes you away from the things you need to say.

Wanuri: And even this film that I’ve just made, Pumzi, I have no idea how people are going to respond to it, because it’s so different. It’s sci-fi. African sci-fi. What is that?

Lupita: You’ve just created a genre!

Ekwa: We’ve all watched sci-fi movies, we’ve all watched documentaries, but I don’t know how many people have seen those kinds of films about us. Do you think that audience development will just come as the industry grows, and as we grow as a nation and a people? Will people be educated to understand that it’s okay to see us in sci-fi, to think of ourselves in these new ways?

Judy: When I made my first film, Dangerous Affair, in 2001, all Kenyan films were about the girl child, coming to the city, clean water, HIV, female genital mutilation . . . because that’s where the money was. My producer, Njeri Karago—she had the concept for the first draft—was amazing because she raised money for this unusual film about Kenyans just living, working, cheating on each other, kissing, having affairs in the night, dancing really sexy. When we released it, all the songs on the soundtrack were hits on the radio. At the time we kept on being asked, “Why are you making pornography?” But we freed the audience in a way because people would come up and say, “For the first time, I see myself.” And people would do this bizarre thing—which I could never get over—they’d recite, like, half the lines in the film. And I’d ask, “How many times did you watch it?” “Ten, twelve.” What we’d created was something that people had never seen: themselves. I think more and more you’re going to be seeing this, all sorts of films of people just being themselves—it’s already happening.

The other thing a lot of film journalists asked about Dangerous Affair: “Why have you made a Western movie?” Well, I live in a city, my friends live in a city, my parents live in a city—you know, people actually live here, and we do kiss. We’re not copying the West; that’s how we live.

Lupita: We live in a contradictory society, and it will not reconcile with our tradition or our modernity, and our films need to reflect that conflict. There are those of us who live in a very Western Nairobi—as far as we’re concerned, we might as well be in America. We are always grappling with this identity, and that’s what our films need to reflect. There’s not one layer . . . our identity is so layered.

Judy: Exactly. On our side of town, people loved Dangerous Affair. But guys on the other side of town, some guys from Eastlands, they were like, “Nobody lives that way—it’s an impossible film, because people don’t really live like that.”

Lupita: You cannot find a film that will cater to everyone. There’s got to be some that cater to the Eastlands boys, but there’s also got to be some that reflect that Western society that exists in Kenya. With regard to educating the audience, I think the existence of the film is the education, in itself.

Wanuri: But also, you can create platforms for discussion. We created Multiple Initiative, where we screen films and hold a Q&A session afterwards, so you can have a conversation. For me, understanding films came from being able to talk about them. I don’t take filmmaking lightly; I think that in the same way people deconstruct literature, you should be able to deconstruct film, because each film says something about this society at that time, in that moment. Dangerous Affair is a historical document of people and culture, of art, and of our society.

Lupita: Audience education is the area we need to move into. Right now Kenya is in a place where film is primarily entertainment: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, that sort of action film. You go “Whoa!” And then, after you’re energized and you’ve forgotten your problems for a moment, you’re back in the midst of things. It’s an escape, and it should be an escape, but it’s also a reflection of your society, especially if you’re watching relevant films. Film analysis needs to be in universities and other educational settings so people can learn how to look at film in a deeper way. It does help to understand where a film is coming from, to deepen your understanding of it. And not just film—we could use that analysis in a lot of areas of Kenyan life.

Ekwa: What is it like to show your films to different audiences? What is it like having people learn about or scrutinize Kenya, East Africa, through the experience of your film?

Wanuri: In a recent interview I was talking about my new sci-fi film, and the interviewer said, “With so many African stories to tell, why would you do sci-fi?” What is that supposed to mean? What is an African story? Am I not African by telling the story? And defining that African identity can become so convoluted, because what is Africa, then? …

About the directors

Wanuri Kahiu is an alumna of UCLA’s master’s program in film directing. She made her professional debut in 2006, directing a behind-the-scenes documentary, The Spark that Unites. In 2008 she completed her first feature film, From a Whisper, which was based on the real life events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The film went on to win several international awards. Kahiu has recently completed a short science fiction film, Pumzi (2009), which was partially funded by Focus Features (part of NBC Universal), the Goethe-Institut, and Changa Moto Fund in Kenya.

