Notes from the 23rd New York African Film Festival

Each year, attending the African Film Festival feels like embarking on a journey across the heart of Africa. I am a comfortable traveler though, and from my seat at Lincoln Center, it is the eternal magic of the moving image that I submit to. I dream, I am amazed, I am angry, I am moved – I visit stunning places, meet extraordinary people, and discover the complexity and beauty of Africa and its Diaspora.

The 23rd edition was no exception with more than 50 works from 25 different countries. Ironically though, opening night brought a full house, not to Africa but to a more distant, idyllic, unexpected place: Vanuatu, a Melanesian Archipelago in the South Pacific! There in the small village of Yakel on the island of Tanna, one of the few remaining tribes in the world, a story of how arranged marriages led to tragedy is told, which made the tribe reconsider their ancestral custom. The landscape is stunningly beautiful. A pinkish, bluish haze and a roaring, belching volcano give a mesmerizing energy and dreamlike quality to the plot. The choice of Tanna to open the festival is less puzzling than it sounds though. First, it is obvious that the protagonists have dark skin and Afro-textured hair but there is more, for they actually describe themselves as the original blacks, some of their distant ancestors having left for what is today Africa! The fact that some words in their language are also found in Swahili or Yoruba has started to intrigue scholars.

Of course there is a little bit of provocation in the choice of a non-African film to open the African Film Festival, but it fits into the mission of the festival and is one of its most constant and endearing features over the years: to challenge viewers, take them out of their comfort zones, subvert stereotypes and traditional notions, and provoke and open minds to unconventional views. I remember Viva Riva a few years back, who took the audience by surprise on opening night with a beautiful erotic scene and graphic violence, which many resented as “non-African,” although some marveled at the ability of African filmmakers to fit into the genre and create a compelling action movie — with depth and a social conscience, I would say. Coming back to opening night, Tanna was unanimously well received (“It could have been worse” was the most severe comment I overheard by someone who saw it as another anthropological movie). I think most people liked the unusual and yet familiar tragic romance, so beautifully enacted. Some also felt that we should listen to the Tanna, for we have lost our ways, lost what is humane in us. The Tanna have wisdom, and dignity and tolerance. As someone in the audience pointed out: they are more civilized than we are.

Tanna Director Bentley Dean with AFF Executive Director, Mahen Bonetti at Opening Night of the 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Lindsey Seide
Tanna Director Bentley Dean with AFF Executive Director, Mahen Bonetti at Opening Night of the 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Lindsey Seide

Under the banner “Modern Days, Ancient Nights: Fifty Years of African Filmmaking”, the 23rd edition paid tribute to its most revered master, Ousmane Sembène, and offered a possibility to reflect about the changes and meaningful shifts that have marked African cinema in the course of those fifty years. A great number of filmmakers programmed this year were women. It reminded me that in 1993, the first edition, there was only one woman in a sea of distinguished males: Safi Faye, who deserves recognition as a pioneer. The Senegalese director went on to make Mossane, highlight of the 4th edition, winner in Cannes in 1996, and a true classic. Watching Hermon Hailay’s beautiful film, Price of Love, centerpiece of the 23rd edition, and the films of many other promising young female directors, I could not help thinking not only about the determination it took for women to embrace a career fiercely guarded by males, but also about the thematic evolution from Mossane, set in a traditional peasant village with its natural aesthetic beauty, gorgeous setting, ancestral rites and customs, to Price of Love set in an urban, bustling, modern city where a taxi driver unwillingly gets entangled with a prostitute. Modern Days, Ancient Nights – both stories are beautiful and end tragically. Both films represent two widely different images of Africa, two different epochs in filmmaking.

I liked Price of Love, and Lamb and Red Leaves also shown this year, because I still want to be told a story, be charmed, and drawn into the lives and adventures of fictional characters who touch me. But documentaries inform, and they are getting more attention today than before, as they are the work of creative, original filmmakers who explore the amazing complexity and depth of real life in a compelling and personal way. And they also tell stories, but differently. The fact that on a beautiful sunny warm Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock—after five days of cold unrelenting rain—screenings were sold out for two documentaries, shows that the audience shares that interest. Both the film Queen Nanny, which explores the legend of the Jamaican warrior who defeated the British and Yemanjá, which investigates the origin of Candomblé in Brazil, are attractive and well researched. They seek to retrieve clues into the past from the present. They recover priceless facts, gather fragile testimonies and put them together to reconstruct stories that have long been lost, suppressed or distorted, told by others or never told before.

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Guests attend the screenings of Queen Nanny and Yemanjá at The 23rd New York African Film Festival. Photo: Victoria Trentacoste

Let us not forget that it is also the festival that brought to New York the first documentaries by African filmmakers, especially Jean-Marie Téno’s Afrique je te plumerai (Africa I Will Fleece You, 1st edition of the festival). At a time when fiction was overwhelmingly the choice of filmmakers, he realized the potential of documentaries to help change the negative representations suffered by Africans and empowered them to reclaim the past and tell their own stories. His very personal and direct approach to documentaries influenced generations of filmmakers after him. Many favorites of the public this year were documentaries, for instance Martha & Niki, the poignant story told, with so much empathy, of two successful female hip-hop dancers whose very different outlooks on life tears them apart. I noticed lots of teary eyes after the screening.

Many films also touched upon controversial social issues —prostitution, child witchcraft, integration of LGBT people and values, and the role that the creative arts can play in rebuilding a country after genocide. The festival is a forum where ideas are discussed, where the public meets filmmakers; filmmakers who hardly know of each other’s existence on the continent meet each other, and all have the rare opportunity to exchange views and mix in a relaxed atmosphere. The Q&As were well attended, more so it seems than in previous years, with a well-informed public, anxious to tackle real issues.

The conversation was also enhanced by the presence of distinguished historians and scholars who sometimes offer lectures in their area of expertise, as was the case when Professor Mamadou Diouf and Professor Clyde Taylor discussed Manthia Diawara’s imaginary conversation entitled Negritude: A Dialogue Between Wole Soyinka And Senghor. They provided additional facts and a broader frame of reference, so much so that the public quietly left the theater when asked, but resolutely sat in the amphitheater eager to hear more.

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Manthia Diawara’s Negritude: A Dialogue Between Wole Soyinka and Senghor post screening discussion with Professors Mamadou Diouf and Clyde Taylor. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez

The ethnocentric point of view of anthropological studies has often been condemned, but watching Pastor Paul, one can experience a sense of gleeful vindication as the situation unfolds and the observer becomes the observed. Pastor Paul tells the story of a Western scientist, clueless and candid, who comes to Africa to study drumming and the mathematical structure of rhythm. Only he ignores their spiritual power. He is hired to play a ghost in a Nollywood movie and becomes possessed – I particularly liked the reversal of roles. He is the object of uncomprehending looks and idle speculation. The rationalizing Westerner is even accused of being “unpredictable” by the African director who scrutinizes him and observes his erratic behavior with growing perplexity.

“Today male and female directors and actors are talented, enthusiastic and considerably younger.”

Africa in NY, a series of shorts, was a wonderful surprise. I was thrilled to see the line-up of young filmmakers come on stage for the Q&A: imaginative, talented and perceptive, comfortable on stage but slightly surprised to be in the spotlight, knowing that they represent the future of African film. In their films they are skilled at conveying strong emotions. They explore the creative freedom offered by technical innovation and they play a part in the evolution of narrative in cinema in general. The director of Reluctantly Queer, for instance, uses veiled black and white images to tell the story of a young man painfully torn between his beautifully fulfilling love story with a man and the pain he will cause his mother in Africa; or Olive, where juxtaposing two stories in black and white with sparse dialogue and striking cinematography, conveys the most harrowing story of love and betrayal; or Contained where the filmmaker uses simple, visual effects to bring the audience into the mind of a man held in complete isolation as he is suspected of having Ebola.

Xavier Coleman, Iquo Essien, MaameYaa Boafo, Hoji Fortuna, Alfonso Johnson, Ntare Mwine and Mamadou Dia at the 23rd NYAFF. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez
Xavier Coleman, Iquo Essien, MaameYaa Boafo, Hoji Fortuna, Alfonso Johnson, Ntare Mwine and Mamadou Dia at the 23rd NYAFF. Photo: Daniel Rodriguez

Watching the line-up, some of the earliest days of the New York African Film Festival came back to my mind — the “classic period”, I would say, when it was more solemn. The filmmakers on stage were prestigious, intimidating, sometimes demanding, overwhelmingly male and considerably older than us. Today male and female directors and actors are talented, enthusiastic and considerably younger. And they are attuned to the world in which they live in a wonderful way. And, yes, they certainly know how to tell a story.

I continued my journey up to Maysles Cinema in Harlem, the next venue of the festival. We had the leisure of attending a screening (among others equally interesting) of a three hour monumental exploration of contemporary Egypt: the various political, religious and social forces at play explaining the somewhat comparable paths of three subsequent rulers: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The filmmaker, Jihan El-Tahri, herself a powerful presence, charismatic and effervescent, made up for a twenty minute unexpected pause during the screening, substituting for image and sound, adding comments and her thoughts. After the screening, she answered questions with equal patience and competence. And with a most radiant infectious laugh, she admitted a preference for Nasser and declared that if she had to summarize her monumental work in one single sentence, she would call it “The failure of the post-colonial state”. In the festival, it had a more appealing title: Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs.

Post-screening discussion of Egypt's Modern Pharaoh's with Malika Lee Whitney and director Jihan El-Tahri. Photo: Dara Ojugbele
Post-screening discussion of Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs with Malika Lee Whitney and director Jihan El-Tahri. Photo: Dara Ojugbele

Then, at the end of May, I took the train to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), to an equally comfortable seat in a comfortable theater for the last part of my journey and the last five days of the festival. Most films here were dedicated to Senegal (complementing DanceAfrica’s spotlight this year on the country). Fabrice Monteiro’s photos have a clear message: we must save the planet. To reach out to young generations the photographer becomes a contemporary storyteller. In his tale, the earth Gaia is suffering from the abuse that humans wield on her. So she sends messengers who represent different wounds with scientific names: depletion, air pollution, toxic wastes, land over-exploitation and desertification. Only here they are embodied by traditional ominous spirits, the jinns – gigantic, aesthetically beautiful figures made of recycled material with the collaboration of the creative Senegalese designer Jah Gal. They are asking humans to change their ways. The film The Prophecy aptly chronicles the making of the photos, showing how tradition and art intertwine to send a hopeful message to those who have a role to play in the future. And there are solutions, says Fabrice Monteiro. Young people must realize they have the power to make changes.

Moussa Touré’s TGV shown at BAM, with the passengers of a Dakar bus en route for the border of Guinea, embarked on a hazardous journey in a lush, desolate landscape, reminded me of the classic Western: Stagecoach. Except here, danger did not come from Indians but from the imaginary “Bijagos.” Moussa Touré clearly intended to pay tribute to the classic Western movie, but his luminous social satire, incisive and funny, is a free adaptation of the conventions of the genre. One recognizes the atmosphere of impending doom, the long close-ups, diffident stares, the suspense, ominous signs, the breathtaking landscapes, etc., but the plot and the characters — the polygamist, the rainmaker, the marabout, the politician – are decidedly Africans. Another interesting departure is the fact that one night as all the passengers look for a place to sleep, the three women band together… mischievously, as if they were not impressed by their men playing cowboys. The film was made in 1997, but it remains vividly modern and the dialogues are subtle and full of biting humor.

