Coming of Age in Nigerian Moviemaking

The 1970s signalled the beginning of indigenous efforts in Nigerian filmmaking. Francis Oladele made Kongi’s Harvest written by Wole Soyinka in 1971 and soon after that, Ola Balogun made Alpha in Paris. Balogun later followed with other works like Amadi, Ajani Ogun, Money Power and others films, while Jab Adu made Bisi, Daughter of the River Goddess and Ladele made The Eye of Life, which was never completed.

While Oladale and Balogun may be regarded as the pioneers of filmmaking in Nigeria, it was Hubert Ogunde who convincingly demonstrated that Yoruba films could become a popular entertainment art form. His Aiye, Jaiyesinmi, Aropin n’tenia and Ayanmo remain the Yoruba classics in filmmaking. The Ogunde phenomenon helped to strengthen and expand earlier experiments by Adeyemi Afolayan who had collaborated with Ola Balogun on Ajani Ogun and Ija Ominira. Ogunde also pointed the way to the likes of Moses Olaiya, Isola Ogunsola, Awada Kerikeri Organisation and a few other Yoruba travelling theatre practitioners who quickly embraced the screen as an alternative means of projecting their stage arts. Ladi Ladebo, Eddie Ugboma, Sanya Dosumu and Sadiq Balewa are other notable filmmakers who contributed to this revolution.

Looking back however, the revolution seems to have turned out to be still born. Nearly thirty years after the first feature films were made, worthwhile full-length feature films made in Nigeria by Nigerians can almost be counted on ten fingers. The continual lament on the lips of Nigerian filmmakers is the scourge of an ailing economy. To make matters worse, the government’s main effort in assisting the growth of Nigerian filmmaking was grossly misdirected. The siting of the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) in Jos, far away from the Osogbo, Ibadan, Ososa and Lagos axis which was home to the then budding Nigerian filmmakers, was a debacle. It was the government pandering to the film industry that produced feeble attempts resulting in such monumental failures as The Black President in which one person acted, produced, directed etc.

When in 1989 Ken Nnebue, a trader of Igbo origin brought his entrepreneurial instincts to bear on the vestiges of the Yoruba alarinjo (travelling theatre) he was indeed starting another Nigerian moviemaking revolution. Before Nnebue, Muyideen Aromire had earlier made Ekun in VHS format, but it was Nnebue’s Aje ni Iya mi that opened the floodgates for home video production in Nigeria. Most of the formally trained Nigerian filmmakers sniggered at these efforts in the beginning, but the Igbo entrepreneur was undaunted. Nnebue’s revolution caught on as the likes of Aromire demonstrated great virility in churning out works that later became recognized as a little more than exercises in boredom for the viewers.

However, the dearth of alternative entertainment, the increasing penetration of domestic video cassette recorders in Nigerian homes and the quest for quick money continued to fuel the video revolution while the school of formally trained filmmakers were still waiting for the opportunity to make films on celluloid. Of course they had reasons to be hopeful. Not too long before then, Tunde Alabi-Hundeyin’s weekly production of Tellydrama on OGTV had become very popular and his episodic screen presentation of D.O. Faguwa’s Ireke Onibudo brought him to the attention of Benton Films. Benton’s celluloid rehash of Ireke Onibudo, under the directorial eyes of Tunde Alabi-Hudeyin, was a huge success and indeed a further pointer to the possibilities of locally produced films. Further more, Tunde Kelani, having left NTA, had successfully made Iwa on celluloid and had contributed to Ireke Onibudo, Kanakana, Papa Ajasco and a host of other films. Other formally trained filmmakers like Femi Aloba, a sound specialist, were also getting some opportunities to contribute on various film projects. However, none of these hopeful filmmakers ever expected the depths into which military recklessness would throw the Nigerian economy.

Nnebue, having acquired confidence from his tango with Yoruba theatre artists, sought to widen his market. He therefore dumped Yoruba productions, turning to productions in English. He has never looked back since. Instead, his confidence has been bolstered by the Ejiro and Amata brothers, Amaka Igwe, Opa Williams and a host of others who have turned what started as a play thing into a veritable industry worth millions of Naira.

As time went on, more Igbo traders began to see the potentials of the fledgling industry and finance trickled in from various quarters to fund English and Igbo movies. While the Igbo producers sought to improve the quality of their productions by increasing production budgets, their Yoruba brothers held back, trying to increase profit by reducing expenditure.

Hello Nigeria!

Hello Nigeria! is a film that aims to unravel and understand Nigerian society by examining the contents of their very own celebrity/society magazine Ovation.

The film is actually the first in a series of programmes that I am doing where I attempt to dissect a non-Western culture by 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 London in the mid ’90s after the magazine’s charismatic publisher, Dele Momodu, was forced to flea Nigeria under the military dictatorship of President Abacha, Ovation magazine sells not only in Nigeria but all over Africa, the USA, Britain and 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 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 Ovation, doctors appear more frequently than actors or even footballers and funerals are presented as glamorous society events.

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 that appear to be celebrities. This creates a peculiar situation where Nigerians all over the diaspora read their own celebrity magazine to catch up with friends as opposed to merely reading a magazine to learn about famous people they could never hope to meet…

The idiosyncracies and value systems of any given society is apparent in these magazines and the people that 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 is 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 is hardly surprising that it is the bad news from Africa that dominates the Western media.

There is, however, also the issue of who is to blame for this negative coverage. The view that Nigerians themselves may be to blame for giving the press enough stories to write about is expressed in the film. This makes the gap between the perception and reality of Africa wide and complex. This Nigerian self-celebration is, according to its publisher, a necessity in a world where African success is often seen as an anomaly and not a natural occurrence. So despite its glossy and apparently frivolous appearance and content, Ovation is political. The magazine throws up important debates about who Nigerians think they are, how they want to be perceived and whether they are justified in this desire.

It was a real education making the film. Due to a (serious) 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, up until recently, lived in England, it seemed an appropriate place to start. Having grown up in the UK, I’ve felt somewhat isolated from the Nigerian community (even the Nigerian community in England) but through making the film, I have met an awful lot of Nigerians and even made a few friends. I’ve become aware of how little we all know about the towns and cities we live in. We know nothing of the characters, the frustration and the ambition that exist right under our noses. I’ve 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.

Hope you enjoy the film!

The Emergence of Ethnographic Film Practice: Past Travels and Future Itineraries

The history of discourse on ethnographic film has been rife with contentions and opposing viewpoints. There have been contestations over its very definition to the issue of its proper role within the discipline of anthropology. There is not even a consensus as to when ethnographic film first emerged. A few people would cite as the genesis, the Lumière’s Arrival of a Train from 1895 and the many short actualities made and shown by traveling agents and local people trained in the equipment. It is important to note that at this time (between 1895 and 1905) Eastern peoples saw Western peoples as well as vice versa. Traveling filmmakers/projectionists both took footage of distant cultures and viewed their footage throughout their travels. These were some of the first glimpses, though often brief, that most people had of people from distant cultures moving and doing ordinary things. But most anthropologists don’t think of Arrival of a Train or the actualities that followed as ethnography at all, despite the fact that the people portrayed were not actors, often non-Western, and the action was often of the everyday. I would suggest that perhaps anthropology at that time saw itself, in Franz Boaz’s description, as a salvage operation. Consequently, what counted as ethnographic films were those whose subjects were not only non-Western, but non-urban and generally lived in societies whose ways of life were threatened by contact with the modern world.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that many accounts of ethnographic film begin with Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Headhunters (1914), a fictional romantic melodrama made among the Kwaikutl. Despite depicting costumes and dances of ethnographic interest, there was little integration of these scenes into the larger narrative, nor was there any attempt to portray individuals in depth. Furthermore, the headhunting scenes and the evil witch character were obviously added to suit Western audience expectations. These issues were later resolved in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). As Brian Winston has observed, while both Curtis and Flaherty utilized native Americans recreating their past culture, Flaherty created drama out of everyday events like igloo building and hunting, rather than imposing an external narrative (100). Also to Flaherty’s credit, he spent long periods of time living in the community he filmed and screened rushes for the participants. In these ways he was well ahead of his time, as participatory filmmaking seemed to disappear until Jean Rouch brought it to the forefront in the 1950’s. Nanook also brings up an important problem that continued to plague ethnography for several decades: the tendency to mythologize the native individual and to fix native culture at a seemingly changeless time untouched by modernity or the influence of other cultures. As Eliot Weinberg has aptly stated, “the struggle against hunger in the Arctic persisted whether the Eskimos carried harpoons or rifles.(6)”

Why was it then necessary to ignore the current struggles of the communities being filmed in favor of constructing idealized images of the pure, primitive man? Perhaps there is an underlying desire to view such cultures as a window into Western culture’s own past, as a living evolutionary remnant. Viewing them in this way allows the West to designate the multiple histories of different cultures as simply earlier stages of its own cultural development, authenticating its colonialist desires and erasing its own role in jeopardizing native ways of life. This tendency, which Fatimah Tobing Rony has termed the “taxidermic” impulse, persisted well into the ’50s as we can see by examining John Marshall’s The Hunters (1958), a film of four !Kung San men hunting giraffe (15).

There are many similarities between Flaherty and Marshall: neither were trained anthropologists, both spent a long period of time with their subjects, both shaped their footage into a unified narrative, and both of their films portray courageous men fighting for survival in a harsh environment. Marshall’s film also seeks to portray individuals in an archetypical fashion, offering simplistic accounts of the hunters’ personalities which we must take on his word, since the film offers little visual information by which to distinguish the characters. The film ends with the words, “And the old men remembered. And the young men listened. And so the story of the hunt was told.” This ending insinuates the continuity of the (false) narrative and projects the culture into a static, mythic temporality. It also misrepresents the importance of hunting in !Kung society which relies primarily on gathering for its sustenance.

It is important to note that Marshall later criticized this film and turned toward record-footage of discrete events in attempt to make films that were more useful in the academic context. In the ’70s he went on to take a more proactive role in making people aware of the changes being wrought on !Kung San culture as result of their being dispossessed of their land and the incursion of missionary and military activities in the area. In N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1979-80), he reworked older footage with new footage in an attempt to show how the !Kung lifestyle was changing via the story of one woman’s life over two decades and the effects of Western influence on her relationship with her community.

The problems that Curtis, Flaherty, and Marshall bring to light make it easy to see why anthropologists have been wary of how film has been used to convey ethnographic information and how the requirements of narrative can result in an anthropologically suspect product. It is understandable then that anthropologists’ discourse on ethnographic film has been cautious of the demands of art and narrative editing. Furthermore, the desire to authenticate cultural anthropology as an academic discipline and hard science led to questions of the role of film in methodology.

Not only was it important to understand how film can be used to (re)present cultures, but also how film could be used to gather data, or rather, evidence in the form of record-footage. In this regard, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Balinese study in the 1930’s is an important and illustrative case. Mead tried to treat the camera as a primary recording device and not simply as a mechanism to illustrate a thesis, a proposition aided by new, lighter 16mm equipment. She suggested that note-taking was an inadequate way of recording behavior and ritual activity, and that recording these largely visual events on film would allow for greater analysis and reanalysis of data. There was an underlying assumption that an examination of a culture’s psychological characteristics could be made from a study of their bodies and movements, and that film (and photography) may allow fieldworkers to capture and represent such visual data in a fuller way than written accounts alone (Lakoff, 2).

This notion of using film to capture patterns of human behavior for scientific analysis has a long history, dating back to Félix-Louis Regnault who in 1895 took high-speed chronophotography footage of a Wolof woman making pots at the Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale. His subsequent films aim to compare movement across different cultures, but specifically to demarcate physical differences amongst races(deBrigard, 5). Mead extended Regnault’s purely physiological studies to an exploration of how behavior can be used to understand the “ethos” of a culture, defined by Bateson as “a culturally standardized system of organization of the instincts and emotions of individuals” (Bateson & Mead, xi).

However, the films resulting from this study, The Character Formation in Different Culture Series and Trance and Dance in Bali, do not succeed in fulfilling her goals. The observations and analysis spelled out in the voice-over narration seldom seem conclusive on the basis of the corresponding visuals. Also Mead’s own call for using long takes was not apparent in Trance and Dance which is edited for continuity and has many cuts. This contradiction may have been a result of Bateson’s having different notions of how film should record an event, favoring a more exploratory approach than Mead (Jacknis, 161). Finally, it seems that the copious data was never fully analyzed or reanalyzed the way she had hoped it would be. Despite this failure, Mead continued to support the idea that film could be useful as anthropological data given that it included long stretches of unedited footage, that is if it is mainly record-footage (Mead, 9). Alan Lomax, Karl Heider, and Timothy Asch also supported this idea, further adding that synch sound, utilization of long shots that encompass whole bodies and events (as opposed to close-ups), and accompanying written material are necessary if film is to be anthropologically sound (Heider, 6; Asch, 199-204).

This tendency towards using the camera as an observational tool was further supported by the concurrent documentary styles of direct cinema and cinema verité, which were somewhat obsessed with the idea of achieving verisimilitude to the actual experience of watching people and events unfold with a minimum of interference. It did not take long to problematize the initial arrogance of being an innocent and invisible observer and the fact that there were serious ethical problems associated with the surveillance mode of filming. In addition there were serious limitations of what record-footage or strict observationist cinema could show. David MacDougall points out that if filmmakers limit themselves to only unprovoked manifestations of behavior during filming, they often do not get access to the events and information that subjects take for granted (MacDougall, 124). Also since human behavior is such a tangled web of contingencies, associations, and motivations, simply rendering an event faithfully in the sense of duration and natural sound is obviously insufficient to the task of understanding the meaning of what’s actually taking place.

