Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Director: Bert Stern and Aram Avakian
Country: USA
Year: 1959
Running Time: 85 min.
Language: English

jazz4

The first major film statement on jazz and the granddaddy of festival films. Noted photographer Bert Stern filmed a virtual Who’s Who of jazz and blues at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival: including Thelonius Monk, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.

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In My Genes

In My Genes, Lupita Nyong'o, Kenya, 2009, 78 min.

Director: Lupita Nyong’o
Country: Kenya
Year: 2009
Running Time: 78 min.
Language: English and Swahili

In My Genes, Lupita Nyong'o, Kenya, 2009, 78 min.

What is it like to be white in a black society? Agnes, a woman with albinism, overcomes the difficulties of being born with no pigment in a society that discriminates against the condition. In My Genes asks us to consider how it feels to be a member of one of the most hyper-visible and yet effectively invisible groups of people in a predominantly black society.

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I am Cuba

Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964, Soviet Union, 141 min

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Country: Soviet Union
Year: 1964
Running Time: 141 min.
Language: Spanish and Russian

Started only a week after the Cuban missile crisis and designed to be Cuba’s answer to both Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda masterpiece, Potemkin, and Jean-Luc Godard’s freewheeling romance, Breathless, I Am Cuba turned out to be something quite unique. The plot, or rather plots, expansively explores the seductive, decadent (and marvelously photogenic) world of Batista’s Cuba – juxtaposing images of extremes with seamless beauty. I Am Cuba has recently been rectified by Hollywood’s great directors, many years after it languished in obscurity, following its initial popularity and acclaim post-release.

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Guew Bi – Dances of Senegal

Françoise Bouffault, Senegal, 1997, 30 min.

Director: Françoise Bouffault
Country: Senegal
Year: 1997
Running Time: 30 min.
Language: English and French

Guew Bi - Dances of Senegal, Françoise Bouffault, Senegal, 1997, 30 min.
Senegalese often set up a temporary stage at a street corner. It is the Guew Bi, the dancing circle where a cheerful crowd dressed in beautiful attire slowly gathers. The event is called a sabar. Soon drummers start playing and one at a time, women and men get up and enter the Guew Bi to perform the most exuberant, breathtaking dances. This film, which introduces us to an astonishing contemporary art form deeply rooted in African tradition, was shot in the streets of Dakar, with the participation of Master Drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose.

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Forgiveness

Director: Ian Gabriel
Country: South Africa
Year: 2005
Running Time: 118 min.
Language: English and Afrikaans with English subtitles

Tertius Coetzee, an ex-cop granted amnesty for his crimes by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, seeks out the family of one of his apartheid-era victims to ask them for forgiveness. His decision to visit the family results in heated emotions, unexpected twists, and an ending that will have a lasting impression.

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Faat Kiné

Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, 2001, 121 min.

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Country: Senegal
Year: 2001
Running Time: 121 min.
Language: French and Wolof

Faat Kine, Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, 2001, 121 min.
Sembène tackles the question of women’s lives in contemporary Dakar, Senegal’s bustling capital. It’s a warm, often funny story of a single mother, her two children, two ex-husbands, aged mother and assorted friends. Faat Kine, the manager of a sparkling new gas station, drives an elegant car, lunches with fashionable friends, and worries about her children passing their high school finals. But Sembène contextualizes his heroine’s thoroughly modern triumphs and anxieties culturally and politically in a Dakar that has shantytowns as well as high-rises, streets crowded with cattle as well as Mercedes, and women whose lives have been shaped by tribal custom and male prejudice as much as by their ambitions.

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Dollar / Dôlé

Imunga Ivanga, Gabon, 2001, 80 min

Director: Imunga Ivanga
Country: Gabon
Year: 2001
Running Time: 80 min.
Language: French

The tribulations of five youths start this film. Libreville is home to Mougler and his friends, Baby Lee, Joker, Jackson and Bezingo. The boys are left to fend for themselves and decide to rob a dôlé stand, a new game of chance in which you can become a millionaire. The stakes are high and so is the risk. But Mougler who is more and more worried by his sick mother’s condition decides to go ahead with the holdup.

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Cosmic Africa

Craig and Damon Foster, South Africa, 2002, 72 min

Director: Craig and Damon Foster
Country: South Africa
Year: 2002
Running Time: 72 min
Language: English, Bambara, and Ju’hoansi

Cosmic Africa, Craig and Damon Foster, South Africa, 2002, 72 min
Traveling across the scope of the African continent – Namibia, Ghana, Northern Kenya, Dogon country in Mali, and the Egyptian Sahara – this film captures the remarkable personal journey of an African astronomer, Thebe Medupe. Cosmic Africa and Thebe Medupe explore Africa’s ancient astronomy history, while unveiling the deep connection humans have with the cosmos.

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Bye Bye Brazil

Director: Carlos Diegues
Country: Brazil
Year: 1980
Running Time: 110 min.
Language: Portuguese

Bye_Bye_Brazil_2

A hypnotically languorous road movie with an upbeat political kick. The story follows a small time traveling sideshow – Magician, Strong Man, Exotic Dancer – as they ply the dusty back roads of Brazil in the face of increasing disinterest. Filmed over 9,000 miles, Diegues’ film effortlessly conveys a sense of a living, breathing country as few films have before.

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The Light at the End of the Dark Continent

Man may work from sun to sun

But woman’s work is never done.

         -Traditional (origin unknown)

Little gems from the Third World float westward once in a while, under- or non-promoted/distributed, for limited runs, or remora-like hitch a ride on bigger fish, like Irani Makhmalbaf’s and Burkinabè (i.e., native of Burkina Faso) Ouédraogo’s contributions to the omnibus 11’09”01 (September 11).  The exception, of course, was The Gods Must Be Crazy, from Botswana, which, after a three-year delay in major U.S. release, became our then-biggest foreign box-office hit and inspired a Part II.

Among current smaller fry is director-writer Kollo Daniel Sanou’s Tasuma, The Fighter, Burkina Faso’s domestic champion and the first-ever African movie released simultaneously “on the [home] Continent and in the USA!”  In common with others of its kind, this charmer overlays a wry sense of life’s contradictions, as gentle unsophisticated (in Western terms) peoples confront the incomprehensible muddle of post-colonial culture.  The central character is Sogo Sanon (Mamadou Zerbo), nicknamed Tasuma, subtitled le feu on-screen, literally “fire,” but better rendered “fire-eater,” “-brand” or “-ball,” for his daring in the tiralleurs senegalais, black troops who fought for mother France in Indochina and Algeria.  Mustered out in 1962, he has for years awaited pension payments that did not become available until later and, a fortune to him, are infinitely less than those given white ex-combatants.  With national troops on shooting maneuvers near his bare subsistence-farming village, he finds and keeps a stray grenade and, in uniform, bicycles to larger Bobo (-Dioulasso) for a first payment.

Bureaucratic wheels grind slowly if at all, in Paris and Ouagadougou, the money is not ready but is again assured, and Sogo buys a power mill with limited fuel for his poor outcrop hamlet, on credit from Arab merchant Khalil (Raoul Bessani).  The women are overjoyed, the purchasing hero puts nephew Bakary (Noufou Ouédraogo) in charge of grinding grain and seeing to receipts, and steady wife Dafra (Ai Keita) is concerned about the loan.