Judy Kibinge is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker. After creating numerous commercials during her eight years in advertising (three as creative director on Pan African brands such as Coca-Cola North Africa Division, Unilever, and Kenya Breweries), she decided to pursue filmmaking. Her award-winning films include Dangerous Affair, winner of the ZIFF Best East African Production Award, and Bless This Land, winner of the Kenya International Film Festival Best Documentary Award. She owns Seven, an independent production house based in Nairobi, Kenya, which she founded in 2006.

Lupita Nyong’o has worked on the production teams of critically acclaimed films, including The Constant Gardener (2005), directed by Fernando Meirelles, and The Namesake (2006), directed by Mira Nair. In 2007, she wrote, produced, directed, and edited her first film, the award-winning documentary In My Genes. In 2009, Nyong’o was featured as the lead role in MTV’s hit TV series Shuga, an innovative campaign to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and its stigma in developing countries. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Yale School of Drama.

 

“Why shouldn’t everyone hear?”

…In your documentaries, you have this ability to extract truth from all these personalities and personages, that’s what’s so emblematic of your work. You’re getting these people to open up—how is that? Is it just because you come from a family of diplomats? Why is it that you can get to these people? House of Saud, they don’t talk to people!

Do you think they wanted to talk to me? It took me thirteen months to get into that country, let alone talk to them. It’s called pure persistence and harassment. If you’re not obsessive enough, you can’t do this.

And why do they talk to me? It’s actually a system. It took me years of trial and error, but I honestly think I have a method: a method that factors in so many things that at the end of the day, I usually have enough. For example, my stories are very simple. It’s one narrative arc, you don’t go right and you don’t go left. Now, how you illustrate this narrative arc is through sequences and details and bits of the puzzle that construct this narrative arc. For the Saudi film, for each of the four main themes, I had fourteen different sequences. Any one that fell apart, fine, I have the other. The one I eventually use is the one that had the best archive, the best storytelling, the best illustration, to make it—because at the end of the day, what is a film? It’s about telling a story. Behind the Rainbow, it’s the story of two guys who were really chummy, and ended up falling out. Within that narrative arc of the story of these two buddies who fell out, you’re telling the history of a country, about the transformation, about the dreams, the reality, but it’s one narrative arc.

But you got those two guys, and you got them as guys! That’s what’s amazing. How did you do that?

Persist—you absolutely persist. In the methodology, you maintain a number of options for yourself, and you know exactly who can speak about this and that and how it fits in together.

Secondly is when you’re doing your research, my motto is that you know about these guys, more than they can remember about themselves. Eventually, everyone takes you for a ride. It’s human nature, and if they didn’t they’d be stupid. As they’re taking you for a ride, at some stage you say something, and you see that look in their eyes like, how’d she know that? Being a woman, talking to these people, by definition they underestimate me. Which is fantastic. The first hour of every interview is throwaway. They’re doing their thing, I’m doing my thing, it’s like a boxing match. Each one is claiming his ground. Then we establish that actually I know what I’m talking about, so we move from the interview phase into the let-me-give-you-a-lecture phase, to let’s discuss this, to let’s have this conversation. It takes time to shift this thing from question-answer to conversation.

When you’re in that perspective, the guys talking to you are actually really happy, because nobody talks to them like that. They either boss people around, or they have political conversations where everything is measured. My interviews are usually two to seven hours, and at some point, I swear, it’s body language—where you see the other person sort of goes back in their seat and doesn’t look at you anymore. And he starts reminiscing. He’s not talking to you anymore. He’s not opening up to you—you’ve just touched something. And that’s why when most people say I do investigative stuff, I don’t do investigative stuff. There is nothing new in any of my films. I do not look for scoops and I do not want scoops. The minute it’s a scoop, the other person is in a different space. I don’t want scoops. All I’m trying to do is to get to capture, encapsulate that understanding of this one specific moment, from all its different sides. When you line them up together, you get an understanding of that trajectory. That’s what makes the film work.

How about your work outside of documentary? You speak a lot about your archive . . .