Thus, a new form of participatory filmmaking was called for, one in which there was an understanding that what is being recorded is the relationship between the observer and the observed. This has been accomplished in several ways. MacDougall cites as an example Jean Rouch’s experimentations with role playing in Jaguar, which allowed the subjects to play roles and create their own images of themselves (128). Another very different approach was used by Sol Worth and John Adair in their project, Through Navaho Eyes (1972) which allowed Navaho people to make their own films in an attempt to see whether, in fact, they have a different ways of seeing and ordering visual space. While these films obviously make some assumptions about why and how subjects choose to portray themselves, they do point towards a new direction for ethnographic film which does not eschew the evocative and experiential potentials of cinema. They also suggest a realization that film, though not equivocal to written accounts, may in fact provide altogether different kinds of information.

Moreover, rather than pigeonholing film as either scientific instrument or inherently narrativizing / aestheticizing mechanism, ethnographers can use it as a reflexive interpretive device that leaves open the possibility of multiple points of view. Having had to confront the fact that the complexity of human behavior always eludes both scientific specificity and broad generalizations, it seems we are poised to explore how more complexly structured films utilizing satire, argument, and a full range of aesthetic techniques fulfill this task.

Lastly, it seems that prescriptive formulations of the definition of ethnographic films should give way to an acceptance of a variety of techniques that serve the diversity and specificity of the subjects themselves and which are better suited to the particular relationship that exists between the filmmaker and participant.

Ghanaian Popular Cinema and the Magic in and of Film

Since the late 1980s, a booming video feature film industry evolved in Ghana. While established filmmakers both within and outside the state-owned Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC) found it extremely difficult to generate funds for film production, formally untrained people of various backgrounds — from cinema projectionists to car mechanics — took ordinary VHS video cameras, wrote a brief outline, assembled actors (from TV or just “from the street”), and produced full fledged feature films which appeared to be tremendously successful in urban Ghana, and especially in Accra. Established professional filmmakers initially met the initiatives of non-professionals and their use of the medium of video with suspicion. Yet, when they noticed the extraordinary success which these productions had in Ghana and realized that screening these films in local cinemas could generate sufficient funds to sustain a viable video film industry, they also turned to film production in the video format. Moreover, in order to improve the productions made by untrained — and, gradually, self-trained filmmakers, the GFIC offered editing services and other forms of advice to filmmakers in exchange for the right to show the film in its own cinemas in Accra first. Gradually, production networks and systems of distribution evolved and since the beginning of the 1990s, each year saw the release of about fifty video movies made by private and GFIC producers.

Over time, differences pertaining to technical standards of films made by formally trained and self-trained filmmakers gradually faded. And so did differences regarding their social position in the field of film production. This was, above all, a result of the decision of the Ghanaian state to sell seventy percent of the shares of the GFIC to the Malaysian TV production company, Sistem Televisyen Malaysia Berhad of Kuala Lumpur in 1996, as a consequence of which the GFIC transformed into Gama Media System Ltd.[1] As this foreign company focuses on TV productions and shows little interest in cinema, popular movie production was increasingly left in the hands of independent producers (both self-trained and formally trained[2]) who were all obliged to make it in Ghana’s newly evolving “showbiz” market. In order to generate funds for the next film and a usually small income, filmmakers solely depend on the taste of the audiences.

One distinctive, recurring feature of Ghanaian movies concerns the emphasis put on the visualization of otherwise invisible occult forces, and the fact that their narrative is usually placed in the framework of the Christian dualism of God and the Devil, who is regarded as leading all “powers of darkness” (see Meyer 1999a). These preferences do not primarily and necessarily reflect the convictions of the filmmakers, but above all the ideas of their audiences. As such, these films resonate well with what occupies people in Accra and other urban areas in south Ghana and hence form exciting sources for anthropologists.

Exactly because of this emphasis on occult forces and their incorporation into the domain of the Christian Devil, popular cinema has been subject to severe criticism on the part of elite film makers and intellectuals.[3] Movies made by private producers are often ridiculed and denounced as imbued in “superstition” — an assault also levelled against their audiences.[4] Moreover, occasionally these films are charged with representing Africans in inferior terms, and thereby confirming racist distortions and subverting the development of national pride.[5] Private video producers are accused of turning a medium meant to serve “development” and “enlightenment” into a vehicle for the expression of ugly matters which should have no place in modern, national Ghanaian culture.

In this essay, I present and discuss two films which are representative of popular cinema in that they foreground how otherwise invisible, occult forces impinge on the visible world. I will show how a quintessentially modern medium-like film, which has been used ever since colonial times to educate and enlighten people through images, has been appropriated in order to express people’s concerns about the hidden presence of the occult in modern urban society. I will argue that the visualization of the dark, secret aspects lurking behind the surface of modern city life concerns an “enlightenment” in another sense than usually intended by modernist protagonists. In so doing, I find it useful to follow a distinction proposed by Michael Taussig during the conference on which this volume is based between revelation and exposure.

While the notion of exposure is part of a hierarchical perspective affirming the superiority of scientific thinking which unmasks magic as false and based on mere superstition, the notion of revelation criticises magic from within, thereby leaving intact the idiom itself. I will show that, contrary to the elites’ expectations of the medium of film to promote superior forms of knowledge and behaviour leading beyond magic, watching popular movies does not make people go beyond magical imagination towards increased levels of rationality, but rather constitutes, or at least confirms, the domain of the occult at the very moment of its revelation. It brings light into the dark and, at the same time, contributes to establish the domain of occult forces as part and parcel of modern city life (cf. Geschiere 1997). I argue that, in so doing, it brings about a break with colonial cinema and realizes the magical potential of movies which is so often ascribed to this art form in the West.


While the medium of film was introduced to Ghana by private businessmen,[6] who opened cinemas in urban areas and employed cinema vans to tour the country side (especially the cocoa—growing areas) in the course of the 1920s,[7] the Information Services Department of the colonial government actively engaged in film only in 1940.[8] It drove its green-yellow Bedford buses all around the colony and assembled people at spaces in the open air in order “to show documentary films and newsreels to explain the colonial government’s policies to people in towns and villages free of charge” (Sakyi 1996: 9). An important aspect of this information service was propaganda films about the Second World War which were produced by the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) in London (cf. Diawara 1992: 3). After the war, the unit also started to produce educational films and a number of feature films which were screened in Britain’s African colonies. Contrasting the Western and African way of life, these films represented the former as an embodiment of “civilization” and the latter as “backward” and “superstitious” customs to be left behind (cf. Diawara 1992: 3; Ukadike 1994: 44ff.).[9] Film was thus closely related to governmental and imperial interests and employed to create loyal subjects. Placing film in the service of “civilization”, the CFU avoided screening films that criticized or ridiculed aspects of Western life, thereby denying Africans access to the whole field of Western cinematic representation (cf. Diawara 1992: 1).

The Gold Coast Film Unit, which was to produce local films, took up themes particularly relevant to the Gold Coast. These movies, too, were to serve colonial interests and the attention was on “purposes of better health, better crops, better living, better marketing and better human co-operation in the colonies” (Middleton—Mends 1995: 1; cf. also Diawara 1992: 5). As these objectives were thought to be best achieved “on the native soil with native characters” (Middleton-Mends ibid.), from 1948 onwards the unit started training African filmmakers.[10] Similar film units existed in other parts of British colonial Africa, and their products were mutually exchanged and shown to audiences all over British colonial Africa.

In a very interesting publication, Morton-Williams has presented the results of his research on the reception of so-called fundamental education films by rural Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa audiences in Nigeria, which he conducted for the Colonial Office.[11] “Fundamental education”, as the author explains, refers to attempts by the British Colonial Administration “to instill motives and the requisite technical skills to improve the material conditions of life, and to make it possible to apprehend, in some degree, the relationship of the rural community to the rest of the territory and to the world” (1953: xii). Next to brief descriptions of the content of thirty-four films (made by the CFU in England, film units in Africa and commercial producers) which address topics from “clean cooking” to “the circulation of blood”, his study provides detailed overviews of audience reactions to these films. Although this study focuses on Nigeria, I see no reason to doubt that these and similar films would have been shown in the Gold Coast as well and that audiences would have reacted in similar ways.

According to Morton-Williams, the bulk of the films falls into the categories health films, farming films, and village development films. The basic message of all these films, of course, is a demonstration of the superiority of Western knowledge and of how sticking to traditions not only implies backwardness, but also leads to ill health and poverty. Indeed, in the light of Michael Taussig’s distinction explained earlier, it may be concluded that the films sought to establish colonial authority on the basis of the exposure of existing magical beliefs as false. Here, magic was represented as modernity’s other.

Still, The Fire in the Belly: The Confessions of Ousmane Sembene

The meeting has been under way for well over two hours, and the seven participants do not seem exhausted after strings of passionate exchanges. The scene could have been ripped from a chapter of Ousmane Sembène’s fifth novel, God’s Bits of Wood, in which the women deliberate their plan of attack against the oppressive and brutal foreign railroad overlords of the Dakar-Niger line. It is also reminiscent of a scene in Guelwaar where Baye Ali, the village chief summons the Muslim elderr, Kilife, to discuss the profanity of the burial of Pierre-Henri Thioune, a Christian, in a Muslim cemetery.

We are at Sembène’s quarters, located in a busy commercial street in downtown Dakar. He has converted a single family house into a spacious work space, allowing collaborators and strapped colleagues a place they can call office. A well kept flower garden sits in the middle of the courtyard, opposite a zinc-roofed conference area. Most of the filmmakers seated around the table, veteran Senegalese directors and screenwriters, are little known internationally. But they’re part of a group Sembène calls waa ker gee, a Ouolof [Wolof] expression meaning “the family.” Fifteen years ago, they formed the African Filmmakers Committee, a regional organization which includes more that twenty notable directors from neighboring countries. They’re discussing perennial issues — inadequate production resources and creative ways of addressing the failure of African governments to support the film community with innovative cultural policies.

Sembène has just reached his seventy-fourth birthday, and, as he puts it, “I am an old youngster with the faith of an adolescent.” Perhaps he feels this way because his career did not start until he was well over forty. First, he was a novelist.

Sembène’s urge to write was fueled by the rage against the oppressive nature of the colonial state and its dialectical relationship with injustice. He has been an activist since his days working in a Marseilles shipyard, an experience which inspired his first novel Le Docker Noir. Now the novelist-filmmaker is presiding over this strategic meeting of Senegalese filmmakers to chart solutions for the most enduring conundrum facing African filmmakers: how to show the films they make so that African audiences can see them. Like the protagonists in his films and his novels, Sembène takes on this mission with intensity and tenacity. The problem of distribution, reaching African audiences, has been a life-long struggle.

He took up the daunting task of filmmaking in a place with no equipment, no labs, and only with a handful of theaters, tightly controlled by European distributors and packed with Hollywood action films and Indian melodramas. After completing his first feature in 1963, Borom Sarret, Sembène stubbornly thought he could break their hold. He found some relief in making the rounds on a bicycle to remote villages where he could show the film to enthusiastic crowds after nightfall. These encounters convinced him that cinema has the potential to be an educational tool. Sembène has come to believe his generation has an immense role in the political process. Since his first film l’Empire Sonhrai, an epic of African resistance to colonialism set in Timbuktu, all of his tales have told the paradoxes bedeviling Senegalese society. According to Sembène, artistic work should inform Africans about the continuing transformation of post-colonial societies; they must be tools for empowerment and enlightenment.

The stories Sembène tells — be it satire (the quirks of the Senegalese political class and bureaucrats as in Xala) or scathing commentary of evangelism (Christian or Muslim, helped by African surrogates as in Ceddo) — have the necessary conspicuous political edge to challenge African audiences to own up to the unfinished business of de-colonization. They are told with pointed wit. His brilliant command of African oral narrative traditions elevates the most casual and routine anecdotes to soaring drama. He can endlessly recreate every day life with sequences of eloquent silence, giving his stories deadpan/ironic qualities which mirror the tangled lives of ordinary Senegalese citizens. He can recount the most shocking tale and give wretchedness a charming veneer.

Sembène’s cinematic gift and pioneering achievement have won him much praise at home in Africa and abroad. But the advent of a younger breed of filmmakers with original and adventurous talents has created new rivalries. He is derided by some for what they term “his elderly cockiness.” These attacks reveal more of the young filmmakers’ frustrations with Sembène’s omnipresent style of filmmaking, charisma, and international fame in comparison to their accomplishments. Sembène says coolly, “We’ve lost our sense of history in Africa; the last one to arrive always wants to lead.”

In many ways, he is indeed the de facto ambassador of African cinema. His films are distributed throughout the world and studied in liberal arts departments everywhere. His media-genic charm takes him to places where African culture is celebrated. And in spite of criticism, his enormous legacy is the affirmation of his originality. Prominent among his peers, Ousmane Sembène showed Africans how to map their stories on celluloid and defined a film language to follow Borom Sarret. His independent spirit, and unwillingness to compromise principles — which have caused him many a crash landing — are moral criteria for many artists. In his own way, he is one of the last custodians of unfettered artistic integrity.