He goes back to the provincial capital, and again . . . and again, but while some other veterans collect, his name has been confused, the identification number does not jibe, officials and clerks are patronizing, Khalil shows up to foreclose, and Sogo returns to town with an antiquated unloaded carbine.  As Sogo’s praises are recounted in song—the words are organic, unlike the chorus interludes of Cat Ballou or narration sung against “primitive” drawings in Australia’s The Tracker—the subject of them is ignominiously arrested and jailed.

As in the guppy world, the males are dun, often in mothballed uniform, while their womenfolk shine in bright patterned robes and headgear even at work.  And work they do.  Man’s work entails lazing around philosophizing over tobacco pipes, giving away daughters in marriage, and playing at bureaucrats and soldiers; the females do everything else, besides being more practical and having to teach their partners honesty and horse sense.  It is they, too, who take matters into their hands to break up the logjam.  The national constitution of 1991 recognizes and protects  “the rights (namely the economic rights) of women: right to choose one’s bridegroom, ban of sexual mutilations, economic rights: Women’s Bank.”

Africa has its dark, cruel side, but this is a happy world despite poverty that makes one cringe with guilt, community is all, and even a mourned, accidentally grenaded prize cow will be turned to the people’s use, accompanied as always by music, the rhythms of life close to the bone.  There are no bad folks, so, a few words here, a few there, a couple chickens and sacks of grain, as balance and hope are restored.  Petulance and hasty false pride, yes, but not irremediable.  Sogo has acted foolishly—naïvely—but his big heart and intentions are good, and it is he who sets the tone for the future with optimism, dignity and a blessing for true, not arranged, love among the rising generation in a country where two-thirds of the population are under twenty-five.

There is no flashy stuff, no angles, not even an overhead.  Half-mad former schoolteacher Doba (Serges Henri) runs around snapping photos everywhere; one suspects his blue plastic camera contains no film, and it would be no surprise to learn that Tasuma was made with one 35 mm camera.  With no (physically) beautiful people or easy big sky and landscapes, but only the barest of locations, the movie is a delightful dry comment on human beings, integrity and relationships.  Following the People’s Democratic Revolution, in 1984 Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, a combination of the Mooré and Dioula languages meaning “Country of the Upright People.”

Tunde Kelani and his passion for documenting Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage

Tunde Kelani is socialised into a rather unusual flavour of Nigerian culture.  Though born in Lagos in the 1940s, at the consummation of the colonial era of Yoruba history, he grew up further inland in Abeokuta, thereby experiencing first hand a vital vestige of Yoruba traditional life.  These circumstances seem to have coalesced with his urbane disposition brought about by his easy access to Lagos, thereby laying the foundation of his present mission of employing modern information technologies to document traditional Yoruba culture.

On the other hand, TK (as he is fondly called by friends and associates) seems to have a peculiar bias for the visual mode of perception.  When he speaks, the level of details that he supplies is not likely to emanate from concepts mediated merely by sound and text.  Rather, he seems to draw from visual imagery clearly painted in his mind at the time he encountered whatever experiences he may be reliving.  Further more, TK is an avid reader, who as a young boy had read almost all the then known classical written Yoruba literature available in Nigeria of the 1950s and 1960s.  This deep foray into Yoruba literature was complemented with his voracious appetite for the literatures of other lands.  While his peers prided themselves in reading some of the contemporary English novels of those days, Kelani not only read these same novels too but also went further into more challenging African, English, Greek and other classical literatures.  As a high school boy, he usually exhausted the recommended reading list for the literature class within the first couple of weeks of every term.  He and another friend were said to have competed to exhaust their school library and both succeeded by their third year in school!

Hence, with his first-hand experience of Yoruba traditional culture, his knack for details, the high level of visuality in his perceptive skills and the constant enrichment of his mind with literature from diverse cultures of the world, there is little wonder that he now finds release for this his great store of skills and knowledge in filmmaking.

As a nine year old, his most priced belonging was a camera, which unfortunately he easily and quickly overgrew, having identified many features that his nine-year old mind thought a good camera should have.  Had he not become aware that these features had been implemented in some more sophisticated models that he was now longing for, he wouldn’t have considered it absurd to take the camera to a blacksmith to help modify it to incorporate these features.  This constant quest for better features persists till today, as TK is notorious for spending his last dime to acquire the latest technology in photography and cinematography.

By the time he passed out of Abeokuta Grammar School (the same school that produced such noble old school boys as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka) in flying colours, TK was clear in his mind that his vocation lay in photography.  For him, his career development path did not go in the direction of the Higher School Certificate and subsequently a university degree, as was the case was with many of his contemporaries.

In 1969 while working as a raw materials controller at the United African Company A.J.Seward in Lagos, he read in the daily news of a highly successful London exhibition of a Nigerian photographer Dotun Okubanjo.  The exhibition, which was opened by the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa provided TK with the assurance of the attainability of the level at which he would like pursue a photographic career.  He therefore decided to patiently watch out for news of the return of this photographer to Nigeria.  This is the background to how TK became an apprentice photographer in the photographic studios of Dotun Okubabjo between 1969 and 1970 in Lagos.

By the time he completed this apprenticeship, the newly established Western Nigerian Television was seeking to employ accomplished photographers with a minimum qualification of the West African School Certificate as trainee film cameramen.  TK aptly fitted this bill and so he emerged as the only successful candidate out of about fifteen that applied for the position, thereby starting a filmmaking career that was destined to later on redefine African cinema.

Work as a trainee film cameraman at the Western Nigerian Television did not only provide him the opportunity of learning the various skills of the dark room, it also exposed him to the best of Nigerian art of those days as the new television station was a natural beehive of activities for the best of Nigeria’s artists of various media.  This was how TK started hanging out with the great artists of the Osogbo school of Yoruba art that was then being mentored by Ulli Beir, the indefatigable aficionado of African art and culture.  It also provided the basis of the future friendship and close working relationship between TK and Hubert Ogunde, popularly acclaimed as the father of modern Yoruba theatre.  Thus was created for TK, a rich technical and artistic environment that served as the seedbed of his successful careers as a director of photography, film director, film producer and the Chief Executive of Nigeria’s foremost production house.

His insatiable quest for the superlatives in motion picture production then took him to the London International Film School, were he obtained a diploma in the Art and Technique of Filmmaking.  By the end of his study in London TK was technically equipped and psychologically prepared to come back to Nigeria to face the onerous task of documenting the colourful community festivals he had experienced as a child in Abeokuta.  “It is sheer drama, theatre at its best” TK says of these festivals that celebrated various Yoruba pantheons.  He still recalls and relates with relish some of the astonishing performances of these celebrant worshipers, the techniques of which he sought to explain even as a child.

Today, apart from doing newsreel work for BBC world service and other international news organisations in Nigeria, purely to make ends meet, TK’s passion lies in documenting Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage in documentaries, shorts and features.  He has contributed in one way or the other in various roles to most of the feature films that have been made in Nigeria to date.  He worked as cinematographer on Anikura, Ogun Ajaye, Iya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Fopomoya, and Iwa which he also co-produced.  This represents a sizeable segment of the popular Nigerian films that were made in the celluloid medium before the recklessness and philistinism of military rulership made it virtually impossible for Nigerian filmmakers to function according to the dictates of their art.

