2001 Zanzibar International Film Festival


Golden Dhow
Director: Jag Mohan (India)
Based on the true story of a low-caste potter woman who begins working for the government’s Saathin (women’s rights) programme. She is savagely gang-raped by upper-caste elders in her village, but her real rape begins when she is forced to run from pillar to post in a judicial system which is corrupted by chauvinism, sexism, feudalism and political opportunism.

Silver Dhow
Director: Parviz Shabazi (Iran)
Three young children whisper their way through the towering world of adults looking for someone to carry out a ceremony for their youngest sibling. They survive however they can by selling lemonade or prayer books, but their task is not as easy as they first thought.


Golden Dhow
One Evening in July
Director: Raja Amari (Tunisia)
A brief insight into the relationship between the bitter beautician Saida, and an anxious and uncertain bride-to-be, Miriam. The tension heightens as Saida reveals her hatred for arranged marriages and the groom’s parents begin to intensify the pressure on their daughter-to-be.

Silver Dhow
The Father
Director: Ermias Woldeamlak (Ethiopia)
During the period of the Derg in Ethiopia, the artist Alazar shelters his friend, the political activist Jonas, from the military. There is a heavy personal price for both Alazar and his wife Rahel to pay for this action. Alazar is imprisoned and later released, but Jonas is killed and his sister later returns from exile to revisit the chain of horrific events that led to his death.


Golden Dhow
A Female Cabby in Bel Abbes
Director: Belkacem Hadj Hadj (Algeria/Belgium)
As a widowed mother of three, Soumicha is forced to earn a living by becoming the only female taxi driver in this Algerian city. She takes us around her daily circuit, meeting her regulars and her supporters, in a society where women are seen to be nothing more than housewives. In the course of her travels, we meet other women who, like her, are struggling for more freedom.

Silver Dhow
When Men Cry
Director: Yasmine Kassari (Morocco/Belgium)
Every year, thirty thousand Moroccans cross the Straits of Gibraltar: fourteen thousand are turned back, one thousand drown, and fifteen thousand manage to set themselves up. This film follows several of those who made it, but claiming refugee status leaves them with very little in Spain, and nothing but debts back in Morocco.


Yolngu Boy
Director: Stephen Johnson (Australia)
Sometimes living your dream is the best way to stay alive. Lorrpu, Milika and Botj are three boys linked by ceremony, kinship and a common dream – to become great Yolngu hunters. But their Aborigine laws are not the laws of North East Arnhem Land, and when these two collide, they flee their community and embark on an epic journey to save their dream and themselves. This was the Official Film for 2001 National Youth Week in Australia.


T-Shirt Travels
Director: Shanta Bloemen (USA)
T-Shirt Travels takes us on a journey from a local charity bin in the USA, to the places where these donations are put to use in Southern Africa. Focusing on Zambia, this documentary investigates the second hand clothes business, ‘mitumba’, and seeks to understand and illuminate the growing inequalities between North and South.


Dr Remmy Ongala, Tanzania

Haji Gora Haji, Zanzibar/Tanzania


Best Actress
Omi Baya for her outstanding performance as Saida in One Evening in July
Director: Raja Amari (Tunisia)

Montage of African Storytelling
Nous ne sommes plus mort / We Are No Longer Dead
Director: Francois L. Woukoache (Rwanda/France/Belgium)

Artistic Sophistication and Courageous Revelation
The Secret Safari
Director: Tom Zubrycki (South Africa)

Scenario, Mixing Imagination and Reality
Sweet Agony
Director: Ali-Reza Davudnezhad (Iran)

Educational Value and Special Relevance to the Dhow Culture
The Maritime Memory of the Arabs
Director: Khal Torabully (Mauritius/Oman/France)

Treatment of a Sensitive Issue
Director: Celine Gilbert (Tanzania)

“Shaking Up The Box: A Decade of ITVS”: Department of Film and Media at The Museum for Modern Art, July 5-22, 2001

This year’s presentation by The Independent Television Service (ITVS) included a series called Women’s Tales from Modern Africa. Produced by Simon Bright (A Winstar Cinema Release of a Zimmedia Production, produced in Association with ITVS and Winstar Productions), the series was comprised of three short films — Riches (2001) directed by Ingrid Sinclair, from Zimbabwe, One Evening in July (2001) directed by Raja Amari from Tunisia, and Close Up on Bintou (2001) directed by Fanta Regina Nacro, from Burkina Faso.

A South African teacher, Mrs. McBride, leaves South Africa with her son to start a new life in a Zimbabwean village. She encounters initial difficulty with the community but is determined to gain acceptance with kind gestures and open-mindedness.

Mrs. McBride teaches her class tolerance, civil rights, and human equality. She also finds comfort in the arms of the school principal who seemingly shares her ideals of tolerance and human equality and offers his friendship to her, but Mrs. McBride soon discovers that he only wants to take advantage of her. She fights back and by the end of the movie, she has proved to everyone that she is a decent person and gains acceptance in the community.

This might be an excellent piece of work in terms of filmmaking (I don’t know), but I do know that the story is far-fetched, overbearing and condescending. I especially dislike the narrative throughout the film. Simple dialogue would have been okay with me. The story was preachy enough, so I didn’t need the Mrs. McBride’s voice-over narration to hammer the message into my head as if I were one of her bad students.

Basically, I didn’t like this film and I know a lot of Zimbabweans who would take offense to the story.

One Evening in July
An older woman, practiced in the art of beautification, prepares a young girl for her traditional wedding. Despite the young girl’s resistance to go through with the wedding, the older woman manages to coax the young girl by sharing her own experience. In the end, in what seems like a betrayal of trust, the older woman returns the young girl to the circumstance she was trying to escape.

The film subtly portrays the conflict between tradition and modernization. The best thing about this film was its abstract nature. It leaves the viewer with a lot of room for interpretation. While that can be confusing and unfulfilling, with this film it works to allow the viewer to participate in developing and understanding the principal characters.

Close Up On Bintou
This is a comic tale of a housewife who, with the encouragement of her friends, defies her husband to start a business so that she can send her daughter to school. In the end, the housewife Bintou cleverly wins over her husband and the opportunity to provide her daughter with an education.

This film was funny and inspiring and challenges superior role of African men in society. The message of gender equality was clear, but it didn’t seem as though the filmmaker was shoving a message down the viewer’s throat. It was fun to watch and opened a nice window to offer a view of life in an African village.

Review: Faat Kine

Like Borom Sarret, Black Girl, The Money Order, and Xala, Ousmane Sembene’s latest release is another chapter in the writer-director’s laser-sharp commentary of post-independence in Senegal. Faat Kine brings the viewer face to face with politically, economically, and morally corrupt social fabric. Against this backdrop, Faat Kine stands out as the most hopeful, the most restorative, and the most beautifully crafted story Ousmane Sembene has ever told about the changing roles of women in Senegalese society. In this sense, Faat Kine could be regarded as a defining text of what feminism could mean in 21st-century Africa.

Sembene’s beautifully directed and graphic panegyric to the wild and unchecked growth of Dakar mesmerizes the audience with contradictions arising from the post-colonial landscape. Through the glare of the camera’s eye, cinematographer Dominique Gentil pierces the meanders of Dakar’s architectural physiognomy, while subtly arranged music by Yande Codou Sene and sound design by Alioun Mbow free the quotidian visual effects that reveal how deeply the contentiousness of modernity runs through Africa.

In the same space of the opening frames, women carrying water buckets and babies strapped to their backs cross paved avenues with the noises and fumes of antiquated public transportation and the dazzling sights of European or Japanese “reconditioned” luxury cars. Passing on, a startling sight: a dusty open space where starving cattle munch on anything they can find. New villas with manicured lawns shelter the moyenne bourgeoisie, the middlemen and managers of capitalist interests who have turned their backs on the crumbling chattel houses where their neighbors dwell. While begging and corruption become accepted ways of life, AIDS and pollution affect millions. The skyscraper monuments to globalized venture capital arrogantly towering above the decaying city are clearly symptoms of the city’s failing post-colonial economic, social, and cultural policies.

Recall Moussa Sene Absa’s Tableau ferraille and Djibril Mambety’s La petite vendeuse de soleil. As was the case in these gems, urban images and the transformation of an eponymous hero provide the terms of failure and impotence in Faat Kine.

Yet Faat Kine is not a fairy tale, entertaining and humorous though it may be. From the first scene to its happy ending, the harsh details that document and animate Kine’s private and public life in a society buffeted by forces of the past and those of modernity reflect what Sembene calls “the remains of the feudal system and the embryo of a nascent liberal neo-colonialism.” Masterfully, Sembene allows the folkloric appeal of her person to oscillate with the narrative of her struggle — between past, present, and future measures of success — and survival.

The film opens in the present, on a day of exceptional joy for Faat Kine whose two children Aby and Djib have passed the notoriously difficult and celebrated high school diploma of the baccalaureate (BAC).

Faat Kine is a chic, sexy, and “liberated” woman. She is a forty-year-old single mother, born at the same time as Senegalese independence. From her humble beginning as a gas-station attendant constantly being harassed by male customers, Faat Kine has climbed a ladder reserved for men to become a successful station manager of a multinational oil company. She is financially in control, well-connected in the business world, and adept at manipulating the banking system. Le Credit Lyonnais keeps no secrets from her. When she needs it, she can afford boy-toys. She owns a car and a stylish villa littered with posters of Sembene’s revolutionary icons. She has adopted all the fetishes of the moyenne bourgeoisie, including telecommunication knickknacks, modern appliances, and, best of all, a servant who draws her a warm bath when she comes home from work.

The double success of her children is yet another achievement for Faat Kine, one which stirs memories of her own youth in 1981, “when Sanghor left and handed power to Abdou Diouf.” So, Sembene’s pendulum swings back to the time when Faat Kine was twenty, in her last year of secondary school, just months before her final exam. She had dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But this was not to be. Immaturity, perhaps, and weak social and educational safeguards conspired against her. She was instead seduced by Gaye, her philosophy professor, and left alone pregnant.

The foolishness of the past exacts its brutal price, Sembene reminds us, in the crippled form of Mammy who lives on in the present with Faat Kine, Aby, and Djib. She is Kine’s mother and another of Sembene’s pillars of strength. For once she was expelled from school, Faat Kine’s only protection at home came from her loving but powerless mother. When Kine’s conservative father wanted to kill both his daughter and her newborn, it was Mammy who shielded the children with her body from her husband’s vicious blows.

Crippled Mammy, ambitious Faat Kine, the fatherless Aby: Three generations of women, who have only each other for support in a world shaped by feudal and neo-colonial values, hold the keys to Sembene’s moral. At first to survive, then to succeed, Faat Kine entered a world forbidden to women. By breaking taboos, she unabashedly took control of her life. She faced the world, was rewarded with a degree of financial independence, and moved steadily toward the center of Dakar’s middle-class. What does it mean then, when Sembene lets the pendulum loose once more? Faat Kine becomes pregnant and is abandoned again. Her lover strips her of her savings and their son Djib of his paternity. Apparently, one lesson Kine has yet to learn is that independence can never be a gift. It is hard won.

Faat Kine may be a film about women in a world of men — or worse — a post-colonial time when many waver at the crossroads of change and conservatism. But Sembene’s revolutionary heroes are men of action who live or die for democratic justice and egalitarianism. Mandela, Thomas Samkara, Nkrumah, and Amilcar Cabral — their massive, iconic relationship to the capricious fate of Faat Kine is complex only in how it serves Sembene’s overarching belief: There can be no complete or successful liberation of Africa from the colonial past without a concomitant liberation of African women. By catapulting the story of Faat Kine into the new millennium, Sembene declares, that time has come.

The utopia imagined in Faat Kine is a future about hope and the struggle against despair. Some day, both the cinematic vision and politics of professionalism that inspire Sembene behind the camera will define a new film language for Africa. For now, Faat Kine is truly a milestone in Sembene’s relentless struggle to “recover” and propel actuality in Africa toward images and an ideal of freedom earned and enjoyed by both men and women.

Video Awudjo! Popular Video Film in the NYAFF 2001 Festival

By devoting a festival to popular African video films, the AFF/NY is moving in a new direction. Larkin samples two of our selections and reviews the surrounding controversy.

Introduction | Video Films | Exhibition | Controversy

For a while now, African filmmakers and scholars have been aware that the concept of “African Cinema” is in need of revision. This is partly to do to the bitter irony that has followed African Cinema. While African Cinema has flourished in New York, London, Paris and elsewhere, it has rarely been screened in Africa itself. Even in Ouagadougou, the runaway success story of African cultural festivals, for two weeks every two years the cinema screens are filled with the best work of African filmmakers.

Outside of the festival, however, the screens revert to the French, American, Hong Kong and Indian films watched by the vast majority of Burkinâbe. With a few exceptions, the concept of African Cinema, then, refers to the films Africans produce, rather than those they watch – on TV, in the cinema or in video parlors. It has come to represent an art cinema, produced by filmmakers and analyzed by critics intent on pushing forward the boundaries of film form and representation. To this point, it has managed to exist outside the demands of the marketplace and a popular audience. That moment may be passing.

By devoting a festival to popular African video films, the NY African Film Festival is moving in a new direction.

African video films, films shot straight on video, are on gaining popularity in Nigeria and Ghana, and are referred to locally as simply “films.” These films are not the art cinema that is usually seen in African film festivals, but are throughly popular, meaning they not only command a huge African audience, but also that their production and financing is entirely dependent on how well these movies perform in the marketplace. In 1999 over 50 of these video films were produced in Ghana and over 500 in Nigeria. This means that, in this one year alone, more video films were produced than in the entire history of feature film production in those countries. From almost nothing 10 years ago, video films have blossomed to become perhaps the most vibrant new form of media production in Africa and AFF showcases these films.

Video Films

Out of Bounds (1997), directed by Tade Ogidan, opens with a scene of a Pentecostal pastor played by popular actor and director Richard Mofe-Damijo healing one of his congregants through the power of prayer. After his congregant appears on television to tell people about this miracle, the pastor’s future is secured. His congregation rises, important patrons seek his help and offer support and he becomes wealthy and famous. For the next two hours, the film explores the consequences of this success. Sexual corruption mirrors financial corruption and the more important the pastor becomes, the more he is subject to powerful forces of temptation that prove impossible to resist.

In many respects, Out of Bounds follows the form and genre of many English language Nigerian video films. Many of these films are set within the rich, cosmopolitan and corrupt world of the Nigerian urban elite and explore the corruption and moral failings of this demographic in vivid detail. Transgression dominates and the films work by placing characters in situations where everyday moral behavior is outrageously flaunted. At the end of the film, the evil are punished and good wins out, but, in the two hours in between, men betray their wives, women trade sexual favors for money, the young disparage the old and the old become corrupt and evil.

Everyone, it seems, is prepared to make use of witchcraft or pacts with the occult in order to get ahead. In Out of Bounds, for instance, Pastor Voke is called upon by a chief to speak with his daughter, Tutu, played with gusto by the actress Bimbo Akintola. Outside of her father’s view, Tutu flaunts Christian norms by dressing loosely, sleeping around and taking drugs. Voke tries to win her back to Christ but instead is seduced into sleeping with this schoolgirl and gets her pregnant. At the end of the film, Tutu repents as she is dying in hospital and Voke, humiliated and reduced to penury, turns back to Christ and dedicates himself to preaching to the poor.

Out of Bounds is a good example of the melodrama that dominates English language videos – often known as Lagos videos because they are so frequently set among the Lagos elite. In their style and themes these video films often owe more to Western soap operas — especially the excesses of Dallas and Dynasty — than they do to earlier generations of African films. The camera lingers on shots of Mercedes Benz, mobile phones, huge bungalows and expensive dress of a world that only a tiny minority of Nigerians or Ghanians can afford. The narrative is propelled through a series of shocking events and films and characters become known for their ability to outrage the audience.