A Conversation

Mamadou Niang: I’m curious about the way you shuttle between the novel and filmmaking. It is not usual for writers, and it shouldn’t be easy for you who put almost all of your novels on the screen. How does Sembène “the writer” get to filmmaking, and how does Sembène “the filmmaker” get back to writing?

Ousmane Sembène: Well! I must confess it’s not always easy. A screenplay is a book written in telegraphic form, and the dialogues which have to respect a carefully planned timing. You cannot be verbose. You must resort to mimics, body language, eye contact, the movements of actors, etc… I think they are separate trades, but they’re not incompatible for me, I’m used to it since I’ve been doing it for over 30 years.

MN: Is it conceivable that the novelist filmmaker Sembène takes to the screen a novel or a screenplay written by some one else?

OS: No! I don’t think so. I could be interested in a book, and with the accord of the writer, develop a screenplay, but it would be an adaptation.

MN: There are directors who are not writers, they are not auteurs. They’re called in to direct some one else’s idea.

OS: People have different talents; Some have a visual intelligence, but lack the imaginative thinking that writing requires. But this separation has more to do with the parts of the world where ‘filmmaking’ is an industry. We’re talking about specialization here, where in Europe or in America you may have four persons working on a screenplay, before the studio even names a director. But that’s an enrichment; that’s a luxury. There are no written rules. Nothing is absolute in this business.

MN: So, then you could work in that context?

OS: Yes, one can be both a woodcutter and a sculptor at once.

MN: Of all your writing and films, has there been a time you would call a defining moment throughout your long career; It could also be a moment of fulfillment, of triumph?

OS: I’ve loved everything I’ve done at the moment I am doing it. It’s the next thing that obsesses me. I’m not in the habit of psychoanalyzing myself, but I’m taken totally by the task at hand. Once the work is completed, which I hope is of the highest quality I can deliver, then it belongs to the public. It’s no longer mine.

MN: But I bet you’ve had moments of great satisfaction.

OS: Oh yes! After I’ve put that final touch, it’s a satisfying feeling. Writing, or making a film is many, many months of adventure. It is a gratifying moment when you put the final dot, and sign the release for the publication of a novel; or when you finish mixing sound for a film and see the audience coming into the theater. See, I’m a craftsman, I’m not an artist. I take pleasure in the work I do, but it is a process, pruning, carving, trimming… writing, re-writing. It’s work that needs to be done well. Never a extraordinary jubilation, but always a happy feeling.

MN: I imagine that the filmmaker Sembène is more popular than the writer Sembène. Does it frustrates you that most people in Africa only know the filmmaker, or do you think that the public appreciates both equally?

OS: I am generally happy about the way my work is received. But I wished that our peoples in Africa spent more time reading, and then go to the movies. Reading and movies are both means of intellectual and cultural nourishment. I’ve always said that cinema in Africa is an evening class, a “continuing education” at this stage of its development in our societies. But we must make good films which address our struggles. There’s no point in making films to simply entertain or bore people with protest films about labor rallies. Our films must for an hour and a half or two entertain, but also inspire and make the headlines of conversations in the workplace, and in the homes.

Reading is a privilege. It’s a solitary project. People who read a lot, who strive for knowledge are persons of great mind. Other people’s thoughts help us better access our own. I wish my people were the biggest readers in mankind and the best moviegoers. I’ve always thought that reading and cinema should be considered in legislative debates involving quality of life and sustainable development issues. They play a major influence in how we live, and what we do. Beauty belongs to everyone. We all like things beautiful.

MN: Do you have the same expectations when you finish a novel, as when you wrap a film?

OS: No. Each work has a life of its own, and makes its own way to the public. Today, it looks like each work has its own audience.

MN: Is there a distinction between Sembène the filmmaker and Sembène the writer?

OS: Yes, they are different. But it’s like you want to separate the cold from the hot water you poured in the same sink. The two approaches are distinct, I am pursuing two different forms, but it’s the same “Sembène.”

Further, using multiple mediums, I felt was a necessity, I’ve always tried to explore how to make my work more accessible to people. How as an artist, a witness of my time, and member of my society, I can bring my contribution like the tailor, the shoemaker, like anyone else. And I always ask myself: why society needs artists? What do we need artists for?

The Trees of Specificity: Gaston Kaboré

Jude G. Akudinobi: How would you define African cinema?

Gaston Kaboré: When I speak about African cinema, I am addressing the historical context of the birth of a cinema in Africa, the conditions in which filmmakers across the continent are trying to portray their realities, and how they are speaking about their histories and their cultural backgrounds, like elsewhere in the world. So, when I say African cinema, names like Med Hondo, Yusuf Chahine, Isaac Mabhikwa, Souleymane Cissé, Kwah Ansah, Ola Balogun, Safi Faye, Anne Mungai, Sara Maldoror, Tsitsi Dangarembga, among many others, come to mind. It is about how filmmakers are trying to repossess their vision and from these few names that I have just mentioned, it is clear that there is no particular way of making films in Africa. I hope that we will continue to have a diversity of films, narratives, styles, and so on.

JGA: What do you make of this talk, lately, about trying to universalize African cinema?

GK: It doesn’t represent my point of view; it’s a different perspective, you know. Those people are saying that we do not care to make a specific cinema, we just want to make films like America or Hollywood to create a market, make money and so on. But I think it is an illusion because the Americans first count on their own market before the markets outside. Even more, it is because they are strongly rooted in their own land, that they are able to conquer the rest of the world with stories about uniquely American situations. Sometimes, we are insecure and feel that we have to imitate others to be recognized by them. I think that the more rooted we are in our own land, the more we can expect to be respected by the West, the more they will see our work as significant cinema. Otherwise, we will be doing very, very…

JGA: Poor imitations?

GK: Of course. This does not mean, however, that one wants to make esoteric films. No. I inspire myself with oral traditions, the traditional way of telling stories in my culture, and invest that with my expertise in film because I want to tell stories to my people first. I know that through this approach I can, also, reach audiences all over the world. My films have proved that this is possible. To me, therefore, universalism is an illusion invented by Hollywood, to subdue the cinematic expressions of the rest of the world. As long as you speak to the human condition (to fear, illusions, dreams) you will be understood by audiences from the South Pole to North. So, we must continue to plant this tree of specificity. There are standards, of course, but that is a different matter. I also know that there are many ways of telling stories even in the US. You have quite different styles and temperaments of filmmaking in the US and it is important that we keep this diversity. Universalism, for me is born from specificity, not the contrary.

JGA: Could you speak a little bit about your sources of inspiration and how they shape your directorial vision?

GK: I think the freer one is in the sphere of creation, the better. I even try to escape my own auto-censor because sometimes you just censor yourself without realizing it. My sources of inspiration come from basic human experiences and my fields of study. I studied history before cinema and started teaching cinema even before my first film. I wanted to learn the language of cinema so as to investigate how documentary filmmaking today still perpetrates stereotypes about Africa. Subsequently, I wanted to apply the cinematic medium to history. My goal was to use cinema not only to record history, but to tell stories, as well, and bring my audience to identify with itself, through the characters that I create. That way, I am able to participate in history. In other words, I wanted to use cinema as a tool for reconstructing the collective memory, excavating history, trying to define who I am, where I am going and so on. Those sources, elements especially, inspired my first fiction film, Wend Kuuni. I am not a fruit of hazard or chance. I have a history and believe that the way I see has already been sketched by prior generations. For me, therefore, it is important to show that we have a specific sensitivity, a vision of the world and our rationality.

JGA: Manthia Diawara has written that making his film, Rouch in Reverse, was a rite of passage, a process through which he has come to discover something of himself. How would you react to that?

GK: I think that Rouch is, somehow, a drama for Africans. I do not want to make easy statements about the experience of Manthia with Rouch because I cannot judge it. I know Rouch personally and think that Rouch is Rouch. He is a French guy who came to Africa and shot films. Some of them are quite interesting. So, we have to see it through his own experience of being a French anthropologist shooting in Africa. Those give us some elements of investigation. But we should not mix it with other things. I do not say that my film is more true or less true than Rouch is. My film is mine and my position is different from Rouch. I do not have to define myself according to Rouch. Rouch exists, Gaston exists. Period.

JGA: This obviously raises a cluster of questions for the discourse of African cinema, especially around the issues of subjectivity, agency, and such like … true?

GK: The problem is that, always, the African is seen like a child, you know. When I say it is a drama, it is because there is a lot of confusion in some minds whether to take Rouch like an African filmmaker. I disagree; not because I am ostracizing him. No! Only because even if I stay in France for four decades making films, I never become French. In my culture and it should be the same in yours, it is said that the piece of wood does not become a crocodile because it has stayed long in the water. I think that we have to pass this Jean Rouch trauma. Why should we define ourselves or take any position through Jean Rouch? I don’t see the necessity. I don’t see the necessity.

JGA: In what ways then, do you think African cinema can assert its specificity and perhaps challenge certain stereotypes of Africa?

GK: By making films, period. We have been making films for very long, yet our history, legends, and mythology are so rich, you know. The more we make films, the more the cinema in Africa will specify itself. Ousmane Sembéne once said that we will make African films by making films. So, let us make films which speak to ourselves and in time, we will see an aesthetic, rhythm, and styles evolve. The challenge involves intellectual work and, creativity. We have to think about our choices, why we do this and that, and through all those dynamics we will see something come up. I do not try to make films like Gaston. I just try to be myself and make films; in this way, our films are going to exist, with their specificities. Challenging stereotypes should not only be a task for cinema, because it is so pervasive and calls for tremendous work between scholars and filmmakers. I don’t say I am going to make a film to respond to Jean Rouch, I just try to make what I feel has to do with my personal history.

JGA: Comment a bit, if you will, on the discourse of change in your films?

GK: All societies contain internal dynamics of change. To me it was important for my first film, Wend Kuuni, not to get into this so-called opposition between traditional Africa and modern Africa because again we are put in prison by others who say: just stay here, this is the place where you can play. The film shows that we our own self-reliant societies, with the good and bad, with oppressions but, also, rebellions and everything. Further, there is a parallel between the story of this young boy and Africa itself muted by colonialism recovering the voice to tell its own history, and story. It is really important that we keep confident in our capability to think for ourselves. All my films speak about rootedness and reconnections because sometimes one loses bearings. So we always have to revisit certain things.

JGA: Could you, briefly, give your take on the issue of funding and its implications for specificity in African cinema?

GK: Funding, of course, raises questions of perspective and target audiences since African cinema depends, largely, on the West for its production. Even then, I think the issues are similar to the experiences of independent filmmakers living in the West trying to make different cinemas and who, more or less, make compromises to get funding. I would prefer that we find the money in Africa, so that we are more free to do what we want, in accordance with our own ideals and the needs of our people. But since we have to seek funding in the West, we have, each of us, to examine the nature and extent of compromise. It is the responsibility of each filmmaker. There is, however, a residual risk that the axes of our inspiration could shift towards outside expectations. That is the danger. But I think that it has to be seen film by film.

JGA: How do you think the situation could be effectively addressed?

GK: We can put the spotlight on this danger and say to the respective governments in Africa that if the continent wants to have it’s own vision, we have to establish the possibilities of funding our films mainly in Africa because nobody else is going to do it. I think that is our responsibility.There are lots of festivals dedicated to African cinema, for instance, yet we don’t see much in terms of promotion of the films. I think the situation poses very critical questions which have to be addressed with meticulous care.

JGA: On a final note, what are your thoughts about the study of African cinema in Western institutions?

GK: I feel it is interesting because once a film has been made, it belongs to anybody who wants to see it, and would like to think and write about it. A film renews its life at every screening and it should be something dynamic. So, I respect the work others do with my film once it is made. I think the filmmakers and scholars have different levels of responsibilities and, to me, any serious work on the films should include an analysis of the narrative content, aesthetic strategies, contexts of production and everything else. In other words, the films have to be analyzed on their own terms. There has to be a constant negotiation of certitudes. The scholars are there for the filmmakers and should pose questions rather than certitudes.


Gaston Kaboré’s contributions to the development of filmmaking in Africa go beyond his unprecedented third-term as Secretary General of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers, Fepaci, to include the remarkable efforts he has made toward establishing Burkina Faso as a veritable hub of African cinema. As a director, his film credits include <i>Wend Kuuni</i> (1982), <i>Zan Boko</i> (1988), <i>Rabi</i> (1992), and <i>Buud Yam</i> (1997) which won the prestigious Etalon de Yennenga at the 1997 FESPACO, in addition to featuring at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. In this interview with Jude G. Akudinobi, Gaston Kaboré journeys through the debates and issues which frame contemporary African cinema to state, quite boldly, that specificity is central to any serious discussion of African cinema.

African Cinema in the Nineties

For African cinema, the final decade of this century has been a mixed bag of promises, hopes, achievements, and continued struggle and frustration with the same set of issues and challenges that have always confronted filmmakers throughout the continent. Hopes and projections of political and economic renewal and transformation under the aegis of World Bank-mandated adjustment programs, and other liberalization measures, and the positive fall-out that these were expected to have, especially on the cultural sector, actually turned out to be disastrous. African filmmakers began to experience the painful effects of budget cuts and the gradual loss of both external and internal funding for production. At the same time, the slow but orchestrated disappearance of movie houses, one of the sad occurrences of the ’90s, began as privatization, made possible by local entrepreneurs who, in time, converted these into warehouses for sugar, rice, cement, and other commodities. These conditions contributed to intensifying the perennial crisis of production, distribution, and exhibition of African cinema on African soil, so that barely three years to the end of the century the lingering shadows of this crisis continue to hover and obscure the few notable achievements of the last decade.