More recently, with funding from South Africa as part of the M-Net New Directions initiative, he functioned as cinematographer on Twins of the Rain Forest (16mm), A Place Called Home (16mm), Barber’s Wisdom (35mm), and The White Handkerchief (16mm), which he also produced and directed.

While most of his contemporaries considered it below their dignity to contemplate work in video, TK did not wince to embrace (what he as a rule does not refer to as video but) digital filmmaking..  By so doing, he has managed to make no less that seven full length features which now represent some of the best offerings of the prolific Nigerian video phenomenon.  These include titles such as Ti Oluwa Nile, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, Koseegbe, Oleku, Saworoide, Thunderbolt, and most recently Agogo-Eewo.  “I am a firm believer in alternative technology for motion picture in Africa” TK says with conviction.  “My ancestors used wood, terracotta, bronze and whatever else they could lay their hands on to document their reality.  If we do not use whatever we can to document our own present realities, our children will suffer identity crises if they have to recourse to archaeology to find out about our how we lived in the age of multimedia”.

Thus as a director of photography, TK stretches the optical capacity of digital video close to its elastic limit.  “Light is my main tool.  What I actually do is use light to create what I see in my mind’s eye.  I then use the camera to record as much of it as technology makes available to me before NEPA (Nigeria’s public power utility company) switches off my lights without asking me”.

As a director, TK digs into the deepest recesses of his mind drawing gems from his past and thereby playing the role of a bridge of sorts between the present and the recent past.  With the deeply theatrical culture of his Yoruba pedigree, he seems to have perfected the art of conveying Yoruba traditional theatre on the cinema screen without necessarily importing the ‘blockieness’ of the stage to the screen.  He cleverly manages screen dialogue in a way that retains the wit, humour and dramatic vitality of Yoruba life without losing the visual essence of his medium.  His subjects vary as widely as the diversity of the Nigerian reality.  Culture, politics and inter-ethnic relationships are some of the issues he has dressed in some of his works.  Whatever subject he examines however, there is a consistency of a deep philosophical underlying to the plot, juxtaposing the vitally of the scared with the reality of the mundane and the power of tradition with the inevitability of change.

As a producer, he maintains a clear understanding of what the viewing audiences expect of him, and he even manages to castigate them while they are enjoying the film.  He has a strong relationship with the traditional Yoruba theatre movement, which constitutes a major group from which he draws actors and actresses.  They also in their own part accord him high regard, acknowledging him as vital link between their history on stage and presence on the cinema screen.  Unfortunately however, with all his other enviable skills, one vital producer’s skill that continues eluded TK is how to get money out of a Nigerian bank.

White Wedding Review

The preview of White Wedding at Atlas studios in Johannesburg was packed yet people squeezed into any and every available space.  Within minutes of watching the film, I understood why there’s such a buzz ahead of its cinematic release; it’s an exceptionally funny comedy about two best friends traveling to Cape Town to get to a wedding.

Jann Turner describes the film as collaboration between herself, Rapulana Seiphemo and Kenneth Nkosi.  The three met on Isidingo. “The years of friendship and working together on television, means that 10 years later, we can finish each other’s sentences,” says Jann. ”We trust that we can have a horrible fight and know that we’ll get through it together. We wrote the script together and produced it together. As three we were strong.  Whilst we worked as director and two actors on set it was organic and equal as well.”

The idea for White Wedding came to them one Christmas when the trio traveled to Cape Town in a big land cruiser. They found people’s reactions to them as two urban black boys and a white woman interesting and funny.

“Over the years we talked about the film, but it wasn’t until 2007 that we wrote down a treatment. To an extent because we talked about the kind of movies we liked, we also talked about the kind of resources we had available to us.  The idea of two guys in a car on a road trip, appealed because it’s manageable, there’s not a lot of costume changes, the scenery is there, and you can take a small crew.  The film is about what happens when people move past the encounter that is white and black, male or female or Xhosa and Zulu in the case of Ayanda and Kenneth. In this film we look at it in a comic way and show how it can be diffused when people are forced or take the time to meet.”

Jann explains that the financing of their film is a fairytale-funding story. “My step father is a successful UK writer, Ken Follett. Ken also knew Raps and Kenny and he loved them. I was on holiday with my parents when I tidied up the treatment.  Ken read it and said he’d be interested in investing and that’s really how it started. It’s a business arrangement between Stepping Stones Pictures and Ken Follet.  We were in an incredibly wonderful position. We had somebody who knew us, trusted us, gave us great story input and then let us make the film. Rapulana introduced an ethic into our company a long time ago, which is that everybody gets paid. So there are no referrals.  Often people got paid the minimum, but no one worked for free.”

Whilst they are still closing their books on the final figures, the film shot in 18 days is estimated to have cost about 5 million rands. “We shot on high definition, which projects beautifully on the big screen and Ster Kinekor is releasing the film digitally.  For independent filmmakers, this is a signal of hope, as it means that films can be shot on digital and still released theatrically.”

One disappointment for the trio is that their film although selected was not screened at FESPACO FILM FESTIVAL as the film was only available in digital format.   “ I think that it’s unfair to independent filmmakers because we don’t have a quarter of a million rand or an international distribution to pay for a print. So we didn’t screen at Fespaco because they insisted on a film, and if we did, we’d rather spend that money on the next movie.”

South African film can only really succeed if there are bums on seats in the cinema especially in the first week.  I think that the trio has achieved a step towards what one can describe as a truly South African Film. Whilst Jann is adamant that …” We did not set out to make the big South African film, its just Jann and Raps and Kenny’s film.” This is definitely a film I would pay to see. It is refreshingly honest and politically incorrect.

For any further information, check out their face book profile, the Utube preview, twitter or zoopie or simply their website: www.whiteweddingmovie.co.za.

Cinemas of the South

Cinematic production originating in the South is often understood as a cinema of transition. Unique luxury, it takes the time to paint a world that is distant and yet so close, both in its refusal of entertainment and in its maintenance of the auteur status. In reality it is a cinema of the refusal of transitional space because there is no passage  It is a cinema of ellipse, not so much in its aesthetic form but in its parsimony. It relies on a concrete reality that would like to take control of the phenomena that contribute to its production, distribution and consumption. That is without a doubt where its ambitions are thwarted, and what the term Cinema of the South ought to be based on. Not only the Sub-Saharan South, but all the Souths. Those lived and those gazed upon. The term Cinemas of the South calls to mind several propositions that we are intending to examine.

Gazing at One Another

In this way, the expression Cinemas of the South, in opposition to the [cinema] of the North corresponds to a Eurocentric vision, a Western construction of a particular representation, often frozen, of images originating from the South. This vision elaborates on a list of what it believes to be representative of cultures and behaviors and does not take into account diversity and the modernity of a South in perpetual motion. As a result, we end up with a manual of what defines it (authenticity) and, by exclusion, what it is not (non conformity). When new propositions surface, it is not uncommon to hear “This is not African!”, “This is not [representative of] the South!”, translate: “This is the way of the North and therefore in relation to whom has committed it, it is acculturated, which sounds like a verdict with no appeal.