As in their American counterparts, conflicts in the family, desire for wealth, and betrayal are key themes but with a solidly African twist — the mixing of horror and magic with melodrama. Wealth in video films oftentimes is made through evil, magical practices. Drawing on popular rumors and widespread folk beliefs, video films bring to life common stories about human sacrifice and pacts with witches out of which money comes. In the Ghanaian/Nigerian film Time (2000), directed by Ifeanyi Oyeabor, for instance, a bank manager (Kwame Ansah) fallen on hard times, makes a pact with a witch to become wealthy again. The witch tells him that as he becomes wealthy his wife will sicken. The sicker she becomes the wealthier he will be. When she dies he is instructed to keep her body hidden in a closet and as long as he does so she will spew money from her mouth. A similar sacrifice is demanded in the classic Nigerian video film Living in Bondage (1992) directed by Christian Onu, where in order to join a cult of rich Igbo businessmen the main character Andy (Kenneth Okonkwo) is told he must kill his wife in a ritual sacrifice in order for money to accumulate.

In dramatizing the work of witches and the prevalence of human sacrifice, video films move from the world of melodrama into the suspense and gore associated with horror. Nigerian films, in particular, are known for their special effects, as humans transform into animals, witches fly through the night and money is magically produced. The logic of shock and the desire for notoriety means that many video films are in a constant game of “one-upmanship”, each new film trying to be more excessive, or more inventive in its outrage, than the last. It is the mixing of melodrama with horror and magic and the linkage of financial with sexual and spiritual corruption that makes the melodrama of Nigerian and Ghanaian video film distinctively African.

In contemporary post-colonial West Africa, where the everyday suffering of the vast majority stands in stark contrast to the fantastic accumulation of the small elite, the tropes of sorcery, witchcraft and supernatural evil have provided a powerful way to express the inequalities of wealth. Representations of magic and the supernatural are not escapist fantasies but are believed by audiences to be part of the everyday world in which they live and rumors are rampant that behind material wealth lies magical production. The central concept of time, for instance, that some men sacrifice their wives and that the hidden corpse will produce money from her mouth, is widely believed among the popular classes in West Africa. Time drew on this existing belief and gave it dramatic, narrative form pulling together ideas of cosmopolitanism, Westernization, wealth and magic that has made it and the Ghanaian and Nigerian films like it, strikingly successful.

The sorts of video films described above represent one genre, albeit perhaps the major one in Nigerian and Ghanaian video films. Other genres such as epics, comedies and love stories survive, specially in indigenous language films. There are as many video films made in Yoruba as there are in English, for instance, and Hausa language video films outnumber films produced in Ghana. English language films, though, receive the most investment and are able to travel outside of particular ethnic groups and their diasporas. By now they have established themselves as popular in all ethnic groups in Nigeria as well as other Anglophone countries from Kenya to South Africa. Nigerian Hausa films, by contrast, are also popular outside of Nigeria, but only among the Hausa speaking diaspora in Ghana and elsewhere. Consequently, the dominance of English language films has begun to influence video film style in other languages. Yoruba films have shifted from the comedies and “traditional” subjects of earlier films to a greater emphasis on the urban settings and elites. These themes are present in Hausa films too but there is also a strong emphasis on love stories and stories set in rural settings. For Northern Nigerian Hausa, the dominance of English language films from the South has led to a conscious emphasis by some filmmakers to make films that oppose what they see as an immoral, Westernized cultural form.


In the first years of their growth Nigerian and Ghanaian video films circulated primarily on home video recorders. Ostracized from the circuits of film distribution and exhibition, they were sold through markets and video stores for watching at home. Very quickly video parlors sprang up, where entrepreneurs would use a room in a house and charge a small fee to show a video film. Now, with the rise of video projection, small viewing centers are becoming more numerous and many movie theaters have switched from film to video. In major urban centers such as Accra, most films receive an initial theatrical release and are almost simultaneously available on video cassette.

The rise of public viewing facilities is crucial in making video films available to a mass audience who are too poor to afford a television and video recorder and as this audience has become financially significant, their tastes and desires drive the style and themes of the films themselves. One of the most striking features of Nigerian video films, then, is not just the rise of a new form of popular media production from almost nothing, but the developing of new networks of distribution, sales and exhibition that never existed before. As the video films move beyond Nigeria to Ghana, Kenya, England, the U.S. and elsewhere what we are seeing is the emergence of a new order of African film that exists almost wholly outside of the structures associated with the paradigm of African Cinema. This very success has proved highly controversial.


Along with the rise of video film, many Nigerians and Ghanians raise the question: What is the consequence of this success? Until now, what is usually referred to as “African Cinema” represents an avant-garde art cinema that has been both politically and aesthetically radical. African Cinema emerged from the crucible of colonialism and the struggle of early independence. The effort to “decolonize the mind” as Ngugi memorably put it, to create an African film practice and form based on African realities and traditions, has been strikingly successful. The result is the creation of a solid body of artistic achievement. Moreover, the rise of film festivals and academic conferences in which these films circulate has provided key sites for the ongoing debate among African intellectuals and artists about the nature of African modernity. The bitter irony remains, though, that films produced under the rubric of “African Cinema” are rarely screened in Africa itself and are thus kept from reaching the masses that are also often their subjects.

While Nigerian and Ghanaian video films do reach those masses and are certainly an expression of African modernity, “an African response to today’s information jungle” as the Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun has it, they have neither the political nor the aesthetic ambition of the senior generation of African films. They are emphatically not art films and their market driven ethos has meant they have been heavily criticized in Nigeria and Ghana. The fascination with elite lifestyles and wealth, the constant use of magic, the representations of the most sensationalized sides of African life are all forcibly attacked for corrupting Nigerian and Ghanaian society. Intellectuals, in particular, lament what they see as Westernization, no matter how it is refracted through a popular African imagination, and they point out the lack of a political and cultural sensibility that has fed the work of filmmakers from Sembene to Mambety.

Screening Nigerian and Ghanaian video films demands new attitudes and ideas from the NY African Film Festival, and will ask the same from audiences used to a different type of African Cinema. Instead of the beautifully crafted, well acted cinema of the great African filmmakers, these videos, comparatively, are of poor quality. Acting is firmly rooted in the traditions of melodrama. Storylines are long, and the style and form of the horror can oscillate from simple effects to shocking violence. Ola Balogun has pointed out that the success of established African films has depended on the reception they receive in the festivals and art house circuits in Europe whereas the success of Nigerian and Ghanaian video films depends upon their popularity with a mass African audience. In this festival these two worlds — the world of art cinema and the world of popular video films are brought together for the first time in New York.

Tunde Kelani and His Passion

Because of Tunde Kelani’s first-hand experience of Yoruba traditional culture, his knack for details, the high level of visuality in his perceptive skills and the constant enrichment of his mind with literature from diverse cultures of the world, it is little wonder that he has finds release for his great store of skills and knowledge in filmmaking.

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

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

As a nine-year-old, his most prized belonging was his camera, which he quickly outgrew, once he became aware of all the features in more sophisticated models that his camera lacked. So, although a little bit absurd, he considered taking the camera to a blacksmith to help modify it to incorporate these features. This constant quest for better features persists for TK to this day, as he is notorious for spending his last dime to acquire the latest technology in photography and cinematography.

By the time he graduated from Abeokuta Grammar School, the same school that produced such old school boys as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, with flying colours, TK was clear that his vocation lay in photography. In his mind, his career path did not include a Higher School Certificate and subsequently a university degree, as was the case with many of his contemporaries.

In 1969 while working as a raw materials controller at the United African Company A.J. Seward in Lagos, he read an article in the daily news about a successful London exhibition featuring the Nigerian photographer Dotun Okubanjo. The exhibition, which was opened by the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa proved to TK that his dream of becoming a photographer actually had a chance of turning into a reality. After patiently watching out for news of Okubabjo’s return to Nigeria, TK managed to secure an apprenticeship with the inspiring photographer in Lagos in 1969 and 1970.

When TK completed his apprenticeship, the newly established Western Nigerian Television was seeking to employ accomplished photographers as a trainee film cameramen with a minimum qualification of the West African School Certificate. TK fit the bill, emerging as the only successful candidate out of about fifteen that applied for the position, and started a filmmaking career that was destined to later on redefine African cinema.

Work as a trainee film cameraman at the Western Nigerian Television did not only provide him with the opportunity to learn various darkroom skills, but the new television station was also a natural beehive of activities for the best of Nigeria’s various media. TK started hanging out with the great artists of the Osogbo School of Yoruba Art, which was then being mentored by Ulli Beir, the indefatigable aficionado of African art and culture, and TK began a friendship and close working relationship with Hubert Ogunde, who is often called the father of modern Yoruba theatre. Thus was created for TK, a rich technical and artistic environment that served as the seedbed for his successful careers as a director of photography, film director, film producer and the chief executive of Nigeria’s foremost production house.

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

Today, apart from doing newsreel work for BBC world service and other international news organisations in Nigeria, which he does purely to make ends meet, TK’s passion lies in documenting Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage in documentaries, shorts and features. He has contributed in various ways to most of the feature films that have been made in Nigeria to date. He worked as cinematographer on Anikura, Ogun Ajaye, Iya Ni Wura, Taxi Driver, Fopomoyo, and Iwa which he also co-produced. This represents a sizable segment of the popular Nigerian films that were made in the celluloid medium before the recklessness and philistinism of military rulership made it virtually impossible for Nigerian filmmakers to function according to the dictates of their art. More recently, with funding from South Africa as part of the M-Net New Directions Initiative, he functioned as cinematographer on Twins of The Rainforest (16MM), A Place Called Home, (16MM), A Barber’s Wisdom (35MM), and White Handkerchief (16MM), which he also produced and directed.

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

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

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

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

Video Awudjo! Featured Artist, Tunde Kelani, Has New Developments After AFF

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

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

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

During FESPACO, AFF representatives met with a Nigerian journalist, who had previously expressed his misgivings about film festivals in an article published in Nigeria, writing that filmmakers were mere pawns in the grand scheme of film festival organizers to gain wealth and recognition. He also worried about the intents of AFF and the benefits of the Nigerian filmmaker and producer who agreed to participate in AFF’s Video Awudjo! program. Luckily for AFF and the New York audience, the filmmakers who participated in Video Awudjo! didn’t share the same views (at least, not enough to exclude themselves from this groundbreaking event).

Since the AFFNY’s 2001 Festival, Mainframe Productions, headed by Tunde Kelani and Tunde Adegbola, has received success and recognition as a result of the appearance of Thunderbolt at Video Awudjo!. A representative, Natalia Tapies, of Filmaid International requested to show Thunderbolt to refugees in Kenya and Tanzania after viewing the movie at Video Awudjo!. In addition, California Newsreel has also offered educational distribution of Thunderbolt.

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

Mainframe Productions is currently in the throes of other exciting projects including a Mobile Cinema Project, a free three-day cinema carnival co-sponsored by Mainframe Productions and the premiere of their latest movie on October 1, 2001.

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

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

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

Reflections on FESPACO 2001

The monument, a rather curious construction representing stacked film cans, reflects an element of the humble yet ambitious nature of the African film industry. It is indeed a great achievement that one of the poorest countries in Africa, despite political instability, revolutions, and counter-revolutions has been able to organize FESPACO on a regular and continuing basis. Consequently, the often heard complaints that filmmakers and film prints were not showing up on time, should be tempered by the fact that despite it all, FESPACO actually manages to function pretty smoothly after the first couple of days.

The regular schedule of the theaters in Burkina Faso (and most African countries) is dominated by Kung Fu flicks, Hindi musical melodramas, and American B-Movie action films leading one to wonder whether this is a question of money, taste or monopoly, and it’s definitely a combination of all three.

However, for this one week from 8 o’clock in the morning all the way through midnight, the latest African films are shown in the relatively numerous and well-equipped theaters of Ouagadougou. There are also some free screenings on the Place of the Revolution in front of the main military headquarters. On the same stage, local music groups contribute to the festive mood. Also the national television station (the only one in Burkina Faso) dedicates itself to screening African films as an ally of the festival. Many visiting attendees and locals escape the sold-out shows in the packed theaters and attend outdoor screenings at the large Municipal Stadium outfitted with an inflatable screen for the event. On the outskirts of Ouagadougou, some people organize (illegal) video screenings for people who cannot afford to come to the town center to join the festival. My compliments to the organization and population of Burkina Faso, that despite political tensions, FESPACO has become an event that nurtures the ambitions of the whole continent.

The main subject of the 17th edition of FESPACO is new technologies in filmmaking. The introduction of digital techniques, which have the ability to significantly reduce the cost of production and editing, is crucial to the future of African filmmaking. While currently, digital video is mainly being used by documentarians, future developments should see more and more directors choosing video as their format for narrative work as well. Even today, African filmmakers are dependent on foreign capital to finance their projects, and often for the technical facilities offered by labs and post-production houses in Europe. For example, most of the films produced in the former French colonies were financed by the Ministry of Development or the European community. For the filmmakers in the English-speaking African countries, it is even harder to find financial sources to make their films, as the British government has not shown much interest in subsidizing the film industry in their former colonies. Post-colonial balances of power do have great influence on the distribution, production and choice of the subject. African filmmakers do experience this as a limitation of their possibilities. For African filmmakers working on the continent, many will have to become more self-sufficient to regain some of this control, which means embracing cost-reducing technologies.

Another response to the increasing demand for artistic autonomy and technical development of African filmmakers is the recent establishment of The African Guild of Directors and Producers. The Guild, which holds an informal get-together every afternoon at the Hotel Splendide pool during FESPACO, is a kind of professional union that wants to promote African independent art film. They stress neither the subject nor the roots of the filmmakers themselves, but the ability to raise the cinematographic quality of the film as their main purpose and increase their presence and access to financing.

Other African filmmakers do think it is important to reestablish contact with the African public and market because this will be the future of African filmmaking. One problem is that the local themes of African films often do not appeal to the African public themselves, because it was a life they already experienced and did not find very exiting. Many filmmakers are also focusing their attention on television distribution, as this medium is more accessible to a broad African audience, pays better than theatrical releases, and allows them to circumvent the exhibitors who have already made deals to acquire cheaper foreign product.

Indeed, African filmmakers hope to provide some kind of counterpoint to the Brazilian telenovellas, reruns of crass Western fare, and government propaganda. In Burkina Faso, the serial Kadi Joli,  about the daily life of two ladies directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, is received with great enthusiasm by the public. In South Africa the commercial chain M-net is supporting young African filmmakers, mainly from English speaking countries, the potential market of M-net. While three films from their New Directions series were not in competition, M-Net organized debut screenings and reception to a packed house at the Hotel Silmande. Hopefully, the organization of FESPACO will make more efforts to become more than merely a Francophone festival.

The opening film by Henri-Joseph Koumba Bididi of Gabon, Les couilles de l’Eléphant (The Balls of the Elephant) described itself as a film “about elections . . . and erections. In this bawdy comedy, a stagnating politician hopes to regain his power and potency through the assistance of his French public relations agent, his wife’s fetishist, and a prescription for Viagra. The film does not show an optimistic view on the African man and his interest in public affairs. The audience seemed to favor the film more than the critics and professionals, but perhaps the festival organizers felt they had to select a film that cloaked its politics with a good dose of humor.

Vacances au pays (A Trip to the Country) by Jean Marie Teno of Cameroon matches the poetic brilliance of his previous film Chef! (Chief!) while taking on the subject of social and juridical organization of African society. In his latest film he returns to his native town where business dominates the traditional community gathering. He shows new and old values without falling into cynicism or romanticism, creating an evocative meditation on the real meaning of development in the context of Africa.

Sia, le rêve du python (The Python’s Dream) by the Burkinabe director, Dani Kouyaté, was awarded many prizes at FESPACO and was greeted to a standing ovation and cheers of Zongo by the local audiences who had no problem reading this allegory. Sia is a beautifully decorated tale about the abuse of power based on the legend of Wagadu. The custom of using family and friends to play the main roles in feature films, used among African filmmakers, is not always in favor of the final result. However, in the case of Dani Kouyaté it is a blessing, as the tradition of his family goes back to the griots and his father, Sotigui Kouyaté, is a very powerful actor who also played main roles in such works as Peter Brook’s The Man Who and the stage adaptation of The Mahabaratha.