Responses to this crisis on the part of African filmmakers ranged from the usual accusations of ignorance and neglect of culture industries by African states and entrepreneurs, to indictment of the marginalization of African cinema by countries of the North, and to the deployment of various individuals as well as collective efforts to reverse this crisis in a more durable fashion. Notable in the latter category are the recent efforts to refashion the Panafrican Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) into a more active body and voice for African cinema, the establishment of Union desateurs et Entrepreneurs Culturels de l ’Afrique de l ’Ouest (UCECAO), on the initiative of veteran Malian filmmaker Souleyemane Cisse and others.

Developments in Southern Africa, particularly with the dismantling of formal apartheid in South Africa and the end of the RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique, have opened up new opportunities for production, distribution, exhibition, and partnerships including other forms of networking and capacity building. New production houses and other film-related ventures have sprung up in Zimbabwe (The African Script Development Fund, The Film Training School in Harare, Framework International, Media for Development Trust, Zimmedia, Africa Film and TV) and in Mozambique (Ebano Multimedia, under the direction of veteran filmmaker Pedro Pimenta). Some of these production houses have been instrumental in enabling productions by new and young filmmakers such as the first feature by Zimbabwean writer-turned- filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga’s, Everyone’s Child (1997), Isaac Mabhikwa’s More Time (1993) and many others. They have also enabled filmmakers from other parts of Africa to film in Southern Africa.

The Southern African Film Festival (SAFF), under the direction of Zimbabwean filmmaker Isaac Mabhikwa, is fast emerging as a prominent venue for filmmakers from the region and elsewhere on the continent, as well as for filmmakers from the African diaspora. SAFF, by holding its fourth festival in October 1998 in Harare, along with the Cape Town Southern African Film and TV Market, now joins Carthage and FESPACO as one of the major film festivals on the continent.

South Africa holds a great deal of promise for African cinema. This past year has witnessed what, perhaps, is a sign of things to come. The first major feature film directed by a black South African was released this year. Titled Fools (1998), the film is directed by Ramadan Suleman, who was associated with Souleyemane Cissé, and produced by the South African production house, Natives At Large, Ebano Multi-Media from Mozambique, and others. The film is an adaptation of a short story by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele.

Furthermore, South Africa film industry leader, Interleisure (recently acquired by Primedia, owner of the Ster-Kinekor theater chain in the sub-region) has recently entered into partnership with the black South African investment group, Thebe Investment Trust. This alliance will create the Ster-Moribo chain to operate cinema theaters primarily in the black townships. Will African films eventually wind their way into this giant empire, whose mainstay at the moment is primarily Hollywood films? Will this be the start of more investment in African XX-film production? This is the challenge for African cinema in the “New” South Africa.

Co-productions and other forms of production partnerships between African filmmakers and film companies from different parts of the continent have registered some encouraging developments in the 90s. One witnesses an increasing turn toward South Africa. There is a gradual trend for filmmakers to cross various kinds of borders to shoot their films in locations and languages outside of their countries of origin and, at the same time, use technicians, actors, actresses, and other resources and facilities available in these countries. This has been the case with Souleyemane Cissé, who ventured from Mali into Zimbabwe to film his epic Waati, a story set in Southern and West Africa with a multi-lingual set of characters. Similalry, Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Békolo’s film, Aristotle’s Plot (1995) , benefited from co-production arrangements with the Zimbabwe-based Framework International, and the film, which is in English, also features South African actors. More recently, Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, shot his latest feature, Kini and Adams (1997), on location in Domboshawa, Zimbabwe, again with the collaboration of Framework International, and a Zimbabwean and South African crew and cast.

The fact that this film was done entirely in English hints of a more pronounced and interesting shift toward a polyglot African film practice, evidence of the readiness or resolve of filmmakers to make full use of the available languages of the continent over and beyond their own, no matter what their level of competence or performance. In opting for a narrative marked by a pronounced geo-cultural indeterminacy and using English instead of Moré or French–the language of his previous films–is Ouedraogo positing new and different imperatives for African cinema and enabling it to break out of its present crisis of perennial struggle and marginalization in the industry? Is it a turn toward or a desire for greater “diversality” (some would say universality) make African films more appealing and marketable to broader audiences? If, so what are the costs and benefit of this presumed “diversality”?

For Merzak Allouache of Algeria, director of Omar Gatlato (1976), Bab El-Owed City (1994) and Salut Cousin (1996) the issue is one of integrity. He asks his fellow African filmmakers: “… are we losing a sense of our own reality, are we compromising cinematic content for ‘northern’ funding?” This sentiment has been echoed by many other filmmakers who voice concern about the sometimes blatant tendency of funders to dictate the content and form of African films. Cheik Oumar Sissoko, the Malian filmmaker whose film Guimba (1995) won the Grand Prize at FESPACO in 1995 and who is currently finishing his latest film, La Genese (Genesis), suggests “universal themes are the compulsory path that our cinema has to take to make a name for itself.”

These issues and many others about narrative content, form, style, technique and execution will continue to fuel much of the debate and commentary on the future of African cinema and, surely, more informed analyses will emerge in the years to come. In the meantime, a cursory glance at some of the recent productions in African cinema reveals a trend toward greater diversity and plurality of stories, styles, techniques, themes, and ideologies. Some filmmakers are attracted or pushed toward stories presumed to be universal either in content, reference, inference, or implication, while others opt for the local and the particular. In a way, these trends are not mutually exclusive, for few things are universal that are not anchored in some specificity, so that many who claim the universal label still find themselves departing from defined geo-cultural, political, and historical contexts.

For example, the film Guimba (1995) is about tyranny, the abuse of power and privilege, and the resistance to such excesses. These are themes and experiences that are shared by all societies around the world. Similarly, Gaston Kaboré’s 1997 FESPACO Grand Prize winning film, Buud Yam, is about universal features such as love, duty, obligation, struggle, pain, and attachment to family and community. However, it is only through the specificities of their narrative modes, inscriptions of their cultures, the gestures, the languages, the costumes, the music, etc., that any such universal features emerge. So obvious is this fact that it becomes nonproductive most of the time to speak in terms of universal this or universal that.

Many filmmakers are showing increasing interest in subjects which have been relatively undeveloped in the past. The muffled allusions to romance, sexuality, and desire, characteristic of quite a sizable segment of earlier African cinema, have become more pronounced and developed in a few of the recent productions, even constituting the narrative vehicle of some. Interpersonal relations, romance, bold assertions of sexual and other identities and desires, and the cultural and religious impediments and sanctions to these assertions — the myriad exigencies of a problematic modernity and the formidable challenges of a restless young population now in the tentacles of “devaluation” (devalisation), MTV, and a poorly digested African American hip-hop popular culture — these constitute the focus, in one way or another, of films such as Dakan (1997) by Mohamed Camara of Guinea, Essaida (1996) by Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Zran, the elegant and somewhat tragic Machaho (1996) by Algerian Belcachem Hadjaj, Mossane (1996) by Senegalese Safi Faye, The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1995) by Flora Gomes of Guinea-Bissau, and Bab El-Owed City (1994) and Salut Cousin (1996) by Algerian Merzak Allouache, to name just a few.

Salut Cousin is a remarkable achievement in its skillful blend of comedy, spectacle, and romance to project a poignant commentary on African immigration to France as well as to offer a new vision of African Arab romance and solidarity in the persons of the Algerian fellow and the Senegalese woman. Another equally compelling achievement is the new film of Jilali Ferhati from Morocco, Chevaux de fortune, a refreshing re-take of the perennial theme of the pull and push factors of emigration.

Recent productions also feature a number of works that in some ways continue and build on trends and orientations that were the hallmarks of the ’70s and ’80s. The socio-political commentary, the interrogations of cultural practices and customs — especially their exploitation and abuse for individual profit — and the indictment of inequity and repression are themes that resurface in some of the new films. Tableau Feraille (1996) directed by Senegalese Moussa Sene Absa looks at the question of culture, politics, and gender in the context of contemporary post-devaluation urban Senegal, while Adama Drabo of Mali uses reversal as a narrative and structuring device in his new film Taafe Fanga (1997) to interrogate the issue of gender in a highly amusing and effective fashion.

Drabo’s film provokes a rethinking of gender roles as natural and teases us to consider them as social constructs. The film immerses us in certain aspects of Dogon culture in similar ways to that of Gaston Kabore’s latest film Buud Yam which deploys a quest motif as a structuring device to chronicle the eco-cultural diversity of Burkina Faso within the framework of Wend Kuuni’s search for the medical practitioner to cure her adopted sister Pognere. This “sequel” to Kabore’s first film is evidence of a certain continuity in African film subjects and styles. In fact, one can draw parallels between Buud Yam, Safi Faye’s Mossane, and Flora Gomes’ Po Di Sangui (1996) to the extent to which all three mine their respective society’s repertoire of myths and narrative styles to inform their films.

The subject of African history continues to command the attention of African filmmakers as they continue the task of making sense of the distant and recent past in ways that speak with significance to the present and the future. In addition to Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli’s elegant Les silences du palais, which is set in the time of the last Tunisian monarchs, and Haile Gerima’s record-setting film on slavery Sankofa, two young Ethiopian filmmakers have recently contributed technically refined and analytically sophisticated reappraisals of the last two decades of the Ethiopian feudal monarchy and repressive military dictatorship. Yemane Demissie’s Tumult (1996) and Salem Mekuria’s Deluge (1996) engage these aspects of the Ethiopian experience with a great deal of invention, imagination, and nuance. Also worth noting is the recent “re-vision” of the Algerian war of independence by Rachida Krim in her acclaimed film Sous les pieds des femmes (Where Women Tread).

Like Demissie, Mekuria, and Krim, Cameroonian Jean-Marie Teno and Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly, Zaire) also detail their perspectives on dictatorship, violence, repression, and the turbulent post-independence moment in their countries. Teno’s first long feature, Clando (1996), builds on the foundation of his impressive documentary work on various aspects of life in Cameroon under former President Ahmadou Ahidjo and current president Paul Biya. In Clando, Teno delves further into the geography and operations of repression and the strategies deployed by people to resist and negotiate such forces both in Cameroon and among Cameroonian immigrants in Germany.

Balufu’s Le Damier (1997) is, without doubt, one of the most inventive films to come out of African cinema in recent years. A fine blend of play, power, and politics, the film ingeniously exploits the liberating aspect of the popular game of draught (a version of chess), a leveling device, and a space where boundaries crumble, as a vehicle through which the oppressed talk back, insult, and humiliate the oppressor. The defeat of the head of state (figured as Mobutu Sese Seko) at the hands of the lowly champion from the ghetto is somewhat prophetic of what was in store for Mobutu.

Aristotle’s Plot (1996) by Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Békolo deals with the subject of cinema itself, more particularly, cinema in Africa and cinema by Africans. A meta-discourse on cinema, this film also uses play to deploy a cast of characters (with names like Van Danune, Schwartzenegger, and Bruce Lee), cinema, cineaste, and references to specific African filmmakers such as Safi Faye, Ousmane Sembene, and Souleyemane Cissé. The film interrogates the state and direction of cinema in Africa, the prevalence of non-African films on African screens, and the absence and presumed unpopularity of African films with African audiences. Underneath the playful surface of this film, which uses an English and South African cast of actors, is a compelling set of challenges and provocations from a young filmmaker to African filmmakers and observers. This is done using an approach and style generally associated with avant-garde and post-modernist tendencies.

Recent activity in the “New” South Africa will no doubt bring new dimensions to the already complex situation and questions of race and belonging, in particular. The works of white, anglo and Afrikaaner filmmakers from South Africa such as Michael Harmon’s noire Wheels and Deal (1991), the late Manie van Rensberg’s comedy Taxi To Soweto (1995), Ian Kerkoff’s bold and explicitly gay Nice To Meet You, Please Don’t Rape Me (1995) — formerly titled Confessions of A Yeoville Rapist — David Lister’s comedy Soweto Green (1963), Jump The Gun (1997) by Les Blair of Britain, and M-NET supported productions like Letting Go (1997) and The Sexy Girls (1997), will most likely rekindle debates on the place of white filmmakers in African cinema.

No doubt, as we draw closer to the fin de siècle, many of the seminal questions and themes raised in Békolo’s film and similar ones dedicated to African cinema will be debated and discussed with more urgency and purpose. For many, the voices are sincerely and persistently calling for imaginative and sustainable responses to the multi-faceted challenges of African cinema as technological hegemony and an increasingly savage global competition come of age. The mixed bag that has been the lot of African cinema in the ’90s could very well turn out to be a catalyst for different and more productive paths.

Ouaga Hip Hop Festival

Ouagadougou is much more than the capital of Burkina Faso, it is one of the cultural capitals of the world. The city hosts several major festivals: the International Craft Show of Ouagadougou, the Festival International de Théâtre et de Marionnettes de Ouagadougou (The International Theater and Puppets Festival of Ouagadougou), the Jazz Festival of Ouagadougou and two other important theater festivals.