Cinemas of the South is also the space in which stories develop differently and in parallel to the cinemas of the North, and, although they are connected to discordant humanity, they distinguish themselves by their own rhythms thus creating a sacred distance, in particular in the choice of themes, priorities, the discovery of cultures, therefore new sketches of lives, a plurality of expression of ideas. An open approach that invites us to gaze at one another, to become interested in the other because of what he has to share, who he is and not because of what we expect him to be.

The South, My Passion

Cinemas of the South is lastly a set of conditions that contribute to its existence: economic criteria, legislations, professional training, etc. A well-oiled machinery in the North, but, with rare exceptions, still in its infancy in the South. In addition, in this South there are also inequalities, glass ceilings. But overall, the cinema of the South remains on life support, which is problematic in the long run because it is important to have complete control over one’s creations. If those who give it existence are animated by the same passion found in auteurs of all continents, the difference is that when they are in the South of the South, they will have more difficulty in preserving their independence, their integrity, without having to count on economic aid or create political interest in developing an environment that is less hostile to creation. All the while preserving their autonomy. Digital video is a saving grace in the sense that it matches our resources best, and the cinema of tomorrow will be less characterized by the nature of the medium than by the treatment of the subject matter.

Cinémacité and Otherness

The fact is that we are evolving in a world where we play leap border.  And thus we need not be surprised to see the South transported to the North, which adds to the confusion of those who extol authenticity. The propositions are many: a filmmaker from the South established in the North and developing themes typical of the North in the South, or Southern themes in the North. How to distinguish and characterize his work? What to make of an Alain Gomis who made L’Afrance? Or a Zeka Laplaine with his Paris XY? Only to speak of those two. What to say of films from the South taking on more readily nationalities of the North than their “illegal immigrant” auteurs? In reality, the early definitions are quickly transcended by the desires of the creators, their status resisting simple definition . So-called filmmakers of the South are auteurs who define themselves along the same lines as Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, all auteurs of the New Wave. They do not reject the heat that runs in their films, but that is not the epicenter nor the bottom line of the debate. That would be to remain on the surface of things. Here, cinema still remains a political act with all the consequences it engenders, which will be as strong as the engagement of the filmmaker.

If there were to be a definition of our cinema, it would articulate itself around two notions, the one I dare call cinémacité, a neologism, and the notion of otherness. The notion of cinémacité is what  makes a work a cinematographic work taking into account external factors such as mobility and diversity. To that, let’s attach the notion of otherness in the sense of confronting one’s work to the Other. Once we are fully in control of these two propositions, let us see what the South will make of Cinema and let us get exhilarated by boundless titles forecasting everlasting stories.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha Review

When I first saw U-Carmen eKhayelitsha at the 13th New York African Film Festival in April 2006, I was mesmerized.  Because the film made such a strong social statement with its casting of Carmen, I was forced to examine my socialization of the standards of beauty.  As a result, my self-esteem has been raised and my concept of beauty has been forever broadened.

By adapting Bizet’s opera to film and setting it in a South African township, Mark Donford-May has given the world a Carmen that surpasses all previous Carmens.  Breaking with the tradition of presenting Carmen defined by the European standard of beauty, Dornford-May boldly presents us with an opportunity to expand our idea of beauty and exoticness.  Cast in the title role, Pauline Malefane kicks down the narrow stereotypical parameters that have defined beauty and raises Carmen to a new level of beauty and depth.

With skin the color of rich café au lait, and a round full-bodied figure, Malefane as Carmen turns the stereotypical image of a white, reed-thin woman with no breasts on its head.  Possessing a strength and dignity that counters the requirements for beauty in Spain, it is necessary for us to go on a mental trip before we see Carmen’s face for the first time.  In a single shot, she approaches us slowly and cautiously while our heartbeat quickens with anticipation.  Following this interminable ride to a final close-up, there she is.  Greeting us without formality of speech, she meets our gaze and allows us to see her soul while looking at her body.  Her beauty comes alive and frees us from the prejudices ingrained in our being.

As an African American woman, I felt Carmen more than watched her.  Ms. Malefane infuses the character with the strong-willed nature that every self-sufficient woman would like to display but bowing to societal pressure succumbs to the control of men.  Carmen revels in her ability to be free and will not allow a man to fit her into the subordinate box.  This Carmen refuses to be objectified.

Filmed in Khayelitsha, one sees everyday life in a South African township.  This setting offers more than a manufactured theatrical production.  Dornford-May’s camera films a world of children playing soccer; women chatting at the hair salon; men hanging out at the barber; and, people going about the business of enjoying everyday life.  The flatness of poverty is overshadowed by lives rich in substance.  One hears the laughter of little girls going to school, roller-blading boys as they call to one another, clacking of trains and the roar of trucks as they travel along unpaved streets and modern highways.  Riding along with Lulamille Nkomo (Zorrid Sidloyi) as he returns to Khayelitsha, the contrast of his expensive new car with cattle crossing a modern bridge adds another layer of texture and vibrant color to the landscape. Entwining Bizet’s music into the fabric of South African life by translating it in Xhosa is a stroke of genius.  The performance by Dimpho Di Kapone warrants “operatic conceit.”

Watching this film, I am returned to the southern United States during the era of Jim Crow when I was a child.  Our homes were not unlike the tin-roof houses of Khayelitsha.  Our daily lives shared much with the lives of the residents of Khayelitsha.  The streets were not paved and wagons pushed by old men often shared the road with shiny new cars. It is easy to enter into the Zeitgeist of Zhayelitsha.  We valued our richness of spirit before we knew that we were poor; however, those who lived outside our environment saw only our lack and labeled it poverty.  Our talents, thoughts, and abilities were not considered. To them, our demography was our destiny.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a treasure to society.  It should be enjoyed by all who see it.  By opening ourselves to understanding that no one ethnic group, gender or social class holds a monopoly on any thing that is intrinsic, we become richer and the world becomes our classroom without borders.