The contribution of young filmmakers was both overwhelming and diverse. For the first time, I noticed that some African filmmakers have a tendency to make films outside Africa and ignore African themes. Once such film is the beautiful Relou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, in which everyday racism is experienced and critiqued. It is one of a series of short films on racism made for French television. Two young women are hassled in a bus by North African boys, who insult one of the women in Arabic thinking that neither woman will understand. After a long silence the girl finally answers back in Arabic, and the boys are ashamed, realizing that those girls are the same age as their sisters.

Another remarkable film is Dôlè by Imunga Ivanga of Gabon, which is a touching portrait of a young boy who is pressured into a risky robbery to help pay for his sick mother’s medical treatment.

Rage by Newton I. Aduaka, awarded as best first feature film, portraits three adolescent boys with different social and racial backgrounds growing up in the British class society who are tied together by their common interest in hip-hop. Rap rhythms dictate the tempo of the images and the construction of the film. Rage, the main character, is tortured by the complexity of being half-Nigerian and half white in a society stratified by race. Through some hard lessons and estrangements with friends, Rage finally pulls it together with the help and wisdom of an old Rasta who is Rage’s only link to his deceased father.

The grand prize at FESPACO, the Yennenga Stallion, went to Ali Zaoua a film by Ayouch Nabil from Morocco and a realistic portrait of street children in Morocco. It is the culmination of the street children learning to become actors and their struggle for everyday life.

On a final note, I am heartened by the regional diversity that FESPACO displayed this year, as well as the different styles and themes represented. It is this diversity that we can use as the true indicator of the health and development of African cinema. I hope that next year’s FESPACO will find African filmmakers tackling even more genres, themes, and styles, thereby better reflecting the true multiplicity and richness of the cultures of the continent and the diaspora.


Etalon de Yennenga
Ali Zaoua (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco)

Oumarou Ganda First Film Award
Rage (Newton I. Aduaka, Nigeria)

Special Jury Award
Sia, le reve du python (Dani Kouyaté, Burkina Faso)

ACP/European Union Award
Sia, le reve du python (Dani Kouyaté, Burkina Faso)

Best Director
Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Music
Wasis Diop for Les Couilles de l’Elephant (Henri-Joseph Koumba, Gabon)

Best Cinematography
Mohamed Soudani for Adanggaman (Roger Gnoan Mbala, Côte d’Ivoire)

Best Sound
Fawzi Thabet for Siestes de Grenadines (Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Tunisia)

Best Décor
Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Editing
Arbi Ben Ali for Sois mon amie (Naceur Ktari, Tunisia)

Best Screenplay
Dôlè (Imunga Ivanga, Gabon)

Best Actor
Makena Diop in Báttu (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali)

Best Actress
Albertine Nguenssan for the role of the mother in Adangganman (Roger Gnoan Mbala, Côte d’Ivoire)

Paul Robeson Diaspora Award
Lumumba (Raoul Peck, Haiti)

Short Films—Best fiction
Bintou (Fanta Regina Nacro, Burkina Faso)

Special Jury Award
Konorofili (Cheikh Fantamady Camara, Guinea)

Best Cinematography
Mouka (Adama Ruamba, Burkina Faso)

Best Documentary
not awarded

FESPACO 17: Cinema and New Technology

The cinema sector and, more generally, the audiovisual must almost permanently be reorganizing its modes and means of production because of the fast and outstanding progress in information, image and sound technologies. In Africa, because the industry is weakened by an unfavorable economic situation, judicious choices should be made to adapt cinema to the large scale economic world, as the 21st century is presenting great technological challenges. By urging African professionals of cinema and audiovisual, and people who work in this field to explore subjects relating to new technology development, FESPACO is willing to place the third millennium under the sign of performance and efficiency for a less costly modern cinema, more open and accessible to the world. To this end, FESPACO’s 17th edition will host an exhibition on image and new sound technologies. Alongside this exhibition, workshops will give professionals and new technology promoters a basis for exchange and experiments with down-to-earth applications.


Features and Short Film Competition
Professional TV and Video Competition
10th International African Film and Television Market (MICA)
Image and Sound: New Technologies Exhibition


Official Competition
Films from the ACP Countries
Films from the Diaspora
Films from the World.

FESPACO official selections for the film festival are presented in the categories above. These include feature, short, and documentary formats. Only films by African directors are eligible for competition and selection under the ACP category. However, feature films from the diaspora are juried for award for the Paul Robeson Prize. Filmmakers from the Caribbean and the Americas, who claim African heritage, are eligible for consideration.

The Paul Robeson Prize is valued at 500,000 CFA and honors cinematic achievement in a single work which best represents the moral character and prodigious gifts of the man.


01 BP 2505
Ouagadougou 01
Burkina Faso

tel : (226) 30 75 38 / 33 20 66
fax : (226) 31 25 09
e-mail : sg@fespaco.bf

AFF Joins Friends of Liberty Hall and The Bob Marley Foundation

The New York African Film Festival’s 5th Annual African Mini “Video” Film Festival, on December 2, 2000, was held again, at the Bob Marley Theatre in association with a newly formed group, Friends of Liberty Hall, which has taken on the responsibility of reestablishing Marcus Garvey’s Liberty Hall in Kingston.

The Bob Marley Theatre opened its doors in 1996 with the first installation of this festival, which was cosponsored by Tuff Gong Pictures and the New York African Film Festival (AFF). Because of the overwhelming response to this event, we decided to make this an annual event. In Jamaica, we are predominantly of African descent. There are certainly more surviving mores and expressions of African culture and and Jamaicans have a very strong identification with Africa. Examples of such identifications are seen in our music, dance, language, and cuisine.

This year the festival was proud to screen Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s timely La vie sur terre (Life on Earth), a poetic meditation on Africa at the beginning of the new millennium. He depicts a fictional documentary of a day in the life of Sokolo, his father’s dusty village near the border of Mali and Mauritania, “where life on earth” is still conducted on foot, by donkey cart, or on bicycle. Audiences were also treated to the screening of the very last film made by legendary Senegalese director, Djibril Diop Mambety, titled La petite vendeuse de soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun). In this hymn dedicated to the courage of street children, Mambety documents the tenacity and fortitude of a little paraplegic girl, who despite the taunts of others, makes a living selling Senegal’s national newspaper, The Sun. Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno’s offering, Afrique je te plumerai, deconstructs the last 100 years of his country’s colonial history by analyzing everything from old French newsreels to current Cameroonian television. Finally, audiences were treated to Malian director, Adama Drabo’s Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power), a sly comedy about gender roles that is set against the majestic cliffs of Dogon country.

Despite torrential downpours, audiences anticipating the festival fought the rain to attend the screenings. To us, this confirms our feeling that the people of Kingston are really in need of more programming like the kind AFF provides. Resort towns in the Caribbean usually have the opportunity to host larger film festivals and we aim to provide Kingston audiences the same access to quality films. Also, by seeing how Black filmmakers from Africa have overcome huge hurdles to make their own work, the festival will excite Jamaicans to further develop their own filmmaking capabilities. The need for the development of an indigenous film industry continues to get little focus, and it has therefore become critical that the efforts of AFF continue as interest and support grow each year.

Pan African Film Festival II


Ten films, including features and documentaries and eleven videos were screened during the course of the festival. This year’s festival selection highlighted works from Portuguese-speaking African countries and works of established and emerging directors from Brazil. Several of the films were premieres, including Penalti (Penalty), a film made by Bahian director, Adler Kibe Paz. Mr. Adler’s film explores the world of popular culture and its impact on young Bahians via a touching story about how an ill-fated penalty kick haunts a young soccer player. Penalti’s African counterpart was Fintar el Destino (Dribbling Fate) which depicts the passion and sacrifices of a Cape Verdian who was destined to be a soccer great.

One of the highlights of the festival was the presence of Sao Paulo filmmaker, Joelzito Araujo, and the screening of his much anticipated film, A Negacao do Brasil (Denying Brazil). This documentary feature, which is accompanied by a book written by the director, explores one of Brazil’s most taboo subjects: race. The film gives a historical account of the portrayal of black actors in the media, particularly in the telenovelas which are shown throughout Latin America. The audiences for this screening was very impressive, since the festival was able to bring together so many groups and communities of Bahian society in celebration of the PAFF. In the same reflective filmmaking mode, Tania Cypriano of Brazil, our sole female filmmaker in this year’s festival, actively touches on the subject of AIDS in her film, Odoy — Vida com AIDS (Odoy — Life With AIDS). The film explores how the Brazilian societies, with the support of Candomble practices, are finding solutions to educate those in marginalized communities.

Another important aspect of the PAFF was the opportunity to screen the work of Licinio Azevedo, a Brazilian filmmaker who has lived in Mozambique for the past 25 years. His presence and the screening of his films conjured historical discussions for the Brazilian audiences, who have managed to retain strong emotional ties to the notion of a purified Africa. His work also was central to PAFF 2000′s special tribute to Mozambique, and its particularly vibrant cinema of resistance, which continues despite serious economic problems.

One film that brought together Brazilian, Cape Verdian and Portuguese actors and production crews was O Testamento do Senhor Napomuceno (Napumoceno’s Will). The interaction amongst the actors was an enjoyable viewing experience. It made audiences realize that their historical ties to Africa and their colonial ties to Portugal create stronger similarities with their counterparts who live in Africa. This same spirit was underlined in A Song to Angola, a short film in which Brazilian, Portuguese, and African singers come together in tribute to the people of war-torn Angola.


Salvador, Bahia is a city of strong African influence, as it is home to the third largest Afro-descendent population outside of Africa. It has a privileged localization and within all of its urban space and culture one finds the history of black peoples. The Pan African Film Festival inserts itself within this magical surrounding to propose a discussion concerning African heritage, at a moment when these discussions are resurfacing, permeated by a new awareness of cultural identity and its relationships with society and the environment.

The festival integrates all formats and styles including film and video, documentaries and fiction, short and full-length features, to help trace the profile of a multicolored people with innovative contemporary experimentations as well as historical expositions. We hope that the concept of Pan-Africanism will fortify and explore the connections between Bahia, the African Continent, and the Black Diaspora at large.



AFF: What was the idea or rationale behind doing an African film festival in Bahia, Brazil? Is there a demand from Brazilian audiences for such films?

Fatima Froes: The idea came out of the collaboration between your organization, AFF, and Casa Via Magia to bring African films to the cultural market in December 1999. The films drew large audiences, so we decided to do four other screenings throughout 2000. Those screenings were also well received by the public, so we realized that there was a market for African and diaspora films here in Bahia. The second edition of PAFF was just the natural outgrowth of these other screenings. This time we increased the number of films shown and added more video work. Also, we tried to do a lot of community outreach, which increased the turnout considerably.

AFF: What are Brazilian audiences’ responses to African cinema?

F: By doing lots of special screenings in different communities, we manage to create a lot of word-of-mouth interest in this kind of film. Many of these audiences have never seen African film before, and they are delighted to see that there exists a whole repertoire of films made by black people populated by black faces. They are also happy to see that these films often have a critical political perspective, dealing head on with racism and poverty. After these screenings there is always a lot of discussion taking place.

AFF: What kind of dialogue are the festival organizers trying to foster?

F: That’s hard to answer, because we want to promote dialogue with all the different groups in the city. This year during the festival we were talking to local film and video makers, actors, women, teenagers, and capoeira clubs and then tried to find films that speak to their concerns and reflect their realities. During the entire year, we went to schools, community centers, candomblé practitioners, universities, black political movements, and generally every group that might be interested in the question of African culture. These people’s everyday practices, music, religion, and art are rooted in African tradition, so naturally they have some considerable curiosity of how these elements are manifested and practiced on the continent.

AFF: How does the festival fit in with other kinds of film available in Bahia?

F: There are only two other festivals, The Jornada Internacional de Cinema da Bahia and the Video Festival that brings videos from around the country. Both of these festivals, along with PAFF, contribute to the film culture in Bahia, for instance bringing in local and regional filmmakers and videos about the Afro-Cuban culture and music.

AFF: What is the film community like in Brazil?

F: We couldn’t say that we have a big industry. It’s really hard to produce films in the third world. We always needed some government assistance to make films, and since 1986 when the government film company, Embrafilme, shut down, all filmmakers have had a difficult time.

Now with new technologies like digital video, the Brazilian film industry is being revitalized. But we still have problems because most filmmakers lack the funds to properly publicize and distribute their work. All the money is taken up by production costs. Also, the short films fall through the cracks, because the theater owners don’t think they are profitable. I think we have the same problem in all of Latin America and in Africa as well. That’s why the Pan African Film Festival is so important. It brings the public to see other kinds of movies that reflect their own image and culture.

AFF: What are the prospects for black Brazilian filmmakers in particular?

F: In our search for films made by black Brazilian directors, we could find only ten (35mm and 16mm), which is a glaring indication of the institutionalized racism that exists! It creates an unsuitable environment for blacks in the film industry. Films are the most expensive means of expression and the Afro-Brazilians (and African-Americans) are in the worse economic conditions. We have great black actors, musicians, painters, dancers, but because of the financial reality of film, very few great black directors.

Our project is to create as many workshops as possible in the black community throughout the year. Last year, we did a little project with students from Federal, but we want to conduct at least four workshops a year and organize several more to coincide with next year’s festival. We believe that if we give the kids a chance to get their hands on video equipment and to see what engaged filmmaking looks like, they will be inspired to document their own stories in the future. PAFF’s long-term goal is to find and create these kinds of opportunities for young people in Bahia.

The Orbit of “Planet Africa”: The Best from Africa and the African Diaspora

This year’s program is an electric mix of twelve features and seven short films from seventeen different countries, with eight features making their world or North American premieres. “Planet Africa” opens with Hijack Stories, an entertaining critique of North America’s depiction of violence. Co-curators Gaylene Gould and June Givanni offer an authoritative survey of current African, African American, British, and Caribbean cinema that is enjoyable and provocative. By all accounts, Ms. Givanni is an expert at wrangling celebrities, intellectuals, and leading issues. She recently moderated “Representing Africans in the New Millennium: New Identities, New Styles, New Strategies,” a lively discussion hosted by the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU during the 6th NY African Film Festival. Ms. Gould is apparently no less adventurous.

“I think audiences will be surprised and moved by the diversity of the work produced in the diaspora — diverse in style, commentary, culture, and aesthetic. The tapestry this year is very rich,” said Gould of the Toronto program.

The thematic and topical landscape of “Planet Africa” is as varied and perplexing as that of the continent. Several of the films and directors have been screened by AFF. Adanggaman and Passage du milieu dramatize stories of slavery, and another, Lumumba recounts the struggle for political freedom in modern Zaire. Bye Bye Africa and A Trip to the Country explore the consequences of homecoming after years abroad, whereas Tourbillons, Auguy, and The Station study dislocations in diaspora culture. Young people whose lives depend on their wits, come into focus through Ali Zaoua and La Squale. Racial prejudices twist the banality of Christmas with Granny and The Elevator. Love and its ironic effects become grist between couples in One Week, Are You Cinderella? and En Face. And, of course, dreams of stardom concern several films — El Medina / La ville, Hijack Stories, Bàttu, and La saison des hommes.


Ali Zaoua
Nabil Ayouch, Morocco, 95 min.
Ayouch’s film follows four 12-year-old boys (real street kids portraying their own lives) who live in Casablanca and their struggle for survival. When one is killed, the three friends decide to give him the burial he deserves. It is a fable about quests, transgression, death, accomplishment, and life.

Adanggaman [North American Premiere]
Roger Gnoan M’Bala, Ivory Coast, 90 min.
Powerful and sure to be as controversial as In the Name of Christ, this film tells the untold story of slavery in Africa and the despotic rulers who fed the slave trade. It is a work of historical fiction about King Adanggaman and his army of women warriors who terrorize and enslave their neighbors and the plight of one man’s love for the woman who captures him.

Bàttu [World Premiere]
Cheik Oumar Sissoko, France/UK, 100 min.
Sissoko, director of La Genése returns to the Toronto Festival with an engaging, contemporary black comedy concerning the potent and often hilarious mix of politics and superstition that is modern African city life. Isaach de Bankolé stars as a blind beggar who thwarts the government’s plan to evict the city’s poor. Danny Glover stars as the charmingly corrupt president.

