African film’s meaningful body

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African films have never stopped trying to reappropriate the body that modernity refuses us.

As a film-lover and critic, I must get to see nearly two to three hundred films a year. There are few real gems and it is not often that that intense emotion grabs you, completely absorbing you in what is going on on the screen. African films have given me that pleasure more often than other films, making me want to look into them further. The reasons why are complex and I don’t think I will ever stop asking the question.
The body is a vector of emotion in film, just as it is in dance, theatre, or painting. It is unquestionably their relation to the body that distinguishes these films for me, providing an intimate response to a deep questioning of my own civilisation’s ability to answer the stakes of modernity.
Let me explain myself. This end of the century has been marked by the triumph of the television image, which is dominated by disembodiment. Television dramas (not all, some are very good) dematerialise the body in favour of the narrative. They feature characters who are so entirely devoted to saying a text that the image’s symbolism is no longer used to convey the message. If there are any metaphors at all, they usually lie in the spoken language. Owing to the need for profitability, people no longer have the time or inclination to work on an image whose small format in any case requires that attention be focused on the object, losing all depth of field.
Similarly, the superlative body reigns in the media and advertising, with top models being revered to the extreme. In the bodybuilding era, their only competitors in the hit parade of representation are sports people and movie stars. Omnipresent models, their bodies, which are presented as perfect, only appear to exist now on the outside, losing all interiority.
This cult is reassuring, a response to the quest for security in the light of all the fear generated by the Aids epidemic, rising violence, and the loss of markers as gender relations are called into question. These perfect (and perfectly sexual) figures are idealised to stop us having to ask the corporal question par excellence – that of death and time.
African films move me, then, because they re-invert the relationship and bluntly re-pose the question of the body. They do so not by showing it naked, but by relating it to the world. Their originality indeed lies in the way in which they respect man and open up the way to understanding his place in the universe. Souleymane Cissé manages this « very well », as Serge Daney put it writing about Yeelen, « not by aestheticising the world but by immediately inscribing bodies in their environment. So well so that there are no drum rolls to accompany the movement from the « natural » to the « supernatural », that it only takes a gaze to pierce a rival or possess a woman, that the beauty of the actors has the elegance of that which suffices unto itself. »
Neither picturesque nor exotic! Exoticism requires picture postcard images, settings on which to project our desires and our fantasies of the barbarian, the savage, of primitive man. On the contrary, the simplicity and clarity of the images, whose only aim is to serve what is said, leave the characters the naturalness and grace of their presence in the world, masters as they are of the meaning of their gestures and the rhythm of their being. Cissé explains this himself in his interview with Rithy Pahn (in the television series Cinéastes de notre temps): « ‘Damu’ is the Bambara term for the positive impression that is left by the sight of a person or a thing and which stays in the heart and mind a long time. ‘Damu’ is perhaps what grace is. When you see man living, you observe all that he is, all that surrounds him. When you understand him, you have to depict him with ‘damu’. » It is no undoubtedly this sensitivity of the real, this complicity with people, beasts and things that gives Cissé’s films their moral clarity.
1) Mirror-space.
Right from the time of independence, African films reversed the relationship. They aimed to decolonise the gaze, the mind. Films were as much the reflection of a space that needed re-conquering as they were the reflection of a people. They aimed to say, « this is who I am; this is my country ». Their subjects included daily life (Safi Faye), the pitfalls of the elites’ mimetism (Ousmane Sembene), the quest for self-knowledge in the confrontation between traditional values and imported modernity. The aim was not to « act out » the real, but to represent it. Bodies extricated themselves from narrative figuration to prioritise their inscription in the quotidian, the representation of the social space.
Even today, African filmmakers opt more often than others do for mid-shots when filming meetings or a character’s evolution in a setting. Showing a character in full-length makes it possible to inscribe him or her in a broader body – that of public space and the community. Similarly, the refusal of formal cutting reflects the desire to marry an environment. Directors thus prefer to film a conversation in a single shot that frames the two speakers and includes elements of the setting than to alternate their faces in a series of reverse-angle shots. But this is a cultural choice too that corresponds to another conception of time in a desire to capture and respect man’s inner-self. The Tunisian filmmaker Férid Boughedir expressed precisely that in Africultures n° 13: « When Gaston Kaboré filmed Wend Kuuni and held the close-up of the boy longer then the rules of classical editing would expect, something magical suddenly happened at that precise moment. It was a great lesson to me! He understood that he had to cut the shot later, and those few « redundant » seconds generate an emotion that I had never seen before elsewhere. »
This way of going straight to the essential disrupts the antinomy between the global vision of a scene and the attention directed on one element. Not without risk, it restores a certain spontaneity that is often reinforced by the express use of non-professional actors and a large degree of improvisation. The gesture predominates over the dialogue and movement is generated not so much by a camera moving in skilful tracking shots as by the organisation of the frame.
2) Orality.
The links with the oral traditions are clear. By prioritising repetitions, lulls in the narrative, and participatory bursts, the films break off from an overly rigid screenplay construction and free the bodies. Some of the first African films – and not the least (see Cissé, for example) – were shot from scripts that were sketchy enough to leave a large degree of freedom on the shoot. The latitude consented to then by the main financier, the Ministry of Cooperation, was greater, more experimental and less competitive at the time.