The Rwandan Holocaust On Film

“Let me try and describe Kigali on April 1994,” Nick Hughes, a documentary cameraman with Vivid Features told and attentive audience in Harvard. “A convoy of Belgium paratroopers was going to a Catholic mission to rescue a white expatriate and we tugged along. The convoy made its way through the centre of Kigali and there were a few bodies by the side of the road.”
“The convoy turned into a heavily populated residential area and along this 10 mile stretch there were roadblocks about every 100 m manned by the interahamwe,” Nick went to vividly describe the gruesome picture. “Every 20 meters was a line of bodies neatly laid out, with blood oozing from fatal head wounds and the situation grew grimmer. Every 5 meters, there was another line of bloodstains where more bodies had been laid out some time before. The blood ran down the side of the road and collected in the gutter, the gutter actually flowed with blood.”
He was in Kigali from the start of the genocide and in spite of having filmed other serious conflict situation elsewhere, what he witnessed was unimaginable. Like the victims of the killing, he has been haunted by the grotesque images of the killing and he has attempted to exorcise these demons in an engrossing film that has been well received all over the world.
Like James Cameron in the Titanic, Nick Hughes’ 100 Days is a moving story of love and brutality that is based on actual events but told in a fictional way that has allowed them to be more dramatic.
“In August 1994, the genocide was just over but the smell of death was heavy in the air,” he recalled the horrors that made him vow to immortalize them on motion picture. Bodies rotting under trees, churches full of more recent horror and from the air, mile upon mile of derelict Tutsi houses, crumbling monuments to the families who had once lived there. Of these were to be the only monuments, I knew that was unbearably sad and terribly wrong. I vowed then, in however, small way; I would ensure the Rwandan genocide should not be forgotten.”
And in his story that took five years to make, a local Hutu official is persuaded to begin implementing the government’s policy against the Tutsi, which is to completely wipe them out.
When the killing begins, Josette (Cleophas Kabasita), a beautiful young Tutsi girl and her family struggle to survive the killing by taking refuge in a church, supposedly protected by the UN forces.
While this is going on, Josette’s brother is hunted down and murdered and her boyfriend rescued by the rebels. But the Hutu Catholic priest betrays Josette’s family and only agrees to spare her life if she submits to his nightly violations. by the time she is reunited with her boyfriend, neither of them can face the brutal reality of their situation. She is pregnant and bears the priest’s child, which she immediately abandons and this certainly heightens the drama of these ghastly events that changed the lives of many Rwandese and observers like Nick.
The precision with which it was executed was an indicator that it was a well-planned massacre and the brutality was preposterous.
“I had covered wars before but that was different, that was Genocide,” he recalled. “Two women were pulled out of their house, sat down in a pile of bodies and allowed to beg for their lives for twenty minutes before being clubbed to death. Killing surrounded me. I had my own living room window on Auschwitz. I now know that I had seen evil in majesty.”
The subsequent reaction by the international community, the churches, humanitarian agencies and the media was one of betrayal that traumatized him in the same way it had traumatized the victims of the genocide.
‘’ That a betrayal of the survivors and a betrayal of the truth was the norm. In September the killers, fled from their crime and sort refuge, across the border but within the safety of DR Congo. They took with them their families and even whole community where they sort protection as hostages,” told his attentive Harvard audience. “The world in the form of the UN, Aid agencies and western governments rose as one with great conviction to help the criminals and their communities. While nothing had been done to discourage these same people from planning or committing genocide.’’
He added: “I stood on Goma airport just two miles across from the Rwanda border, transport plane after transport plane landed, US soldiers plumbed in water and draped food canisters from airplanes that landed beside the road, highly paid Aid workers most whom had never been to Africa before, poured off executive jets, UN PR personnel stood by satellite up-links, giving moment by moment updates to eager journalists. 2 billion dollars were to be spent on the people who had just committed genocide; much of that money was siphoned off to restart a war that continues to this day. The only planes that landed at Kigali airport were for the evacuation of foreign nationals.”
This sense of betrayal forms cornerstone of “the truth of the Rwandan question” that should never be forgotten. It is the underlying thematic concern in the film that has been screened at several international film festivals in Toronto, Milan, Los Angeles, Sithengi and others.

This “truth” has not been wholly captured in the numerous excellent books that were written and documentaries made telling every aspect of the genocide.
“I worked on ones revealing the roles of the government, the rebels, the French, the UN and the Catholic church even children and nuns,” he noted. “It would seem that the failing of the main protagonists such as the UN, the aid agencies, the Catholic Church, the French were proven beyond doubt but when I read or listened to general public recounting of the perceptions it seemed the idea of betrayal, the magnitude of the suffering was lost.”
It is indisputable that documentaries that carried interviews with survivors told tales of loss and cruelty in a way that no fiction ever could match. However, it is true that they often end up being listened to by a small number of people. Full length feature film has a wide audience and it is these people that he hope will watch in 100 Days.
The Rwandan tragedy continues to draw serious discussion. Early this week, International Development Research Centre launched the book The Media and The Rwanda Genocide Edited by Allan Thompson, which is certainly the latest addition in a growing list of material about the genocide. There are several movies Sometimes In April, Hotel Rwanda and others by Rwandese and foreigners that continue to highlight the issue.
I hope we can continue the debate and find a way forward that something like that never happens again in Africa. What are your thoughts?

Seventeenth edition of the New York African Film Festival

The seventeenth edition of the New York African Film Festival is almost over.  Opening on April 7 at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, the festival concludes at BAM Cinematek on Memorial Day weekend.  In between, organizers Richard Pena and Mahen Bonetti preside over a mix of films, q and a’s, receptions, panel discussions, an art exhibit and even, this year, a proclamation by the celebrated griot, storyteller and artist, Fifi Dalla Kouyate.

Every year, the festival has a theme which is suggested by the films available a given historical moment.  This year’s banner is “Independent Africa”, since 17 African nations are observing 50 years of independence from colonial rule.  This year’s films were either produced in, or had performers from, a baker’s dozen of these, a tour de force of programming:  Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.   The other African nations represented in the festival were Algeria, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, and South Africa, plus the usual diaspora countries (Belgium, France, and United States).

NYAFF always distinguishes itself not only by the stunning variety of films offered, but also by its supportive audiences and thoughtful discussions.  A panel discussion on April 14 at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, moderated by Mamadou Diouf, zeroed in on “Independent Art: 50 Years in the Making”.  The question hanging in the air was:  from the point of view of film, were these fifty years a waste?  African musicians and novelists have found a way to impose themselves.  How about the filmmakers?

A young filmmaker, Wanuri Kahiu, dispelled any doubt about wasting time:  “This”, she said, “is a new, not old, generation of filmmakers, treating cosmopolitan, not traditional Africa.  I give praise to Nollywood (Nigerian cinema), because it has given rise to grassroots distribution methods.  African cinema is not a genre; it is Africans making films.”

Even a partial account of some of the films from this year’s NYAFF shows the skill and seriousness of “Africans making films” about themes as varied as the brain drain, football, and science fiction.

(For more information, go to www.africanfilmny.org.)

Focusing on “A History of Independence” by Daouda Coulibaly (daoudacoulibaly@hotmail.fr), Professor Diouf named the feeling of “disgruntlement” conjured up by this short, with dialogue in Bambara and vintage political recordings in French and English.  (Films shown at NYAFF are subtitled in English.)

It is the early 1960’s, and Nama and Sire have just gotten married.  Nama decides to make his home in a cave, where he will lead a hermit’s life and devote himself to God.  On day, God sends an angel to Nama to thank him for being so devoted…  Be careful what you wish for!  Alternating with the story of Nama and Siri’s personal turmoil when the angel grants Nama three wishes, is the turmoil writ large on the African continent after independence.  Speeches heard over the radio are hopeful and courageous at first, then agitated; Nkrumah speaks of treason.  Newly urbanized young people dance in a nightclub in Dakar; exploitation and lies prevail; “if you can stand the smoke, you will like the fire.”  In the end, Nama uses his last wish to restore order in the home, as the narrator ruefully concludes, “like Nama and Siri, we’ve all made mistakes.”

Disgruntlement, or even despair, is the theme of “Has God Forsaken Africa?”, an hour-long documentary by Senegalese vocalist Musa Dieng Kala (musakala@hotmail.com).  It shows five young men who try to emigrate at any cost.  Kader, 22, makes it to Spain as an undocumented migrant; Omar, 24, loses $6,000 to swindlers who promised him a fake visa; and Djiby, Ahmadou, and Ibrahima, all 21, are still sitting on a bench in Dakar.  Musa Kala makes the historical point that the ancestors of these young men left Goree in slave ships:  “their sons are willing to cross the same seas to work like slaves.”