Bye-bye, Africa
Mahamat Saleh Haroun, France/Chad, 86 min.
A blend of fiction and non-fiction, Haroun’s first feature is also the first feature from Chad. Haroun returns home after ten years in Europe, and looks at his native country through new eyes — the lens of his camera. Just like Maral Tanie/Maral Tanie: la seconde éspouse, this film offers a rare peek inside an isolated war-torn country and a beautifully captured depiction of the distance the lens can place between a filmmaker and his subjects.

Hijack Stories [World Premiere]
Oliver Schmitz, South Africa, 94 min.
From the director of the acclaimed South African film Mapantsula (Thief) comes this high-octane, fast-paced satire of an undercover action thriller. The film follows an ambitious young actor living in Johannesburg who decides to penetrate the crime world in hopes of method-acting his way into a part in a movie. This is an exhilarating and entertaining critique of North America’s depiction of violence and how it effects or mirrors ghetto life beyond the studio lot.

Lumumba [North American Premiere]
Raoul Peck, France/Belgium/Haiti/Germany, 115 min.
This compelling drama charts the short rule and brutal death of Nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba. Peck who directed L’homme sur les quais explores the birth of Zaire and the fascinating rise of Lumumba, a one-time civil servant and thorn in the side of Neo-Colonialism. Lumumba rose to become prime minister but he lost both his power and his life shortly after.

El Medina / La ville
Yousry Nasrallah, France/Egypt, 90 min.
Ali is an idealistic, star-struck young actor who leaves the confining streets of Cairo in exchange for the more glamourous, and ultimately more dangerous, streets of Paris. His dreams fade, but before Ali can return home, he loses his passport and his memory. In this tale of two cities, the making and breaking of desire, and a celebration of a young man’s irrepressible spirit, Nasrallah represents a fresh voice from Egypt.

One Week [North American Premiere]
Carl Seaton, USA, 97 min.
In Seaton’s skillfully-crafted and courageous debut feature, a young man is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that a previous sexual partner has been diagnosed with HIV. During the week between his own HIV test and the results, his entire life falls apart — friends leave him, he loses his job, and his fiancée calls off their wedding.

Passage du milieu [North American Premiere]
Guy Deslauriers, Martinique/Senegal/France, 85 min.
Told by a nameless slave who survives the horrific voyage from Africa to the Americas, this docu-drama is a terrifying depiction of the 18-week trip. Extraordinarily powerful, details of the African holocaust inspire “human cargo” with life and spirit.

La Saison des hommes [North American Premiere]
Moufida Tlatli, France/Tunisia, 124 min.
On the small island of Djerba, the men work eleven months of the year in far-away Tunis, while the women remain confined to the homes of their mothers-in-laws. The film follows one newlywed woman who longs to break tradition and move to Tunis to be with her husband. Tlatli who also directed Les silences du palais has returned to the Toronto Festival with a remarkable new meditation on a favorite theme, the politics and experiences of Tunisian women.

La Squale [North American Premiere]
Fabrice Genestal, France, 96 min.
Désirée, a newcomer to a dangerous suburb of Paris, is a rebellious 16-year-old black girl, a squale, who claims to be the daughter of a legendary underground hero. New gang leader Toussaint, a violent and unpredictable young man, meets his match in Désirée when they discover a surprisingly tender love for each other. Genestal’s first film is based on his experiences as a teacher in a tough, urban school and is inspired by his students’ lives.

A Trip to the Country [Canadian Premiere]
Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon/France/Germany, 75 min.
Teno, director of Chef!, Clando, and Yellow Fever Taximan among others, is one of Africa’s most vocal documentary filmmakers. He returns to the Toronto Festival with a sensitive, bittersweet film made on a recent trip across Cameroon. Returning from his base in France, Teno retraces his steps from the capital of Yaoundé back to his home village. Along the way he charts the effects of western ideas on the development of the country and its people.


Are You Cinderella?
Charles Hall, USA, 20 min.
A snazzy, jazzy fairytale in which a young man awakes with only a lady’s shoe and a note signed by a mysterious Cinderella.

Munga Tunda Djo,Congo/Belgium, 18 min.
Auguy is a young boy attending a pretentious Belgian Catholic school. Homesick and intimidated by an uncharitable priest, Auguy has to decide whether to continue his European education or rebel.

Christmas with Granny
Dumisani Phakathi, South Africa, 28 min.
During a train trip home with his grandmother, a young man is forced to confront racial segregation when he falls in love for the first time.

The Elevator
Alrick Riley, UK, 4 min.
Director Riley collaborates with provocative British poet Lemn Sissay in this film about two men — one black, one white — and their thoughts while standing in an elevator.

En Face
Mehdi Ben Attia and Zina Modiano, France/Tunisia, 27 min.
A compassionate look at the restrictions North African cultures place on women, this short shadows a young woman who is passionate about one young man but is promised to another.

The Station
Aaron Woolfolk, USA/Japan, 13 min.
In this hilarious film, a major communication problem awaits an African American man waiting on a train platform in rural Japan.

Alain Gomis, France/Senegal, 12 min.
Gomis has crafted a stylish short film about personal dilemmas of immigrant life in Paris.

The Poesis of Mimesis in Les Maîtres Fous: Looking Back at the Conspiratorial Ethnography of Jean Rouch

Notes for the Cultural Historian of Film

An act of social historiography which addresses cinema aims to calculate the importance of films within a world larger than film. Since the 1980′s film historians’ confidence in a unified (and teleological) story of the development of film art has eroded under pressures from Formalist attacks on symptomatic interpretations as well as from interdisciplinary fertilization with sociology, economics, cultural studies and anthropology, thus highlighting film’s participation in broader systems of signification.

As Dudley Andrew has suggested, “Culture can be said to surround a film like an atmosphere comprised of numerous layers or spheres . . . One may identify these as though they successively encompass one another moving from the center (the individual film) out towards the stratosphere of national and international politics and events (183).” This conception has redefined the object of film historical analysis to the ‘intertext’‚ the network of discourses, social institutions, and historical conditions surrounding a film text or series of texts. The task then becomes about revealing the intimate impact of discursive and social situations on cinematic meaning through navigating multiple layers of adjacent intertextual fields such as the industrial constraints on production, traditions of genre, biographical information on the filmmaker and the film’s personnel, the film’s relationship to other arts and technologies, the multiple ideologies of society at the time of production, etc.

While such a comprehensive materialist project might seem utopian, it does make possible a more thick representation of the traffic amongst these spheres of ‘intertext’, thereby addressing the multiple and competing voices surrounding a film’s public signification. As Barbara Klinger has suggested in regards to total histories, “we can acknowledge both the unattainability of such history and the benefits of its pursuit (108).” Such a practice disavows neither the interpretive element in all historical writing nor the limitations of the historical records/fragments it utilizes.

Every film historian needs to identify the most pertinent spheres of context in reconstructing the way a particular film is produced and received, and these evaluations are based both on the researcher’s proclivities and the topic under scrutiny. Thus, the cultural film historian is bound to both reading and weighing culture in texts and texts in culture, creating an open-ended dialogue between the two. Historical interpretation, if it is to be driven by the treatment of film, must take the middle ground between “hard-line” formalist and sociological approaches, studying film style in historical context and studying style to understand history. As Robert Stam has urged, it is relevant to keep in mind Bakhtin and Medvedev’s notion of historical poetics as not only an examination of the “local, institutional determinations of film style, but also the back-and-forth reverberations between history and style, the interplay of historic and artistic chronotopes, without reducing one to a mere backdrop for the other (197).”


I. Historical Contextualization

Keeping in mind such necessary evaluations, I turn my attention to the historical and cultural analysis of one of the most well-known ethnographic films like Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1955). Despite Jean Rouch’s long immersion in Africa (thirteen years before he began Les Maîtres Fous) and his rigorous attempts at ethnodialogue and participatory filmmaking, he remains a controversial figure to both Western anthropology and to African scholars alike. The former find his film work unscientific, while the latter finds his vision colonial.

While on a surface level the film recounts an African possession ritual which critically burlesques colonialism, many viewers found it to have a colonialist persepective, exoticising “primitive” practices and reinforcing negative stereotypes. To understand the complex reactions to this work and its multiple significations in the realm of both anthropology and film studies, it is necessary to explore the spheres of ‘intertext’ surrounding the film. The ‘intertexts’, which seem most pertinent in this instance include, not only the influences of French anthropology, specifically that of Rouch’s mentor Marcel Griaule, but also the social and artistic trends in France that nurtured both the scientific and aesthetic interests of Rouch. In addition, Rouch’s specific synthesis of previous documentary styles and techniques is crucial to understanding his pivotal role in the development of documentary aesthetics. Furthermore, as the film was made towards the end of the colonial era in Africa, an analyses of the film’s ideological threads and the various responses it engendered must also take into account its indebtedness to and effects on the synchronous debates around colonialism’s psychological and socioeconomic effects.

To comprehend something of Jean Rouch’s ethnography, one must know something about the methods and orientation of his professor and mentor, Marcel Griaule, whose 1930′s work on the cosmolgy of the Dogon in Mali culminated in the first French doctoral dissertation in anthropology. Griaulian ethnography consists of three major components: long-term fieldwork, a penchant for intensive documentation in multiple mediums, and initiation, which implies dialogue with wise teacher/informants and a willingness to limit Eurocentric interpretation, highlighting local exegesis of ritual symbology, myth, and cosmology (Stoller, 21). In his fieldwork and writings, Jean Rouch did indeed adopt a Griaulian methodology, and as Grialue had suggested, Rouch used film as an ethnographic tool to describe the features of ritual. Using a wind-up Bell and Howell 16mm camera, Rouch completed (a term loosely used, as 16mm editing was still crudely done with a projector and hand splices, and the soundtracks were unwedded to the film) three short films in Niger from 1948-49: La Circoncision, Les Magiciens de Wanzerbe, and Initition a la danse des possédés, which were shown at the Festival of Biarritz.

During the screening, which included such directors as Clement and Cocteau, Rouch was pleasantly surprised to realize that the films held the fascination of such sophisticated viewers (Feld, 234). This positive response from venerable directors and film critics surely encouraged Rouch to continue his filmic endeavors, and perhaps influenced him to explore alternatives to the purely “descriptive” cinema espoused by ethnographers of the time. In the 1950′s Rouch returned to Niger, exploring the possibilities of early “portable” field sound recorders for pseudo-synchronous filming. Rouch’s continuing research on migrations led him to follow Songhay men from the Niger to Ghana in the Gold Coast, where he made Les Maîtres Fous (filmed in 1953-4) and began Jaguar (filmed in 1954, released several times before completion in 1967), two of his most famous works.

Les Maîtres Fous was his first venture into a more synthetic approach to filming ritual events. Having witnessed and filmed the ritual several times before, Rouch realized he could break down the crucial aspects of it and approach it as a theatrical narrative. He used montage to condense the event, to create dramatic juxtapositions, and to make the most of the 20- 25 second shots that his wind-up camera would allow. Furthermore, his interest in the Hauka ritual in particular was derived from its role as a transported and transformed ritual feature of the Songhay immigrants he was studying.

With Les Maîtres Fous we can find the beginnings of Rouch’s rejection of the idea of distant, objective, and general description of “typical” behavior in favor of and revelry in the dramatic power of the filmic medium and its ability to capture specific events and dynamic situations of cultural exchange, a move which stands in stark contrast (and opposition) to the majority of ethnographic films made up to that point. As Steven Feld has pointed out, while most anthropologist have used the formal devises of novels and other fictions to structure and reveal information in their writing, until recently most ethnographic filmmakers have been loathe to stray outside of the domain of descriptive realism into the possibilities of fiction and drama to yield truth (250). It is this, that Rouch pioneered, a sense of trying to get beyond description into signification and interpretation, but at the same time without encaging the ‘profilmic’ event with an excessive scaffolding of context or verbose explanations. It seems that he places a bold faith in the very story-telling capacities of the filmic image and the affective power of the event(s) being filmed to reveal something significant about reality, or rather how reality is constructed in a complex way by both subject and filmmaker.

II. Stylistic References

At this point it seems important to explore the actual strategies he utilizes in order to achieve the goals outlined above. Many writings, including those of Rouch himself, have emphasized his unique synthesis of the ideas of Flaherty and Vertov (see Feld, Yakir, or DeBouzek). From Flaherty, he took the idea of participatory filmmaking, which involves a mutual participation and close rapport between the subject and filmmaker, including the incorporation of feedback from filmic subjects themselves. From Vertov, he learnt that cinema truth is not the same as lived truth, and that realism is not to be equated with reality. In other words, the cinema provides a new way of seeing, a particular truth, one that evolves from the filmmaker’s structuring of events in a self-conscious way. Thus, the camera as apparatus, and the ethnographer himself as an extension, are not hidden or minimized as causes of (negative) distortion, but in fact play key roles in provoking, catalyzing, and bringing forth people’s responses and creating a space where meaning can be revealed.

The other influence that seems relevant to Rouch’s work is that of the Surrealism prevalent in the Paris of his youth. Rouch, the son of an explorer and a painter, was immersed in a Parisian world involved with photographs and sculptures from faraway places as well as with the work of avant-garde visual artists and poets. As Jeanette DeBouzek has traced out so well, Africa became a source of inspiration for many artists who were searching for an alternative to the narrow rationalism of the West (301). In fact Marcel Griaule, himself, organized the 1930 Expedition Dakar-Djibouti along with surrealist writer Michel Leiris and brought back fantastic pictures of Dogon masks published in Minotaure. Rouch cites these photographs as instilling him with a sense of curiosity about African rituals that would last his lifetime, and he made connections between them and the paintings of de Chirico and Dali, and the collages of Max Ernst (DeBouzek, 303). In 1937, the renegade Surrealists, Bataille, Leiris, and Callois, tired of Breton’s psychologism, formed the College de Sociologie. Additionally, in 1938, Rouch recounts visiting the International Surrealist Exhibition which he claims gave him “the keys” to realizing the importance of dreams and the nonpathological nature of “craziness” (Taylor, 1991).

Rouch also schooled himself in the entire repertoire of French film culture, joining the Cinematique Française (housed fortuitously at the newly founded Musée de l’Homme) in 1938 and regularly attending screenings of both fiction and documentary films. Hence, when Rouch began to make his own films, he chose to forego the positivist objectivism of Western rational science (including anthropology at that time) in order to demonstrate the relativity of Western concepts of “reality” and “truth” by exposing the inherent subjectivity of the ethnographer’s position and the constant interplay of the real and imaginary that is always present in the construction of ethnographic truth. It is important to note that the colonial endeavor was very tied to Western constructions of scientism and a sense of superior rationality, mapping the lack of such modes of thinking in Africa onto justifications for their exploitation. Consequently, we must weigh the risk of exoticization inherent in the surrealist “poaching” of African culture, with the fundamentally anti-colonialist component of surrealism’s positive valuation of African modes of thinking and believing.

III. Textual Analysis

Having described the influences and techniques that Rouch had acquired, we can now turn to the matter of looking at Les Maîtres Fous in more depth. The film records a Hauka possession ceremony outside of Accra, the colonial capital of the Gold Coast. Rouch begins by showing the hustle and bustle of the city with shots of street parades and traffic. Then he moves into exploring the various occupations that the Zabrama immigrants perform in the city, such as mining, sewer cleaning, and stevedoring. This modern and hectic environment is the one to which the rural northern migrants must adapt, and Rouch suggests that this confrontation between modern and traditional, this confluence of peoples from the North and the South spurred the growth of the Hauka cult. While these scenes provide some context for the ritual, they do not relate the Hauka cult to the larger religious practices of the immigrants. Rouch does not explain or prepare the viewer to read the images to come. He seems to want to maintain an aura of mystery and inscrutability around the ritual. The brief, anticipatory shot of a night ceremony in which a wide-eyed man, foaming at the mouth, illuminated only by a flashlight against the dark, seems to enhance that feeling of wonderment and terror.

The next day, the sect members drive to the compound of the high priest, Mounkaiba, outside the city. Here, the stage has been set for the ceremony; various pieces of patterned cloth representing union jacks fly overhead, a crude wooden likeness of the governor presides over the ceremony, replete with sword, sunglasses, and pith helmet, and a termite hill freshly painted black and white signifies the governor’s palace. After a new initiate has been nominated and the adepts perform penitence for their wrongdoings, a sacrifice of a chicken over a stone altar takes place. Perhaps these scenes do not succeed in showing how the Hauka cult relates to “normal” Songhay religious practices, but they do provide some elements of religion familiar to most audiences, such as initiation and confession. Consequently, we become aware that the possession ritual is grounded within the strict parameters of a religious and social order; it is not just a random outburst of psychotic energy, but a complex social event.