I wonder whether today’s young filmmakers know that all African filmmakers once upon a time wanted to make a Western, not unlike Italians with their passion for spaghetti Westerns. They did more than an imitation though, they wanted to add their own voice to the general fascination for Western movies and the myth of the hero, and pay tribute to a genre they grew up with. As Cheik Fantamady Camara thus summarized: in the 70’s we dressed up as cowboys and filmed with a fake camera. When they had real cameras, they went beyond the boundaries of the genre, as brilliantly shown by Moussa Touré. It is interesting to trace this fascination for Western movies in African cinema. Think of Mambety’s Hyenas. Even though his film is based on a play by Swiss author Dürrenmatt, he cannot help giving a Far West flavor to his set – remember the station in the middle of nowhere, the sort of saloon where idle men hang around all day, the train that never comes but keeps whistling in the distance. And even Abderrahmane Sissako with his brilliant film Bamako, in which he stages the trial of the World Bank, makes a totally unexpected cameo appearance in the film as “Cowboy 2”, alongside Danny Glover as “Cowboy 3”. In the 60’s, some African filmmakers actually dreamed of making a “real” Western, as shown by Rahmatou Keita in her wonderful film Al’leesi (2004) that documents the birth of cinema in Niger in the 60’s. I remember a filmmaker excessively annoyed when a giraffe suddenly appeared in the distance ruining his take of the presumed American West.

“Some of Sembène’s Pan-African vision and his vision of women taking their fate in their own hands had come true.”

The audience at BAM gave a warm welcome to Samba Gadjigo’s film SEMBENE! and appreciated the presence of Samba Gadjigo, who engaged audience members in a post-screening Q&A. Samba is the official biographer of Ousmane Sembène and was also a close friend of the director. Their closeness, which covers a span of many years, allows for a more intimate portrait of the fierce “rebel who used his camera as a weapon.” The film also documents Sembene’s long career and shows excerpts from his films, which makes it a fascinating retrospective and homage to the master. A striking image stays with me: a very old man with failing eyesight, shakily moving around the set and yet handling, for the first time, an international cast and crew, working 12 hours a day in a remote place plagued by unbearable heat and no electricity. And making Moolaadé his last and most optimistic film about a most controversial topic: female genital mutilation. I can imagine the glee he felt when coming to the 2005 festival, his last visit, he sat one evening surrounded by young female filmmakers from east Africa, and guests of the festival, vehemently discussing genital mutilation. He had been heard. The old rebel had a smile on his face and remained silent. Some of his Pan-African vision and his vision of women taking their fate into their own hands had come true.

Here ended this year’s journey, but I would like to add a word on how it began. It was a town hall event three days before opening night, quite an experience and a huge success! As part of Thomas Allen Harris’ Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, some guests and participants’ cherished photos from their family albums were projected on a large screen. As their owners shared memories, the audience felt drawn into the lives of people they did not know and who became strangely familiar. Just like African films tell us a different story than the ones portrayed for too many decades by others, photos do the same, they reclaim and enrich the past.  A digital display of DDFRR photos —some stunningly beautiful – ran in the amphitheater at Lincoln Center during the festival, a perfect companion to fifty years of African filmmaking.

Historian Leonard Davis sharing family photos at the 23rd NYAFF Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow event. Photo: Lindsey Seide
Historian Leonard Davis sharing family photos at the 23rd NYAFF Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow event. Photo: Lindsey Seide

When Film Is a Festival

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While millions of Americans experience the rise and fall of summer blockbusters, enthusiastic audiences see radically different movies in jam-packed theaters. I’m not thinking of your local multiplex, where the latest Woody Allen movie might sneak onto one of the screens, or of the few remaining specialized cinemas that regularly play foreign films, but instead of your friendly annual film festival.

Born in Venice in 1932, film festivals have exploded worldwide in recent decades. Every significant international metropolis, up-and-coming city or hamlet now has one of its own. France alone hosts some 500 film festivals — that’s more than one for every day of the year. The best festival you may have never heard of, the Telluride Film Festival, takes place each Labor Day weekend in Colorado.

Festivals nourish world cinema, sustaining its evolution as an art form as well its militant dimension. They support a greater diversity of subjects, points of view and styles than found on Netflix or Amazon. Festivals keep alive the communal experience of film viewing, considered an anachronism in the age of laptops and cell phones. Many also court controversy. In 2011, Berlin invited Iranian director Jafar Panahi, then under house arrest in his native country, to serve on its jury, a position Panahi was not allowed to accept.

Festivals come in all shapes, sizes and flavors; LGBT, African-American, Celtic and more. There are festivals of African cinema in New York, Jewish cinema in Hong Kong and Asian cinema in Italy. Every conceivable genre has its showcase, while a first-rate nonfiction film on any topic will find a festival devoted to it’s very own subject matter.

Festivals sift through the abundance of new digital movies, selecting among tens of thousands of features produced each year, curating the outstanding and sparing us the worst. In 2015, Sundance showed 118 features out of 4,105 submissions. A filmmaker has less chance of getting a short shown at Telluride than a high school student has of gaining admission into Stanford.

Major festivals – such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto — work hand-in-hand with global media industries. Business and publicity (markets, stars, red carpets, press conferences, paparazzi) butter their bread. After the FIFA men’s World Cup, Cannes is the most mediated event in the world, attended annually by more than 4,000 accredited journalists. Such mega-festivals sport budgets in the tens of millions of dollars.

On the other hand, small U.S. festivals with tiny budgets bring excellent independent American and foreign films to eager local audiences. Even Sebastopol, California (population 7,596), has a fine documentary jamboree.

A good film festival resembles a successful rock concert. It is, above all, a live event, with directors and critics on hand for post-screening debates. Film lovers spend hours queuing in eager anticipation. In 2013, an Indiewire critic waited in line for 90 minutes at Telluride to watch All Is Lost, with star Robert Redford in attendance. At 109 minutes, the movie itself lasted barely longer than the wait.

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A David among Goliaths, Telluride combines elements of mega-festivals such as Venice and smaller, more intimate, events. With a population of just 2,319, the town welcomes, each Labor Day weekend, more than 3,500 passholders. Unlike the mega-events, however, Telluride forgoes red carpets, press conferences and prizes. Bucking trends, the festival doesn’t even announce its program in advance.

And yet, despite its Rocky Mountain remoteness, tiny Telluride has hosted the world, or North American, premiere of virtually every Oscar-winning Best Picture in the past seven years, including Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Birdman (2014). Venice, Telluride and Toronto all take place in early September, competing with each other to host the most prestigious premieres. Early buzz at Telluride opens the fall season of North American award speculation that climaxes with the Oscars. So, major festivals confer capital — economic as well as cultural — on successful movies. Similarly, award-winning films bring cachet to the festivals that first project them.

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Fortunately, would-be Oscar fare is not the only item on the menu at Telluride. The program always includes substantial helpings of documentaries, foreign films, shorts — works that may never receive U.S. distribution. Plus, crowds there discover revivals of forgotten classics, presented by the likes of novelist Salman Rushdie or avant-garde theater director Peter Sellars, who bring greater star power to the venues than the retrospectives themselves. A handful of beautiful pre-1930 silent movies unfurl with live musical accompaniment, breathing life into a lost art.

Without film festivals, our media landscape would be poorer. Little-known American documentaries and independent movies show aspects of our nation occulted by the mass media. International cinema reaches American shores at festivals more than anywhere else. If you’re interested in seeing how people live in other countries, turn off CNN and Fox News, and head down to your local film festival. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch Abbas Fahdel’s 2015 documentary Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), a five-and-a-half hour exploration of his family’s day-to-day life in Baghdad before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion, a vanished world heartbreakingly preserved on digital video. Homeland will have its North American premiere at the upcoming 2015 New York Film Festival, another jewel in the festival galaxy.

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As the etymology of “festival” suggests, good film festivals are also fun. Imagine the satisfaction that comes from viewing movies by, for and about LGBT folks in the presence of hundreds of other LGBTs. Even if some of the movies spotlight outrageous discrimination, solidarity and community reign.

I spent a week this August in south-central France at the Lussas Film Festival, what many there call the “Woodstock of documentary.” More than 5,000 directors, producers, critics and students descended on the petit village of Lussas (pop. 823) for a week of 150 screenings, seminars, copious conversations and local cuisine. The documentaries explored PTSD among U.S. veterans of the occupation of Iraq, life and death among four generations of an Argentinian family, disenfranchised fishermen in the Azores islands and some more playful subjects, too.

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Lussas is a festival mostly for young people; the twenty-something students slept in tents in open fields, while their elders paid to stay at modest accommodations. As in Telluride, the festival is the only game in town, so everyone hangs out together.

Admittedly, the world’s problems won’t be solved by watching documentaries in the French countryside. But doing so doesn’t make our troubles worse. At midnight on August 22, the annual Lussas adventure concluded its final, open air screening. Under a crescent moon, an animated documentary charted the nine-months’ gestation of France’s 2013 legalization of marriage for all. Vive la différence! Et vivent les festivals!

 

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on September 8th, 2015.

MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE SCREEN: A Story about Africa in Cinema

The car glided to a stop. At least, that was how Dikeogu felt. Entering the lush “gated community,” squinting at what seemed like set-after-set of a very lavish budget Hollywood production and a reel of disorienting scenarios playing in his head, seemed like an out-of-body experience. An ornate fountain, at the center of the drive-way, adds a soothing, ethereal soundtrack, from the spouts and tinkles of water around an angel, with an enchanting poise and exquisite wings spread like a ballerina. Three gentle taps on the passenger-side window rouse him out of his reverie. He had not noticed Kathy get out of the car and walk around to him. Through the glass, he reads her lips which were saying, ‘We are here . . . !’ Stifling his embarrassment with an uneasy smile, he opens the door, nearly stumbling out.

Dikeogu, “from Africa”, had come on this visit at the insistence of Kathy and her grandparents, Grand Pa Sam, or GPS, as she affectionately refers to him, and Grand Dame Penelope, or GDP, her grandmother’s nickname. He had wondered about the “Grand Dame” moniker but Kathy laughed it off, saying that people think she has “an aristocratic bearing.” Kathy let out, too, that as a child, she was called TLC which, variously, stood for ‘The Loving Child’, ‘Tender Loving Child’, or, after her given name, ‘The Loving Catherine’. In her in late teens, however, she “opted for Kathy, as a preamble to a needful declaration of independence.” Her earnestness made Dikeogu giggle. According to her, both grandparents, retired physicians, “met during their Peace Corps years, fell in love with Africa and each other or, vice versa.” She has never been sure which love came first but it helped, though, that both share a passion for “Africa movies.”

GPS had been deliberately vague about this invitation and Dikeogu accepted it with a foreboding sense of adventure. As they walk up to the front-door, Kathy flashes him a reassuring smile. ‘Now, remember, just be your self.’ She pauses, looks him over gently, taps on the door and, without waiting, opens it. Inside, the delicate fragrance of fresh flowers fills the room and in a corner, next to a large-screen TV, a genial sixty-something-year-old man rises to greet them, from a handcrafted armchair, so meticulously accented with African motifs that it looks like a throne. He hugs Kathy who gently kisses him on both cheeks. They exchange brief affectionate looks, as he ruffles her hair tenderly, before stepping up.

‘Welcome…,’ he said, extending his hand.

‘Thank you…,’ Dikeogu replied, slightly flinching at the firm shake.

Kathy looks on, wrestling feebly with relief and apprehension. Silence. Leaning, and feigning confidentiality, GPS whispered into Kathy’s ears, before leading her out of earshot, and gently closing the door behind them. They exchange curious looks, and he nods beyond the door.

‘What about him,’ Kathy asks.

‘You’re not pregnant or anything…?’

‘Grand Pa, stop!’

‘Just asking’

‘Again, we are classmates. Law students with a passion for social justice… Nothing more!’

GPS thinks that over for a moment, then, tilting his head in an awkward gesture of penitence, smiles and nods.

‘Got it’

‘Don’t forget,’ she smirks, mischievously. ‘Now, where’s Grand Ma?’