The archive. Now, if there is one battle I could leave documentary filmmaking for . . . See, I think of myself as a bit of a soldier [laughs]. There are so many battles out there that need to be fought. No one’s going to do it for us. Archive is one battle. As I was saying earlier, we’ve never told our own stories. Most of the visuals of us in the past have been taken through Western eyes. Most of the archive available is either French, Belgian, British, American, you name it. There’s very, very little African or Third World archive. The little there is, is so badly stored, is so unavailable, they don’t have tapes so they rerecord on the master tapes. I think this is part of the heritage that I was talking about.

My biggest pride is that I did a film in the Congo (L’Afrique en morceaux: La tragédie des grands lacs)— practically all the footage was African footage. I mean, I spent months on all fours in these places where you open the canister and the termites fly out into your face, and with all the silicon, I fainted, and the nitrogen . . . when you save one canister and actually use that footage—nobody even knows it’s African footage, but the way it’s filmed, the way the light is, the perspective, the angle, the eye, is different. The gaze is different. And most of Cuba: An African Odyssey was Cuban footage, Angolan footage, Congolese footage. Why? It is part of, I don’t want to call it a mission, but when you decide to engage on these terms, and answer your own question about these issues, then you have to be honest enough to try, at least—you don’t always get it, but try and get it.

Another thing that brings up is a theme that has been an issue for African filmmakers, which is financing, especially on your projects—and the thing is that you’ve done these big, macro projects that deal with big mega-issues.

I have never once even submitted a request for any kind of financing that I’m entitled to as an African filmmaker. My dossier with my name on it does not exist in La Francophonie, in the French Ministry of Cooperation and Development, in the Ford Foundation, in every single fund you can think of, I have never ever gone there. Why? Because I think that part of our problem as filmmakers is that we’ve been assisted. Assistance isn’t necessarily the best way to grow. I’m your throw-the-kids-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool kind of girl, which I physically did to both of my kids, actually. And they swam!

I’m sick and tired of being put in a slot, as though because of my family background I have access that the others don’t. I’m very sorry, why am I different? Who the hell am I? My dad is sitting on a couch in front of television, retired. He’s eighty-something. Does he have any strings to pull? No! I just work eighteen hours a day. Why does it take me five years to make a film? Because to get the financing together, to get the work done properly, to do this and to do that, I need that time, and I need that money. I’ve done how many films and this is the first time ever that I do the festival run. First time ever. I usually go to a maximum to three festivals a year. Max.

Why?

Because I need to work! If I start traveling and going everywhere I’m invited, when am I going to work? The Cuban film was invited to fifty-seven festivals. I went to two. You think I don’t want to get the glory of the fruits of my work? Of course I do! But if I sit on my bum and get the glory, I’m not going to do my next film. You do the bloody work, that’s that.

So speaking of your next film, do you have any projects coming up?

You know, it’s very difficult, and it comes back to financing. I have a number of projects I want to do, and I can’t decide, because I think we’re reaching a real crossroads with financing. I’ve always managed to juggle, and no one ever has more than 10 percent of my film, which means nobody except myself is the boss, so all the financiers think they can decide but they can’t, because they’re only 10 percent.

But yes, I have a couple of projects that I’m thinking of. One is about women in resistance. I never thought of myself as a woman filmmaker. I think of myself as a filmmaker, period. I’m often criticized that there aren’t many women in my films—and actually there aren’t [laughs]. They’re all grumpy old men! Because I don’t think that I need to stick women in just to stick them in. I think that women have their own particular roles that need to be talked about as such. So if I do something about women, it’s about women.

The other story I want to do is something on Frantz Fanon.

Do you ever consider doing films along the lines of Sembene’s Ceddo, in terms of African history, the entrée of Islam, and what that means? Africa, Islam, Arab . . . are there stories there, in your mind?

This whole stigma of being an Arab Muslim, it’s like walking around like green men, walking around like an alien. I’m not a very practicing Muslim. I’m definitely a Muslim, but I actually believe that all religions are the same, and that the foundation of why religion came and what we should do, and one God and the rest of it, it’s all the same, and the rest is all about power. But since the Gulf War, this stigma of being a Muslim and an Arab has allowed Westerners, especially when they know you’re Egyptian, to ask you, are you Muslim or are you a Copt? I sort of look at people, and it’s just like, can you actually go up to a Jew and ask him, “Are you Jewish?” You can’t do that. How do you ask such private questions? What allows you to come up to me and ask me such a private question?