The film continues with the music of the monochord violin and drums playing the tune of Haukas, and the group dances in a circle, beckoning the spirits to come. The first Hauka arrives, “Kapral Gardi,” saluting the others, donning the red sashes that are his trademark, and collecting the dummy wooden guns. He holds a torch to himself to prove that he is no longer a human, but a spirit, able to withstand physical forces that mere humans could not. We see close-ups of other people becoming possessed: their limbs shaking, foam bubbling at their mouths, eyes rolling back into their heads. Soon the compound is filled with Hauka spirits, all figures of colonial authority, all with trademark costumes and gestures with which to recognize the figures. Mounkaiba breaks an egg on the governor’s head, and through crosscutting to a colonial parade, we see that it is meant to represent the yellow and white plumes worn on the governor’s helmet during ceremonial occasions.

It is this Vertovian juxtaposition to which many critics direct their praise of the film. In this moment, the camera itself becomes the means for our understanding that it is British military behavior that is in fact absurd and theatrical. All the saluting, processing, and military costuming of colonial administrators is nothing but an exaggerated form of social hierarchy, by which outward signs and gestures maintain social order. It is this moment, specifically, that angered the British authorities into banning the film in Ghana, for they realized that the film’s mimetic powers via montage amplify the Hauka’s insult. Thus, we are suddenly forced to realize that it is the colonial officers and not the foaming, jerking Haukas who are indeed mad. This revelation is further supported by the absurd “round table” meetings the mediums hold to decide whether or not to eat a dog raw or cooked. The uncanny result of shrouding the ridiculous content of their conversation in the rationality imputed by the form of a round table discussion makes apparent the way rationality has been conferred by the colonial powers to specific forms of discourse. Furthermore, it brings into question the very content espoused by that form, namely it makes a problem out of the claims of Western rationality as structured by the discourses of science.

After the dog has been sacrificed, the mediums all lick up the gushing blood. We get a close-up of one adept rolling the red blood around his tongue. Then, the possessed mediums plunge their hands unharmed into the boiling water and gnaw on the dog’s head and neck. The possession winds down afterwards, and we are left with images of the soiled altar, stained clothes, and the ever-waving union jacks as the light fades.

Many viewers object to these graphic scenes, calling them cruel in their directness and fearing that these images reinforce racist stereotypes. When Rouch screened the film (with spoken commentary, as the soundtrack was not finished) to a small, select audience at the Musée de l’Homme in 1954, Griaule suggested he destroy the film and many African scholars in the audience agreed with him. Though Rouch was disturbed by these criticisms, he still released it in 1955, conceding that it should not be distributed very widely (Stoller, 152). Thus, the film’s reception was marked by the censuring and (censoring) eye of both the colonial and anti-colonial representation politics of the time. Furthermore, Les Maîtres Fous was castigated by anthropologists for not providing enough context about Songhay religious practice for the proper reading of the brutal images. Some suggested that the film should be looked at only as a supplement to his written ethnographies (Muller, 1472). Others, meanwhile, claimed that it depicted only a limited aspect of colonial history, thereby not providing the proper historical frame from which to interpret it (Stoller, 156).

On the other hand, European critics widely acclaimed the film for its technical merit, compelling images, and its penetration of a world rarely seen by the West. By many accounts it was a very influential text not only for filmmakers of the New Wave, but for other artists as well. Jean Genet was inspired by the film to write Les Negres, and Peter Brooks used it to train actors for Marat/Sade. What merits were these artists seeing that anthropologists and African scholars did not foreground in their analyses? To answer this question, I believe we must return to the shocking images which troubled many spectators’ sensibilities. Obviously, Rouch was aware of their potential revulsive effects. But, are not the scenes of bloody sacrifice, superhuman strength, and ribald mockery the very scenes which plummet the viewer into a sense of embodied witnessing? Are not these the very images which utilize the sensuous, affective capability of film itself to ponder something not approachable with wordy locution and distanced observation? It is this affective excess, mimicking the excess of the Haukas’ mimicry itself, which allows the film to reach a place beyond which rational explanation and context alone provide answers. The scientifically unthinkable is exposed, yet still cloaked in all the mystery from which it derives its power. As Paul Stoller suggests, the film defies the arrogant claim to analytical mastery implicit in the Western gaze; the viewer is allowed to stare directly at this spectacle, but is not empowered to understand or control the objects of their vision (158).

Furthermore, the ritual is supposed to be dramatic, powerful, irreverent, confrontational, and sacrilegious. It is not merely a parody of European mastery, but represents an anthropophagic appropriation of the strength of the Europeans by its very lack of fear of that strength. In fact, the priests invited Rouch to film the ceremony specifically to go beyond what they had done before, and eating a dog was part of that desire to do something taboo, something more defiant.

In and interview with Marshall and Adams, Rouch said, “They [the Hauka priests] were ready to try a kind of experiment because they felt they could command any aspect of European-based technology, including cameras and films, and so it would have been a challenge,” (1009). Thus, they wanted to exhibit their fearlessness in front of European technology, to make a film that would carry the daring effrontery of mimetic excess far and wide, back to Europe itself. Rouch was summoned by the priests specifically as a “medium” between the Africans and Europeans, at once part of both worlds, able to act as mimetic mirror for both. Through this capability (via the camera), he is able to channel the revolutionary challenge of the Hauka to the very homebase of the colonial power itself.

The strength of Rouch’s film lies in its mimesis of the provocative qualities of the ritual itself. It is as if Rouch is “possessed” and uses the camera to mimic the experience of the ritual. Even his single-take voice-over commentary becomes suffused with the drama being witnessed, sometimes even slipping into the first person when conveying what a specific Hauka is saying. This is exactly where the “cine-trance” referred to by DeBouzek attains relevance (305). It is the willingness of Rouch to be used as a “medium” in this direct way, without tempering it with Western constrictions of proper “respect” and distance, that has been aggravating to European and African audiences alike. It is interesting to note that the Hauka themselves elicited similar reproachful reactions from Songhay possession priests when they first appeared (Stoller, 156). The obscene freakishness of these new spirits was subject to censorship, just as the film was subject to being banned. In both cases, however, suppression simply augmented the prestige and spread of Hauka practices.

The criticism of the film did not fall on the graphic nature of Rouch’s depiction alone, but also upon the ending of the film. Rouch returns to Accra the day after the ceremony to see how the Hauka mediums have reincorporated themselves into mainstream society. We see them all happily returned to work, their smiling faces beaming in close-ups. Finally, we see that the general staff of the previous day’s possession are digging a ditch in front of the Accra mental hospital, prompting Rouch to ask whether these African men have found a “panacea against mental illness”, whether they have found a way to absorb the tensions of colonial society. These final words sparked critics to ask why they should accommodate to endure colonialism at all. As one interviewer asked Rouch, “Is it not far better for anger to explode on the job than to be let off in some harmless religious rite? Is it not better if they were ‘bad’ workers who ‘accidentally’ broke their tools and were ‘lazy’?” (Georgakas et al, 20). While Rouch admits he no longer cares for such an ending, it’s important to think about why making the film three years before Ghanaian independence seemed necessary or effective.

Perhaps he wanted his audiences to realize that these Hauka mediums were not insane and to stress the creative nature of the way in which they negotiated forces much more powerful than themselves. While it is easy for people outside of the situation to suggest they rise up and fight, the Africans are the ones who must deal with the psychological tensions of their lives. Is it not then somewhat cruel and arrogant for Western intellectuals to trivialize the strategies which Africans have developed to live life with less pain? Doesn’t this particular criticism dehumanize the reality of African suffering and show how narrowly the West defines defiance itself, namely, in Marxist terms, the alienated “worker” refusing to obey? By choosing not to relegate Hauka practice strictly to the realm of political ideology, Rouch attempts to reclaim the African person as human psychological entity rather than abstract subject of history.

IV. Diachronic Reverberations

What gets obscured in the negative reaction outlined previously is the much larger aim of Rouch to use African understandings of possession and magic to challenge Western notions of rationality and resistance. This is what speaks to avant-garde artists and allows them to recuperate a Rabelaisian tradition of subversive comedy, presaging a Bhaktinian turn towards a grotesque realism of many Third Cinema theorists and practitioners. For example, films like Macunaima and How Tasty Was My Frenchman of the 1960′s Tropicalist Movement in Brazil used the comic vulgarities of the anthropophagic aesthetic to forge a liberating discourse. The Western world has often perceived identity as self-closed, severed from and dominant over a dead and non-spritualized nature.

Having equated mimesis to savagery and childishness as we can see in explorers’ deprecating accounts of the native cultures’ “aping” of their movements and patterns of speech (see Taussig’s version of Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians, or in the realm of colonialist fiction, Daniel Defoe’s account of Robinson Crusoe encountering the savage, Man Friday), Western culture represses the definition of self through mimesis. It then replaces this process of interdividing wrought though mimesis with a self in relation to the world through work and differentiating itself from others through accumulation of wealth, property, influence, and data (Taussig, 97). It is not surprising that resistance in such a formulation gets defined in terms of a refusal to work and a reclaiming of accumulations which were wrongfully distributed.

How different is the African relationship between self and nature and self and other, in which both people and nature are endowed with mimetic doubles in the spirit world? In this conception, it is mimesis itself through which resistance is formulated. The self is more fluid and constructs its relation to others through the knowledge gained from being the other. There is nothing pathological or hysterical about being possessed in such a culture (Oughourlian, 100).

On the contrary, where possession is not simply seen as submission to another, but an appropriation and critique of the power of another, it has therapeutic value, not only for an individual, but for the larger society. The question of whether it would have been better for them to simply cease working seems so much more limited from this vantage point. How would that have posed any challenge to the colonial “rationality” which allowed for them to be exploited in the first place? The discomfort of watching the Hauka ritual, or rather its mimetic copy through Rouch’s film practice in Les Maîtres Fous, lies in the realization that a critique of a much deeper sort was being made. The radical power of the Hauka mediums’ resistance lay in the fact that they refused to play by the rules of the rationality they knew to be arbitrarily constructed by the West and that by exposing this construction, they were making the most effective critique of all.

At this point, we begin to realize that Rouch and the Hauka he filmed were grand accomplices in this critique, that their voices and concerns were intertwined within the space of the film, and therein lies the power of Rouch’s participatory ethnography. This shared cinema approach was then given new twists in each of his later ethnofiction films like Jaguar and Moi, Un Noir. While these films are not as viscerally disturbing as Les Maîtres Fous, they are no less critical of the oppositional couplets of reality/fiction, logic/myth, and objectivity/subjectivity. The dreamlike exploration of his African conspirators’ creative responses to late colonial and postcolonial cultural syncretism, continue and develop Rouch’s surrealist tendencies.

In 1988, Rouch spoke at a New York University retrospective of his films, where he claimed that some of the African colleagues who had at first denounced Les Maîtres Fous, now consider it the best depiction of African colonialism on film: “a kind of colonialism from below” (Stoller 159). From the perspective of the passage of nearly fifty years from the time of its creation, Les Maîtres Fous seems a rather different creature than when it was first released. In the meantime, post-colonialist criticism has moved beyond a defensive approbation of “negative” images of Africans, and more importantly, becomes increasingly hospitable to the kinds of hybrid identities and creative play that characterize Rouch’s films. Many African have since found Rouch’s documentaries to be cherished historical documents, enabling contemporary viewers to enact a spiritual communion with their ancestors and their traditional ways. Anthropologists have also found Rouch’s ideas of shared anthropology, ethnodialogue, and giving back to his subjects useful concepts in the development of their field methods. Finally, the diachronic dimension of any analysis of Les Maîtres Fous must take into account not just the changing socio-historical and theoretical climates of reception, but also the sheer quantity and quality of Rouch’s filmic oeuvre, which now includes more than 100 works. The fact that Rouch never settled on one style of narrative or aesthetic makes it much more difficult to insist on a definitive analyses of the significance of one work, especially an early film such as Les Maîtres Fous. Looking back, it is hard not to be astonished by the sensuous affect that Les Maîtres Fous still engenders and to see it as an example of Rouch’s continuing commitment to making vitality and experimentation central features of the ethnographic encounter.


Adams, John W. and John Marshall. Interview. “John Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams.” American Anthropologist. 80.4 (1978): 1005-1022.

Andrew, Dudley. “Film and History.” Film Studies: Critical Approaches. Eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford UO, 2000.

de Andade, Joaquim Pedro, dir. Macunaima. 1969.

DeBouzek, Jeanette. “Jean Rouch’s ‘Ethnographic Surrealism’.” Visual Anthropology 2 (1989): 301-315.

Dos Santos, Nelson, Pereira, dir. How Tasty was My Frenchman I. 1971.

Feld, Steven. “Themes in the Cinema of Jean Rouch.” Visual Anthropology 2 (1989): 223-247.

Georgakas, Dan, Udayan Gupta, and Judy Janda. Interview. “The Politics of Visual Anthropology: An Interview with Jean Rouch.” Cineaste. 8.4 (1978): 17-24.

Klinger, Barabara. “Film History Terminable and Interminable: Recovering the Past in Reception Studies.” Screen 38.2 (1997): 107-128.

Muller, J.C. “Review of Les Ma”tres Fous.” American Anthropologist 73 (1971): 1471-73.

Oughourlian, Jean-Michel. The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis. Trans. Eugene Webb. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991.

Rouch, Jean, dir. Les Ma”tres Fous. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1955. Also available from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA.

__________ dir. Moi, un noir. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1959.

__________ dir. Jaguar. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1967. Also available from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Stoller, Paul. The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Taylor, Lucien. Interview. “A Conversation with Jean Rouch.” Visual Anthropology Review. 7.1 (1991): 92-102.

Yakir, Dan. Interview. “Cine-transe: The Vision of Jean Rouch.” Film Library Quarterly. 2.2 (1978): 22-27.

Globalizing African Cinema?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is what some see as heavy handed tactics of western funders and seeming complicity of some African filmmakers leading African cinema toward a kind of compulsory homogenization that will result in what one may call an “afrimage”, an African clone of an American shaped “globimage” or the so-called “eurimage”? What becomes of the African difference in such constructs? Parallels in what is called “world music” may be instructive here.

Marie Daulne of the Black female group Zap Mama, argues that “world music” is merely a label, a conspiracy, to devalue ‘authentic’ African musical styles which are ‘compelled’ to succumb to a dubious global modernity – read western styles and sounds — to enable it to cross over to European audiences. For her, not only does this downgrade the African difference, but it also works to further marginalize and ghettoize African music. Daulne refuses to bend to the expectations of “world music” and continues a practice rooted in Africana specifics but is also open to the range of experiences and technologies that history has made available to her and her fellow musicians. Enracinement et ouverture, rootedness and openness. I believe many, if not most, African filmmakers share such perspectives.

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

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

Like the Senegalese writer and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, I insist on the right and imperative of Africans to assume the world from their own diverse positions, to creatively and productively claim and appropriate on their own terms those elements and products of humanity – regardless of origin – deemed vital and useful for their own projects. Acts of claiming and appropriation proceed from positions of various specificities – cultural, geographical, historical, individual, gender, class, race, sexual, etc., and it is from the imprints of the specific that any significant moves to the global can be made. Africans are historical beings, diverse, dynamic and always in motion. So also are our cultures.

Leopold Senghor, at one point in time, spoke of the grand notion of a civilisation de l’universel, a civilization of the universal. He also imagined a great global banquet, a global smorgasbord at which all cultures from around the world would answer, present with offerings specific to each for mutual nourishment of humanity at large. Granted some may see this as utopian in a contemporary world of predatory, zero sum, winner-take-all capitalist globalization, but Senghor’s metaphor for a global humanism founded on local, national and regional specificities, a celebration of diversity, parity and exchange, may have a thing or two to instruct us about the resilience, the generative and staying power of the local.