‘Stepped out…’

‘But she knew we were coming’

‘Something came up. Well, you know her… Never would pass up a cause for Africa’

‘Hmmm…,’ slightly rolling her eyes. ‘Malaria, Meningitis, Malnutrition…’

GPS’ forefinger across his lips, promptly, shut her up.

Alone, Dikeogu did a quick but scrupulous survey of the living room. He noticed that GPS had been reading a tourist magazine, with a special edition on Africa. Around the room, contemporary African art, sculpture, painting, masques, conceptual pieces, jockeyed for space with an eclectic collection of curious, clay and wooden objets d’art that the aura felt like a cross between a museum and a hip ‘post-colonial’ gallery.

It was early evening by the time GPS had finished regaling them with reminiscences “about life in the bush”, including advice, before his departure for the Peace Corps service, from “well-meaning people” some of which, even then, he thought were crazy. Others, “more circumspect”, advised against nationalists, communists, carnivorous cockroaches, reptiles and hepatitis. His mother only wished he would bring home an African princess. Neither the fears nor romantic wishes came true. Even then, his mother never stopped calling GDP “her African princess”.

As they drive out, Kathy asks, ‘So, where are we going?’

‘To Africa’, GPS replies, calmly.

‘Seriously’

‘Just wait and see’

They pull up at an exclusive country club where the valet, dressed in faux Royal uniform, ushers them into the lobby, with affected courtesy. Very briefly, Dikeogu considers affecting an RP British accent, which he heard that Americans were deferential to, but settles for going with the flow, as if used to the atmosphere and lifestyle, since birth. Golden-toned background music, flowers, props, refreshments, and such opulent attention to detail! He saunters over to the bar and emerging with a full wine glass in hand, joins Kathy who is looking at a big film foster, spotlighted near a theater entrance.

Dikeogu glances around surreptitiously, before pinching himself. GPS is chatting so casually with people Dikeogu had only seen on TV, in newspapers and magazines. Kathy and Dikeogu exchange meaningful glances as it dawns on them, that they are at an exclusive preview soiree. It dawns on him, even more, that Kathy, ever so modest on campus, comes from a background of the type referred to as “old money”. He takes a closer look at the poster and winces. In it, a latex-gloved hand leads a forlorn African child away from a background of absolute havoc. Kathy shuffles her feet, uncomfortably, as they read the tag line: Somewhere in the depths of Africa, a relief mission goes wrong, awfully wrong.

After the screening, they had dinner in a private booth, and, as they drove away, GPS let out a chuckle.

‘What’s so funny, Grand Pa?’

‘Things, here and there, they got wrong in the film’

‘And, that’s funny?’

‘I was a consultant for the film’

‘You…?’

‘Hey, I know Africa’

‘Don’t be too sure’, Dikeogu cuts in, to the relief of Kathy who falls silent, there after.

‘I have lived over there, and know Africa’

‘Which Africa, or, rather, whose Africa do you know so well?’

‘I am nearly seventy and was there, perhaps, before your dad was born’

‘Fair enough’

‘So, what is the problem?’

‘These types of films… Their exotic and abject Africa’

‘But it was filmed on location…’

‘And marked with stamps of authenticity’, Dikeogu interrupts, sarcastically.

‘I wouldn’t quite put it that way’.

‘Let me put it this way, then… African cinema will have its say, some day’

‘No doubt… The correct quote, though, is: “History will one day have its say”’

‘That, too. Knew Lumumba…?

‘That was from a farewell letter to his wife, Pauline’

‘Know who killed him…?

GPS stares ahead, without further words. Fleeting lights and shadows of the road complicate discerning his thoughts or emotions. They drive in silence for what seems like eternity. Dikeogu digs deeper into his seat convinced he would be tossed out, any moment. As if on a cue, Kathy’s nervous cough breaks the silence. GPS clears his throat and, without any hint of bitterness, says, nodding to Dikeogu, ‘OK… I see your point’.

As they headed back to campus, later, Dikeogu made a mental note to include a copy of Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa in his thank-you card to GPS and GDP.

That night, in bed, GPS tossed and turned so much that GDP, ordinarily a gentle soul, was forced to rouse him. Awakened, he turned to her, with puzzlement in his eyes.

‘Who are you?’

‘Funny…,’ raising her brows. ‘Very funny’

‘Hey…,’ passing a hand over his eyes. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Princess… The African Princess… Who else?’

‘That rings a bell…’

‘How loud?’

GDP watches him, closely. For a while, he does not move. Then, he tweaked his nose, sighs, and tries, unsuccessfully, to disguise his embarrassment.

‘Oh, forget it’

‘What was that all about, then…?,’ lifting her hand to touch his cheek, gently. After a while, he clears his throat but says nothing. He appears quite rattled. She notices his hands begin to clench, then taps him on a shoulder. He shrugs and, following a deep breath, speaks…

‘As dreams go, we were in New York, at the New York African Film Festival, and had just watched this documentary, by a young African woman, titled: Please, Wait Here.’

He stops, abruptly, staring at the ceiling. GDP waits expectantly, becoming increasingly impatient at the suspense. Instinctively, she looks at the ceiling, studying it as if for clues, before taking his hand.

‘Are you OK…?’

‘I can’t talk about this easily… The dehumanizing experiences of Africans at airport immigration posts, around the world’

‘Security, contrabands, human trafficking, perhaps…?’

‘Think again’.

‘Hmmm…,’ GDP replied, pensively rubbing her lower chins.

‘In one scene, a pregnant African professor, invited as the keynote speaker of a prestigious scholarly conference, recounts how she was subjected to invasive and unnecessary cavity searches’

‘No way…!’

Pulling GDP closer, GPS tells of how the director’s wit and engaging demeanor, during the question-and-answer session, reminds him of Lupita Nyong’o accepting the Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave. Pooling resources for the documentary, without any government support, even had, according to her, “the hooks and twists of a situation comedy”. For example, some government officials, “the sympathetic ones, cited priorities and offered only moral support”. Other responses ranged from hostility, indifference, to concerns about how the film will affect “international relations”. The latter, she said, drawing laughter from the audience, was euphemism for foreign aid, largely, from the West. Even then, she turned down “Trojan gifts from certain NGOs, advocacy groups, donor agencies, to maintain artistic integrity and creative autonomy”. Amidst the spirited exchanges between the director and audience, a lock turned in the heart of an elderly, Black woman. Her arthritic conditions were perceptible as she walked to the microphone, set near the podium, for comments and questions. Very calmly, she waited her turn and, between emotional gulps, pledged to finance the director’s next project, whatever it may be, and bankroll the festival’s next edition, without strings. The eclectic audience was so stunned one could have heard a pin drop. Then, the applause roared…

‘And, that was when you woke me up.’

Their eyes meet and linger. Hers are moist with tears and, soon after, his.

My FESPACO Diary: One filmmaker’s Journey to Africa’s Oscars

fespaco-headquartersFESPACO Headquarters (Iquo B. Essien)

After an October 2014 coup toppled the 27-year presidency of Blaise Compaoré, most thought the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) would be cancelled.

Compaoré played a role in his own demise. When he proposed a constitutional amendment lifting term limits, which would have allowed him to run for President a fifth time, more than 1 million Burkinabés marched on the National Assembly, halting the vote by burning the building—and the adjacent Hotel Independance, where parliamentarians were lodged—to the ground. In the aftermath, the military took over and Compaoré was forced to resign, fleeing the country on a wave of popular dissent.

Though FESPACO organizers maintained that the show would go on, scant weeks before its opening no announcement had been made as to what films would be screening.

When a friend posted a congratulatory message on my Facebook wall, I still hadn’t heard back on my submission. Skeptical, I visited the festival website and found an announcement listing my short film, Aissa’s Story, as an official festival selection.

For years I had dreamed of attending FESPACO, the continent’s version of the Oscars that convenes biennially in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The fact that it happened every other year made it seem even more like a myth. Ousmane Sembene. Haile Gerima. Mahamat Saleh Haroun. These and many others had won the coveted Étalon de Yennenga prize, some from countries that didn’t even have cinemas. I had a hard time imagining myself walking in their footsteps.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I received an email—addressed to Sir Iquo Essien—that confirmed it, asking for a DVCam and Blu Ray of my film to be sent immediately to FESPACO.

The theme of the 24th Edition, “African Cinema: Production and Distribution in the Digital Era,” reflected a major shift in festival policy. Digital films could be submitted, as opposed to only 35mm film prints, and the French subtitles requirement was relaxed, leading to a surge in Anglophone African films. ECOWAS had also announced a new prize for Best Female Director, promoting women’s roles in innovation and development.

I accepted the invitation to attend, writing:

Thank you for this letter. I will send the copies. I have explained several times already that I am a woman. Please be advised that I cannot use an invitation letter calling me Sir. I am Ms. Iquo B. Essien. Thank you.

In short order, the festival organizers corrected my title and re-sent the letter. I hoped the small act might symbolize the death of a set of preconceived notions about FESPACO, namely: that it was a festival dominated by men, Francophone Africans, and established, as opposed to emerging, filmmakers. Some of these ideas had their roots in fact, given that Francophone Africans, unlike those in the British and Belgian ex-colonies, benefited historically from funding by the French Ministry of Cooperation.

These filmmakers used their art as a tool for reclaiming the image of Africa post-independence, as well as political and cultural autonomy. These goals converged with the 1969 creation of FESPACO and the Federation of African Filmmakers promoting production, distribution and exhibition—that were, at the time, primarily Francophone male endeavors, though Anglophones and women have since been invited to the table.

Now forty years later, there exist two strands of African filmmaking that, quite literally, still struggle to speak to each other. But then there are films like mine—a story about a Francophone African immigrant housekeeper, inspired by the very public journey of Nafissatou Diallo, directed by a woman of Anglophone African parentage—that sit at a curious nexus between all these.

My hope was to create a truly universal, bilingual film that spoke to everyone. So I spent the five weeks leading up to FESPACO, with the exception of a few days in France for CinéSud, in preparation: designing posters and postcards, subtitling my film in French (and English), burning Blu Rays and DVDs, mailing my screeners to Ouagadougou, and checking my email every day for confirmation they’d been received.

Ultimately, when my film got lost in the mail, I was instructed to hand deliver it to the projectionist upon arrival—the thought of which made me anxious, since I had heard horror stories about screenings being cancelled altogether. Taking a deep breath, I burned several extra Blu Rays and, camera in hand, boarded a flight for FESPACO.

GETTING THERE

A few rows back, I spotted Ghanaian director Akosua Adoma Owusu sitting on the opposite side of the plane. We had met back in May at the African Film Festival New York run by veteran programmer, Mahen Bonetti. Adoma was a wunderkind of sorts, with dual degrees in art and film that she’d parlayed into screenings at venues as wide ranging as the Whitney Museum of Art and the Berlinale.

She slid into one of the empty seats beside me and we passed the flight chatting and watching in-flight movies, one of which—Render to Caesar, starring Gbenga Akinnagbe and Wole Ojo—would be screened at FESPACO.

Eight hours later, after a fish and rice dinner, we landed in Morocco where a stone-faced control officer inspected my travel documents in a booth decked with a happy-face sticker that read: SMILE, YOU’RE IN CASABLANCA. It was a strange juxtaposition to his icy stare, flipping through my Nigerian passport looking for a visa.

“I don’t need one to travel to Burkina Faso,” I explained, both in English and broken French.

Visa-free travel was one of the perks of having an ECOWAS passport, although he was the fifth airport official I’d encountered who didn’t know that. Eventually he stamped my passport, motioning me down a walkway to hotel accommodations for our 16-hour layover.

With vouchers from the travel office, Adoma and I dragged our bags outside into the chilly, clear dawn. Waiting for the hotel shuttle, we snapped pictures of the airport, sunrise, and lazy palm trees in the distance. Casablanca was a beautiful city. I wanted to see more of it than just the hotel, but ended up sleeping most of the layover away, before we boarded another plane for Ouagadougou.