So, all that is just to say that this stigma of suddenly being classified, in a funny way, got me very much on the defensive, and got me in a whole logic of defending the Islamic side of things, which I do defend, as a woman. So this whole misunderstanding, or desire to paint things in a misunderstood way, is something that I take a lot of interest in and offense to. But on the other hand, I think that there’s a reason for it, and it comes from this fear of the other. I mean, I think we went from the red scare straight into the green scare. And if it wasn’t the green scare, God knows, the next is probably the yellow scare. So I think it’s partly human nature.

But let me tell you a secret. What I’m actually doing now: music is the real passion of my heart. I’m actually doing a DJing professional certificate. I want to be a DJ. But I don’t want to be a DJ for other people, I want to be a DJ for myself.

Well, everything you do is for yourself, and then it ends up being other people’s pleasure. Any last-minute gems?

I don’t think I have gems. I guess it’s just that one of my frustrations is that it’s very easy for people who don’t actually watch what you’re trying to do to lump you into criteria. I do think that’s one of my frustrations, because it’s very easy for people, at least for my colleagues, to look at my work as journalistic documentary. But I keep trying to tell them, I was a journalist, and I know for a fact that I’m doing everything the exact opposite of what I was doing. I guess these pigeonholes that the outside world tries to pigeonhole us into—“African cinema,” rather than “cinema”—we tend to do it to each other, too. I just don’t want to be part of a ghetto, and I don’t think that we should be a ghetto. We turn ourselves into a ghetto out of insecurity. I honestly think that it’s time to break these chains, and that’s part of the reason why I will not go get the funding from where I know it’s available—because fighting and struggling to get part of the money from the Association Relative à la Télévision Européene or whomever else, and to compete with everyone else for that same money, puts you in the mainstream, and reinforces the ghetto. We’re hurt by the ghetto. And I don’t want just the ghetto to hear, I want everyone to hear. Why shouldn’t everyone hear?

About the director

Jihan El-Tahri is an Egyptian writer, director, and producer. After receiving a degree in political science from the American University in Cairo, she worked as a news correspondent for British and American newspapers, covering the Middle East and Africa. In 1990, El-Tahri began directing and producing documentaries for French television and international broadcasters. She has produced and directed numerous documentaries, including the award-winning film Behind the Rainbow. She also produced and directed the acclaimed documentary Cuba, an African Odyssey, and the Emmy-nominated House of Saud.

About the interviewer

Alonzo Rico Speight is an independent producer and director of film, television, and theater. His credits include documentaries, narratives, and television and web productions.  His documentary Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? (1997) screened at the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival. Speight is now in production on a documentary about writer and psychiatrist Frantz Omar Fanon.

“I, myself, will never finish learning.”

…I think that what I have done is that I have carried on this way of telling stories around the fire, with the soundtrack of the crackling fire and the crickets—this notion of how memory is transmitted from one generation to another in our culture.

If you really knew my childhood, you would think that the idea of me as a custodian of memory was a laughing matter. As a child I was restless, and I was always in trouble. I was a menace to the town of Gondar [in Ethiopia]. Today, when I visit, I cannot leave Ethiopia without going to two burial places—my mother’s and my father’s. They mean a lot to me. When I go there, before I go to my father’s graveyard, there’s a priest who waits for me as if we have an appointment. He has a big cross and he has to wipe me with the cross, always. I’m not a religious person, but I don’t look down upon this barefoot priest, landing with this cross and wiping the evil out of me. I don’t look down upon it as something superstitious—I go and I honestly want to feel it. You know, I am very glad I grew up in Gondar.

All of this inspires me to continue to come back and ask, why did I leave, why did I come to America? What did I learn and was it the right journey? What has that journey done to me? To me, it’s really a reflection of how strongly the culture we come from dominates the rest of our lives. We African filmmakers really underestimate the cultural input of our backgrounds. We always think we just graduated from a film school somewhere in Russia, Paris, or America, and we became filmmakers. But we don’t really know how much power our environment has had over us, and how it influences our personal lives.