Something Ventured

15 July 2000

I was on my way home via the A train to Brooklyn feeling kind of drained. Maybe it was from the good cry I had had at Djoniba’s Dance & Drum Centre. My friend Noori had brought a bunch of snapshots from her Senegal trip last year. She had taken the trip with Babacar, our Sabar dance teacher, and his brother Cheikh. I didn’t want to see the pictures. I was already feeling a little emotional and excited about going to Africa. The legacy of my ancestors being enslaved in America and longing to return home to the motherland sent chills through me. When I saw the snapshots of Senegal, Africa, I felt a surge of energy run through my body. My hands trembled as I held the pictures of children, mothers, fathers, sheep, land, sky and trees. Then my heart opened up. I hadn’t known I would react that way. But I did. I cried from happiness. I shed one tear after another thinking how my ancestors longed to go home to the motherland, Africa. “One day,” my ancestors used to chant, “I will return home.”

Now a chance to return home for my ancestors, my family. They made so many sacrifices here in America, but they never surrendered the dream of returning. But I am, after 500 years, able to return. Once my feet touch the soil of Africa, I’m going to kiss the ground.

Yet I know, so much time has passed that the dust of time makes people’s memories fade. But I haven’t forgotten. Thank God!

16 July 2000

I was wide awake on the Air Afrique plane to Senegal. I almost went to sleep but was disturbed by the smell of food. Fish or beef. I chose fish, since I’m a semi-vegetarian. The fish was bland. So, I asked for hot sauce. The flight attendant threw her hands up, shook her head and walked away.

Belynda, the organizer of the trip and a friend of mine, laughed. After my meal I went to where all the flight attendants were to ask, “What happened to my hot sauce?” The flight attendant said that I would get plenty of it in Africa.

I also had noticed the female flight attendants were wearing African cloth turquoise and purple dresses, but the men were dressed in European collared pin-striped shirts and beige slacks. I was very happy to see that the women were dressed in traditional African clothes. That’s why I figured, it would be fine to ask for hot sauce.

Belynda said, “Wait until you arrive in Africa and see it for real.”

17 July 2000

I continued to read my book Waiting In Vain by Colin Channer. I almost fell asleep on page 90 when the flight attendant announced, “Good morning everyone. Now it’s time to put on your safety belts. We are about to land.” So, I didn’t sleep a wink.

When the plane landed, I was too tired to cry. I was euphoric. I felt as if I had been there before. My spirit said, “Senegal hasn’t changed much.”

I am here: Mangi fii. The heat was so intense, it was visible. It looked like clear drapes blowing in the wind. The soil was a rich orange red. It reminded me of the soil in the American south, but the people looked and dressed differently. I was very happy to see them, especially Babacar. He was the one who made it possible for us to come to Africa.

The first stop was Babacar’s mother’s house in Medina. As soon as we got off the bus, the people gathered around us and gave us chairs to sit on. The Sabar drummers and dancers came out to drum and dance for us. There was a geewall, a griot, to bless Babacar’s family and us Americans. The tradition is that we were supposed to give her money. Who knew? I could only look at her and smile. My Wolof wasn’t good enough to understand her. But whatever she said I felt very touched by it when we went on to Yembule, about an hour away from Dakar.

We were to stay at a compound with plenty of rooms, sand, dust and bugs. There were no modern facilities there — no running water, no toilets that flush, just a hole in the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the same way at Babacar’s mother’s house.

We are spoiled in America. We take a great deal for granted.

I felt perfectly happy to sit down on the street in front of Babacar’s house and greet the people. My Wolof was getting better out there. The more I spoke it, the better my tongue rolled with it.

I hung out with Babacar’s sister Ajaa. She’s something else. She makes me laugh, and she doesn’t hold her tongue for anything. She kept telling me she was going to hook me up with a husband. I told her, “Three weeks is not enough time for me to find a husband, and the ones who are talking to me are already taken.”

When we arrived at our compound in Yembule, I had to clean the shower stalls and bathrooms before I used them. There was no way I could’ve used the bathroom like it was. I poured Pine-Sol down the hole, and when I did, a pink lizard crawled out of the cracks along with two huge cockroaches. Eventually, I took a shower in water drawn from a well using a teapot and a bucket. I was reminded of being down south with my grandmother.

My grandmother, who passed away about twenty years ago, lived without modern conveniences. We had to draw water from the well, and if we wanted hot water, we had to heat it up. The only modern amenity she had was electricity for a refrigerator and a television set to watch her wrestling. I’m glad my grandmother raised my cousins and I like that. She always told us living that way was the best way. Although I love my grandmother, I used to count down the days of summer until I could return to the modern, fast New York and eat canned foods.

In the morning, we were to go to market. I hoped the Senegalese would be fair. There were so many tubab (Caucasians) in our group, the vendors were likely to raise their prices.

18 July 2000

At 6 a.m. I could not sleep. I awoke to sounds of sheep, crowing, and Muslim prayers. I would have to get used to it. I learned I soon would have to move to the roof. Belynda, my roommate said she couldn’t sleep because of my snoring. She told me that afternoon, “Doreen, I thought you were going to hurt yourself.”

I felt terribly guilty, because I have this condition. But life goes on. I tried to forget about it by indulging in a fresh-baked baguette with butter and chocolate spread and Nescafé instant coffee. Breakfast cost a dollar and change, which is 1,000 CFA.

Right after breakfast, we rode to Dakar to change our currency. The rate was 680 CFA to one American dollar. There was a man outside of the bank with a twisted and contorted body. His legs were twisted like a pretzel and he balanced himself with his hands. One hand was out for money. My friend Fatou told me that this is what happens when babies get improperly immunized. Inside the bank, I got more than 200,000 CFA for my measly $300.

The market was intense. Before we walked inside, the vendors were bargaining their wares. They gathered around us like bees to honey, or better yet, like flies on candy. They clung to us. They saw tubab and Americans, and that spelled money. Later for the brother and sister kinship. It was all about the CFA! I bought a few wooden masks and statues at market, and we ate lunch back at the compound in Yembule.

After bowls of tiebou djen, fish and rice, we had drum and dance class. That was my first time experiencing drumming, and being in Africa made the dance more titillating. Babacar’s sister, Ajaa, danced with us and taught half of the class. She barely spoke English. So, Fatou and I taught Ajaa how to count in English. I had noticed many of the women either didn’t speak English well or didn’t know how to speak French. They only spoke Wolof. In order for them to speak European languages, they would have had to have the privilege of going to school. But not many African women have that luxury.

After class, we all lied down on the roof. We laughed, talked, and all of a sudden, experienced the first of many power outages — blackouts. Babacar said, the reason for blackouts is politics. One politician turns on the lights. Another turns them off. So, we gazed at the stars, which were more vivid, and ate dinner with a flashlight hanging from the palm-leaf roof.

While we were dressing to go to the night club, the lights turned back on and I yelled, “Alhamdoulilah!” which means “Thank God!”

We danced at The Sunrise night club until 5 a.m. It started out like a regular night club with Senegalese music, of course. The music was sultry, and the women and men danced seductively. They showed their jellies and bin bins, their waist beads. They danced low to the floor and wouldn’t miss a beat. I tried it, but I was struggling a little. The Senegalese clapped for me nevertheless. It felt good.

By 3 a.m. everyone had cleared the floor and was sitting in a circle for the Sabar drummers and dancers. There was a moment of suspense. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. The women could dance their you-know-what-off. They were so good. Their legs and arms flew to the rhythm. I was so inspired, so in awe, I could barely move a muscle.

At the compound, sitting in the room with Belynda, I was too tired to pitch the tent I had bought in New York. I just dragged my foam bed up there. Then I went back downstairs to get some other things. When I returned to the roof, my bed was gone. Lamine, who ran upstairs after me, said he had to move it because it was going to rain.

I didn’t want to sleep in that area, but there were no single rooms either. I felt stuck. I wanted to go home. I eventually found an empty bed near Bridgette and fell asleep.

19 July 2000

I talked and mingled with the Senegalese people in the compound. I talked to Babacar’s sisters in their room. We laughed and talked in Wolof for hours. I was startled that I could understand the language. If I analyzed the words though, I froze up.

While I was talking and laughing, Babacar and Eladj moved my belongings from Belynda’s room without my permission. Babacar said that a white married couple was coming, and they needed Belynda’s and my room. I thought that was the rudest thing in the world.

I asked Babacar why he hadn’t look for me before moving my stuff. He said that he thought I was asleep on the roof and Belynda had said that I had moved out of the room. Belynda denied it. She said, “I just told them that you were now sleeping on the roof.”

Well, what a topsy-turvy night and day. But all was not bad. We had drum class and learned Yabba and the Nairobi rhythms. Afterwards, we ate a scrumptious tiou djen, fish in red sauce, for lunch. Then we daparted for a beach called Baye Bas, or something like that.

We danced on the beach and had an audience of children. They clapped, smiling and pointing at us. When it was my turn to dance, I fell on the sand to the beat. I wasn’t embarrassed. I just kept on dancing. The children loved it. When we finished, our audience danced to the drums while we swam. The water was so warm it was like a bath.

On the bus back to Yembule, we sang songs in Wolof and American, songs like Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and the “The National Black Anthem.” I felt as though I was floating on a cloud. It was so much fun. Tiou Guinnar, chicken in red sauce, was waiting for us at the compound to eat. All the food I have eaten here so far has been extremely tasty and good. As a compliment to the food, my friend Fatou would say, “You make me wanna slap your mama!”

20 July 2000

I awoke to the noise of the other people sleeping on the roof. The couple who’d arrived, preferred sleeping on the roof, too. So it was a waste of time to move Belynda’s and my stuff out of the room.

I’ve been constipated. I haven’t gotten used to going to the bathroom like that. I’ve been eating lots of bread and rice. The Senegalese people cook a lot of rice, tieb.

The food is so delicious though. It’s hard to resist. I have watched Mame Ali and Marie Baye cook, that is, togg. They steep everything in palm oil. It’s interesting talking to them. Just by sitting and listening, I learned a lot.

We went to the zoo today. My idea of Africa is to see the animals roam free. But when I saw them locked in cages and malnourished, I grew frustrated. Babacar told me that Senegal is civilized now and animals belong in cages — as if he were so proud to say that.

That evening we had yet another blackout. We had to dance by candlelight, and when I connected with my ancestor. This journey has been completely spiritual for me. I felt as though I was dancing for my family. I felt one with God.

Mame Ali and Marie Baye served a dinner which the majority of the people couldn’t eat. It was meat. Babacar made the women cook something we all can eat — eggs.

Then we dressed for the Tenabere in Medina. I had never seen anything like it before. A Tanabere is very special. It is like a block party with lights. Hundreds and hundreds of people were gathered in a circle to dance Sabar in the street. When we arrived, many were sitting in plastic outdoor chairs. The women had put on all their make up and their best grand bubus and silvery shoes to look special.

I had heard Sabar drumming, but nothing like this. The women were dancing, and Babacar and Eladj did their solos. Mali got up to dance and so did Martha. The rest of us watched, mouths open so wide flies could have flown in. I felt as though I was born again. I wanted to dance so badly but couldn’t. Babacar’s sisters wanted to know why I didn’t dance. They told me I was dressed for the part and everything. I was wearing a grand bubu, a head wrap, a wrap skirt called a lapa, and even a bejiou, a slip underneath my lapa. When I told them that I was shy — dama la ruus — they laughed. The night was like a fairy tale. Then there was another blackout, and the Tenebere came to a halt.

On our way back to Yembule, we stopped in a store at a gas station and bought all kinds of goodies. I treated Babacar’s sister, Mame Ali, Marie Baye, and Aziz’s sister to yogurt, cookies, biscuits and things like that, because they worked so hard in the kitchen.

21 July 2000

I was back to sleeping on the roof. This morning was a little hot and humid. I felt ill. My scratchy throat had progressed to a head cold. I felt tired, but I didn’t let that stop me from going to the market. I found the most unique kinds of colors and textures of fabric. I bought three pieces of fabric lined in gold thread and silver.

Our bus was always stopped on the way to the market by the police. We paid taxes, tariffs, tickets, and what not. One reason was that our driver Eladj did not have the proper papers. Babacar also said that Eladj has different blood, and he could not walk or drive freely in Dakar. I was flabbergasted and felt proud to be American. Then again, I remembered the dilemma of driving while black.

During these transactions, my friend Mali and I commented on how depressed we were to see our people of Dakar living under corrugated roofs propped with tin poles. Many people live on the streets to sell their wares. I could have blamed slavery and the Europeans, but I also thought, right now we need to take the responsibility.

Eventually, someone clad in a white grand bubu popped out of nowhere and drove our bus to Medina. Eladj sat in the back of the bus and watched silently. Another reason why we didn’t travel through Dakar that much was that Babacar and his family are griots. Many people look down on them, and say they are disgusting because they always beg for money. But griots keep the Sabar tradition alive.

After the market, we danced on the roof for the people of Yembule. It was a fun experience, although I felt ill and couldn’t give my all. We danced Kaolack and Narri Goron which are different forms of Sabar.

Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, Life of the Image

Through the starkness of Peck’s iconic choices and the poetic character of the voiceover, we are moved to a certain comprehension of the incommensurable.

Raoul Peck occupies a liminal space in filmmaking, blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, between the personal and the political, as well as the boundaries of national affiliation.

In the context of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which is traditionally a venue for ethnographic film, he seems placed specifically to challenge the viewer into questioning the way images are made, how they circulate, and how they acquire meaning. In the symposium held at the festival, he claimed that he didn’t make a distinction between documentary and fiction but begins with ideas, characters, and recurrent themes relevant to the human condition, such as violence, torture, memory, and nationalism. He uses the content of his experience to play out those themes, and therefore uses stories of Haiti, Africa, and Europe to dramatize his ideas, because those are the situations and people he knows best. His legitimacy comes not from his association with a well-defined genre or a particular place, but from the force of his own international and personal perspective.

Lumumba: Death of a Prophet is a good illustration of Peck’s idiosyncratic, layered documentary style and reveals several strategies for instigating viewers to make complicated associations that reflect the complicated nature of the historical subject itself. The film is not a heavy-handed propaganda feature, but a provocative deconstruction of colonial and postcolonial Africa. In the wake of the democratic reform movement of the 1990s this look back to the independence struggles of the 1960s is highly relevant and charged with an analytic component. What were the causes of the failure of democracy in the newly independent African countries, and in what ways could they be overcome in the current struggle of “second independence”? What are the obstacles to African self-determination? Moreover, how does visual representation fit into the the political and historical project itself? Lumumba offers a unique opportunity to reconsider the life and legacy of one of the most charismatic and controversial figures of the 1960s independence movements and explores why he was unable to achieve his aims. It does not really to describe Lumumba’s policies and life in the ways of a conventional biography, but rather studies how he, or rather, his public image and legacy, were manipulated by politicians, the media, and time itself.

While he uses interviews, old photos, and archival footage, which are the traditional artifacts of history used in documentary films, he simultaneously subverts their authority, questioning their uses and their ability to reveal truth. He further highlights the subjective nature of historical documents by incorporating his own memoirs as the privileged son of an agricultural expert working for the regime that replaced Lumumba. His father’s home movies and his mother’s recollections are thus equally categorized as subjective. Every time he uses his mother’s testimony, he prefaces it with, “My mother told me…,” always reminding the viewer that the information comes from a particular source. These private accounts are not privileged over other accounts, but do provide interesting counterpoints to the commentaries provided by interviews and newsreels. In recounting these personal views he attempts to give voice to the alternative and differing perspectives that surround a critical moment of history. In addition, Peck’s own use of commentary voice-over serves to confront the way certain perspectives get repressed by the media and how the accounts of the proverbial “winners” of history triumph in popular memory. Consequently, the manipulation of information by the Western press and their complicity in the events leading to Lumumba’s downfall and assassination figure prominently in the film. Furthermore, he often shows images of a cold, indifferent, and affluent Europe and offers his film as a way of reviving and conjuring up Lumumba’s spirit and legacy to confront the guilty Europeans in their forgetful present.