3) Gestures and silences.
In a culture where things are left unsaid, the body is all the more meaningful. Gestures, glances, and silences gain in evocative force. It is impossible to forget the Tuareg women’s silent gaze in Waati, just their hands moving to flick away the flies. The ritual exchanges of greetings take on all their importance. The choice of terms, tone of voice, position of the body and gazes express what the words do not say. This ability to express the intensity of the body without words is found too in the work of younger filmmakers. In Temedy, a film about Aids, the Guinean Gahité Fofana manages to frame Mouna so that her face, gestures, and attitudes « speak » about her illness…
The historic necessity (after colonisation) for self-reappropriation remains just as pertinent today. Faced with racism, exoticising projections and the endurance of the colonial imagination in images of black people, inverting the Other’s gaze is more of a combat than ever before. Fanon described it: that white mask worn on black skin, that racism that depersonalises by destroying all recognition can be summed up as a vision of skin in the sense that racism is ultimately the denial of white people’s desire for black people (cf. Isaac Julien’s film on Fanon, Africultures n° 13). Mastering one’s body comes down to grasping its conflicts, or, in other words, to being able to say « I ». The history of African film is also that of a slow appropriation of an individual discourse in which the body says more and more after having always been spoken about.
1) The suffering body/the resisting body.
The process began with the suffering body – the tortured militant in Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga, the slave body, the broken body, like the Malians deported by charter plane in Med Hondo’s Lumière Noire or the immigrants killed in his film Watani. It is also the excised body in Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s Finzan, or the female body prostrate beneath the yoke of obsolete traditions. But this body naturally protests and fights back in the name of the values handed down by its origin – the ancestral myths. It rejects, refuses, cries out. In Finye (Souleymane Cissé), the message given to the old blacksmith when he calls on the ancestors to protect and help get his grandson Bâ out of prison refers him back to present reality: « Follow your own intuition and your own initiative ». He joins the students in their refusal of the established order and demonstrates against the ruling powers.
But this cry also becomes silence again to magnify the demonstrating body. The factory workers in the same Cissé’s Baara, who form a cortège to carry the body of the manager who defended them, are all shirtless. They form a body together to continue the struggle.
2) The dancing body.
Likewise, people do not dance in these films because « they are natural dancers », as the old exotic cliché has it, but to assert their dignity. Like the laughing body, the dancing body is the affirmation of intractability, an eminently subversive lack of discipline. « My dance and my laughter, delirious dynamite, will blow you away like bombs », wrote Léopold Sédar Senghor.
Here too, the women are far from being left out. The women in Désiré Ecaré’s Visages de femmes dance joyfully as they sing the moral of the story:
« What does an untrusting man deserve?
He deserves just one thing.
What’s that?
To be cheated on.
Yes, to be cheated on! »
3) The sensual body.
Visages de femmes was banned in Côte d’Ivoire for its long love scene in the lake. Yet, Kouassi and Affoue’s adulterous love-making cinematographically answers the tyrannical and narrow-minded husband’s arrogance through the pleasure of transgression. It is not a voyeuristic gaze, as the filmmaker himself insisted, but « a contemplative gaze » that conveys emotion and dreams…
Nowadays, films dare to take bare skin as a textual space, letting the camera hug forms as closely as possible, like, for example, in Dakan (Mohamed Camara) or Bye bye Africa (Mahamat Saleh Haroun). Cissé already did this in Finye’s shower scene. The sexual act remains taboo. Yet, short love scenes are beginning to emerge, for example in Le Cri du Coeur (Idrissa Ouedraogo) and Mossane (Safi Faye). They still cause quite a stir in Africa, but do not shock as much anymore as the globalisation of images gradually pushes back the boundaries. Beyond what is shown or not shown, it is the bodily nature of the act and the depicting of desire that people question. The natural representation of sensuality and the inscription of desire in the quotidian overtly and subversively confront exotic and reductive projections concerning the black body – that African pseudo-hedonism which by idealising it dematerialises it – and also the burden of customs concerning the body.
4) The meaningful body
Indeed, isn’t film itself ultimately a transgression in a society where, as the Togolese filmmaker Anne Laure Folly puts it, « to unveil something is to violate it »? Its subversive power is not so much showing what isn’t normally shown as evoking this underground force subtly, this meaningful body of film that is the affirmation of the subject, individualisation, the representation of desire.
In order to uncompromisingly explore their adversarial bodies in modernity, the young diaspora filmmakers take the risk of exposing their uncertainties and their intimate quests by filming their desire and its contradictions. Malou’s hesitancy when she comes to spend a weekend at Bwési’s place and his awkward efforts to posses her in La Fumée dans les yeux (François Woukoache) demonstrate the free tone of this effort to encourage a greater sense of responsibility. The filmmaker plays his/her own role, looking him/herself in the face, like in Bye bye Africa (cf. review in n°19). He/she is thus a filmmaker and quite simply a person before being African, without denying his/her origin and culture in any way. He/she shares the need to reappropriate the body with all humans confronted with the impoverishment that the modern models of disembodiment represent.
This is undoubtedly the source of my emotion. Drawing the strength to resist and to subvert from their culture, Africa’s filmmakers have never stopped trying to reverse the dominant relationship to the body, to win back this meaningful body of a presence in the world, an inscription in time and, ultimately, an awareness of death that give life back its meaning.

///Article N° : 5397


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