            Mbye: Your new film, Teza, has done phenomenally well in 2009. It seems like it is, by all counts, the film of the year, and some people would probably also argue that it could be the film of the decade, in terms of African cinema. How satisfied are you with the progress that you have made so far, in terms of distribution and exhibition?

            Haile: Well, thank you. I would say that even before distribution, for me as a filmmaker, it is a turning point. When you struggle to make a personal film and then see the results—when a great deal of people in Africa, in Ethiopia especially, and even in Europe, begin to claim it as a film that expresses a slice of their own personal life—that can transform you. I am inspired to trust and believe in something that I have fought for: to remain independent, to not let producers or the market dominate me, to not accept all the theories of audiences’ likes and dislikes.

Teza’s distribution in Europe is going very, very well. In Ethiopia, it’s still being shown. It’s been running for a year in Addis Ababa alone. From what I hear, it’s a full house all the time, and the discussion is very interesting and educational. But when it came to the United States, distribution was the biggest challenge. Lack of cash flow and marketing hampered the opportunities Teza could have ventured into. In New York, we now have the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which was created by Dan Talbot, who has for a long time been supporting African films (you know, his company [New Yorker Films] actually distributed Ousmane Sembene’s films). I was lucky to be able to score his theater for Teza. New York is so strategically important for reaching the remaining cities in America.

            Mbye: You premiered the film in Ethiopia. How was that experience?

            Haile: Well, I’ll tell you, it was very interesting. It was in a theater that holds over a thousand people. My coproducers from Europe were there, and the actors were there. During the premier, the electricity went out three times—once for forty minutes! I was about to throw a tantrum [laughs]. And then I realized: my people live like this, and in worse situations. I told myself not to get upset or angry; I would just accept the reality of the country.

A journalist said to me, “Nobody will wait for a film like this.” But the audience sat throughout. I was amazed—three times, and they stayed! I was very grateful. It showed me how absorbed people were by the story, to be interrupted right in the middle of the drama, and wait in a dark hall. It showed me that there was strength in the film.

            Mbye: Were you able to gauge the overall reaction to the film in Ethiopia, especially by officials?

            Haile: Well, you have to consider Ethiopians’ opinions of my film in the context of the political turmoil in Ethiopia. I think this is where filmmakers make a mistake: there is no independent viewing. I have learned, thanks to other filmmakers before me, that one’s own country is not where one is going to be fully appreciated. There has been some criticism among Ethiopians, who feel that I should not have made such a film about the Derg period. I insist it’s not about the Derg period. I always say it’s about a political structure. It’s really about African intellectuals, their journey, and the turbulence of this memory. Still, some people insisted that the film is about criticizing the Derg in order to endorse the current government. It’s a stupid logic but it’s a historical logic. I accept that. But the response of young Ethiopians is the one that surprises me. They are grateful for the historical perspective.

Now, the government looked at the film, and at me, as though I was against them. But my premise was that no filmmaker should be part of any government. Your political belief is one thing, and your philosophical belief is going to be part of your work, but as a filmmaker, you should not take part in political tribalism. If you do so, you prevent people from watching the film independently, and from appraising you independently.

I have always felt that this is something people don’t know about me. They always think that I am imposing my politics on my work. I never do. From the first film I made, I’ve always separated my films from my own politics, because politics are momentary. Still, people think I’m forcefully political. That’s why they call me a revolutionary filmmaker, which is a stupid thing to say. I am a storyteller. If you make a film, you’re making a film. There’s no revolutionary cinema. Cinema is about saying, “I want to tell you a story”—that’s not revolutionary. What is revolutionary is picking up a struggle wherever it’s been left off and going with it.

            Mbye: And the title of political filmmaker?

            Haile: No, no! At one point I did believe that the world of cinema was divided between political and apolitical filmmakers. Then I got caught in this formula that I created, which inhibited me from going forward. Labels like this prevent relationships with the public from forming, and that’s the worst thing you can do. Now, it’s something I’ve outgrown. I also hate this idea of elite art, the art cinema. I don’t want to be a filmmaker for filmgoers only.