Let us look further at how Peck uses photographs in a way that reveals their distance from lived truth, problematizing their referential status and revealing their flaws as evidence or testimony. In so doing, he makes a similar case as James MacDougall, who criticizes documentary’s inattention to the distinction between photographic records and photography’s place in people’s minds (30). For example, as we see the first picture of Lumumba that his mother showed him as a child and that he has kept to this day without knowing why, his voice-over points to the inability to make sense of the people’s motivations in the picture. In this photograph of a press conference, he tries to imagine what the characters are thinking and their relationship to Lumumba. He thinks some of them look bored, that some are there against their will, and others are there by coincidence. He sees Lumumba as the only one in the picture with an obvious sense of purpose, comparing him to Christ surrounded by followers, yet ultimately alone. Realizing the difficulty in reading intention from a photograph, he characterizes the members of the press as extras in a film that are told by the director to “look objective”. This shows that meaning is not inherent in the photo, but that it is imagined, shaped by our own desires and the critical distance provided by the passing of time. His viewpoint of Lumumba as a martyr figure leads him to make an analogy to Christ’s last supper which further sets up the viewer to see the entourage around him as his betrayers. The meaning evolves out of and is conditioned by his (and our) knowledge of what happened after it was taken. By itself and at the moment it was actually taken, the photograph remains frustratingly inscrutable.

Another instance in which he demonstrates how photographs mask as much as they reveal is when he presents us a picture of a young Mobutu with his family. They seem so normal, as he says “a family like any family”. There are no traces of the ambition that we now know he must have harbored. There are no signs of cruelty and greed in Mobutu’s face, but we search for them anyway, knowing that he amply exemplified both characteristics in his actions. It makes us wonder whether we often read into pictures more than is actually there, simply because we desire to prove the camera’s (and our own) observational powers. Furthermore, by making us aware of the difficulty of using photographs to reconstruct history, we begin to question our own understanding of history as given to us by images in the media. We see the tendency for the interpretations and explanations accompanying a news photo or clip to cover other possible interpretations. Peck’s voice-over reinterpretations and re-contextualizations serve to complicate this process of unequivocal signification, calling attention to the very gap between signifier and signified, so often disguised in authoritative documentaries.

Peck also juxtaposes images in ways which subtly draw out parallels that are difficult to articulate. When he shows us the pictures of the Congolese conscripted by the Belgians to work on the Ocean-Congo railroad, he comments on the fact that Belgians didn’t keep track of how many people died, because it was too horrible to be known. He then juxtaposes these archival photos with contemporary images of Belgians on the snowy streets of Brussels, on public transportation, and traffic coursing through highways. The human price paid for the Belgians’ modern way of life is made startlingly clear in a way that mere verbal articulation could not approach. The audience is not being told the point, but is encouraged to actively draw their own parallels and make their own meaning from the images.

Peck’s use of juxtaposition is not limited to the aim of making associative meaning across seemingly unrelated images, but also works to show moments of conflicting information. For example, he has two interviews with journalists talking about whether Lumumba was a communist. One white journalist claims he may have had ideas of communalism engendered by the Africans’ socially oriented lifestyle, but he didn’t know whether he was a Marxist or not. Then we see a black journalist who claims he has proof that Lumumba was a communist (though we are not given the actual evidence). This lack of agreement over Lumumba’s ideological stance destabilizes the West’s overwhelming categorization of him as a communist with Soviet ties. One wonders whether this Cold War scapegoating was simply an excuse to get rid of a troublesome figure they thought they couldn’t control, someone whose fierce anti-colonial and anti-Western brand of rhetoric did not bode well for the West’s hopes of retaining administrative presence and economic influence on the newly independent nation.

Besides questioning the archival images it presents, Lumumba also deals directly with the absence of images and information as well. A significant part of the film is devoted to the frustration of not being able to find or make the appropriate images. In one instance, Peck introduces a scene by saying, “The images have been lost, but the voice remains.” He then chooses to have a black screen to accompany the speech Lumumba delivers on the day of independence concerning the ill treatment of blacks during colonial times. This serves two functions. Firstly, it shows how the West has the power to destroy or censor material it finds objectionable. This is especially the case when most of the press agencies of the time were located in the West and did not allow certain material to be covered, despite the the wishes of any individual journalist. Secondly, it demonstrates the power of the voice, of orally conveyed information, to make a lasting impression. Even though Lumumba himself and his images were destroyed, the power of his orations continue to survive. This gains particular relevance in African contexts, where history is often conveyed orally through griot storytelling, especially in describing the achievements of a hero or individual (Stoller, 1). In Western culture, the image is often privileged, but in Africa, the spoken tradition remains important not only in storytelling, but as an aesthetic mode within filmmaking and literature. Peck capitalizes on the effectivity of oral strategies in this film since in so many cases, the images have been lost. His mother’s anecdotes as well as his own narration fill in the gaps where the images do not exist.

Another difficulty when trying to obtain the proper images occurs in Peck’s inability to go to Zaire to film. In place of contemporary images of Zaire, we are literally stuck with Peck at the Brussels airport as we are told that he would be met by the secret service if he flew to Zaire. We are all left to let the plane leave without us. The politics of censorship lie not only with the Western press, but also with Mobutu’s dictatorial stranglehold on any information that may weaken his image. Thus, the image is shown to be entangled by political forces on every side, emphasizing that image-making is ultimately and unavoidably a political activity. In addition, though certain images are available, they are too expensive to obtain. After he shows us the British Movietone newsreels of Lumumba’s capture and humiliation by Mobutu’s forces, he reminds us that this footage costs $3000 per minute. While we see Europeans walking down stairs, some carrying Christmas presents, he reminds us that the Congolese make an average annual salary of $150 and cannot afford to have access to those “memories of murder.” The whole idea of freedom of information is questioned as there are economic forms of censorship as well. The right to remember is cast as an economic privilege.

The whole difficulty in reconstructing the actual events of Lumumba’s assassination is not, however, only a matter of not being able to find or obtain images, but also concerns a larger problem of how to adequately represent a traumatic and deeply violent event. Rather than using actual footage or dramatic reconstructions when there are no existing images, Peck simply shows us seemingly unrelated images of Europe while telling us what happened. In one scene he shows us an empty European street and says, “I asked Cesaire if she remembers the Pentecost Hangings. No images exist of this hanging; they are all in my nightmares. That evening many people wept in the People’s city. Tears of shame, tears of helplessness.” Sounds of lamenting are in the background. Once again it is the sound and voice which survive while the image only reveals absence. We can speak of this empty image as a sign of absence, which confronts the abyss between experience and memory (MacDougall, 32). These signs place the audience in the position of making comparisons, searching for meanings, and feeling the pain of loss through an embodied absence. Another sign of absence is Lumumba’s body itself; Peck’s periodically reminding us that his body cannot be found, actually rei-nscribes his presence through the fact that there is no material evidence of his corpse. While he graphically describes the way two Belgians cut his corpse with saws and burned and dissolved his remains in acid, we roam amongst tuxedo-clad guests at a fancy Christmas party. The camera literally becomes Lumumba’s restless, avenging ghost as he “tickles the feet of the guilty.”

This use of signs of absence continues in his account of Lumumba’s actual shooting. We see only a slow zooming shot of trees in a savannah, meant to signify the tress against which Lumumba and two of his supporters faced the firing squad. We are told that they died with dignity, that only Okira trembled slightly before facing his executioners. Peck imagines that it must have been cold that night. As the zoom tightly frames one tree, the voiceover claims that one can still see the bullet holes in the trees of the savannah. This scene is important in it’s multi-sensory reconstruction of memory. The inactive, bodily cues we are given, the trembling and the coldness, stand in for the iconic image which is irretrievable and maybe even incomprehensible. This parallels the way memory is formed and recalled in our own minds; we remember experiences not only through images, but through the feeling of being there and our bodily responses to the event. Moreover, the slow zoom makes us search frantically for the evidence the trees might hold. As in Lanzman’s documentary of the Holocaust, Shoah, we must look at the empty place where atrocities occured and search for what happened there. As MacDougall describes, “We look in vain for the signified in the sign. In this constant reiteration of absence we are brought to the threshold of one kind of knowledge of history. In the failure of the sign we acknowledge a history beyond representation (32).” Through the starkness of Peck’s iconic choices and the poetic character of the voice-over we are moved to a certain comprehension of the incommensurable.

The importance of Lumumba is that it manages to achieve a successful synthesis between the poesis of memory and the analysis of the image as signifier. By inciting the viewer to explore the economic, political, and personal uses of the image, it presents the image as a contested terrain, rather than as an authoritative or representative artifact. At the same time, the use of evocative voiceover and the manipulation of time and chronology in the matter of an African griot shows us an ingenious strategy of poesis, that is, a highly self-conscious regard to the aesthetic processes at work in the filmic medium (Renov, 20).

The inclusion of this film in the Margaret Mead Film Festival is an encouraging sign that the field of documentary is moving beyond issues of preservation and fidelity into the negotiation of the issues of media power structures, the real political consequences of the contestation over historical and ethnographic images, and the role of aesthetics and narrativity within non-fiction genres.


MacDougall, David. “Films of Memory.” in, Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R. 1990-1994. Ed. Lucien Taylor. New York: Routledge, 1994. 260-270.

Renov, Michael. “Toward a Poetics of Documentary.” in Theorizing Documentary. Ed. Michael Renov. AFI Film Readers Series. New York: Routledge, 1993. 12- 36.

Stoller Paul. The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Thoughts on The Daily Nation, A Film

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

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

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

Most importantly, the film makes the indisputable point that Kenya (and Africa at large) is far from being a lost cause. Its future lies within the abilities of its own people who need only a stable and enabling environment to work and make a difference.

The film does not ask the question of whether the political leaders are up to the task of being able to create such an atmosphere, but it does not have to. It does not require a genius after all to guess who is to blame for the endless nightmares taking place in most parts of the continent. Despite an environment that presents endless hardships for journalists, the experience of The Daily Nation gives hope that African newspapers can maintain a high level of professionalism and longevity, given the perseverance and ambition of dedicated journalists.

Ramadan Suleman: Fools

In the last decade, anti-apartheid films with South Africa as a backdrop, have generally been English language, Hollywood productions, with white protagonists, often played by big-name Hollywood actors. The narrative of the films usually focuses on the exteriority of the struggle against apartheid. Fools, a new film by Ramadan Suleiman, based on Njabulo Ndebele’s Noma-award winning novella of the same name, thoroughly bucks this trend. Initiated by a black production company, with a black director and black characters at the center of the narrative, Fools is, as its scriptwriter, Bhekisizwe Peterson says, unashamedly about black township life.

While being South Africa’s first all-black feature film is significant in and of itself, Fools is also noteworthy on a number of other cinematic levels. Devoid of an overtly political, sloganeering-type narrative, and following Ndebele’s narrative, the film explores the private and interior nature of black life in South Africa on a more nuanced, human level. The humanistic treatment of the characters, while at times undermined by a stilted naiveté, manages to convey something of the contradictions in the apartheid-era social fabric. Fools confronts these contradictions, as well as issues of alienation particularly those that arise out of generational differences as well as the socio-political consequences of rape.

Set in Charteston township on the East Rand of Johannesburg, Fools centers on the chance meeting of the two protagonists: the middle-aged teacher and rapist Duma Zamani (Patrick Shai), fatigued and paralyzed by his own fear and insecurity, and the brother of the rape victim, Zani Vuthela (Hlomla Dandala), an idealistic political activist just graduated from high school in Swaziland. From a meeting at a train station, the two men engage in a process of individual and social re-examination of self-identity and social responsibility, and their subsequent struggle for meaning and identity in late-1980s South Africa.

Zamani’s deteriorated marriage, his solicitation of back-alley sex workers, alcoholism and nightmarish guilt all contribute to a powerful characterization of the alienated anti-hero on a journey towards self-redemption. Patrick Shai — sometimes awkward in his portrayal of Zamani’s cocksureness — capably delivers a performance that brings out the protagonist’s more vulnerable moments in a manner that does not detract from the decidedly anti-heroic demeanor of the character. Shai‘s performance is crucial because it is through Zamani’s character that the film ultimately gives a sense of proportion to the textured social fabric of black townships. The film also explores the gaps that exist in the face of urban alienation, as well as a spirited investigation of some of the paradoxes and contradictions in apartheid-era township life.

The aspect of township life captured in Fools is one of a pervading sense of paralysis and passivity, especially towards the struggle against apartheid and the social decay wrought in its wake. Rape, the silence that surrounds it, and the seemingly tacit acceptance of it by the community is but one of those powerfully debilitating social problems. This was made clear early on in the film, in a scene where Zamani is let off with a mere reprimand by the community’s elders for raping one of his pupils. The elders’ endorsement of the crime only perpetuates the process of victimization already effected by apartheid. However, the response to Zamani’s actions is driven (and to some extent justified) by the reality of a shortage of black teachers in the apartheid education system. While the narrative raises questions concerning the complicity and culpability of the elders (and, by implication, the community) in Zamani’s actions, it by no means comes anywhere close to capturing the brutality of the culture of silence surrounding rape, a reticence that has for so long gripped South Africa’s townships.

Fools opens with Forgive Me (Jeremia Ndlovu), the homeless township jester, shouting what becomes an often-repeated refrain throughout the film, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” Forgive Me’s refrain not only sets up a narrative of foreboding and redemption that unfolds in the film, but also becomes the conscience of the community, interwoven between each of the various scenes. The narrative bounces off his refrain. According to the scriptwriter, Bhekisizwe Peterson, the narrative style invokes the call and response patterns in African music and jazz. A theme is introduced, elaborated and then repeated in different ways. It’s about looking at different facets of the same thing. This non-linear style, criticized by some for its meandering quality, serves as a vehicle for capturing the textures of township life.

This style of narration sets Zamani’s personal journey against the background of a community’s continuous involvement in and response to individual action. The presentation of this contested psychological (rather than overtly political) struggle is realized through the narrative’s revisiting of the same issues, each time from the differing perspectives of the film’s various characters. This device succeeds in sketching the individual responses and collective actions of the community, thereby creating a space, not for didactic answers, but for potent questions concerning the politics of poverty and race.

One of the most powerful moments in Fools is played out in the anthem scene, where the school headmaster, Meneer Lerumo (Corney Mabaso), leads his pupils in the singing of the old South African anthem, ‘Die Stem,’ in Afrikaans. Meneer Lerumo’s character captures the response of a particular generation to apartheid, underpinned in this instance by his passionate use of the Afrikaans language. As much an image of sobriety as caricature, Meneer Lerumo epitomizes the conservative school headmaster, whose insistent use of the Afrikaans language belies the incongruity of his passion. This scene, so shrewdly controlled by Corney Mabaso, is pivotal in underlining the extent to which figures such as Meneer Lerumo are, at the end of the day, so dispensable within the apartheid system, a reality more overtly underscored in the film’s closing scenes.

The use of different language in Fools — Zulu, English, Afrikaans and slang — not only reflects the nuances of language usage in townships, but is also largely character driven. For Meneer Lerumo, the use of Afrikaans symbolises the extent of his subscription to the apartheid system. The community elders use a poetic form of the Zulu language, underlying their traditional values, while Zamani (and in particular his male drinking friends) use an urban-derived combination of Zulu, English and Afrikaans. But the dominant language in Fools is Zulu, unusual for a South African film aimed at the international market. On a political level, says Bekisizwe Peterson, the use of an African language affirms the validity of such languages. Too often, making an English-language film undermines the presence of African languages.

Fools‘ finale, probably the most effectively staged scene (in what is quite an unevenly dramatized film), has Zani attempting to effect a boycott of the local school’s Dingaan Day picnic celebrations. Dingaan’s Day, formerly the ‘Day of the Vow,’ and now (ironically) the ‘Day of Reconciliation,’ began it’s life as a religious thanksgiving for the Afrikaner’s defeat of the Zulu nation at the ‘Battle of Blood River’ in 1838. On the day of the school’s celebrations, a placard-waving Zani is confronted and chased by Meneer Lerumo. The latter throws a stone that misses Zani and instead hits a passing car. The car stops, a white man emerges, takes a whip from the boot of his car, and walks up to a visibly frightened Meneer Lerumo. He chastises and then attempts to whip the headmaster. The sight of Meneer Lerumo, clad in colonial khakis, running behind a retreating crowd, with the white man in pursuit, only underscores the headmaster’s irrelevance in a system predicated on the authority of whiteness.