We landed in Burkina Faso at midnight. Having lost Adoma in the passport check line, I wandered down to the arrivals lobby alone.  A swarm of hawkers and cabbies milled around outside, dimly illuminated by the neon red sign of the Aéroport International de Ouagadougou. Peering into the crowd, I scanned their faces looking for someone from FESPACO.

“Taxi?” a portly man in a plaid shirt asked, waving his hand toward the parking lot.

“Non merci,” I replied, wandering back inside.

All told, the entire trip had taken more than 30 hours. I was beyond exhausted. If someone didn’t show up soon, I was going to have a problem.

Sensing my desperation, a pretty, apple-faced woman in a batik shirt approached me.

“Are you here for FESPACO?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, breathing a sigh of relief.

Crossing my name off a list, she wheeled my luggage outside where I found Adoma standing with a group of people. Minutes later, we sat in the waiting room of an adjacent building watching a recap of the festival’s opening ceremony that we’d missed earlier that evening. The 5000-seat Palais de Sportes stadium overflowed with spectators who were regaled with a variety of performances by men on stilts, dance troupes, and Senegalese musician Ismaël Lô.

As the TV blared, a stream of women in the same matching batik shirts attended to guests with visa issues while the organizers dispatched hotel shuttles. I recognized at least a dozen people from our flight alone and a dozen more from the airport. The scope of the ceremony, plane tickets, hotels, and support staff defied comprehension, suggesting vast sums of money and/or government sponsorship.

Not only was the entire country of Burkina Faso seemingly involved in FESPACO, but every major African filmmaker, journalist, actor, and programmer as well—making it the largest festival I’d ever attended.

Soon they rounded us up for a shuttle to the Golden Tulip Hotel—a statuesque building that rose high above a lake at the edge of town. At the check-in desk, we received our room cards and wi-fi passwords, but no festival brochures. Speculating that the organizers would drop packets off in the morning, we said good night and rode the elevators up to our rooms.

Dropping my bags on the floor, I drew open the curtains and gazed out at the lake ringed with lights that set the water aglow. Even in the dead of night, the view was breathtaking. Removing my shoes, I collapsed into bed and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

DAY ONE

In the morning, I ate a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant overlooking the swimming pool. Grabbing some fruit and two croissants, I sat down at a table with Djia Mambu, a journalist from Congo-Brazzaville, and Ayuko Babu, a distinguished gentleman who helped found the Pan African Film Festival. Before we could start a proper conversation, Adoma rushed in.

“Iquo, your film is playing at 11!”

“Are you sure?” I replied, glancing at the clock; it was past ten. I didn’t even know where the cinema was.

“I just saw the screening schedule. We might have to take a cab to the theatre, I don’t think there’s a shuttle,” she added.

Inhaling the fruit, I ran into the lobby where a FESPACO booth manned by a pair of twenty-somethings had appeared. Between them, they shared a single copy of the screening schedule and catalogue listing 134 films. We could copy it, they said, if we needed to. My film was showing at Cine Neerwaya in exactly 45 minutes—and none of us had any francs for a cab.

While Djia changed money at the front desk, Adoma and I ran outside to the parking lot where the hotel taxi driver quoted an exorbitant 4000 francs. Appalled, we walked out to the main road where we waved our arms in the dry heat trying to hail one of the cheaper green taxis. Five minutes later, sweat trailed down my legs and still, even with Djia’s help, we couldn’t hail a cab. A trickle of cars passed by, but no taxis; we were too far off the main road.

Adoma and I left Djia in the street and went back to the parking lot to try and negotiate with the cabbie. We settled on 3000 francs, scooping Djia up as we headed downtown along the Avenue du Président Thomas Sankara—named for the slain leader whose radical, anti-imperialist policies cost him his life, many believe, at the hands of the now disgraced Compaoré.

The road teemed with cars, buses, and fleets of motorbikes—the preferred mode of transport, used by a preponderance of women—and a small herd of goats on leashes, tugged along by a weather-beaten man in a cap and shorts. We sped past a string of embassies, schools, and the Museum of Music, all coated in a layer of dust blown in by the windy harmattan.

Their front gates were low and accessible, absent the barbed wire and shards of glass one might see in Nigeria. Missing also were the haphazard police checkpoints, set up every few kilometers with a plank of wood and a few nails. Traffic flowed along smoothly and, fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Cine Neerwaya without so much as a roadside squabble. I felt like I’d entered some kind of nirvana. There they were, post-revolution Burkinabés co-existing peacefully with a sense of order and direction.

It was Africa 3.0, something I’d read about in future-gazing books and blogs, but had yet to really experience. And film was right at the center of it—making this FESPACO 3.0.

cine-neerwaya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CINE NEERWAYA (Iquo B. Essien)

Absent a festival badge, I talked my way past the security check and hand sanitizing station—where a man in a lab coat squirted a blob of clear liquid in my palm—over to a FESPACO official, who pointed me to the projectionist’s booth. At five minutes to 11:00AM, I burst in the door, finding several young men sitting calmly in the air-conditioned room. As one cued up the first film, the others looked at me quizzically, waiting for me to speak.

“Parlez-vous l’anglais?” I began tentatively, addressing the one closest to me.

“Yes,” he replied. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m the director of Aissa’s Story. I have to give you the film!” I shouted, waving the Blu Ray in the air.

He calmly relayed the message to another guy who, holding up a DVD case, said he already had it.

“Oh, it arrived?” I replied, feeling both relieved and confused. Nobody had emailed me saying the film got here—a curious oversight.

Thanking them, I left the booth and took a seat inside the theatre near Agbor Obed Agbor, a Cameroonian filmmaker whose short—Damaru, about a deaf girl longing for an education—was screening after mine. Having already met the year before, we greeted each other like old friends. Glancing around the room, I noticed that most of the seats were empty; it was the first day of the festival and people were still arriving. The folks I saw were mostly filmmakers, with a few diehard Burkinabés sprinkled throughout the room.

The lights went down and a film started up about a Haitian worker defending himself against a vicious Tonton Macoute. As the screening progressed, a theme began to emerge when four out of five films dealt with women’s issues such as violence, sexual abuse, and breastfeeding, in a story about a mother who stopped producing milk during the Ivorian Civil War. Why this was I didn’t know, but the strong effect on the audience was palpable.

When my film began, I realized something was gravely wrong: the French subtitles were missing. Then it hit me—the screener the projectionist had showed me earlier was not the French version I’d mailed a few weeks ago, but rather the English version I’d first submitted with my application. Despite our dogged attempts to get there that morning, I had still managed to botch the delivery.

Thankfully, half of my film was spoken in French, but most of the important scenes were in English. I heard some whispers from the audience and felt their attention drifting. What a disaster, I thought, sinking deeper in to my chair. All the hard work I had put into subtitling the film had been for naught; I was disappointed.

When the lights came up, the emcee invited us down to the stage. Introducing myself, I apologized for not speaking French and thanked the translator, a wiry young man, for facilitating our discussion. Launching into my remarks, I noticed the translator whispering with the emcee. He didn’t seem to be listening to a word I said. I stopped.

“Are you going to translate what I’m saying?” I asked, directly into the microphone.

He nodded and, when I resumed speaking, continued his conference with the emcee over some discrepancy in his notes. By then, I had given up on trying to salvage any aspect of today’s screening. Waving my postcards in the air, I told the audience to see me afterwards, before the translator delivered a half-hearted summary of my comments.

In spite of the debacle, several patrons approached me with questions, and a reporter even pulled out a tape recorder for an impromptu interview. By the time I ran back to the projectionist’s booth, eager to trade out the English version of the film, the screeners had already been shuttled back to FESPACO headquarters. Running outside, Adoma and I hailed a taxi downtown.

A police barricade blocked the road a half-kilometer away from FESPACO headquarters. In front of the metal bars, a long line of motorbikes sat parked along the road for as far as the eye could see. Makeshift kiosks sprouted up around them, selling everything from clothing and shoes to jewelry and crafts.

We hopped out of the taxi, walking through the barricade down to the main gate. There guards inspected our bags and health aides dispensed generous globs of hand sanitizer. Before us, FESPACO headquarters stood like a giant sculpture ensconced in the ground. A concert stage, cinema village, food stands, and sculpture garden surrounded the building, adjacent to an arcade of vendors complete with ATMs and a bouncy house for little kids.

At a glance I realized that, far beyond the myth I’d imagined, FESPACO was a vital, active cultural institution. I was impressed, though cautious, given the notable filmmakers who’ve denounced it for its organizational shortcomings—some of which I’d already fallen prey to on my first day alone. My breath still caught a little, though, just trying to take it all in.

Adoma and I went into the main building where we found two women sitting at a reception table. I explained to one of them, in broken French, that we were short film directors in need of festival credentials. She pointed us to a room—which we later discovered was for press credentials—that had a CLOSED FOR LUNCH sign tacked to the door. Thirty minutes became an hour became an hour-and-a-half and the office was still closed.

While waiting, we took photos of the hall of fame—a string of posters of all the Étalon de Yennenga winners lining the hallway—and selfies in front of the festival banner, making our way down to the projectionists office, where I turned in the French copy of my film, and the office of François Adianaga, head of FESPACO guest relations. I had emailed him the most over the past few weeks, and simply wanted to connect the face to the name.

The office was a beehive of activity and his assistant told us to have a seat, after which he left the room altogether and we found ourselves waiting for no apparent reason. So we left and went back to the other room where we were told that, since we weren’t press, we couldn’t get credentials. They sent us back down to Adianaga who, having long since returned, asked us why we had gone.

Fifteen minutes later, we left his office armed with our festival credentials, screening schedules, brochures, invitations—to events like the awards shows and closing ceremonies— tote bags, and meal tickets—perforated by the day and meal, to be used at a number of local restaurant—a crowning achievement for a day marked by confusion and misdirection. Later on, we sat outside for a meal of grilled fish and French fries at La Palmares restaurant set up under a tent on the festival grounds.

When it came time for the bill, a debacle ensued—set in motion by a drinks saleswoman who worried she would not get paid—that required a number of staff and patrons to explain, both in English and French, how to pay multiple vendors with single meal tickets. Suffice it to say, we paid and caught a cab back to the hotel. I lay down for a nap, awaking several hours later in a jetlagged daze having missed most of the evening’s films. Calling it a day, I posted some pictures on Twitter and turned the light out, eager for a proper night’s rest.

THE FILMS

The rest of the week went much the same, rising early for breakfast, heading to screenings, and checking out events and awards shows in the evenings. Despite the hiccups of the first day, the screening schedule alone went a long way to smoothing out the rest of the week. I could plan the films I wanted to see and make time for events in the evening.

FESPACO is not just about films. It screens TV series, documentaries, student films, and animation as well. If you don’t speak or read a word of French, many of the films were incomprehensible; though some, this year, were subtitled in English.

These resonated most with me (in no particular order):

Morbayassa, le serment de Koumba (Cheick Fantamady Camara, Winner Paul Robeson Prize for Best Diaspora Film):

bande annonce MORBAYASSA from entre2prises on Vimeo.

Twaaga by Cedric Ido:

Des Étoiles (Dyana Gaye, Winner Best Female Director and Integration):

Chroniques Africaines (Marie-Christine & Alexandra Amon, Winner Best TV Series):

chroniques africaines

 

Run (Philippe Lacôte, Winner Conseil de l’Entente prize):

L’oeil du Cyclone (Sekou Traoré, Third Prize Winner for Feature Film, Winner Best Actress, Best Actor, and ECOWAS Intégration special Prize):

Miners Shot Down (Desai Rehad, First Prize Winner for Documentary):

I tried and failed to see Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (FESPACO Winner for Best Set Design and Best Music), the controversial film about jihadists in Mali that received a 2015 Oscar nomination, taking home a staggering 7 Césars from France’s national film awards.