What I do believe in is African theater. I believe that Africans have to make their own story. The world of cinema is missing the voice of the unheard people—not only for the content of what we would say, because I’m not sure we are going to say anything new about love, betrayal, or whatever else. It’s that Africans have a lot to contribute to the language of cinema itself. I think that if African filmmakers honestly come from where they have grown up, regardless of whether it is a town, a city, or a rural area, and if they can honestly tap into the temperament and accent of their culture, then they can contribute something to cinema that is lacking. I do believe that cinema needs the blood transfusion of black people for it to really be revitalized. I think some people even alluded to this in Europe, the way that Teza contributed to cinema in general.

            Mbye: Can you tell us something about how Teza unfolded as a project?

            Haile: The structure of Teza still amazes me. Most of it unfolded during the process of shooting, and also in the process of looking for the location, because the location informs your story. For example, I knew that during the war, Ethiopians were hiding their children in mountains and caves. But to go into the cave and actually find the names of people who had signed the walls before they disappeared was an amazing education for me. In fact, at one point, these grown-up children came up to us when we were shooting and told us their stories. They were giving us more of the backstory to my film. The very location teaches you, you know.

I think Teza humanized me, in the same way my children humanized me. Teza challenged me more than any other film, because I was fooling around with explosive things, and I didn’t know where they came from. For example, the scene where the woman throws the child—I was completely shocked the night I wrote it. I was like, am I this kind of person? I have kids now! If I didn’t have kids, maybe I would not pay attention to this sort of material that was coming out of me, but I was shocked at my writing and I wanted to know why it came to me.

When we opened Adwa in Ethiopia, I didn’t want to see the ministers so I stayed with my aunt, who is about one hundred years old. I stayed with her that evening until the film ended. We were talking and she brought up an old family story, which took me back to a time when I was eight or nine, when my mother and my aunt were concerned about a family member whose wife had been ostracized for a similar kind of act. How the information penetrated into my brain as a child and came out in my old age, through scriptwriting, was unbelievable.

            Mbye: It’s amazing how a memory works.

            Haile: Yeah, it is amazing. So I said, my goodness, when we write, it is not just writing. Apparently, something is trying to work itself out inside us.

            Mbye: What would you say Teza brings to the table that is different from what you have done in your previous work?

            Haile: For me, Teza is deeply rooted in my background. If you look at it from a Western point of view, it seems like a primitive language that I am bringing to cinema. For example, the way that I organize the film audiovisually is really where the crux is. You know, people have always said, “Haile has been creating his own English.” It’s as though the way I put the logic of what I want to say is kind of topsy-turvy. When I first came to America, I attributed this to my poor English skills. For example, when I would hear a lecturer speak, I always listened in English, translated in Amharic, and then wrote my notes in English. Initially, this was a means of survival, to get things done; over time it became a faster and more natural process. Still today, I hear you in English, I translate in my head, and I come to an English answer. But the transaction, in the center of my head, is an Amharic logic.

Now, how does this relate to film? It’s in the way I structure narrative. I had this problem in film school, fighting with teachers, arguing with students, and most of it in discombobulated English, much of it lost in translation. I felt as though there was a “primitive” Haile that every teacher wanted to mold into the “civilized” Haile. But in the “primitive” lay my culture and my artistic temperament, my accent, and the actual animal, which they really were not used to. I was defending that, the thing they called “primitive” in the way I wrote my scripts and organized them visually, the rhythm, the pace. It was primitive to them, but logical to me…

About the director

Haile Gerima is an award-winning and critically acclaimed independent filmmaker. Born in Ethiopia, he is perhaps best known as the writer, producer, and director of the 1993 film Sankofa. What inspires this filmmaker is a tireless devotion to the art of independent cinema and the vision of a uniquely innovative cinematic movement that stresses a symbiotic relationship between African Diasporan artists and the larger community. Over thirty-five years, Gerima has made eleven films, including four documentaries and seven dramas.

About the interviewer

Mbye Cham, PhD, is chairman of the Department of African Studies at Howard University Graduate School. He also is a professor of Modern African Literature in English and French (West Africa and South Africa); African and Third World Cinema; and Film and African Development. Dr. Cham has spoken at a number of lectures, seminars, juries, and conferences throughout the world, and he has written numerous essays and chapters in books on African and Caribbean literature and film.