The city is also the meeting place for all lovers of African cinema. Since 1969, every 2 years, the Ouagadougou Pan-African Film & Television Festival (FESPACO) welcomes thousands of festival-goers and represents must-see festival.  At the very beginning of this new millenium, Ouagadougou was once again the leader of another cultural phenomenom, The International Hip Hop Culture Festival born under the name Ouaga Hip Hop.

Some New Yorkers were lucky enough to get a glimpse of this new festival at the screening of the documentary by Benny Malapa, Ouaga Hip Hop 3 during the eleventh edition of the New York African Film Festival in April 2004. The documentary captures the soul and the passion that goes into this great human, musical and cultural adventure that is Ouaga Hip Hop. At the source of this annual event is Ali Diallo, a young burkinabé who prides himself on a long and fruitful experience in the arts and culture in his country and in Europe. He is a theater actor, a producer and a director.

When Ali, who was working on the promotion of the first album by Basic Soul (the precursor of rap in Burkina Faso), met a few young rappers who complained to him about the difficulty of finding a producer and a market, creating a platform for these young hip hop artists became Ali’s mission. That same year, Ali founded Umané Culture, an organization based in Ouagadougou whose goals are to encourage and promote cultural contacts and exchanges; to facilitate the processes of professionalization and the blossoming of young hip hop artists. Thanks to national and international partnerships, Umané Culture and its dedicated staff brings its artistic, administrative and technical expertise to produce, co-produce and promote music shows in Burkina Faso and abroad.

Because the guests were mainly locals and Ali Diallo had a very small budget–e used his own personal funds to finance the first festival–this cultural and musical venture had modest beginnings. About 500 people attended the two-night festival in 2000.

In a recent e-mail, Ali wrote to me, “One can not live without dreams, so one has to find ways to realize them.” Ali put his money where his mouth is. We now can appreciate his dedication, his faith in his dreams and his passion to increase the diversity and the richness of these annual cultural meetings.

The festival is a two-part event over a two-week period every year in October. During the first ten days or so, Ouaga Hip Hop offers several workshops which cover different artistic disciplines related to hip-hop such as hip-hop dance, theater, graffiti, management, sound technology, writing, and studio recording techniques. There are no technical schools for sound technology in Burkina Faso and it costs a great deal of money to send young people to study these technologies abroad. Taking advantage of the festival to train technicians during workshops is the great idea behind the whole event, and Ali hopes that in the near future, they will be able to find technicians in Burkina instead of having to invite them from abroad.

The festival ends with a four to five day period of performances and concerts, and in 2003, it showcased the talents of established rappers such as Yéleen, Wed Hyack, Basic Soul, Smokey (Burkina Faso), Tata Pound (Mali), Dhalaï K (Bénin), Kaïdan Gaskia (Niger) , Daara-J, Pee Froiss, Djoloff (Sénégal), Lennox Lindsay (Trinidad & Tobago), IZM (France).

African rap differentiates itself from its American counterpart in several respects. First, the use of African traditional musical instruments like the balafon and the cora, give singular sounds that are immediately recognizable as sounds from the African continent. A lot of African rappers mix musical genres, and their sound combines rap, ragga, reggae, soul and local sounds. And last, but not least, the true originality of African hip-hop stands in its lyrics.

While American rap tends to feature gansgta rap which glamorizes crimes and often disrespects women, African rap is mainly a militant form of expression. It carries political and social messages and denounces social injustices. African rappers were inspired by a musical style which originated in urban centers in the United States and imported it back to the continent. They reappropriated hip-hop by giving it a new lease on life, new words (a lot of these artists rap in their language : wolof, songhai, moré, bambara, djoula, among many others), and other themes since these artists primarily concern themselves with issues related to their respective country, their continent, the environment, politics, their present and their future, injustices, human rights, their community, and the whole world. All of this for the pleasure of an ever-growing African public.

In the documentary Ouaga Hip Hop 3, one of the rappers of the Senegalese band expresses his desire to see more and more African rappers “copy” their own culture, to make sure that the “old generations” can listen and relate to younger generations’ rap music and to make sure that there is no “cultural contradiction”. Has there ever been any cultural contradiction in African hip-hop? Although African rap gets its inspiration from American hip hop as far rhythm, clothes, graffitis and body gestures are concerned, it is nevertheless rooted in the ancestral tradition of the griot who tells stories as well as history over music.

The modern griots of the hip hop scene are questioning the world of today more than they retell the history of their people and they contribute to the creative and cultural richness of Africa. The new hip-hop griots address the present in a direct manner while their traditional elders tell them who they are by recounting their past. These young artists want to be heard and their claims validated. In one of his songs, Wed Hyack (Senegal) pays tribute to Thomas Sankara and to Patrice Lumumba : two symbols of hope for a better world. Kaidan Gaskia (Niger) rap on all socio-political and economical problems which –although not specific to Africa- are prevalent on the African continent : such as AIDS, corrupted governments and politicians, poverty, social injustices, dictature, unemployment, etc. Smokey, a rapper and producer from Burkina, is not afraid of  challenging and confronting the government in his songs and is an active participant in the hip-hop scene by managing his own recording studio in Ouaga.

It is with poetry, conviction, talent and humor that these African rappers take their mic and their fate into their hands each time they go up on the  Ouaga Hip Hop Festival stage,  offered to them every year under the auspices of Ali Diallo, the soul of this event.

Akiedah Mohamed Reviews White Wedding

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 a collaboration between herself, Rapulana Seiphemo and Kenneth Nkosi. The three met on Isidingo.

“The years of friendship and working together on television, means that ten 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. While 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 peoples’ 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. We talked about the kind of movies we liked and 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.”

While 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 [have the money], 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, despite the fact that 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.

The African Slave Trades: Across the Indian Ocean

The Arab world’s lost memory of African enslavement dominated the panel discussions that followed the screening of The African Slave Trades: Across the Indian Ocean. The film’s narrator, Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, noted that “each time an attempt has been made or even the actual product of this inquiry has been placed before the world, it has been completely overwhelmed by the authentic atrocities recorded in the Transatlantic slave trade. And so the history of the African continent has been shortchanged in terms of its comprehensiveness, as a result of the neglect of this particular passage, this experience of the African peoples.”

When we began this film project,” said Richard Rein, the film’s French co-director, we opened Pandora’s box. Our aim is not at all to lay guilt on the nations which are practically all compromised in this tragedy. Our aim is to shed light on this story in an educational way with the help of historians and sociologists. What we have learned is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Panelist Salah Trabelsi, an expert on medieval Arab manuscripts who appears in the film, is one of the historians today attempting to set the record straight, “In general,” he told the audience, “slavery in the Arab world has been characterized by a deafening and embarrassing silence. So, when certain historians have tried to approach this history, the first response has been to say there are no sources or texts. But in trying to deepen our knowledge we wind up finding an enormous number of testimonies, dating from the first centuries of Islam through the last centuries, up to the period of independence.”

While sources do exist, both in the form of texts and iconography, they have largely remained the private domain of specialists who have spent decades of their lives combing through the archives. “What we are trying to do,” said the film’s American co-director Diane Seligsohn, “is to get this information out to the general public and especially to students. The hope is the film series will be broadcast but also made available on DVD to schools, possibly with workbooks and teachers’ manuals, because so far in schools, whether it be in the United States or in France, where several of us live, it is not taught.”

Present in the audience, Olaro Otunno, a Ugandan and former UN representative for Child Soldiers, pointed out that in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Arab slave trade is relatively well known and is even taught to some extent in schools. “There are two routes which were used,” he said. “One was the Indian Ocean; the other route was by land through today’s Sudan into Egypt, then the wider Arab world and beyond. What is missing is what happens to these Africans after they’ve left the African soil. They disappear into history. So the light which is being shed on where they went , what their experiences were, and the survivors of that era is very important.” Otunno added that “to this day if you go to African villages in the Congo or Burundi, there are still people who can relate what their forefathers told them, including the names of slave traders, the routes they used and the struggles they conducted during that period. Not all is lost, but time is certainly running out.”

Panelist Aisha Bilkhair is a UNESCO Slave Route Project advisor to the African Slave Trades film series. She has spent more than 30 years of her life documenting the history of her ancestors brought as slaves to Dubai some five generations ago. She said, “Each and every person who had tears and sweat in the desert and in the sea of the Persian Gulf, we need to tell those stories. So I took it upon myself and started documenting my family since I was 16 years of age and I collected letters and stories and everything that I could put my hands on…Hopefully, this project can continue and those stories will be heard and we will see then the depth of the African influence on the Persian Gulf.

Expanding Artistic Horizons

The tall sentry at Paris’s Branly Museum greeted me with its left arm stretched above its head, palm forward, breasts sagging. Its neatly bearded regal face was cut with minute scarification and set above a long and graceful neck draped with a three-string necklace.

I continued gazing at the exquisite androgynous wooden statue and finally read the caption. It said: “Djennenke statue, 10th or early 11th century, Dogon region of Africa, Mali.”

I looked back up at the ancient figure, thinking of the legendary city of Timbuktu, trying to imagine what was on the mind of the artist who carved the stunning statue more than 1,000 years ago in the heart of Africa.

So began my first visit to the Musee du Quai Branly, or Quai Branly Museum, which opened in June 2006, boasting more than 300,000 pieces of non-European art in a lush setting near the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank of the river Seine. The artifacts are from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and there are finely carved statues, exquisite masques, whimsical shells and jewelry, startling musical instruments, soaring totems, dazzling fabrics. Most of the art is hundreds of years old and addresses everyday life.

Much of it was plunder from the European conquest of distant lands, which peaked in the 15th century with the incursions in the New World, the subsequent slave trade in Africa and the conquests in the Pacific regions. The pieces of art wound up in the cabinets and chests of conquistadors, colonials, military officers, explorers and missionaries, where they were often admired as quaint oddities and fetishes.
The Branly Museum is the brainchild of former French president Jacques Chirac, who said in the museum catalogue that it put “an end here to a long history of disregard of art forms and civilizations too long ignored or misunderstood.”

Now the art was here in front of me, my thoughts turned to my Parisian friend, Johana Anguile, a schoolteacher who had already visited the museum several times. Johana hails from Gabon in West Africa, and she is part of my “adopted” family in Paris, and so is Danyla, who is Afro-Chinese, was born in French Guiana in South America and is married to an engineer from Senegal.

I was introduced to both women years ago by my friend Beth Shorter, a native New Yorker and former Alvin Ailey dancer, who now lives in France with her French actor husband and son. All of these faces are a familiar sight on the streets of Paris today, mirroring the images displayed at the new museum.

This was not always the case. During a stay in Paris in the early 1970s, the few African and Arab guys I met on the street invariably stopped and engaged me in conversation, wanting to know my lineage, as surprised to see me as I was to see them. I was from royal stock, of course, they always said. Since I was born in the United States and rootless, I always fell for their line, or at least pretended I did, yearning for an ancestral homeland connection, one filled with the kinds of faces I now see at the new museum.

“You have to watch your feet at the Branly,” Johana said to me the day before my first visit there. “You can think you are looking at art from one continent and realize later that you are in another. At one time the world was connected, you know.”

Perhaps. So I kept her advice in mind as I ambled through the cavernous exhibition hall, moving across the world, the floor changing color as it wended its way, serving as an artistic map.

There is mustard yellow for Africa, burnt orange for Asia, a deep cinnamon or sienna for Oceania, and bright sky blue for the Americas. Computer touch screens embedded in a leather-covered wall provide descriptions and images, which I checked often, excited about my discoveries, just as Johana said I would be.

I saw clan headdresses from Alaska, a solemn female Ekotame statue from Nigeria, exquisite ceremonial spoons from the Ivory Coast with handles jeweled and shaped into animal and human forms. I glimpsed Aztec sculptures from Mexico, a majestic ceremonial seat from Indonesia boasting an animal head. A late 19th-century carved offering stand with four hands upraised, as if reaching for the heavens, snapped at my breath. It was from the Gambier Islands in Oceania.

But it was the vivid blue indigo wrappers on display in the textiles exhibit at the African Pavilion that froze my steps. I moved closer to the glass-enclosed exhibit, captivated by the wrappers’ designs, thinking of two quilts made almost three-quarters of a century ago by the women in my family and passed on to me, both stitched with tiny fabric rectangles and triangles formed into snazzy, asymmetrical patterns inside squares.

It was as if the fabric had been transported from the heart of Africa to the deep South in Alabama where I was born and reared. In one of Mama’s quilts, the squares are tilted like a flock of birds in flight, the same pattern I discerned in one of the wrappers on display.

I leaned over, my heart now racing, and read the exhibition caption. Both wrappers were from the early 20th century, one a wedding shawl from Senegal, the other cloth from the Yoruba area of Nigeria.

“The processing of textiles is women’s work throughout Africa,” the caption read, which reminded me that I was at home a long ways from home. Soon after, I left the museum, weary with discovery but exhilarated.

“When you come to Paris next year,” said Johana, sounding a little wistful the day before I departed, “we’ll go out to the museum for dinner. There is a fine gastronomic restaurant, French food with spices from around the world. The restaurant is rooftop, with a wonderful view of the Tour Eiffel. Paris is best at night, you know.”