On the first day it screened, hundreds of us gathered outside of Cine Burkina were told the theatre was already full, as the patrons who had watched the film before it refused to leave. It turned into a full-fledged altercation when local media pulled out their tape recorders and began questioning the officers at the door, declaring it an injustice.

timbuktu-screening

Timbuktu Screening (Iquo B. Essien)

Forty-five minutes after the film started, a diehard group of 20 of us remained at the door. Olivia Pope-style, I waited till I saw someone who looked in charge and, flashing my festival badge, shouted in English and French that I was a director in competition. The man looked alarmed, reluctantly admitting us into the theatre where we found patrons overflowing the seats and sitting on every inch of bare floor.

In a certain light, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen: people of all ages, races, and nationalities clamoring to watch a film by an African director. But from where we had wedged ourselves into the room, we couldn’t even see the whole screen.

Disheartened, I turned back (and didn’t return the following day, when I heard some arrived 6 hours early for the second screening).

Leaving the theatre, I heard there was a gala happening at the Prime Minister’s house. Though invitations were supposedly delivered to the hotel, the concierge seemed to know nothing about it. Taking a chance, I caught a cab to Ouaga de Mille—the suburbs, where most of the embassy buildings are—hoping there was a way to get in the door without one.

sissako essien

Flashing my badge again, the security let me in and I took a seat beside Adoma at a dinner table. The gala was a star-studded event with a five-course meal, speeches, performances, and a banquet table of dignitaries. Twenty minutes later, who sat down at the table beside ours?— Abderrahmane Sissako himself.

 

Abderrahmane Sissako (Iquo B. Essien)

When there was a break in the program, we rushed over to meet him, swamping him with handshakes and photos. Sissako was an incredibly gracious human being, taking personal time with each of us. I reminded him about how, years ago, he had shown Waiting for Happiness to our NYU graduate film class. It was one of the highlights of my experience, topped only by meeting him that day. Walking back to my chair, I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. I couldn’t believe that, after a disastrous attempt to see Timbuktu, I’d spoken one-on-one to Sissako himself.

It was all coming full circle.

EVENTS

The press, filmmakers, and patrons all seemed to have different schedules, some with more information than others. As a director in competition, I was invited to everything—including the VIP events, which required special invitations, though they sometimes arrived late, not at all, or after we’d already left the hotel. At one point, true story, I even had to talk my way past two guards at the Prime Minister’s residence to attend a festival gala.

Some events, like the Master Class on mise en scène, led by Sissako at l’Institut Supérieur de l’Image et du Son, were strictly closed door. Unfazed, I elbowed my way in, crashing a Q&A session (in French only) with film students from across the continent.

master class

FESTIVAL ROUNDUP

My second screening of Aissa’s Story ‬went brilliantly. Cine Burkina was packed, the projectionist had the right copy of the film—I ran into the booth to check, leaving behind an extra copy—and I asked Djia to translate my remarks, so that I could communicate clearly with the audience.

MASTER CLASS (Iquo B. Essien)

After the screening, I was swamped by a barrage of patrons, students, journalists, programmers, and even a distributor. By the end of the day, I’d done several interviews. By the end of the week, I’d done additional video interviews for VICE and Al Jazeera America, and networked with executives from Canal+, TV5Monde, and all the major African film festivals.

Programmers from London to Germany to Zanzibar expressed an interest in my film. Their festivals will help broaden my network, laying a strong foundation for my upcoming debut feature film. As far as screenings go, it was the most successful one I’d ever had, the effects of which will be felt for months and years to come.

Popular opinion held that the festival was put on so last minute that it was a wonder if happened at all. And though burning down the Parliament and Hotel Independance went a long way to securing the revolution, the absence of a central meeting place for filmmakers made networking more difficult. I had a hard time finding other directors, discussing my film, and planting the seeds for future collaborations.

It wasn’t until halfway through the week when we found out that many directors were meeting up after dark at La Foret restaurant (try their fufu and foutou sauce graine), where many of the winners ate dinner the night after the awards ceremony, before boarding our respective planes for home.

That’s really the magic of FESPACO: despite all of its hiccups, when it comes together the results can be quite magical. With a little more organization, the experience could have been a lot smoother for invited filmmakers. Although my Naija grit and French listening tapes came in handy, I had to talk my way out of far more sticky situations than I would have liked. It was not lost on me, however, that my badge conferred with it a set of privileges that festival patrons didn’t enjoy.

More efforts definitely could have been made to include non-French speakers in the festivities, although the organizers provided excellent translators for key events such as the closing awards ceremony.

dancers closing night

I’ve never before seen a closing reception with as much fanfare as FESPACO. Dignitaries walked the red carpet, some receiving a full military salute. Transitional President Michel Kafando was in attendance and guests watched performances from musicians and dancers.

There were some predictable winners, like Sekou Traore’s L’œil du Cyclone, and

                                                                                     DANCERS, CLOSING NIGHT (Iquo B. Essien)

others, like Hicham Ayouch’s Fievres (First Prize Winner Étalon de Yennenga), that were complete surprises. Some critics felt the selections were motivated by political above artistic concerns, calling into question the integrity of the jury.

Curiously, Sissako’s Timbuktu won none of the major prizes. And this year’s new Thomas Sankara prize, for a short film “celebrating the Pan-African creativity and the hope embodied by Thomas Sankara,” went to Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid’s Zakaria when Burkinabé director Cedric Ido’s Twaaga seemed like a certainty.

While Francophone men continued to dominate the awards, women directors and women’s themes have a strong presence in competition—with Dyana Gaye winning Best Female Director and Integration prizes for Des Étoiles—which shows that times are changing for the better. Several critics supported the idea of establishing an Audience Award, given that certain decisions made by the jury seemed out of step with popular sentiment. Additionally, I would suggest creating a forum for women filmmakers to network and collaborate, two activities that are key in fostering equity in the industry.

I applaud the inclusion of digital films, but the organizers must continually strive for a level of artistic integrity, rising above political considerations.

All in all, FESPACO was a whirlwind of screenings, Q&As, interviews, and VIP events, one of the most popular and important festivals I’ve ever attended. Like it or not, all the major players working in African film today were there, making it a festival that cannot be missed.

I’ll definitely be back!

This article originally appeared on the blog Shadow & Act.

Mahen Bonetti Featured on Indigo Tongues!

Mahen-bonetti-indigo-tongues

AFF’s leading lady, Mahen Bonetti, gave a charming interview for episode 6 of Indigo Tongues’ Women in Media Segment. She discussed her background and upbringing in Sierra Leone, as well as her cinematic influences, and the history of the New York African Film Festival. Watch the interview here!

AFF Director Mahen Bonetti on NPR

Mahen Bonetti with director Abderrahmane Sissako in 2013.
Mahen Bonetti with director Abderrahmane Sissako in 2013.

In case you missed it, this past Monday, February 9th, AFF’s Founder and Director, Mahen Bonetti was interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered. She and director Abderrahmane Sissako discussed Mr. Sissako’s Oscar-nominated film, Timbuktu. To hear the full story, click here!

Selma and the American-ness of the Academy

Last week, I attended a screening of Ava DuVernay’s Selma about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1965 voting rights marches of Alabama.

Desperate for inspiration, fresh off my second rejection from Sundance Screenwriters Labs—this time, unlike last year’s form letter, a lovely e-mail from the program director praising my “empathy” towards the story’s characters—I took the subway uptown to the Academy Theater in Manhattan.

A light rain fell as I pushed my way into a modern building at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, the East Coast home of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the lobby, a lone security guard manned the front desk while a mousy-haired woman handed attendees tickets to the post-screening dinner.

I took one and headed downstairs to the theater, breezing past a giant Oscar statue to the check-in table where New York program director Patrick Harrison, a bespectacled man of color, greeted me.

“Are you a guest?” he asked, searching my face. It’s his job to know all the local members and I clearly wasn’t one, though I seemed interesting enough.

My short film, I told him, had screened here at the 2013 Student Academy Awards (SAA) semifinals. Having received an invitation for the Selma screening tonight, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to watch the film before its release.

Patrick nodded, remembering my name, and asked what I’d been up to lately.

“I’m turning the short into a feature for my NYU Grad Film thesis,” I replied. As ambitious as it sounded, I had come to realize the more I said it out loud, the more attainable it seemed. He wished me good luck, waving me into the theater with just a few minutes to spare before the film began.

Walking down a long aisle past an audience of largely silver-haired, older white people, I took a seat near the front where five director-style chairs were arranged in a row. The Academy members stared at me, as people do, trying to figure out what my story was. Despite my long wool coat and jeans, I felt objectified, largely owing to my butterscotch skin, dreadlocks, and the berry-tinged lipstick I’d smeared on at home before leaving.

Every year at awards season, dozens of similar screenings are scheduled for Academy members to attend in anticipation of voting on the year’s best films. Nomination ballots are mailed out to active members in late December and, once the nominations are in, final ballots are mailed to decide the winners prior to Oscar Sunday.

Waiting for the lights to dim, I thought about that evening, now more than a year ago, when I jittered anxiously in the audience at the SAAs. The crowd brimmed with members, guests, and students each vying for a spot at the nationals, whose winner qualifies for a bona fide Oscar nom. Incliding, there were three of us NYU graduate students and one undergrad—Shanghai-bred Bruce Li, a young Brett Ratner of sorts with an eight-person entourage—who screened films that evening.

Seeing our grad film chairman in the front row, I deflated, remembering the somewhat blistering reviews he’d given my early work. But the film played well and, at the reception, he told me how proud I should be, instilling hope that the $100K in student debt I’d incurred had somehow been worth it.

I made it into NYU on a long shot. My Nigerian parents relied on thrift stores and discount food programs to raise my sisters and me in an African immigrant community in Albany, New York. As a Stanford biology undergrad, I gravitated toward kindred creative, starving artist types who fell outside the mainstream.

When I finally abandoned the med-school track and applied for film school, I was ill prepared for the smug privilege of Tisch School of the Arts—rich kids, famous kids, faculty darlings, and, in a category all by himself, James Franco. Broke, black, female, and African, I didn’t figure on any of those lists, but was solidly marginalized simply because I did not have a film background.

I lasted two weeks before I took a year off to buck up, enrolling with the following year’s crop of students. After that first year, I was so broke that I had to take off another three years just to work before coming back to finish my last two years.

Leaning back in my chair, I smiled, buoyed by the realization that my hard work had brought me to this theater on my own merit. I had screened here before and was adapting my short into a feature—called Aissa’s Story, loosely inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case—for which I had won a Spike Lee Production Fund grant.

Sundance or not, I thought, I should be proud of myself. I repeated it like a mantra until my friend Tammy arrived, snapping me out of my reverie before the theater went dark and the film began.

* * *

I had no clear expectations of Selma going in, though I had heard about its Golden Globe nomination for Best Director—the first for a black female—and had seen it on a few Oscar short lists, namely Manohla Dargis’s Best Movies of 2014. I was skeptical, though, given that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was on the list too and, though impressed by the directorial feat, I had tried and failed to enjoy it on more than one occasion.

Sometimes with biopics, their nominations have more to do with the film’s epic scope and cultural significance, and the fact that the actors’ tour-de-force performances dwarf anything anyone else could have possibly made that year.

But when the film opened up on a shot of Martin Luther King, Jr. disagreeing with his wife Coretta about wearing an ascot to his Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, I was immediately spellbound by the intimacy of the scene—the quiet, loving way Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo, and Martin, played by David Oyelowo, looked at each other.

No less captivating was the cut from the ceremony to a group of schoolgirls skipping down the 16th Street Baptist Church basement steps in Birmingham, Alabama, mere moments before a bomb went off and killed them. (On a singing tour with my college a cappella group, I had visited the church where Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were murdered.)

Watching the concrete, wooden beams, and debris explode and settle around their lifeless bodies dropped me deep into my bones, where I stayed throughout the final strains of a freedom song over the end credits.