Only Zamani stands his ground, a challenge the white man cannot tolerate. He insults and then whips Zamani. But Zamani’s response is laughter. The white man falls to the ground, whipping the earth in frustration at his inability to effect any kind of domination and control. As the white man is surrounded by the silent crowd, a flaggelated Zamani, his penance finally paid in a moment of self-realization, walks away. The film closes with Zamani climbing the hill overlooking the township, to the waiting figure of Forgive Me. The long shot offered by the view atop the hill, both at the beginning and end of the film, in addition to effecting a narrative circularity, hints at the suffocating physical organization of the apartheid space, something that is all too often forgotten in the film’s construction of a narrative of psychological interiority. There is simply not enough of the organization of landscape that would have been afforded by panoramic views of the space in and around Charteston township.

While Njabulo Ndebele’s original story is located in 1966, the film version of Fools is set in December 1989, just two months shy of the announcement of the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress. “The setting isn’t really crucial,” says Peterson, “because we wanted the film to provoke debate and discussion now. We didn’t want audiences to read this as a period piece.” But, the importance of Ndebele’s original post-Rivonia Trial setting is that it was a period when the apartheid system was at its most triumphant. In this sense, it offers a crucial context to understanding the social paralysis that is at the core of the novella, a context dangerously overlooked in the film.

The film’s use of a later apartheid setting, just prior to a period of enormous transition, while a catalyst and motivation for grappling with issues that still have value and meaning in contemporary South Africa, takes away something of the richness of the original. Again, the prevalence of rape in South Africa and the silence that surrounds the crime, is captured with a certain amount of indifference through the film’s rape victim, Mimi Vuthela (Nosipho Masiane). Hers is a double violation, first in her rape, and second in her silence, broken only towards the end of the film, with her plaintive screaming, the painful source of which we do not know.

With South African mindsets firmly focused on the US market, Fools is remarkable in its use of an African language, as well as its often dark, sombre narrative. It has already won the Silver Leopard Award for direction at the 50th International Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and with a number of international festival screenings under its belt, seems set for serious recognition. Though it foregrounds black agency, Fools does not sentimentalize it. Rather, the film attempts to interrogate decades of socio-political contradictions through nuances of language and predicament. In self-assuredly questioning a politics of identity in contemporary South Africa, Fools extends the parameters of the anti-apartheid film genre and plays an important role in creating a space for a genuinely complex South African cinema.

Excerpt from No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issues of inclusion and exclusion

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

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

New Wave / Old Wave

African cinema has been around for forty years now. Most of the early films were either idealized portraits of a pre-colonial Africa, anti-colonial political tracts, or transitional stories about the move between the village and the city or Africa and Europe. By the 1970s, however, corrupt post-colonial bureaucracies had replaced colonial governments as objects of political attack and as a popular subjects for films. These films offered two choices: politics or nostalgia. But more recently, filmmakers have turned away from both village tales and political grievances to address the gap between urban Africa, the untouched villages, and undifferentiated poverty that one sees so often on screen.

All of these were presented in the Guggenheim Museum‚ “Lights on Africa” film program curated by Manon Slome and Mahen Bonetti, in connection with the “Africa: Art of a Continent” exhibition. The organizers of “Lights on Africa” did well to include two among the “milestones in the African film making industry”: Ousmane Sembene, one of the best known, oldest, and most prolific of African filmmakers (behind four of the programs thirty-two films), and Djibril Diop Mambety are in many ways Africa’s premier filmmakers. Sembene providing the blueprint for the carefully-crafted, comic post-colonial political protest film; Mambety inspiring younger African filmmakers by playing with the art of cinema, proving that film can be art without becoming politically complacent. Both are particularly interesting in their treatment of gender, Sembene offering many female heroes and Mambety playing with gender boundaries in a fashion that is, to say the least, rare in African film. Although both have been making films since the 1960s, Sembene represents African cinema as part of a tradition of political African arts, while Mambety’s approach suggests alternatives and offers promise for the future. One way to understand the differences between Sembene and Mambety is along cold war lines.

In the ’60s and ’70s, as capitalist and communist nations vied for newly independent allies, the cold war was waged in part through cultural training and funding. It is no coincidence that both directors are Senegalese: almost invisible in “Africa: Art of a Continent,” Senegalese artists emerge in force in the photography and film sections of the show. As the former capital of the French colonial empire, Senegal was among the wealthier of the newly independent African nations and received money for cultural education from both France and the Soviet Union. A comparatively large number of Senegalese were able to study the fine arts, including film-mostly in Paris, but some, Sembene most prominent among them, in Moscow.

Senegal’s close financial and cultural ties to France engendered, in addition to Soviet attention, political resentments and anti-French sentiment, a hybrid urban culture in which elements of various pre-colonial Senegalese cultures united with imported languages, technologies, and cultural habits. Lest anyone think such cultural melding implies a multi-cultural utopia, “Lights on Africa” opened by locating African history in relation to the West with an impressive and horrifying indictment of the ethics of colonialism: Sembene’s Campe de Thiaroye (1987), one of the only African films about World War II.The fight against Hitler is one of the few morally unambiguous stories available to Western history, and the revelation that gratuitous war crimes were committed by the Allies are less shocking than the fact that most of us don’t know about this event.

Campe de Thiaroye recounts the story of a regiment of African men who were rounded up and sent to Europe to fight for France. The war has just ended, and the soldiers are in a transit camp outside Dakar, waiting to be paid and sent home. When they discover that the French have no intention of paying them, they protest. The French respond by bringing in tanks and destroying all the soldiers in the camp.

Thiaroye is most interesting when paired with Sembene’s 1971 Emitai (not in the program), in which a group of women stand up to colonial army officers who are taking men away to fight in the war. The principles for which the soldiers are recruited in Emitai are represented only by a general’s picture tacked to a tree, which changes as France changes sides, a metaphor for how the soldiers in Thiaroye are wanted only as manpower, being kept in the dark about the war’s politics. Sembene is no utopian: in both films, true to colonial history, rebellion proves fatal. In comparison to the play, Thiaroye Terre Rouge (1981) by the Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop on which the film is based, Sembene seems almost to be letting the French off the hook. The program brings us immediately from the colonial past to the neo- or post-colonial present with Sembene’s most recent film, Guelwaar (1992).

Sembene’s films always offer clear political messages, and in Guelwaar two stand out (alongside his usual condemnation of bureaucratic heartlessness and incompetency): first, religious conflict is destructive and ridiculous (see Sembene’s 1977 Ceddo for a historical treatment of the issue), and second, accepting bribery (which is often disguised as charity) from individuals or foreign nations is destructive. The first of these drives the plot.

The film opens with the announcement of the death of Guelwaar, a proud and determined local political leader (“Guelwaar” is an honorary title that identifies him with noble caste) whose funeral sinks into indignity when the corpse fails to appear. By the time Guelwaar’s westernized son discovers that the hospital has accidentally given Guelwaar, a Catholic, to a Muslim family, the Muslims have buried Guelwaar and are determined to consider the subject closed. The Christians march to the Muslim cemetery to claim the body; the Muslims follow to protect their sacred space. The army, sent in by a worried regional official, add guns to the equation. After much tense threatening, the priest and the imam negotiate, and the imam disinters the corpse and hands it over to its family for Christian burial.

Alongside the pacifist message about intraclass religious conflict and the antagonism of small differences, Guelwaar‘s characters embody issues of cultural independence. We learn from flashbacks that Guelwaar was fiercely independent, shouting to his wife that he would rather his daughter be a prostitute than a beggar and denouncing the nation’s mendacious mentality (during his speech, government officials look gravely at one another, suggesting that perhaps their decision to put an end to Guelwaar’s preaching is not unrelated to his unexplained death). His culturally alienated son illustrates the other side of this equation: at the beginning of the film, it seems that his clothes and education have made him French, as he claims not to understand Ouolof, but frustrations and absurdities pile until he loses his haughty attitude and fights along with the rest of his community. The film ends with a tribute to Guelwaar’s independent spirit, as the children in his funeral procession stop a truck full of donated rice (which the plot suggests is destined for the Muslims, rendering the gesture somewhat ambiguous) and dump it on the road to be crushed under the procession. The economy was on everyone’s mind in Senegal when this film was made (and still is), and Guelwaar is Sembene’s contribution to the debate.

Guelwaar argues that decolonization has been made contingent upon the maintenance of economic relations with France (and the World Bank and the IMF) on France’s terms, and that neocolonial political leaders now use foreign aid to buy their subjects’ political loyalty, much as the politicians themselves have presumably been bought off by the foreign donors whose aid they embezzle. As Guelwaar (presumably speaking for Sembene) has it, subordination is assured by a steady stream of aid that creates bonds of dependence. This ties into the film’s most subtle and perhaps, in light of contemporary debates over African politics, most important messages: that the fate of the dead must not overshadow the fate of the living.

In one of the film’s most comic moments the younger of the dead Muslim’s two wives declares that she can’t stand the boredom of mourning anymore and is going back to her family. The mourners waiting at Guelwaar’s funeral also grumble about getting back to their lives. And when the body is finally dug up, it smells: throughout the battles being waged on its behalf, it has been rotting. Two hundred years after the first battles of religious conversion were fought, in which the losers were sold into slavery for guns and liquor, Islam and Catholicism and neocolonial greed are still tearing people apart.

Drawing on many layers of politics and history, relying on cultural jokes which the foreign viewer, like the Westernized son, can’t quite get, using the language and beauty of his subjects both to appeal to a foreign audience and to tell a story that this audience can’t understand, Sembene continues, as he has done for years, simultaneously cater to and resist European demands in such a way as to hold his place as the most powerful African filmmaker. Two of Sembene’s shorts are also included in the festival, Borom Sarret (1963), Sembene’s first film, and Black Girl (1965), the only film he has shot in France.

Borom Sarret shows Sembene’s Marxist spirit at its finest: sparse and unambiguous, in this tale of a poor cart-driver who has a very bad day, characters are sympathetic in inverse proportion to how much money they have. A well-dressed man pays the driver extra to take him into the plateau, the wealthy section of downtown Dakar where horse-drawn carts are prohibited. When they reach the plateau, Western classical music starts up (suggesting that three years after independence this area has yet to be de-colonized), and the cool cosmopolitanism of the new bourgeoisie evokes prayers and terror from the driver. The cop who throws him out looks as tall and imposing as the towering buildings of downtown, and only when he gets back to the Medina (by the monument of independence) can the driver relax.

Though Sembene is known for depicting strong, politically driven women, none of his “feminist” films are included in the festival (see Xala [1974], Ceddo [1977]) and Black Girl is an odd example of his treatment of women. The tale of a Senegalese servant who returns to France with her employers only to discover that the French are dreadful and that she has no freedom or respect as an African servant in France, Black Girl is a moving portrait of isolation, on the one hand, and French bourgeois arrogance and cruelty on the other. But it also creates a sense, intensified by the dramatic ending, that the protagonist is responsible for her plight, that she is being punished for desiring frivolous beautiful objects and wanting to get out of Dakar. While Black Girl does offer insight into a particularly miserable plight, one would expect ‘Sembenean’ inquiry into the economic and cultural forces that drive young women into these situations. In this respect, for all its enduring and translatable power (the scenes of French bourgeois life could easily be American), on Sembene’s own terms Black Girl is one of his weaker films.

If Sembene’s films epitomize the social conscience and commitment of African cinema, Mambety’s reveal the playful and artistic spirit that makes cinema such a powerful art. The organizers did well to pair Mambety’s feature with the two Sembene shorts, but it is sad that they only included one of Mambety’s films. Fortunately, it is his most important. Touki Bouki (1973), a cult film, has inspired many young filmmakers. It also contains one of the few gay characters in African cinema, though his appearance is brief. Mambety both depicts and embodies a way of life, and Touki Bouki shows this life at its height, when money for the arts in Senegal seemed plentiful and Dakar seemed a growing cosmopolitan metropolis. It also shows that the spirit and style of the ’60s and ’70s crossed many borders, and not just for spiritual renewal.

The film opens peacefully with cows (recalling countless ethnographic films, especially from the ’50s and ’60s, that open with happy animals) and then assaults us with a slaughter house before slipping into a ’70s urban extravaganza of bell-bottoms, berets, and huge plastic sunglasses. A pair of cow’s horns on the front of a motor-scooter provide the transition from dying cows to living humans and introduce us to Mory and Anta, a young couple who personify hipness as they tear in, out, and around the city on their scooter, searching for money so that they can take a boat to Paris and escape the aimlessness of their renegade lives in Dakar.

Light on plot, Touki Bouki derives its power from its composition, the fantastical beauty of its images, and the expressiveness of its actors. Unintimidated by the demands of classic cinema, Mambety uses little dialogue (none at all for the first eight minutes) and moves his camera around a lot; bouncing, walking, and riding alongside or in front of Anta and Mory. As the couple ride through the city, we are offered a series of shots of daily life in markets and on the streets of Dakar, people running errands and hanging out (a goat is slaughtered and a man is attacked, in extended, gruesome detail). The fantasy of France is indicated by Parisian music, which blares as Mory and Anta leave the city and drive past baobabs and skinny white cows on their way home. As they drive in and out of the city, they pass a pale-skinned, hairy, scantily-clad man in a baobab tree known as the toubab du baobab (white man of the baobab), a phrase that epitomizes the kind of play Mambety loves and the micro-processes of his imagination. The man seems to be a quirk of Mambety’s imagination, but in the end le toubab du baobab steals Mory’s scooter.

More striking than this racial play is the film’s depictions of gender. As with everything else in the film, gender is performed and displayed but never probed or explained. In the age of elaborate wigs and platform heels, Anta, the female lead, at first looks like a boy, and is only revealed to be a woman when she takes off her shirt (and starts to cry). When the couple stop by the luxury estate of the film’s most unlikely caricature, a fat, sensuous rich man who lies around in a silk robe surrounded by attractive young men, we discover that Mory is certain enough of his masculinity to see through Anta’s clothes. The rich man offers Mory money in exchange for favors, and Mory plays along long enough before attacking to steal the man’s money and, more importantly, his clothes. They return home and, in a scene that lies somewhere between dream-sequence and surreal reality, their formerly hostile friends and family at home, inspired by the couple’s sudden wealth, deliver lengthy hypocritical praises.

In short, Mambety offers a view of an urban Africa rarely seen elsewhere. Critics have praised Mambety for going beyond the realism of Sembene, the master against whom many African filmmakers are judged. Mambety’s visual metaphors offer moments of social critique as powerful as anything in one of Sembene’s films, but the viewer has to find them. He spurns Sembene’s didacticism because he is less tied to conventional narrative and classic cinema. While Sembene sees film as a way to communicate his political parables to wider audiences, something he couldn’t do as a novelist (his previous career), Mambety shows he is an auteur in the true nouvelle vague sense of the term. Though his next film after Touki Bouki, Hyenas (1992), has a more conventional narrative structure, it maintains the eerie power of the former (and adds another level of gender critique), and with his most recent film, Le Franc (1994), Mambety once again weaves his story between the unreal reality of dreams and the surreality of waking life.

While this blurred relation to reality is common in much African cinema (and fiction), Mambety’s is perhaps the most extreme, for it is never explained —in terms of conjuring, witchcraft, or the power of memory and the past; it just happens. Sembene has no use for such tricks in getting across his political messages, but Mambety’s films demand more work from their viewers and must be explored. Sembene’s films epitomize the power of film as a political tool that can reach audiences across cultures and languages, using his films to thematicize the problems facing Africa and suggest ways in which people must change.

Mambety waves the opposing flag of art for art’s sake, refusing to accept the burden of representation that accompanies the label “African filmmaker.” He makes his fantasies and trusts his viewers to figure out how to take them. That his films have often been called European, cold, and intellectual, both in praise and in attack, indicates the narrow parameters in which filmmakers from Africa are expected to work. A new generation of filmmakers in Senegal, inspired greatly by Mambety, are taking to film as art, and while this will never, and should never, replace the social realist commitment of filmmakers like Sembene, both are essential to complicating and challenging the notion of a monolithic African cinema.