The perfect excuse for another visit to one of the most memorable museums ever.

Sembene Remembered

On Tuesday, May 27, 2008, AFF co-produced a very special evening at the French institute Alliance Français, titled “Homage To Ousmane Sembène.” The evening began with a screening of a short documentary directed by Mamadou Niang on the life of Sembène. Fadhima Thiam, actress and personal friend of Sembène, read excerpts from one of Sembène’s novels, God’s Bits of Wood. After the reading, audiences were treated to a very special presentation of Sembène’s first film, Borom Sarret, with an original sound score performed by DJ Spooky (aka The Subliminal Kid). Mamadou Diouf, Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.

Ousmane Sembène’s films age well. The Senegalese filmmaker passed in 2006 at 84 years. His features, which include Mandabe, Xala (it charts the travails of postcolonial elites) and Mooladé (a polemic against female genital mutilation) can compare with any of the great masters of twentieth century film.

However, it is his first film, Borom Sarret, that best represents, for me, his oeuvre as well as his politics (which he lived through his films). Borom Sarret seems quaint by today’s standards. It is shot with a 16mm camera in black and white and is only 20 minutes long, but a lot is packed into that twenty minutes.

Before he made films, the Dakar native had already worked as a fisherman, bricklayer, dockworker and labor organizer in Marseille, France, written a novel, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood), and studied cinema in Moscow, and those experiences are well reflected in his work.

The story of Borom Sarret is straightforward. It revolves around the day in the life of a poor cart driver. He gets taken in by a host of people that he encounters who either want a ride for free or exploit his good nature. The cart driver eventually gets ticketed by a policeman when he ventures into the former European quarter of the city, where his cart gets confiscated. That night he returns home to his wife and child sans cart and no money. The film ends with her handing him the child and leaving, presumably to make money.

I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, and every time I see something different. I also use it in classes on modern African politics to illustrate the transition from colonialism to independence. But it often leads to discussions of working class life and the role of the state, the market, the police, poverty and decency outside Africa among my students. It is not surprising that a number of contemporary filmmakers—and critics—honor him as the father of African cinema.


Soon after its invention in France in 1895, cinema came to Africa. Over the next century, its development was shaped by European colonialism and its postcolonial aftermath. By 2005, however, African cinema had come of age. In the beginning, only Europeans had cameras, but Africans gradually gained control of the medium and the message. Africans began also to make films about Europeans and Americans, reversing a century-old gaze.

The history of African cinema is composed of three strands. First and best known is the commercial cinema: feature films made in Africa for the entertainment market. Second are the documentary films made in Africa by scientists, educators, political activists, and the like. Finally, since independence, a self-consciously African cinema has come into being, created by African directors and shown primarily at film festivals, but also available on DVD. Overwhelmingly, however, the films that reach African viewers are American. “Bollywood” musicals from India and kung fu films from Hong Kong are also very popular.

This survey of film production will concentrate on three sub-Saharan regions: Southern Africa, the former English colonies of West and East Africa, and the former French and Belgian colonies of West and Central Africa. Space limitations preclude the wider and deeper survey that would have dealt with topics such as the history of Egyptian cinema, the earliest viable film industry on the African continent, like the German Encyclopaedia Cinematographica, containing hundreds of filmed “thematic units” from all parts of Africa, the Cuban-backed revolutionary cinema in Portuguese-speaking Angola and Mozambique or the cinema-in-exile of Ethiopia. Selection criteria for what constitutes “African cinema” are varied and can be invidious. Sembène’s disdain for Rouch is one example. South African cinema was contested territory during apartheid. It’s therefore important to consult as many sources as possible when researching this topic.

Southern Africa

The “bioscope” gained a foothold in South Africa very early. W. K. L. Dickson filmed the Boer War, from the British side. Dr. Rudolf Pöch filmed in the Kalahari Desert in 1907. After the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, cinema became a vehicle for national pride. More than a dozen films were produced in South Africa in 1916, among them the epic De Voortrekkers (Winning a Continent), in Afrikaans and English, which was a huge success in South Africa and in England. The film was compared to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In 1918 an even more ambitious film, The Symbol of Sacrifice, depicted the Zulu wars. South African films were unable to withstand competition from abroad, especially from Hollywood in the 1920’s. The number and quality of films declined, and a cinema of apartheid became ensconced, controlled by censorship and government subsidies.

In the early years of sound, most South African feature films were made in Afrikaans, with plots set in a countryside where sex, violence, big money, outsiders and race agitators in particular were excluded. In the years just before the introduction of television in 1976, the first African language features appeared: Nogomopho, directed in Zulu by an Afrikaner, Tonie van der Merwe and U-Deliwe, by the first black director, Simon Sabela. Production of cheap, subsidized films in African languages took off.

Many of the films of South African resistance were made by whites, foreigners or exiles. The Hungarian-born British director, Zoltan Korda, filmed Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country in South Africa in 1951 with the American black actors Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee. Working clandestinely, the American Lionel Rogosin made Come Back, Africa in 1959. The South African journalist Lionel Ngakane spent years in British exile, where he made Jemima and Johnny, winner of the first prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1966. Working in London with footage smuggled out of South Africa, Nana Mahomo made Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974). The film was intended for Western audiences, to counter propaganda films made by the South African Information Service. As repression inside South Africa grew, filmmakers grew bolder in their evasions. In 1988, Oliver Schmitz and his crew hoodwinked township authorities into thinking that they were making a Zulu/Xhosa/Afrikaans/English gangster film. Belatedly banned by South African censors, Mapantsula got rave reviews abroad: the New York Times called it “more authentic than any other South African film.”

African cinema has always posed the question of authenticity, and none more starkly than the best-known South African film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Its director, Jamie Uys, had been a successful producer of Afrikaans-language films. The Gods Must Be Crazy began with a Coke bottle dropped from an airplane, and featured elephants, children, an Afrikaner scientist, a British schoolteacher, Angolan guerrillas, a Land Rover, and a “Bushman”, most of whom did gently funny things. Because of the cultural blockade against South Africa, the film was released in Botswana, in 1980. World audiences, particularly in Sweden and Japan, were enchanted by a lighthearted fable, while political activists sharply criticized the film’s racism and fakery. But there was nothing inauthentic about its foreign exchange earnings, which surpassed $84 million.

Sembène the Ceddo*

Young Ousmane was not predisposed to become the master of African cinema. His family, fishermen from Zinguidor, wasn’t wealthy or from a noble background. But when he was born in 1923, Casamance had just been “pacified”, after three centuries of active resistance. He grew up in a dominated world, then, but one that kept on fighting for its emancipation.

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

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

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

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

His films, a lesson in demystification, orchestrate a violent rejection of all religious indoctrination. No religion is spared: animism when it justifies resignation in the face of the settler’s demands in Emitaï, Islam when it becomes hegemonic in Ceddo, charlatan diviners in Xala, etc. Sembène called himself a non-believer and wrote it in red letters on his house in Dakar. He militated in favor of independence, liberation and African unity despite all of the obstacles and his message always remained unchanged. He spoke to his people and claimed he was not very concerned about his films’ success in the North: “Europe is not my centre!”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Jack Lang said that the West should ask for forgiveness…

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

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

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


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

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

What is the most difficult: writing or filming?

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

What is your favorite film?

My next film!


* The film Ceddo presents an African community confronting two culturally foreign powers – Islam (the imam) and Europe (the slave trader and the priest)- in competition to be in power. According to Sembène, the ceddos are men who always refuse: they opposed the penetration of Islam to preserve their cultural identity. He was interested in this anti-authority power and repeated the following political message all through his work: relying on your own strength only. That is why he named his Dakar house “Galle Ceddo”: the Ceddo’s house”.

[1] Interview with Sembène Ousmane in January 1998, published on our website (article n°2506)

[2] To be read on our website (article n°3854)

[3] Article about his Cinema Lesson published on our website (article n°3965)

Interview with Branwen Okpako

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

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

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

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

AD: For Dirt for Dinner, how do German audiences react to what you show them — what’s their reaction?

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

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

BO: Yeah, he’s out.

AD: As a filmmaker, what sort of things influence you, what cinema languages influence- what inspires you as a filmmaker, visually and subject matters as well?

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

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

BO: Christopher Okigbo was a poet who lived between 1935 and 1967, and he died during the Biafran war as a soldier on the Baifran side, an Ibo poet, a Nigerian poet. He was not very prolific, he wrote quite a slim volume of poems but he’s recognized all over the world as being one of the greatest African poets to ever write in the English language and his poetry is amazing. I am telling his story because it does not fall into any of those stereotypical boxes for a start. He is not an African the way we have seen Africans before. He is an intellectual, he is a poet, a very cool guy, a real ”awon” boy. He’s everything you don’t see. He is modern Africa- he’s an exciting, modern African. And his life, again like the life of Sam, traces a very important historical period, this time in the case of Nigeria: from colonial to post-colonial times. Actually those are parallels (Sam is also a poet actually). And it’s good — somebody’s life that actually encompasses a very important changing moment in history, the birth of Nigeria and then of course its demise into the civil war — a kind of exciting story.

And what’s inspiring me at the moment is poetry and music, and not filmmakers anymore. I am kind of out of filmmaking and filmmakers and images. I am tired of it. Nowadays, we are bombarded with these bloody pictures all the time, and we are being told “Seeing is believing,” but of course I can’t believe what I see. Just because I see an astronaut bouncing around on some TV channel doesn’t mean that somebody went to the Moon. I am beginning to disbelieve images and image making is my business, so I am trying to win my faith back actually with this project.

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

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

AD: Inch’Allah

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

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

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

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

BO: Well, it’s a combination of both. With my first film somebody came to me with a newspaper cutting about Sam and said, “Look, this is important, this is a black man, he’s one of us, he’s gone off the rails. Find out why and make a film about it.” Someone really demanded that of me. That “You’re a filmmaker, do something useful for us.” So that was the impulse that sent me off researching that story. With the next story, it organically happened that while I was researching the documentary, I felt the need to develop a fiction story so that I could keep the creativity going and keep my imagination alive, and not put too much imagination into the documentary — it had to kind of make itself. So I started writing the other one. And now with Christopher Okigbo, somebody saw my film in New York and came up to me and said ”Look, I’d like you to make a documentary about Christopher Okigbo with my production company.” And that started Christopher Okigbo. Now it’s developing not into a documentary but more like a fiction film. So you know, its very organic.

Things are born out of each other. I came to New York to show one film, I met you, we started talking about another thing, we wanted to work together, then I got back to Germany and started writing about what we could do together, and then a story came up that fit into the idea of you and I working together in New York and Lagos and stuff like that. So it’s organic, its life — art presents itself to you as you just continue your life and then you keep on trying to write. I’m writing like three stories at the moment. And then at one point somebody bites one you know, somebody with money, or somebody with inspiration, or somebody with motivation bites on to one and says “Okay lets do this,“ and then you continue that …

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

BO: I would like you to say something

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

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

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

BO: Yeah. Thank you for saying that.

AD: What did you say?

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

AFF 2006 Outdoor Series

Hello, it’s me again, the African Film Addict, and I am still addicted. However, this year, I gave up the summer to work on improving myself professionally (whatever that means). When I received the emails and postcards about the New York African Film Festival’s outdoor series in Harlem, I steeled myself and pledged to stay strong. One summer is nothing when compared to a lifetime of professional improved-ness, right? So, for week after week, I resisted the urge to head out to Harlem. And I was doing well, until I received the email for the screening of Le Ballon D’Or (The Golden Ball). IN THE SPIRIT OF THE 2006 WORLD CUP SERIES the email began and, well…

You see, I was going through World Cup withdrawal and I didn’t know what to do about it. Add to that, the lack of outdoor African Film and you must understand that I was suffering and, at the end of the day, I am only human. One, I could resist but the two together are too much for a me, not even professional improvement is a powerful enough deterrent. Finally, like kismet, I had family visiting from Mexico. Well, I couldn’t let them leave New York without experiencing African Film and it would be impolite to make them go alone. They needed a guide. So you see how it all came together and just had to be.

As soon as I stepped off the train and started walking towards St. Nicholas Park, I knew I was going somewhere familiar, like home. Without even thinking about it, I picked up the pace. I didn’t want to miss anything. This was my big study break and I had to make the most of it. Oh yes, of course I wanted to be on time for my family too. I arrived just as Les Merveilles de Guinea, Guinean drummers and dancers, were preparing to take the stage. Of course Mahen was worrying about whether or not it would rain. It had been grey all day and both outdoor films in the weeks before had been rained on. I had no such worries. I was sure the weather would hold out and, if I was wrong, I knew that wet weather would do nothing to dampen the spirits of those in the park. I have already learned that the energy of the Harlem Parks Film Festival is stronger than wet weather.

The first drummer beat down on his drum and immediately all attention was on them. They got us warmed up and then took a break. During their second set my aunt started clapping and singing along with the group. No, she had never heard the song, but it sounded so good, she just had to join in. She was not alone. The crowd, moved by the talent and wishing to urge on the musicians and dancers, came forward, dollar bills in hand, to show their appreciation. Bills were put in hands, placed in front of drums and laid on foreheads as night fell and the time came for the film to begin.

We found our spot in front of the screen, and sat down. I was so excited; I could barely sit still as we watched the tale of the young and extremely talented Bandian. From the moment I saw the boys creeping into a coup to steal a chicken (you have to watch it to find out why), I wondered how I had been able to convince myself that I could get through a summer without attending a screening.