To say that Selma went beyond my expectations is to propound the falsehood that I could have even imagined it. Having seen Ava Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere—though interesting and promising, definitely an early director’s effort—I would not have envisioned the near-perfect storytelling of Selma two years later. It had the nuanced, dynamic performances of Oyelowo and Ejogo; the boldness to include a scene about King’s noted infidelities, the kind of messy truths that make our heroes human; the luminous cinematography of Bradford Young who, if he hasn’t received one yet, deserves an Oscar nomination. Then there was the brilliant way the documentary footage was handled, interwoven in a way that was never expositional, but served to lift a fictionalized narrative to a kind of operatic truth.

It was a transformative experience, a story of multi-racial coalition coming together to make the civil rights movement and societal change possible in the face of state-sanctioned violence and deadly opposition, embodied by the bloody confrontation between marchers and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge—named, to this day, after a former Confederate brigadier general and Alabama state senator, who was the Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the face of this hate, we watched hopeful children milling amongst the adult marchers, theologians and faith leaders, weary travelers smiling and eating lunch at the side of the road, and octagenarians who walked the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery. We cut out of the doc footage with King’s voice, in the speech he delivered on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building.

The film ends with King still alive, disallowing us from wallowing in the tragedy of his ultimate death, but rather urging us to live in the transformational glory of the march and the positive change that came of it, the slain leader’s true legacy.

Selma was divine. I could hardly contain myself when the director and cast took the stage for a Q&A after the screening.

On her directorial motivation, Ava said:

“My father is from Lowndes County, Alabama, which is something that David [Oyelowo] didn’t know about as he was advocating for me [to direct the film]. So I know that place, and it was really about imbuing the script with a sense of place and time. That’s why we open up with the four little girls. I feel it’s important not to sanitize that time in history. To not just have the physical violence, but the emotional violence as well.”

David Oyelowo added:

“We now live in a different world. We live in a world where a black woman can direct this movie. We live in a world in which Oprah Winfrey is on that set as a producer. One of the things I loved about this movie is for Oprah to symbolically take on the role of someone who, fifty years ago, wouldn’t be allowed to register to vote—and right now she could buy that registration office a billion times over.”

What really resonated for me in the film was how the march echoed the protests going on across the country right now. If you just changed the references in King’s speeches, he’d be speaking to the exact moment we’re in now, with the slight riff of cops killing kids in the park, the preschool to prison pipeline, mandatory sentencing minimums, and the mass disenfranchisement of black and Latino men.

And releasing the film on the heels of the Ferguson decision, at a time when the nation has been drowning in an unending tide of state-sanctioned killings—of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice among others—Selma could not be more timely.

* * *

After the Q&A, we reconvened at a nearby restaurant for dinner and conversation. My friend and I put our coats down and palmed glasses of white wine, making light conversation with the other guests. Being a second-year thesis student, I’ve met my share of directors and actors, and found the entire cast to be warm, heartfelt, and approachable, though Common had me starstruck. After asking the origin of my name, David even gave me a hug from one fellow Nigerian to another.

The room was fairly narrow and we soon bumped elbows with Carmen Ejogo, with whom we chatted at length about the film and life in New York. As we wound down, a rather tall, elderly gentleman tapped me on the shoulder. He had gotten up from the dinner table to introduce himself, he said, because everyone at his table kept telling him what an amazing job I’d done in the film. I gave him a puzzled stare, throwing my glance back toward the table where his friends grinned eagerly at me.

But what was this man talking about?

I do not look anything like anyone in the film, although, by virtue of our dreadlocks, I could be said to bear a passing resemblance to Ava. That said, it would have been obvious, given my conspicuous absence from the Q&A, that I was not in the film. And of course there was the problem of my dress, a pair of jeans, while Carmen, in a ball gown, and the rest of the cast were in their Sunday best. I simply did not now what this man could possibly be thinking, other than all the black and brown faces in the room were the creative help.

“I wasn’t in the movie,” I replied, with a kind, almost apologetic smile.

His eyebrows knit together as he squinted, examining me, his face gradually relaxing into a smile. “Well then, what brings you here?” he asked, extending a hand. I told him I was a film thesis student, working on a feature, before he drifted quietly away.

Tammy thought it was great that people were mistaking me for an actress—I must look good enough to be on camera. But my discomfort at the glaring mistake only deepened when it happened again later that night, as we sat at a table eating fancy egg rolls and prawns, when a younger man in a cowboy hat wrapped his arm around my shoulder and boomed a hearty congratulations. This time I made no attempt to be warm and apologetic, replying, “For what?” His eyes glazed over as he tried to dig his way out of an obvious hole—though he repeated congratulations, I suppose, simply for my existence.

The entire debacle reminded me of the Student Academy Awards when, though my picture and name were in the program, and projected onto the wall during the closing reception, at least half a dozen members asked who I was, what I did in my movie, or congratulated me on my performance in it. Even more puzzling was the fact that my lead actress, whom I look nothing like, was also present at the event, sometimes standing right next to me.

I was pretty angry over how hard it was for people to tell us apart, and I remember my sister saying it was to my credit that the Academy members could not imagine a young, attractive black woman as a director. I exceeded their expectations, challenging their most deeply-held assumptions about what people like me are capable of.

Perhaps that is true, but what concerns me is what it says about the hope for films by people who look like me, who congeal into an indistinguishable brown swill at the bottom of the mainstream cup—simply because whiteness assumes a kind of individualized identity that rises above the homogenized, monolithic other into which the rest of us fall.

I have not finished my feature yet—nor the memoir I’ve been writing for a decade, but I digress—which is perhaps why nobody knows my face. But it becomes a problem when a group of older white people, most of whom have long passed the point of creative relevance, watch, vote, and decide which films in the entire culture and world get applauded. Some of them are literally falling asleep in the theater, while a significant portion of the rest can’t even distinguish the faces of the black and brown people they’ve been watching speak for two hours on camera.

I hope that Ava gets an Oscar nomination for Selma, a film that offers a platform for black actors who otherwise wouldn’t get work to hone their craft, and I wish the film and others like it could also be a platform to change the Academy. Because you walk into this room, you see meet people, and you understand why subtitled and experimental films often don’t do well at the Oscars, why black-cast or -helmed films frequently get excluded.

To get in the Academy, you have to be nominated for an Oscar (or make a significant contribution to motion pictures) and be invited to join. And in a field with fewer opportunities for “others” to receive those nominations, we simply don’t get to join—much like the Jim Crow voting practice, explained in the film, whereby Blacks could only register to vote if someone who was already a registered voter could “vouch” for them, a de facto denial in majority black counties.

Most “other” filmmakers don’t have anybody to vouch for them, or rather, they don’t have access to the kinds of opportunities that gain them acceptance into the club.

Though the Academy does not release demographic information, a recent survey by the Los Angeles Times found that, of its 6,172 voting members, 72% are men and 28% are women, and 89% of the most recent 271 invitees were composed of white non-Hispanic film practitioners.

These numbers are disturbing when you consider that, by the year 2043, Americans will be living in a majority non-white nation.

Among all the other very real inequities in housing, jobs, employment, healthcare, education, and wealth, the Academy is one of those lingering bastions of inequity that seems rather tone deaf to the changing culture. To be perfectly blunt, the kind of work that millions of protestors agitate for—the dismantling of racist institutions in society, of which the Selma marches are a prime exemplar—is the same work that needs to happen within the Academy. (Read Chris Rock’s take at The Hollywood Reporter.)

And as a film student, I see that’s exactly the kind of work people don’t talk about as more and more frustrated, young creative talent turns to alternative means of distribution to get their stories told. Don’t get me wrong, those platforms are important for circumventing the gatekeepers that have historically silenced so many “other” voices. And yet without this type of institutional activism, nothing will ever change.

I would be remiss, however, in painting Academy members with a monolithic brush, discounting the multi-cultural coalitions that were the very foundation of the Civil Rights movement itself and made the event, gathering all of us together, possible.

One of the great joys of the evening was meeting the ebullient Wynn Thomas, production designer on most, if not all, of Spike Lee’s early work. And meeting the documentarian Rob Richter, who was a CBS reporter during the marches of 1965 struggling with whether or not to attend and receive backlash from his employers.

He didn’t attend and ultimately regretted it, spending the better half of his adult life making politically incisive documentaries, the latest of which charts the famous legal trial of Huey P. Newton, and how a black jury foreman changed the course of American justice. Hearing Mr. Richter speak firsthand about his experience of that time, and the life’s work it inspired, gave me hope that not all of the Academy members are completely out of touch with the culture and the plight of black and brown people.

So why am I writing this? The world is so complicated and it’s hard to make sense of this moment now. All things being equal (which they’re most certainly not), I’m excited for this time in which we’re seeing so many films, like Selma, helmed by black women directors this year. And though one film can’t change the world, those of us who take up the challenge of working within the system, and give people of color or women or immigrants or non-English speakers jobs on feature films, are doing important work.

I had always dreamed of working in Nigeria—not just because it’s my cultural homeland, but because it seems to offer the kind of access to which many “others” trying to break into Hollywood will never gain. But having experienced Selma and the Academy last week, I realize that the entire film ecosystem should be opened up. Though I have never wanted to sacrifice my life to change a system as archaic as Hollywood, I recognize that it may be a call that I and many others have to answer.

The rain settled into a light drizzle as I boarded the subway to Brooklyn at midnight with a belly full of prawns and white wine. I leaned against the window, closing my eyes as my head swirled with questions: What is the touchstone that will galvanize people to change the Academy? As a black, Nigerian-American woman, I will do what I can to change the Academy, but should I want to be a part of the institution I’m fighting to change? I know that my dreams, like Dr. King’s and Ava DuVernay’s, are still possible. After all, I was there that night doing the work. And as Dr. King always taught, no matter what, the universe will eventually bend towards the work of justice.

This article originally appeared on Gawker.com on December 27, 2014.

[Photos via Getty]

Review of “Little John” Directed by Cheick Fantamady Camara

Shot in video, in the style of a news report, the film begins with the arrival of refugees in a UN camp. But very quickly, the camera becomes more fictional as it focuses on the life of a small clan, a brotherhood. The fact is that if Little John has this news report value, its intentions go beyond a specific situation. No time or place is mentioned by the way: the real story is the violence individuals internalize in times of war. The type of violence that messes up, haunts, obsesses and erases all structure and culture. The type of violence that brings more violence, crime, and the rejection of self. Girls are becoming prostitutes, boys are pointing guns at people.

Nevertheless, all of them still respect their grandmother with whom they engage in a hide and seek game imbued with humor. Her authority is safe even if everything is happening behind her back. The seedy character of Uncle Youl (who, on screen, disappears in clouds of smoke) – honest during the day, deceitful at night – is here to remind us that adults are the ones making war and using children for their own ends.

What is the point of bringing back such obvious questions? Because it is still very current in this day and age to deconstruct conflicts. Because it is important in a world that has lost its marks, to look with humanism at the “déshumanisation” resulting in the violence which has stained for more than ten years the area from where Cheick Fantamady Camara is and other regions in Africa and in the world.

No need to thrust forward great arguments, rather have a few individuals stand out in the midst of the televised images of refugee camps, eager to live their youth but bearing on their shoulders the weight of their displacement, of the world drifting, of the loss of their close relations. And let them live, laugh, speak, dare, search and lose themselves. It’s like a Nicolas Ray short, or like Rebel Without A Cause, with, as a new addition, the lust for quick money, all in all, a very current issue.