By far the most pessimistic of this group of problem films is “The Absence”, the latest feature from Mama Keita (kinterfin@gmail.com), a Guinean-Vietnamese director who was born in Senegal and grew up in France.  An award winner at the 2009 Tarifa African Film Festival, it had the most buzz of any film at NYAFF.  Its theme is the brain drain of Senegal’s most accomplished young people, who find excellent opportunities abroad but suffer agonies of remorse because they have abandoned their country to its corrupt fate.  The agonies are acted out in excruciating detail in this melodrama, which concerns a super- successful executive living in France, his deaf sister who inexplicably turns to prostitution in Dakar, her terrifying pimp, and bystanders who are variously broken-hearted, falling-down drunk, or dead.  A thieving dwarf provides one of the film’s lighter moments, and a reminder of Sembene’s Dakar.  Sembene allowed us some hope; Keita is plain and simply taking us to task.

A contrasting “feel-good” approach is employed by South African TV dramatist Jann Turner in her feature debut, “White Wedding”, and to good effect.  Her road comedy knocked US product off the screen in South Africa, and was the South African nomination for Best Foreign Picture in the 2010 Oscars.  Between gales of laughter you can tick off the problems:  apartheid, Zulu-Xhosa ethnic tensions, false consciousness, bad credit.  From Joburg to Durban, from Eastern Cape to Western Cape, the scenery is too beautiful to permit anything but a happy ending under the backyard wedding tent, where disbelief is suspended for an hour, just like at a real wedding (www.whiteweddingmovie.co.za).

It’s hard to overstate the hold of sports on the public imagination, and accordingly, NYAFF’s organizers rounded out their programming with films highlighting the first-ever World Cup in Africa.

Demetrius Wren’s “Streetball” punctures the big time bubble with a touching portrayal of eight homeless South African men who play in the Street Soccer League, a form of football that has its own World Cup (info@fuwl.org).  Youthful dreams of soccer stardom have worn well in “The Golden Ball”, Cheik Doukore’s 1992 tale of periphery and center (ryandf@club-internet.fr).  Its protagonist is Bandian, a boy wonder from the bush who makes his way to Conakry, with the help of friends, and to the brink of superstardom in France.  The period details stand out:  the village blacksmith shop, the kindly French “doctor without borders”, the Lebanese soccer patron (owner of fish and video businesses–somehow integrated into the plot), the rickety stadium in Conakry, radio, the Vietnamese taxi driver in Paris.  Fast forward to Congo in 2006, where young drama students, as full of dreams as Bandian, are given their first crack at filmmaking by veteran documentarian Monique Mbeka Phoba (moniquephoba@yahoo.fr).

Their assignment is to document Congo’s national football team, “The Leopards of Zaire”, which was the first black African soccer team to have taken part in a World Cup (1974, Germany).  The result is “Between the Cup and the Election”, in which several aging Leopards are running for office in the first elections in Congo since independence. As one of them says, “We want footballers to defend us in Parliament.”  These sublime athletes, whom Mobutu showered with victory gifts, are now just getting by.  All were given new houses in a special “Leopard neighborhood” in Kinshasa, but only one has managed to hang on there; he is a mechanic and taximan, who now states, “many things became clear to me when I became a Jehovah’s Witness.”  He reminisces about Germany; the German hosts were shocked when he ate smoked monkey meat; “Whites think monkeys are close to man–almost human, even.”  Clarisse and Demato, the film students, must have had the time of their lives.  In the event, the soccer players were not elected.

Wanuri Kahiu, quoted above, speaks for the emergence of Anglophone African cinema, which has become evident only in the last decade (although Kenya’s film industry built up its infrastructure while serving as a location for US production).  Wanuri’s first feature, “Like a Whisper”, is based on real-life events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Her latest film, a science- fiction short called “Pumzi” (“Air”), is set in East Africa, 35 years after World War III, in a world with no water and with toxic soil (pumzi.kenya@gmail.com).  It’s no surprise that Goethe Institut would partially fund this topic; other funders were the Changa Moto Fund in Kenya, and Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal.  Moreover, according to Vanuri, the BBC is actively seeking African film.  Vanuri spoke to festival goers about the varied and changing distribution scene in Africa.  In Tanzania, audiences watch films in video halls; and they favor the halls with the best live translators.  Kenya still has movie theaters; Senegal no longer has a single one.  Soon, we’ll be watching films on mobile phones.  The point is that the model for film will have to take this into account.

As Wanuri pointed out, Nollywood has mastered grass-roots distribution of cassettes, and now discs, to the point where Nigerian actors have become celebrities in Brooklyn.  But according to Kunle Afolayan, a second-generation Nigerian producer-director, Nollywood video is not making as much money as it used to.  His answer is “The Figurine / Araromire”, a 125-minute, wide-screen drama, four years in the making, at an astronomical (for Nollywood) cost of $400,000 (info.goldeneffects@gmail.com).  Afolayan takes up the theme of religion, but gives it a twist.  Two buddies discover a mysterious figurine, Araromire, said to bring seven years of good luck, followed by disaster.  And indeed, the disasters follow most satisfyingly, in luxurious settings on Lagos’ Beach Road.  But the question at the end is, what do you believe?  Does causation lie with gods or devils, or with ourselves?  “The Figurine” has set box office records worldwide, according to Afolayan.  Whether it starts a trend is another matter.

For seventeen years, NYAFF has given New York something new to see and think about.  In addition to the festival, this fine organization sponsors screenings in New York City parks, distributes some films, and publishes a series of “Dialogues with Directors”.  NYAFF seeks collaborations that enhance understanding of Africa and appreciation of African film.  The time to support NYAFF in its excellent endeavors is now.

The Role of Music in African Cinema

Even today, an analysis of the complex role of music in film is often forgotten by critics, many of whom remain prostrate before the dictatorship of the image. Yet as a manifestation of culture, music has a privileged position with respect to the study of representations of identity and ideology; moreover, in its subversive and dialogic aspects, it can reveal significant directorial decisions related to dynamics of power and exclusion.

Considering this in light of its importance within numerous African cultures, we must conclude that an exploration of the place of music remains a desideratum in the study of African cinema.

For the first five decades of African cinema, music’s significance was understood with reference to certain programmatic ends, as when Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambety devoted themselves to constructing the image of their newly created nations.  Their pioneering work dealt with the necessity of recovering a historical memory intentionally obscured by imperialism and of developing alternatives to colonial and neocolonial dogmas.  Moreover, they sensed the urgency of elaborating a body of specifically African theory related to social and cultural praxes in their respective cultures.  In this environment, the role of cinema was crucial.  This new art form, fusing the potency of the audio-visual idiom and the complex legacy of imperialism, came to be seen as a privileged means of struggle against the injustices in these directors’ daily lives.  They were conscious both of the complicated nature of the problems they faced and of the power of cinema, through image and especially sound, to construct a authentically African identity in opposition to the reactionary conceptual paternalism propounded from the West.

But over time, music’s import has grown, and today one may find, in the work of certain auteurs, a notable maturity in the treatment of diverse musical traditions that defies easy categorization.  In the works of both Abderrahmane Sissako and Moussa Sené Absa—not to mention the musicals of Flora Gomes, Joseph Gaï Ramaka and Mark Dornford-May—music plays an essential role in understanding of the meaning of the directorial process.  Their films are at once critical and artistically significant in their experimental nature—with respect to form as much as to content—and they exemplify the impossibility of reducing the role of music to a set of indiscriminately applicable generalities.