I don’t have to tell you how much I loved the film; those sitting close to me can report on how I cheered and gestured as though I was at a live soccer match. But I was not alone–one of my aunts leaned over to say to me, wow, this is better than Bend It Like Beckham and I will agree that Bandian’s skills with the football would give many a soccer player a run for his or her money. At another point, as a shot of the city played across the screen, my other aunt mentioned that she had never seen Africa depicted quite this way. Usually, it is all Out of Africa, savannah and suffering. I like this. And how couldn’t she. And I thought, more potential members for African Film Addicts Anonymous.

I soon forgot that thought as our very own Bangali blazed onto the screen and outdid himself as an unscrupulous cad. Many of us cheered at the sight of a familiar face. Now I feel like I know a celebrity. Maybe now my six-year-old cousin will think I’m cool.

So, it is nighttime on screen and the boys are playing music and dancing. Then suddenly, nothing. My aunt leans over and whispers, they must be changing the film reel. And I nod in agreement and then a split second later I think to myself, Hey, I didn’t see any film reels or a big projector. I am sure in this day and age we probably have something more hi-tech than reels. Yes, people, in the tradition of the Harlem Outdoor Series, we had to have an adventure to bring us together. Of course, no one got up to leave; didn’t you just read the better than Bend It Like Beckham bit? The street lamp that everything was plugged into blew a fuse and so the technicians had to look for a new lamp with a plug (did you know that street lamps had plugs? I didn’t). And so we sat patiently as a few kids thoughtfully jumped up and ran to centre stage to entertain us with dance. Bless them. Soon enough, the African Film gods smiled upon us and we were back to cheering at the screen and getting caught up in Bandian’s many adventures. The final credits rolled across the screen, too soon for my liking. Knowing that this was it and it was back to life without African Film, I took my time getting up and putting my things together.

Ha! I tell you this though; the next time I decide to improve myself in any way.

"We are doing worse than Hollywood": Interview with Kwaw Ansah

Steve Ayorinde: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. The name of Kwaw Ansah is to a large extent one of the most significant of African cinema. As far as cinema is concerned, we did not hear much from you in Nigeria since Heritage Africa. Has there been a break or change in your focus since that outstanding film?

Kwaw Ansah: No, there hasn’t been a break. There hasn’t been a shift. There has been rather a pause to reorganize, perhaps to meet a bigger challenge. There was a time when cinema in Ghana was quite active. When colleagues like Ola Balogun or Ousmane Sembène and Co. were meeting at various forums to discuss the future of the industry. Of course, it was very expensive and to make one film, it took nearly a million dollars. Having no color laboratory, we had to do the post-production outside, in our, shall I say, masters’ countries! The English speaking Africans had not the chance of the French speaking. Fortunately for them, there was the French Ministry of Cooperation which helped them to do a lot of films, whereas our colonial master didn’t think of a place for us. So, we had to struggle on our own to do the little we did.

Whenever we met at any festival, there were very few English speaking filmmakers, not because we couldn’t make films, but because the support to make the films was not there. That is why it took me eight years to come out with Love Brewed in an African Pot. The whole story is a film story. Being able to do it in the private sector and to get it out was quite a challenge. I collapsed several times. Fortunately, the film became a success. I remember when it first premiered in Lagos at the National Theatre, Mko Abiola was the guest of honour. Before the film started, he said, “My brother, I have to fly tonight and I don’t have much time for films, but amongst the things I understand, one is the jingles of money. As soon as the film starts, I will beg to leave.” The film started and Abiola sat through it to the end and he said that it was a long time since he had sat through a film. He donated 5,000 Nairas. In 1981, it was quite a lot of money; you could buy three or four cars!

Unfortunately, just as it was about to start, a friend that I had been helping a lot called Eddy Ugbomah, wrote in a Concord that for the first time one Ghanaian film comes to Nigeria, Kwaw Ansah had been made to sit in the president’s chair, which was not true. He had to create a myth for me. When I saw that, I said, “Look, this is dangerous” and I didn’t bother to let the film be released at all. But then, it became very successful. Luckily I was able to make about a million dollars, but just through the African English speaking continent. I thought doors would open for me to make my second film, but it took me another four years. Heritage Africa was the first film to make the grand prix at Ouagadougou in 1989. Apparently, they wanted a Burkinabé to win it. (He shows the “etalon de Yenenga” Fespaco trophy in a glassed case of his office.) They made the trophy much larger than it normally is. That day when I won it, I was ill with fever. Nobody would help me! I left it on the stage, I went home and went back with a taxi to pick it up. My prize money, it took me one month to get it.

But coming back to the cinema itself, I think video has played a role in making the Ghanaian film industry go down a bit. We had been struggling with the Ghanaian government to put a film policy together, as they are not aware of the role the film industry plays in the development of a nation. We started for a film policy 25 years ago! It’s now in Parliament. I don’t know when it’s going to come out. We did the best we could. I must say that the advent of video has come in handy though it has created a bit of danger. Nigeria hasn’t realized what Africans have gone through. They put the film in a very positive light.

We have stories to tell in Africa. 90% of the film I see are juju, juju, juju, what is it? I know Nigerians, I grew up with them. They were the best traders. They came to our village and were very hardworking people. And I didn’t see many Nigerians making it through juju! They worked hard and sweat for it. What is this wrong impression that every successful person from Nigeria should have gone through juju? They say, it is reality. I say this is nonsense!

Then there are other difficulties. If you go to our campuses today they are studying Occultism, because of what is appearing in Nigerian films. Occultism! I could see the potential of great things coming from Nigeria, because I thought they had come to fill a vacuum. Hollywood has made so much against the black race and when we have the opportunity to tell our own stories, we are confirming the same thing! Even we are doing worse than Hollywood! It has been a very painful thing. And I must say that Ghana also has gone to sleep a bit, as far the film industry is concerned. We are very few people, but you have Ghanaians who are following the same Nigerian example. But I told you though of the pause to reorganize. We are trying to reorganize.

I will take you to what I am doing. I try as much as I can and what I put up here are the largest studio spaces in the whole of West Africa. What I am going to do is to try and organize African filmmakers from all over Africa: we’ll equip the studios very well and we’ll set certain standards to tell healthy stories, not the juju, juju, juju and the murder, murder, murder! I’m not giving up. I’m writing a lot of series. For instance, I have a TV-series called The Good Old Days. I’ve written so far about 25 episodes, which will give us about 50 or 60 parts. When I start, I’m going to launch it for those who care to see. I want to show children of Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, because we all had one tradition of upbringing. Those were the days of community life. Each child was a child of the community. It’s a drama, the parental care for their children, discipline in the house, and the tricks we play. These days, you get any silly boy, he comes to your house and says he is going to take your daughter for cinema! That wasn’t on for us. We always had to escape to meet our friends. It was fun. We must bring back some of these nostalgic things for parents to share with their children. These are good stories.

For example, my father had a car. None of us was allowed to sit in the car. We’d be walking to school and my father would toot his horn to say ‘Hurry up’ and then drive away. My father made you feel that you had to sweat to own a car. We had to learn the hard way. When I was struggling with all the handicaps in my quest to make a film, I had been hardened. It didn’t kill me. I’m still alive. The children have to learn a bit more about this world. The African child today doesn’t want to sweat. As a result, a few African children have been able to get married. In my time, when you meet a girlfriend, the girl wants to show you how well domesticated she is. These days, the girl says, ‘Take me to a Chinese restaurant.’ The girl knows you cannot afford it. So, what do you do? You have to steel it! You have to go to your father and lie and say, ‘I have to buy twenty-five books!’ And you use it to have one dinner with your girlfriend. We Africans are today conditioned to want an unaffordable life, to have pretenses. Even though we can’t afford to, we just want it. ‘Just do it!’ Parents contribute to the problem. They feel they have to satisfy every child rather than say, ‘No.’ My parents were not poor but they had values, and with these values, you grow well in dignity. These are the values I hope we can come back to.

Olivier Barlet: You spoke about financing. How did you manage to make your films ? Was it private money?

K.A.: I had to go to the bank and let me tell you something. I had gone all over the place and everybody said,  ‘How can a private make money?’ The bank said ‘It is a risky business. We are not prepared to finance it.’ But one said, ‘Ok, we will try it, but we need a house from you’ I didn’t have a house. My wife got to tell her father. My father-in-law calls me and says, ‘I heard you had a lot of hard time and you want to make a film and the bank wants a house. Why didn’t you tell me? I have faith in you, I believe you can make it. You are a very modest man. Here are the papers, take it.’ I nearly collapsed. Your father-in-law is giving you a house. If you are not able to take the house back, there’s a chance of losing your wife too! You can imagine, I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, I did Love Brewed in an African Pot and paid off the loan and took the papers from the bank, which I brought back to my father-in-law. He said to keep them, but I said, ‘No please take them back! Those things have been too heavy on my mind!’ The second time, luckily, I had my own house and I used it as a collateral. You can imagine how difficult it could be.

O.B.: Did it then come to a time where it wasn’t possible to finance a big production by private means?

K. A.: After Heritage Africa, the experience has been so bitter! I thought that the success of Love Brewed would have opened doors for me but even windows were shut. It was like starting all over again! And during that time it didn’t take too long for Ghana to sell its industry, for the Malaysians to turn it into a TV Station. Alongside the films, my film production was starting its owned advertising agency. Then I was selected to lead African filmmakers like Cheickh Oumar Sissoko to team up with Henry Hampton’s Blackside serving as Co-Executive Producer to produce Hopes On The Horizon, a Ford Foundation sponsored documentary series on the struggle for independence on the African continent and democratic governance from 1945-1995.

But before I took up that challenge, I told the Americans that I knew how to tell my own story. I had the trust of my African colleagues and I didn’t want to abuse it. I didn’t want history to be distorted. I knew that at the end of the day they would want to please their American public. The true story has to be told. They put 13 million dollars in the first episode, in just one episode! And they wanted to film a school here, something else there, to put a traveling there, etc. Then it came to telling the story and even the academics said that if you want to tell the African story the first president you have to talk about is Nkrumah. It was agreed. My counterparts were African-Americans. Unfortunately, they wanted to please the American public. Henry Hampton said that the American public wouldn’t be happy about Nkrumah and that there was a very famous farmer at that time. So they used that story and it was an insult.

Then, it came to another issue: women. I said that we are always talking about men in struggle. They proposed an important woman in South Africa called Mama Ngoye. She actually led the thing. We took her. Another woman came to mind: Winnie Mandela. An African American woman said, “But she’s a murderer.” I said, “No, this is getting too far.” Then, they wanted an African achievement. We traveled to South Africa, to Ethiopia, to Eritrea and found a story there. Eritrea’s independence was unique because they took it from another African country, Ethiopia. After Eritrea took independence they realized that the mass public transport had been damaged. Trains and tracks had been damaged, the sleepers taken to be used in the war and so on. They wanted to revive it and The World Bank offered 40 million dollars for the reconstruction. So they put out a call to all the old railway engineers and about ninety of them came. The youngest was about seventy five. They started work and they managed to put a train back on the rails, but it was a smaller train as they couldn’t get the spare parts for the original train and they made their own to produce a smaller train from what was left and we rode on it for about 60 kilometers. I thought that this would be a good thing to show. Then, my team came back and said that the World Bank wouldn’t be very happy. I washed my hands and said, “You can have your project because I cannot tell a lie.” And the project collapsed.

But as far as I am concerned, I am very hopeful. I want to believe that it’s better late than never. The issue of, for instance, Nigerian films not really according the positive values of Africa, to me, is temporary. I’m sure it can be rectified very soon. One day minds will meet to really set the stage for the African cinema to continue.

O.B.: Is TV Africa taking this direction to show an emerging Africa?

K. A.: Yes. But I must say that the Ford Foundation project helped me quite a bit. 300,000 or 400,000 dollars were [Ford] Foundation money. The rest comes from my advertising agency, the billboard, outdoors and whatnot. It has been quite a struggle for the past twenty years to get this far.

O.B.: It’s very rare in Africa to have a cultural channel on television.

K.A.: What we want to do is to show that it is possible. I won’t say that we have 100% African: there are also good culture films from elsewhere, because we have a lot to share. We try to set good values of the universe.

O.B.: How long have you been running the channel?

K.A.: Officially, about two years now. So far, it’s not been bad at all. It’s been very capital intensive and, if we have the support, we’ll gradually move. We need to get to 45 millions dollars. The little we have done has been very appreciated. We’re gaining support here. We get to 85 km radius from Accra and hope by Christmas to get to Kumasi and Takoradi.

S. A.: Now that you have developed a business model, how much of a cultural nationalist are you still?

K. A.: No matter how big I grow, my passion to make a contribution towards the upholding of the African values means a lot to me. Because, the way things are going, if we don’t sacrifice to pay the price now, a time will come where the damage will be so severe, that we will not have a way to go to repair it. That’s my way. I want to share the positive values of the world. This is very important to me.