If Cheick Fantamady Camara’s second short film makes you really feel that the world is weighing you down, it’s because it bears the great mark of a film director – a mark already perceptible in his first short, Konorofili. He masters everything: the narrative benefits from the choice of cameras, sends a thrill of multiple shots, resonates with the gun shots as much as with the characters’ jokes and most of all, like in Konorofili, takes shape through the subtle way in which Camara catches and directs motion, the expressive movements of his actors or of the camera that he uses exempting his shot from lingering. For here nothing stays still. Everything follows the tragic rhythm of these young people made in the image of the Conakry gangs (cf. Mathias, Le procès des gangs by Gahité Fofana and Kiti, Justice en Guinée by David Achkar) adamant in their teenage recklessness and a miniature version of the world, blowing up because they cannot live and killing themselves softly.

MAX and MONA Review

 Max and Mona is a post-apartheid South African comedy. Set in and around the country’s industrial capital Johannesburg, it revolves around young Max Bua (Mpho Lovingo), the village mourner of a small, provincial town who, despite inheriting his grandfather’s unique talent for making people cry at funerals, wants to pursue a medical degree in the big city.

The problem is, he is (accidentally) saddled with the village’s sacred goat (Mona), and some nasty debts incurred by Max’s colorful but not terribly responsible Uncle Norman (played by the late Jerry Mofokeng in his last role). Between trying to safeguard the goat, and keeping his uncle safe from gangsters trying to collect on their chits (as well as from Norman’s own lack of judgment), Max is forced to temporarily abandon his medical ambitions and use his talent as a professional mourner at township (and occasionally suburban) funerals.

What follows makes life in the township and in Johannesburg’s inner city (abandoned by high-end businesses and whites) come alive on screen, as Max’s new and lucrative business puts him in cahoots with a cadaverous white funeral director and his transvestite mortician son, as well as an attractive neighbor of Uncle Norman’s.

First-time director Teddy Mattera (son of the acclaimed poet Don) has said that one of his reasons for making the film was the dearth of comedy made by and geared towards the majority black population. “The comedy in this country has always been made by white people where they laugh at black people…So I thought it would be a challenge to write a story where we would be laughing at ourselves.” What Mattera has achieved is a gentle comedy that finds laughs in tears, mixing the profane, the sacred, and the fantastical to create a feel-good fable.

[ Sean Jacobs  byline ]

 Sean Jacobs is assistant professor of communication studies and Afro American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is a native of South Africa.

 

A Matter of Style

Among the noteworthy films featured this year at the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center was George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary, The Importance of Being Elegant, which examines the Congolese subculture centered around the worship of clothes (kitende) known as la Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (the Society of Revelers and Elegant People), or in short, la Sape.  The film follows internationally renowned Congolese soukous musician Papa Wemba (né Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) and his coterie of expatriate Congolese supporters in Paris and Brussels shortly after his release on bail in 2003 on charges of importing 350 illegal immigrants (at a little over US$4000 per person) to pose as members of his band.  Beset with legal fees and an impending criminal trial, Papa Wemba records a new album and prepares to launch an extravagant concert in Paris to try to piece his life back together and uphold his central position in the expatriate Congolese community. In the meantime, young immigrant Congolese in Paris and Brussels who embrace the sapeur lifestyle, ‘battle’ each other for the title of “Parisien”—the equivalent of an exceedingly stylish man—by flashing their labels in ritual dances in night clubs and mounting challenges through preening displays of label versus label.  They also pay an exorbitant price for a “dedication” or the singing of their names by Wemba into his new album.

As the quintessential king of the sapeurs, Papa Wemba found commercial success in the 1970s through the innovative style of fusing traditional Congolese rumba with Western pop and rock influences.  His new found critical acclaim became his ticket out of his native Zaire.  Along with a number of other Lingala musical superstars, Papa Wemba started a new life abroad in Paris, touring Japan and the US via Europe with Peter Gabriel, and returning home to Kinshasa occasionally to perform for his doting fans.  Dressed in expensive designer labels, Papa Wemba elevated style to a form of religion, replete with high priests, archbishops, popes, and even saints (in this case, Cavalli, Versace,  Gautier, Burberry, Comme des Garçons, Yamamoto, Miyake, and Watanabe).  His worship of designer labels (or griffes) and the musical lyrics which praise them, entice impoverished Congolese young men to take the oneiric pilgrimage to France and Belgium to acquire designer clothes, and eventually to return home with the hopes of an improved social standing. The turbulent political and socio-economic history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with its widespread poverty and 5.4 million excess deaths from the Second Congo War, sets a brutally sardonic backdrop for these young men who desire to escape from the harsh realities of Kinshasa only to end up enduring an increasingly harsh existence when they reach the streets of Château Rouge in Paris or the district of Ixelles in Brussels.  Often without the legal documents to stay in the country, the sapeurs beg, steal, and hustle (although the specifics of these illicit activities remain ambiguous in the film) for money to be able to afford the designer clothes to keep up with Papa Wemba’s fashion ideology. In the documentary, one such sapeur named the “Archbishop” attempts to establish a name for himself in the Parisian Sape scene only to later come to the realization that the extravagant and flamboyant lifestyle has been nothing more than an illusion.

Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip-hop.  The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures.  Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip -hop culture.  The inherent paradoxes of poor, unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this.  Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests.  Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers.  The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle-class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths.  Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance.  In addition, the acronym “la Sape” plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers.   The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and abstinence from using hard drugs.  Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’.  Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance.  In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate.  Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.

The outward display of self was an important aspect of colonial society.  Sapeurs understood how crucial it was to assert (affirmer) oneself and make an elaborate entrance (débarquer).  Even the sapeur’s walk was an individualized form of art.  Young men would taunt the crowd with their diffidence and then saunter the length of the stage, head held high, shoulders rolling, displaying their clothes.  The spread of la Sape across the river to Zaire in the 1970s went in tandem with the explosion of lingala music on the international scene.  It was driven by urban elites who had been abroad, who could distinguish their Yamamoto from their Montana, and knew an unstructured jackets from a deconstructed suit.  As bands began to sign recording contracts in France and Belgium, they would often return home to Kinshasa with suitcases filled with designer labels.  Fans of rival bands competed with each other to see who looked the coolest.  Similar to other movements that derived their distinctive looks through their association with popular music (e.g. Mods, Punks, and New Romantics), the sapeurs during the post-colonial era re-appropriated big-name European designers and absorbed it into their own inimitable style.  The sapeurs in Kinshasa were more flamboyant and exaggerated in their style than their brothers in Brazzaville, fashioning themselves in vibrant prints and exuberant layers of colors.   At the same time, from the late 1970s onward, the economic crisis that rocked Zaire meant that few men could affirm their masculinity through consumption. During the Mobutu years, anything associated with Western culture was outlawed in a state-sponsored drive for “authenticity”.  The abacost became the official uniform mandated by the Mobutu regime, the origin of the word derived from the French saying for “down with the suit” (à bas le costume).  Moreover, foreign music was banned from the local radio stations, propelling Papa Wemba and his band to seek out a musical language that was neither derivative nor tradition-bound.  His embrace of la Sape was also a direct (albeit unwittingly) political reaction to authoritarian dictates over public appearance.  The movement of la Sape was distinctly “inauthentic” since it provided the opportunity to subvert the established modes and reject accepted norms.

For the exception of the absence of the history of la Sape, The Importance of Being Elegant provides a fascinating glimpse at a socio-cultural phenomenon that is more than three decades old.

Interview with Jean-Marie Teno

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

Horst Rutsch is writer and editor of the UN Chronicle magazine published in New York (http://un.org/chronicle).

Interview:

Horst Rutsch: Let us start with the title of your film, The Colonial Misunderstanding.[1] To me, the core idea—or more specifically, the core sentiment of the film—is stated there: that one should fight injustice in order to make charity unnecessary.

Jean-Marie Teno: Yes.

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

JMT: Why I made this film was really something of a long process. I’ve been making films questioning the situation in Cameroon, questioning the relationship between Africa and Europe, questioning the vision that people had of Africa. It was always very difficult for me to address colonialism while living in Europe. Because whenever you address colonialism as an African, people start saying, “Oh, that’s a very difficult subject. You don’t want to talk about it.” So I asked how I could really address this issue and have people sit and be able to listen to what I have to say. My idea was really to talk about people that Europeans could identify with, and hence the missionaries. Almost every family in Europe has a missionary in their family. So when I was in Germany in the year 2000 showing my previous film A Trip to the Country,[2] I went to the Wuppertal mission[3]. The film started there and I showed my film in front of many missionaries and former missionaries who were living in Germany. I was very impressed by their attitude towards history and their critical attitude towards what happened in Africa and what their predecessors did there. That really encouraged me to go and look into the archives and use the missionaries as a thread to try to tell this story from an African perspective.

HR: So the film essentially started in 2000?

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

HR: How much research was involved?

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

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

JMT: Why Germany? Since Germany had one of the shortest colonial histories, Germans are perhaps more open to talking about it. It was just a small period in their history. Also, the things that happened in Germany are just so deep and so heavy. But they are talking about it. So this may be one of the reasons why talking about the colonial history is not such a big deal. Also, since the war, the events of 1935,[4] and the Holocaust,[5] Germans have been looking at their history and there are many discussions about it. There is a big sense of historical consciousness in Germany. So, many historians went back and said, “Well, we should go and see what happened during the colonial period because things happened that no one really wants to talk about.” People also found similarities between the colonial language and the language that led to the Holocaust.

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

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

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

HR: To me, your film is a very lucid lesson in history. One key moment in this history of African colonialism, of course, is the Berlin Conference.[6] The defining moment for present-day Africa was, in a sense, settled a hundred and twenty years ago in Berlin at the conference of 1884-85. You have incorporated this aspect into the film. You shot inside the red town hall—“Rote Rathaus” as it’s called in German—the actual venue where the conference took place. What was that like? You clearly bring to the fore the idea of this unified, planned assault on Africa by the colonial powers. The systematic dividing-up of the country was something the individual rulers in Africa weren’t prepared for at that time. How do you gauge the significance of that conference?

JMT: Well, the significance of this conference is that it was really a key moment in history and people have always been somewhat unaware of it. However, many professors in Africa knew, saw, and studied the importance of the moment. Yet while they were studying, it didn’t seem to interest anybody else. So Kangué Ewané[7] went and really read through the conference—the whole conference—

HR:  The minutes of the conference….

JMT:  Reading the minutes of the conference, you can clearly understand how the whole strategy was put together and what roles were deflected to the missionaries and to education to make those lootings somewhat permanent. And even having Africans participate and contribute to the destruction of their own country. Even today, for the older Africans who fought for real liberation, it has just been a succession of failures, one after the other. Even though we’ve achieved what you call “independence,”[8] those who really fought for it, who wanted to challenge and change the whole system that was putting Africa under such pressure, were all defeated, killed, or put into exile. So we are still living today in the same Berlin-Conference era. You can see this even in terms of the exchanges between Europe and Africa.

Each and every time, the talk is always about the aid, the development aid. This is a very inappropriate name, actually. Consider when the Eastern countries—the Eastern European countries—were not at the same level as the Western countries. The West decided to help them so that they could improve the quality of their lives. The kind of conditions that they gave to these countries by lending money (like the Marshall Plan[9] that America gave to Europe) has nothing in common with what they do for Africa. It’s almost like every single penny that they put in Africa is making Africa poorer and poorer every day. People know that, everybody knows that. It’s almost like the whole world doesn’t care and Africans are left to become harmless leaders who are not there democratically and who don’t represent the interests of the vast majority of people. Instead, they favor their own interests and the interests of their families.

We are in a terrible situation; more and more people are dying in Africa. It’s such a frustrating, frustrating situation. Everybody knows, but nobody does anything about it! You have these wonderful discourses, and of course, you can see that some—a few—are doing well, yet the vast majority remains in a terrible state. If we don’t leave this era of 1884 at one point, things are not going to improve. In the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world, all these institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have to change their whole mentality. That’s one of the reasons I made this film. We even have an African as the Secretary-General of the UN.[10]  But we haven’t seen much change.