Since the early days of African cinema, music has formed part of a (self) conscious discourse concerning the problematic realities of Africa.  Its use has rarely been gratuitous and goes far beyond the traditional—and much less experimental—Western customs of dramatic punctuation, of evocation of place, of establishing an emotional relationship with the spectator in which the image is almost always predominant, or as accompaniment to the never-ceasing rush of action that hardly leaves one time to think…  In African cinema, music is stressed in terms of its cultural, poetic, and artistic functions in relation to oral tradition, with reference to such figures as the griot; it is used to critique the reductive commonplace of tradition versus modernity employed by partisans of a fabricated, purist, and ultimately nefarious—in its insistence on the notion of an “unadulterated essence”— “return to the roots”; it is blended into narration as an essential component and as a marker for critical moments; it works to evoke spaces where time slackens and opens up, giving way for ambiguity and reflection; and it mirrors the continuing urbanization of every aspect of African life, its constant contact with a West for which music is often a tool of domestication, of modernization, and of cultural imperialism.

A closer attention to the use of music in African cinema remains necessary not only for critics and lovers of African film, but for anyone concerned to better understand music’s place in African’s lives.  For cinema is more than the artistic consciousness of a people; it is a window into their desires, passions, and frustrations, and attending to it in earnest, we may see beyond those sterile, reductive commonplaces so beloved of certain theorists in the West.

DIRECTORS, GRIOTS, COREOGRAPHERS

Papa Wemba said to me: “If I was not a musician of contemporary music and if I had lived in my village, I would be a griot”.[1]

Mweze Ngangura

J’adore la musique et tous mes films sont une ode musicale..[2]

Moussa Sené Absa

The work and trajectories of four directors in particular suggest the growing significance of music to African cinema.  Despite their diverse geographic, ethnic, and linguistic provenance, each personifies, in specific ways, the revaluation of the auditory in moving pictures.  The entire ouvre of the francophone directors Aberrahmane Sissako (Mali) and Moussa Sené Absa (Senegal), the groundbreaking musical comedy Nha Fala of the lusophone Flora Gomes (Guinea Bissau), and the thematization of music in the European diaspora in Mwenge Ngangura (born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but a longtime resident of Belgium) draw our attention to the constant dialogue between musicians and directors in which the importance of the former is reasserted—a tendency now common throughout the African continent.

The concept of the griot-as-narrator, while useful for an analysis of the aforementioned directors, must be broadened to take account of the importance of dance and, especially, choreography.  Music, in this connection, serves as a vehicle for the propagation of critical and artistic stances in relation to diverse aspects of African identity.  Abderrahmane Sissako, for example, proceeds from the Mandé tradition, for which the kora is the instrument par excellence and in which words and music go hand in hand; his works, based in the oral tradition, present the griot as conscious of his duty to re-elaborate and transmit a deeply personal discourse through a cinematic idiom anchored in poetry and music, but choreographed with people and situations.  Moussa Sené Absa, in his life and works, draws on the idea of the géwël, the Wolof interpreter of traditions, whose art is characterized by singing and by sabar percussion.  Both directors manifest a fondness for polyrhythm and, in this way, a fidelity to West Africa’s musical heritage, but in the case of the latter, the idea of téranga is equally indispensable.  Flora Gomes’s dreamed Africa, while distant from the idea of the griot, is nonetheless rooted in communitarian ideals in which the recovery of music and dance inaugurate, for her subjects, a broader personal liberty; and Mweze Ngangura leads us to reflect, with great poignancy and suggestiveness, on the adversities of emigration to Europe—a signal aspect of contemporary African life, and one in which the role of cinema and music in keeping alive cultural and artistic traditions is crucial.  These directors’ esthetic shows the futility of resorting to mere discourse in order to combat the generalizations that have so long plagued artistic representations of African life:  in its place, they propose an encounter between the cultural richness of their native cultures and the techniques of contemporary art.  That all four have privileged music in their art underscores its importance as a subject of the continuing discourse among theory, practice, and critique as they relate to the conceptualization of African film.

MOUSSA SENÉ ABSA: A PARADIGMATIC CASE

In my films, music is a character, not something I tack on afterwards to match the image. When I write the script, what comes to mind first is the music.[3]

From the earliest stages of a film’s production, Moussa Sené Absa (Dakar, 1958) gives careful attention to its musical aspects.  It is to the polyrhythmic tradition of the sabar that the director hearkens as a point of departure for his words and images, giving music itself a starring role.  Sené Absa acts as dirigeur of the sabar ensemble, marking time, deciding the order of the songs, instructing the dancers and keeping the public alert… In bringing together the functions of composer, director, and choreographer, he creates works in which music opens up spaces for the consideration and questioning of diverse aspects of reality—exactly as it does in life.

Sené Absa belongs to the so-called third or post-independence generation of foreign-educated directors born in countries no longer subject to the colonizers’ yoke, whose conflicts and realities were distinct from those faced by the pioneers who preceded them and whose openly militant works emphasized the struggle for independence.  It was Djibril Diop Mambety who marked out a new path, departing from the social realism of Sembène and his followers, and it is no coincidence that Sené Absa had his start as the Mambety’s assistant, learning at his side the finer points of that medium in which, years later, he would produce a distinguished body of work with a thirst for innovation reminiscent of his mentor’s.

Sené Absa’s family—people dedicated to “storytelling and music and words and images, and oral tradition,”[4] as he has stated—introduced him to the artistic way of life long before he cut his teeth on the film set.  He himself represents the total artist, painting, writing, composing, singing, and dancing, all with great skill.  Sené Absa privileges music as a protagonist in its own right, and employs it to endow his films with a polyrhythmic  structure.  In an attempted revision of the griot concept—summed up in Sembène’s formulation of the cinéaste as modern griot, and grown thin through overuse among theorists of African cinema[5]—Sené Absa presents himself as a director-cum-choreographer, but with a broadened frame of historical and cultural references:  the Wolof percussionists of the sabar in particular, and the Wolofization of Senegalese society, especially widespread in the urban areas in which Sené Absa was born and raised.   The importance of the sabar to Senegalese culture cannot be overestimated:  it is played to commemorate births and deaths, as an accompaniment to Laamb, also known as la lute sénégalaise, the traditional folk wrestling that enjoys the status of national sport, the many women’s ceremonies, and even political summits.  Its significance to the ouvre of Sené Absa is therefore a matter of course.  Music dictates the structure of his films, from the composition of the script to the choreography and even the positioning of the camera, and in the montage phase, these elements are painstakingly arranged according to a polyrhythmic model, after the fashion of a sabar gathering, in which care is taken to avoid the privileging of narrative and image that deprive the musical element of its distinctive virtues.  These trends have been evident across a variety of formats since his 1988 directorial debut:  in 35mm, in video, and in his popular television series.