S. A.: Would you involve yourself in politics?

K. A.: Well, I try as much as possible not to meddle much in politics, even if I am a Nkrumah-ist! He did a lot for the African continent and I so respect him. I am a patriot, to start with. It makes little difference who comes to mess Africa up, providing they do the right thing for the people. A number of the African leadership do not think about the common people. This is very sad. They keep blaming the First World, but we live in a survival world. If you don’t want to learn how to survive, it’s your problem. Stop blaming! We had enough education. You cannot live in a vacuum. The British and the French were once under the Romans. It got to a point when the French wanted to be French. The British did the same thing and wanted to have their own values. Globalization to me is based on choices. What contribution are we making to the global world in order to be respected? We are passengers. When are we ever going to be drivers?

Interview with Jean-Marie Teno

Directing both documentary and fiction, Jean-Marie Teno frequently shoots his films himself, often in the reflexive and provocative style of the first person narrative. Born in 1954, in Famleng, Cameroon, Teno studied communication at the University of Valenciennes and graduated in 1984 with a degree in filmmaking. Rooted in post-colonial experience, Teno’s cinematic essays interrogate societal issues facing contemporary Africa. He tackles topics such as censorship, emigration, human rights, polygamy, women’s status, and the impact of globalization on the developing world. The pervasive nature of corruption within society and a 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 nineteenth-century German missionaries played in the colonial conquest of Africa.

This interview was conducted with Jean-Marie Teno amid the excitement of the eleventh edition of the African Film Festival by Horst Rutsch in New York on 23 April 2005.

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, and the Holocaust [4], 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 100th 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.”

55th Berlin Film Festival Focuses on Africa

The 55th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival was special to me in the sense that it not only focused on Africa and an African film won the Golden Bear, but that the world’s second largest audiovisual event imparted self-organization and event management skills on twelve players in the African audiovisual field. With an estimated 150,000 tickets sold, Berlinale does not only enjoy the largest audience of any film festival in the world but can also be said to comprise many festivals rolled into one.

I happened to be one of twelve Africans drawn from film, television, media and arts fields to train at the Deutsche Welle Television Academy that coincided with Berlinale. We observed how our theoretical training was implemented at the Berlinale festival and its European Film Market and how we could incorporate this in our own work back in Africa. Besides attending classes at Deutsche Welle and watching films, the trainees were introduced to the evolution of Berlinale, starting from its humble beginnings to its transformation into a global event. Berlinale began in 1950 with the Official Competition with the Forum of New Cinema coming in 1960. The Panorama, Kinderfilmfest, and Talent Campus came up in 1985, 2002 and 2003, respectively.

With a budget of 40 Million Euro (6.5 million Euros of which comes from the government), Berlinale has no shortage of funds. In fact, it turns away sponsors falling over themselves to fund it. The European Film Market grows every year and will move to the spacious Martin Gropius Bau in 2006 in order to meet growing demand. Each of the twelve training Africans shadowed a head of a section of Berlinale to learn how the latter spent one’s working day.

I was attached to Thomas Hailer and his Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus children’s festival that swept me off my feet. The magic of children’s films was too captivating for me. Although Kinderfilmfest/14 Plus features children’s films, they are neither simplistic nor do the filmmakers attempt to patronize children, but instead to present to them productions that speak directly to their world. I particularly enjoyed watching Cirkeline og verdens mindste superhelt (Little big mouse) by Danish animator Jannik Hastrup, Bluebird by Mijke de Jong of the Netherlands, and Pelikaanimies (The Pelican Man) by Liisa Helminen of Finland. Whereas Bluebird revolves around a 13-year-old girl who is bullied by her classmates, Little Big Mouse tackles gender stereotypes and The Pelican Man deals with divorce, love, and suspicion.

The Kinderfilmfest screens films in the original languages with English subtitles and the translation in German is done as the reel runs. One may also get headphones if one does not want to hear the German translation. Eleven children aged 4-13 years sit on the jury for the children’s film festivals as do five aged 14-16 years on the jury of adolescents known as 14-Plus.

Stressing the importance of a children’s film festival, Hailer said one must target parents, teachers, kindergartens and schools to succeed.

“Never allow sponsors to throw about things parents don’t like or disappoint children and their minders,” Hailer advised. “Be focused on quality, taking them seriously. Never look down on children.”

Out of the 48,000 catalogues printed, 8000 are sent to schools at least three weeks in advance. The festival sets aside 1000 tickets for children who cannot afford the three Euros per head for the Zoopalast theatre.

Our ‘godparents’ were Padhraic O Dochartaigh of Deutsche Welle and Dorothee Wenner of Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema. I think the highlight to African film business was February 15, 2005. It was on this day that Wenner and Professor O Dochartaigh, organized a day-long series of workshops dubbed ‘We Want You to Want Us’ to enable players in the African audiovisual media sector to present their case to the world and persuade it to put African film on their agenda. (I think this was important because 55th Berlinale was watched by an estimated 80 million television viewers and attended by 17,000 accredited film professionals and covered by 3,700 official journalists!) So, African players in the audiovisual sector shared their ‘Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’ in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Benin, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon.

Panelists, drawn from production, funding, distribution, marketing, exhibition, and management sectors in Africa, examined the challenges facing African audiovisual productions in terms of funding, technology, audience development and distribution. It was generally agreed that Africans have to invent strategies of film business that are uniquely African and not Western. They acknowledged that African cinema is opening up to new challenges and that strategies to gain audiences, use of new media, and ways of story-telling have to be different from the Western cinema model.

Among the issues tackled on producing and directing films for new audiences in Africa, panelists shared the African alchemy and magic they use in making films without adequate funds, reliable statistics, and opinion polls on consumer habits.

Representatives of bigger and small film festivals from various African countries discussed strategies they are using to reclaim public spaces in their countries. Among those who addressed the audience in a session titled Reclaiming Public Spaces, were Monique Mbeka-Phoba (Benin), Francis Nouaktchom (Cameroon), Ogova Ondego (Kenya), Fidelis Duker (Nigeria), Hamet Fall Diagne and Oumar N’Diaye (Senegal), and Zimbabwean Rumbi Katedza. Among the new ways highlighted in this session were filmmakers taking their productions to the people in neighborhoods, church halls, schools, community centres, video screening rooms and other outdoor areas around the city, translating certain films into the widely used local language or commentating during the screening for Nigerian films in Kikuyu and Kiswahili in Nairobi, establishment of film clubs where people watch films and discuss them from a layperson’s perspective, and African film festivals sharing films as they did during the 6th African Cine Week of Nairobi when films from FESPACO and Zanzibar International Film Festival were screened in 2003.

However questions were raised by some Africans in the audience over the suitability of Hau 2 Theatre which was located far away from Potsdamer Platz, the centre of Berlinale. “What was the motive if not to marginalise Africa further?” a participant posed.

Dismissing the “so-called films focusing on Africa” as being made by foreigners, South African Jeremy Nathan of production company DV/8 gave participants food for thought as they grappled with the definition of what constitutes an ‘African film’. Nigerian Dr Don Pedro Obaseki, who sat on the same panel with Nathan (Locating the market and spotting hot issues), conceded that quality was ‘still a major problem with some Nigerian films outside Africa’s most populous nation. He said, however, that this would improve as more films were churned out. He said it is Nigerians who pirate their own films outside the West African nation.

On how South Africa came to be at the centre of Berlinale—instead of Africa—while she had allegedly been snubbed at Cannes in 2004, Eddie Mbalo of the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa said his country had “not bribed any one. We can’t be treated as special cases. We don’t want to depend on handouts.”

Responding to the numerous questions spewing out about Africa focus, South Africa, and the inconvenient location of HAU 2 as the venue for ‘We Want You to Want Us’ seminars, Wenner said Berlinale had an independent jury that could not be compromised by any one, as had been insinuated.

Contrary to the feeling that holding the seminars away from Potsdamer Platz was tantamount to not embracing African cinema, Wenner said Hau 2 had recently won an award as being one of the best theatres in Germany and that holding a seminar on Africa there was indeed an honour and not at all a denigration of Africa. “The Western world is under obligation to help develop and highlight filmmaking in Africa,” Wenner said.

The ‘We Want You to Want Us: Smart African Ways of Marketing Cinema’, was organized by Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema, HAU and Deutcsche Welle with funding from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. Its three sessions focused on producing and directing films for new audiences, challenges facing African film festivals, and what it took to make U-Carmen eKhayeltsha. However, it was unclear how U-Carmen eKhayeltsha, which had been selected to be screened for the Forum section, had crawled its way up to the competition category and ended up winning the top award.

Elsewhere Berlinale boss, Dieter Kosslick, told the press that the Africa theme had not been selected but had come about “partly by chance” and partly due to a German co-production treaty with South Africa in 2004. If that were the case, observers argued, the focus should then have been ‘South Africa’ and not the amorphous and misleading ‘Africa’. Indeed South Africa had a hand in the making of all films at Berlinale save for one or two others. Indeed Azania had a hand in the making of Sometimes in April, Man to Man, Hotel Rwanda, and U-Carmen in Khayeltsha. One of the only two African films in the European Film Market, Forgiveness, is by South Africa’s Ian Gabriel. The other one was the European Union/French-funded Moolaade by Senegalese doyen of African film, Ousmane Sembene.

According to observers, Berlinale appeared to have merely paid lip service to Africa as the 53-nation continent was not prominently covered. Indeed, U-Carmen eKhayeltsha (South Africa), Hotel Rwanda (co-production of Britain, Italy and South Africa), Sometimes in April (USA/Rwandese co-production) and Man to Man (British/French/South African co-production) were the only films with ‘African’ connections in the prestigious Berlinale Competition category.

While in Berlin, we explored and/or sampled the pleasures of neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Schoeneberg, and Prenzlauer Berg where, unlike the chilly Potsdamer Platz, restaurants, gay clubs, pubs, cafes and boutiques appeared to carry on around the clock.

News Clipping: 2005

Screenings of the AFF Traveling Series at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston coincide with a major exhibition entitled African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection. The exhibition will present thirty-one contemporary artists from fifteen African countries who live and work in Africa.† The vast majority of works in the exhibition reflect the complex heritage of Africa today, a blend of tradition with influences from global cultures. The great Nigerian filmmaker Tunde Kelani will be a guest presenter during the Festival. He will give a talk (Thursday, February 10, 2005 at 6 p.m.) and he will present his film, Agogo Eewo, followed by a Q & A (Saturday, February 12, 2005 at 7 PM).


New York African Film Festival, April 2004 Moi et Mon Blanc and Soldiers of the Rock. Moi et Mon Blanc is a fast-paced comedy of errors cocaine caper; a humorous fast-paced, quick-witted tale of the collision and embrace of two cultures and the absurdity of caste, class and cash. With aspiration and determination as the impulsive incentive, two parking lot attendants in France bumble across mega euro dollars and a large cache of cocaine. The multi-racial pair, ex-patriot Mamadi, a newly anointed doctoral student from Burkina Faso and a young Parisian with wanderlust, are forced to flee the City of Lights, with the dope dealers in hell-hound pursuit.


Andrew Dosunmu interviews Branwen Okpako

AD: What do you want people to take out of your themes? And what experience do you want people to get?
BO: Okay, let me not be vain about it: I want people to leave Dirt for Dinner having learned something about the way German society functions and a little bit about the history of Germany from the time of socialism of the DDR or the GDR up-to-date. And with the use of this man ­s life, Sam Meffire ­s life, you basically get a kind of, a kind of personal and yet political historical overview of the last thirty years in German history: you know, socialism, reunification and post-reunification Germany, with this personal story of a black German man’s struggle to exist in this society. And it tells you a little bit about how the media works.


“From Russia with Love”

My interest in African cinema began when I was a student of film history at the VGIK film school in Moscow. Films by a number of great African filmmakers including Yeelen, Manabi, Black Girl, Tiyabu Biru, Badou Boy, Sambizanga, and Saruouni, among others, captured my imagination forever. That time began my lifelong love affair with African cinema. It is interesting to note that a number of filmmakers, including the Father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembene as well as Souleymane Cissé, Sarah Moldoror, Abderrahmane Sissako, studied film in the former Soviet Union, at a time when young African filmmakers were provided with enormous opportunities to learn film in Soviet-bloc countries. While establishing my career in Russia as a young film historian specializing in African Cinema, I always dreamed of traveling to the continent, picturing the African landscapes and people I felt I knew so well. That dream did not become reality until thirteen years later, after I had left my home country and moved to New York.


Zanzibar International Film Festival—Integrating the Region through Art and Culture: From its humble beginnings in 1998, the ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries has grown in leaps and bounds to be a grand and momentous event for culture and the arts in the region. The centerpiece of the Festival is an international program of film screenings, workshops and the film industry events. It has continued to showcase films that would not have been accessed by the local and regional public. These films have in their own small way contributed to a new emergence of cinema, artistic excellence and the cultural discourse. This year’s theme was Tafakari Mikondo, Hisi Upepo—Exploring the Currents, Feeling the Winds.

Ouaga Hip Hop Festival—Ouagadougou is much more than the capital of Burkina Faso, it is one of the cultural capitals of the world. The city hosts several major festivals: the International Craft Show of Ouagadougou, the International Theater and Puppets Festival of Ouagadougou, the Jazz Festival of Ouagadougou and two other important theater festivals. The city is also the meeting place of everybody who loves African cinema. Since 1969, every two years, the FESPACO (Ouagadougou Pan-African Film & Television Festival) welcomes thousands of festival-goers and represents the not-to-be-missed festival for all African cinema lovers around the world.