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

JMT: Yes.

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

JMT: Well, the UN is supposed to be the fair referee of what is happening around the world. So at one point or so, the UN should really not let the strong dictate the rules to the weak, thereby making them weaker every day. Of course, this is the case even when we look at recent history; for instance, what happened in Iraq. We are still living in the situation where “right is might”, the right of the stronger. I don’t know if I am putting it correctly: “La raison du plus fort.”[11] The UN is supposed to be there to go against that. The real test of the UN is whether it is powerful enough, at some point, to really start listening to other people and not let the economic forces pull all the strings from behind. In other words, control the whole thing and let a whole continent die. I mean, it’s almost like fifty years ago; things were bad, things have improved, and we started with a program of development aid. Fifty years later, it’s almost like we went from poverty to misery in so many places.

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

HR: It is a difficult question.

JMT: It is a very difficult question.

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

JMT: It’s a double misunderstanding. It’s a very heavy misunderstanding because it puts everybody in a very uncomfortable situation. You have some moments like during the Namibian war[12]. There was this German missionary who was willing to help his Herero people as much as himself but who finally betrayed them and almost made them lose the war. Who knows whether he was conscious of it or not? I am not going to judge that. And later, the same thing when they were in the bush, when they kept gathering these people saying, “We are going to gather you to try to save you.” And then finally when they were putting together concentration camps. In Europe at that time, the mission was to organize, to ask people to give clothes, to give things so that they could come and help the Hereros who were in the concentration camps. They were bringing these camp people blankets and everything to make the agony longer and sometimes to preach the gospel at the same time. I want the movie to address these deep conflicts that can be inside of people.

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

JMT: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture was touched deeply by his thinking. It was especially striking in the seventies. Many people, namely many African intellectuals, referred to Africans as “they.” Having been educated, they didn’t even look at themselves as being Africans anymore. That’s the extent of this kind of brainwashing. Of course, now all things are starting to change, but I’m not really sure that those who are in control and in power have made this journey mentally. Referring to their own people as if they were a “they” is the same mentality the colonialists used to consider the subject peoples. Ils avaient beaucoup de mépris.[13] I don’t know how to say this word in English. Mépris. Disparate.[14] They despise their own people, they despise their own culture, they despise—

HR: They deny it, in a sense.

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

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

JMT: Yes.

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

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

HR: Let’s talk a little about your career as a documentary filmmaker. It stretches back now some twenty years. Last year, at the African Film Festival, I also saw Alex’s Wedding[15] which to me was a very disturbing film. Again, you withheld your judgment and let the subjects speak out. It was an indictment of injustice, a power differential between men and women that is all the more powerful because it was not clearly marked from the beginning.

JMT: Yes.

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

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

What was amazing was when I showed the film in FESPACO in Ouagadougou[16] two years ago, some people who were polygamists said to me, “I like the film very much, but why did you have to put that last sentence?”  (Laughs.)  And I said, “Well….” They said, “No, it was good until that moment.” The women who went to see the film also liked it. It is amazing how people can go into a film and just get to what they want and not see the entirety. The last sentence disturbed them, and that was—

HR: It reminded them of their blind spot.

JMT: Yes.

HR: That was one of the most striking films that I saw last year. Your most ambitious project before The Colonial Misunderstanding was Afrique, je te plumerai.[17]

JMT: Oh, the others also—

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

JMT: Have you seen Vacances au pays, yet?

HR: No, I haven’t seen it.

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

HR: The fleecing of Africa.

JMT: Yes, the fleecing of Africa. When I finished this film, I wanted to talk about the consequences of this situation and how people existed during—and still manage now—in the very oppressive society that they inherited after independence. It’s still an oppressive society. So I made a short film called Head in the Clouds[18] that dealt with the informal sector, how people were trying to find ways to survive. After that film, I did another called Clando[19] and this was a fiction that dealt with the attitudes of people who studied, were well-off, and were educated. It looked at their lack of involvement in changing society and its political system. Because they were doing well, they just kept thinking, “Well, maybe things will change by themselves. We don’t have to hurry them.” Of course, the system was doing worse. It was harming not only the poorest (who were becoming even poorer), but also the middle class (who also became poorer). Apart from a small elite who benefits and has been getting so rich, the vast majority of people who wait for things to change for themselves realize that things never change for themselves. Things can only get worse by not committing, by not getting involved in really bringing some change into the environment and the neighborhood. One has to get involved in local politics so that there will be more transparency in everything that is happening. So Clando examined these people who just thought things could change by themselves. Things never change, and one day, they will come and get you. For whatever reason, suddenly you will realize what kind of society we really live in.

After Clando, I did another film called Chef![20] which questioned the whole attitude of authority. We live in a society where there is hierarchy at every moment. You have in the global society, social hierarchy: you have the head of state and you have the ministers. You go into an office and you need to have the chief in the office be the one responsible. You go everywhere and there’s always a chief. When you put someone at the door to open it, because he has the power to open it, he becomes a chief and behaves like one. If he does not open the door, you cannot get into your hotel or your room. He creates that need for you. He can thus get money from you to do the regular job that he’s already being paid to perform. And so, the sense of collective interest just disappears because everyone at every position is trying to see how he can secure something for himself. He’s using the service he’s supposed to provide for the collectivity (because he’s being paid) as a means of getting more money. That corruption is at every single level. You go to the post office where you’re supposed to give one dollar and get your stamp. Someone will say that to be in line, you need to give ten cents first to be able to access your cashier. So everybody is organizing his own corruption scheme.

HR: Right.

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

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

JMT: As possible. It reminded me of one essay that I read from a French guy from the 18th century, Étienne de la Boétie,[21] who wrote this incredible book called Discours de la Servitude VolontaireDiscourse on Voluntary Servitude—about how people accept, worship, identify with, and duplicate the attitudes of a tyrant. What they are doing is a kind of tyranny. One individual is oppressing you and in turn, you oppress other people behind you. So everybody exercises what he has, a kind of leverage over people. He uses it to oppress, and only those who can pay have access to services. So the society as a whole becomes very dysfunctional. If we decided to change the whole thing, we could keep the moment worthwhile, but instead of doing that, everybody is asking, “What is my leverage? Where can I have some power here in this system so that I can—”

HR: —squeeze out something of it.

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

HR: Everyone is skimming.

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

HR: Very. Yes.

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

HR: The school in the city.

JMT: From school in the city, the big city of Yaoundé,[22] to my village where my grandparents live and where I used to go during the holidays. I was trying to see this modernity that they told us about when we were kids: the belief that everything was going to become modern. What really has become modern? Instead you see how empty the discourses in the cities are. When you get to the village and start seeing and talking to people, what they have to say makes so much sense. The people from the city come and destroy even the social structures that existed in the village. This is in order to bring about something like getting spaces to sell beer, Coca-Cola, and all that and not allowing space for people to meet and really interact the way they used to. So Vacances au pays also questions this same idea. And when I was finishing Vacances, I did Alex’s Wedding because I had this guy from the film who was asking me to do his wedding. And then Le Malentendu colonial was the next film. But after all these films, I’m going to—to move on to a fiction film and a love story. (Laughs).

HR: I guess you need that.

JMT: I need that.

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

JMT: Twenty years, yes.

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

JMT: I live outside.

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

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

HR: A network of like-minded.

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

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

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

JMT: Well, yes, we are still fighting for the status of documentary because even in many festivals, documentaries are still second class.  It’s an ongoing fight, it’s an ongoing fight.  (Laughs.)  You do have a few success stories, but these successes are probably in the US with a few people like Michael Moore[23], of course, and the Enron film coming out.[24] There are a few such films and more and more documentaries that are attracting public interest. But there’s still a long, long way to go. The documentaries that people go and see and which are very popular are sometimes those that cost so much more than the average documentary.

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELLO NIGERIA!

Hello Nigeria! is actually the first in a series of programmes that I am doing where I attempt to dissect another culture through examining their celebrity magazines. The series is called Hello World!, but it was seeing the Nigerian society magazine Ovation that gave me the idea for the series in the first place.

Launched in the mid 90s, after the magazine’s charismatic publisher Dele Momodu was forced to flee Nigeria under the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, Ovation magazine sells not only in Nigeria and all over Africa but also the USA and Britain and now in the Caribbean. It has a monthly circulation of around 100,000.

When I first saw Ovation, I was bowled over by its glossiness and its brightness. It also looked exactly like the British celebrity magazine, Hello!, but when I flicked through Ovation’s pages, I became aware of how very different it was from the British version. For example, Britain is obsessed with its royal family, soap stars, models, movie actors and American celebrities. In the Nigerian Hello! equivalent called Ovation, doctors appear more frequently than actors or even footballers. Ovation doesn’t think twice about including a ‘Jet Set pastor’ or man of the cloth displaying his mansion in it and funerals are presented as a glamorous society event. One of the mottos of Ovation, according to its charismatic publisher Dele Momodu, is that “in Nigeria everybody is a star”,  so we see a lot of very ordinary people featured in their pages appearing to be celebrities. This is because they pay to be in the magazine, which is how Ovation is funded – and not all of these people are particularly wealthy. You could say that Ovation has a bit of Ebony magazine about it. This may be true, but it is telling that there really aren’t so many “superstars” in Nigeria, therefore so-called “ordinary people” and their achievements are held up as worthy of celebration. It’s actually quite refreshing. And in this day and age where definitions of celebrity are being challenged with reality TV shows spewing out new ‘celebrities’ everyday, it’s been enlightening to hear about another approach to celebrity.

The idiosyncracies and value systems of any given society are apparent in these magazines and the people who are featured in these magazines also reveal certain truths about their national culture. Hello World! is a series about identity, pride and aspirations. And in my opinion, there’s a lot to be learned when you examine people’s aspirations. Forget the folk traditions and rural ways! I want to contest this underlying assumption that the repository for cultural authenticity automatically lies in a culture’s poorer citizens. This assumption, I believe, has its roots in anthropology where the tradition was to ‘study down’ i.e. to study those at the bottom rung of the social pyramid when visiting another culture. The philosophy of anthropology has since moved on, but there is actually nothing new in the idea that rurality, and to some extent poverty, signifies cultural authenticity. It is an idea espoused by the European Romantics amongst others. Coupled with the universal truth that bad news is more sensational and therefore more sellable, then it’s hardly surprising that it is the bad news from Africa that dominates the Western media.

But this sort of publicity is not without after effects. Therefore, in Hello Nigeria! I have attempted to explore how a negative global image affects those that are from that society. After all, you hear very little about Nigeria or Africa that does not relate to poverty, disease and suffering. All these things exist in Africa, but there are many other African stereotypes that don’t seem to emerge either. The colourful way Nigerians dress and celebrate themselves comes to mind. Indeed this self-celebration is not only cultural but, in fact, a necessity in a world where African success is often seen as an anomaly and not an ordinary or natural occurrence.

It was a real education making the film. Due to a lack of funding, I have been unable to actually travel to Nigeria, so this film focuses slightly more on the Nigerian community in Britain. But as the magazine was started in England and the publisher lives in England, it seems an appropriate place to start. Having grown up here in the UK, I’ve felt somewhat isolated from the Nigerian community (even the Nigerian community in England) but through this magazine and through making the film, I have met an awful lot of Nigerians and even made a few friends. I’ve become aware how little we all know about the towns and cities we live in. We know nothing of the characters, the ambition, the frustration, the courage that exists everywhere. I have been able to meet Nigerians from all walks of life from footballers and actresses to shopkeepers and priests and it’s been an enormous privilege as well as an education.

About the director:

Zina Saro-Wiwa is a 27-year-old filmmaker and broadcast journalist. Born in Nigeria but brought up in England, Zina has worked for the BBC as a programme-maker and has written for a number of broadsheets and magazines in London including the Sunday Times and Marie Claire.

 

 

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.