In his first full length film, Ça twiste à Poponguine (1993), Sene Absa makes use of video in order to cast a look back at French Pop and American R&B in the context of adolescent rivalries of the 1960’s in a Senegalese fishing village.  The theme is music itself: occidental music as a metaphor for the fascination exerted by Europe, and especially by France and French celebrities, among the Senegalese youth of the director’s generation.  Years later, in the autobiographical Ainsi muerent les anges (2001), music serves both as a consolation for and a marker of the bitter isolation faced by the African exiled in Europe.   It is not for nothing that, in the decisive moment when the protagonist flees from his home in France, he takes refuge in the bar of a countryman and asks a griot there to play for him:  nothing, save for the soothing embrace of alcohol and the singer’s familiar melodies, can calm him before his return to his motherland, where he will face the uncomprehending judgment of his father and his former friends.  One of Sené Absa’s key innovations is the explanatory musical excursus, an experimental technique repeated to great effect in his second feature, Madame Brouette (2002).  His most recent work, Téranga Blues (2005), deepens these explorations of the fundamental role of music.  In the first, he presents us with a kind of musical in which the interjections of a group of griots punctuate the action while contemporary African pop songs play in the bar where much of the plot unfolds.  In the second, the concept of téranga, the focal point of the film’s drama, is linked both to the plaintive desperation of the blues and to a rendering of traditional music as a metaphor for the tranquil honesty of the artist’s path, which implies, regardless of its austerity, a proper understanding of téranga, opposed to the fast life with its easy riches and complications.In the aforementioned examples, Sené Absa shows his awareness of the many roles music can play and of its crucial importance to his country’s life, both as a bond to tradition and in the opportunities it opens up for the human spirit in opposition to the hollowness and corruption endemic to modernity.  His directorial praxis stresses the communicative and expressive capacities of music in their power to unify form and content, clearing new paths for experimentation; in this way, he recollects to us the importance of maintaining the spirit of those traditions of which music is the exemplar, without forgetting the challenges presented to them by contemporary life.

Bamako

Abderrhamane Sissako, Mali/France, 2006, 115 min.

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Country: Mali
Year: 2006
Running Time: 115 min.
Language: Bambara and French with English subtitles

Set in the courtyard of a mud walled house in Bamako, the capitol city of Mali, the intimate personal story of an African couple on the verge of breaking up is told alongside very public political proceedings. African civil society is taking action against the World Bank and the IMF whom they directly blame for Africa’s woes. A lush mix of warm colors and inspirational music, Bamako is a unique opportunity for a worldwide audience to become familiar with contemporary Africa.

Available for purchase at our store!

Alex’s Wedding

Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon/France, 2002, 45min.

Director: Jean Marie Teno
Country: Cameroon and France
Year: 2003
Running Time: 45 min.
Language: Bamileke and French

Alex's Wedding, Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon/France, 2002, 45min.
Unlike any wedding video you’ve ever seen, Teno’s sharp eye captures every uncomfortable moment in a polygamous marriage ceremony. Personal, public and generational, this film is a politically committed work that, by the end, sides unequivocally with the women trapped in an enduring tradition.

Available for purchase at our store!

Gone With the Critique

Can we speak of cinema critique when it comes to the cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa? This question, asked in such brutal a manner, still remains an enigma in my view. Under other auspices, the question of critique often translates itself into the effervescence of an atmosphere that is more contentious than consensual, but in any case joyous because it uses knowledge to meliorate works of the mind. It goes without saying that this notion of critique goes hand in hand with the idea of judgment, which for some falls like the blade of a guillotine, and yet for others is akin to grace. Controversy, trials based on supposition, autodafé, jubilation, pleasure, eructation, complacency, outbidding, etc. are all terms that when taken to the public scene, ought to be perceived as a source of progress in that they push the filmmakers to evolve in their aesthetic development and in the way they approach their work. One could have imagined that critique should give rise to a pantheon of masterpieces rather than to craft, but why not knowing how to craft? These debates, taking place frequently in the organized societies of the West, do not always have their equivalent, even though embryonic, in the South. Thu,s is it not daring to affirm that Sub-Saharan African filmmakers are ahead of the critique that is supposed to complement them, a easy assertion inasmuch as the critique is not brilliant.

To Live Out Critique

We can add a second interrogation to the first one, always keeping in mind the concern to satisfy our preoccupation with understanding the stakes of this notion. The questions on which we could linger are the following: what critique? And by reverberation, what is the function of critique? And for that matter, must it have a function? The educational prospects resulting from these questions could probably pique the curiosity of an African public known to be disinclined to engage readily in reading. A public that has not always integrated in its traditions writing and reading, at least within the majority, whereas, paradoxically, radio, cinema and television can be defined as constituting neo-orality hence their perpetual success [is the author referring to what Walter J. Ong called secondary orality?]. The difficulty being in short that these considerations are often accessible mainly if not only through the written word and that can prove to be a real obstacle. It appears to be necessary to create places of debate that would take this constraint into account. Critique is destined for whom? Who is our target audience for critique? Who is our target audience for our films? These questions are endless because the answers are not obvious. We all know that the major part of our [cinematographic] production remains rather inaccessible, insomuch as we remain practically invisible on our own continent. Some productions by filmmakers from the South are conscious of this reality and develop works that integrate these concepts…

In an arbitrary fashion, I do not take into account critique on the subject of our films developed in the North, because my wish is to see emerge a critique birthed in mythical African origins alongside the Northern one. To paraphrase Cheikh Anta Diop who dreamed of Egypt playing the same role for re-thought and renovated African cultures that Greco-Roman antiquity played for European cultures, we must be accountable for the emergence of a theoretical, conceptual, psychological, psychoanalytic, aesthetic, and indexing language that would owe nothing to Oedipus and Electra. The auteurs, in integrating the conscience of these mythologies, should inscribe them into the process of their creations. In this way, they would take on more fully this “factory of keepsakes European style” seasoned with an okra stew spiced with fiery Kongo peppers. Unfortunately those capable of such undertakings, notably Jean Servais Bakyono, Clement Tapsoba, Baba Diop and Manthia Diawara, are few. At present, we are living in a sort of prehistoric time, flavored clockwork orange style, where some of our journalists trying on critique for size are still confusing television and cinema, and the (tele)viewers, critique and publicity. In this game, we are not all equals, for instance the reflection of Arab cinemas of Africa enjoys the benefits of the gaze of specialists, even if they are subjected to a very powerful religious censorship.

A Tradition to be Built

Who sees? Who reads? Who reads what? And under what conditions? If the question of the gaze holds our attention, it is because it is imperative to be able to affirm unconditionally our difference on a universal scene that is monochromatic and monotonous, not only in the form of testimonies proving our existence, but also as actors in a world that has not inscribed us on any map. As addressed in Olivier Barlet’s work African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze, the gaze in question finds several answers that are worth addressing. But the fact of existing in a world without borders, to our great happiness, cannot erase from our creations the repercussions of our environment. “Chaque homme se fonde sur une culture et c’est la sienne, mais pas sur elle seule” [Every man is based in a culture and it is his, but not in it alone: would the other mind sending the reference for that quote in order to find proper translation? I’m guessing it is from Condition Humaine, but I don’t have time to research it.] said Andre Malraux. In order to help our creations grow and expand in more efficient ways, it seems necessary to generate a critical arena in order to produce fundamental texts, capable of elaborating new grids of reading, or at least more original ones. And so we would appreciate even more analytical works that would be a welcome addition to the existing body of work by Paulin Soumanou Vyera, Georges Ngal, Pius Ngandu-Kashama… because these considerations extend to the totality of our artistic practice.