Burkina Faso’s sitcoms are new to African television. They offer a positive image of Africa.
Sitcoms, or Situation Comedies, are half-hour television comedies in which the characters debate their lives in humorous situations. Although sitcoms are a new genre in Africa, the TNB (Burkina Faso’s national television company) is currently running as many as three local sitcoms Kadi Jolie by Idrissa Ouédraogo, A nous la Vie! By Dani Kouyaté and Vis-à-Vis by Abdoulaye Dao.
Generally seen as cheap television products, sitcoms are in fact a kind of social testing ground. They offer a reflection of their time in which viewers can identify with the characters. The sitcom concept is based on a family of characters at centre stage that sets the tone for the series. Thus, sitcoms are bound by strict scripting rules. Extreme care is taken in defining the characters at the outset, with their outline being written into the show’s « bible ». Everything from how the hero dresses, to their way of reacting, their psyche, and even their star sign is defined if necessary. Thus everything is codified. At the same time, a family story is written for the main characters establishing family members, their milieu and their upbringing. The characters are provided with an extremely rich past – in case it comes in handy sometime. As the series evolves, the writers continue to develop the characters’ background. The spectators need to be able to identify with the hero at all times. They have to be able to anticipate characters’ reactions so they can look forward to them. That’s what makes this kind of series so successful.
The decor is often the same location and the cuts have to both feed and make use of this. The viewers are all the more likely to identify with the characters if they know everything about the way they live their friendships, their language, their sense of humour. A good sitcom makes sure that its archetypes become a reference for real life.
The sitcom is by definition a popular genre and it has to become part of people’s lives. It has to influence them through their sympathy for the characters, through the fact that there is a certain realism in the representation of cultural codes, stereotypes and images of everyday life. This type of television programme was born in the United States, where sitcoms were based on a type of comedy emanating more from the language than the characters themselves. These inventive, funny and highly effective little series immediately drew a large following of faithful viewers. In Africa, sitcoms are extremely well suited to African television stations and their viewers. Long subjected to foreign programmes notably South American telenovelas and American series – African viewers are keen for images they can better identify with. Thus, when an African series or sitcom is launched on African TV, regardless of its quality, it is a guaranteed hit.
After censuring the French series, Hélène et les garçons on its national channel, Burkina Faso went on to laud at the 1999 Fespaco Panafrican film and television festival, the launch of the locally made sitcom, A nous la Vie! In central Africa, Gabon already had its own sitcom, L’Auberge du Salut, directed by Charles Mensah and Henri Joseph Koumba. However, nothing of the kind had ever been produced in French-speaking West Africa. Following this initial experience, sitcoms have become a veritable social phenomenon in Burkina Faso. In the January 2002 issue of the monthly magazine, Clin d’oeil, which publishes the station’s programmes, there are three sitcoms: A nous la vie, Vis-à-Vis and Kadi jolie, which constitute the mainstays for TNB programming. Vis-à-Vis runs every Wednesday night at 7.30pm and on Sundays at 11.30am. Kadi jolie runs on Friday and Saturday nights at 10.30pm and on Sundays at 1.50pm, while A nou la vie! screens on Saturdays at 7.30pm.
According to Toussaint Tiendrebéogo, producer and author of A nous la Vie!, « the vocation of the series is to lay a bridge between young people from different African countries in the image of the series’ characters, who grow from their cultural differences »(1).
A nous la Vie! is set in an international high school in Ouagadougou where the students come from different social backgrounds all over Africa. The first season follows their daily life during their final exam year. It also addresses the problems that young people often face, such as love affairs and other more specific issues such as work prospects, contraception and Aids. The heroes face all these problems in the series, but always in a humorous manner. First there is Myriam N’Diaye, nicknamed Winnie Mandela. She is intelligent, studious and responsible. She symbolises the dynamism, fighting spirit, courage and hope of African youth. She is very popular and politically committed. She is the leader of the student association and arouses the respect of students and teachers alike. She is a militant member of a women’s lib association for African women that fights against polygamy, female excision and keeping women in the home. Next comes Naomi, otherwise known as Miss Chiffon. Naomi is from Côte d’Ivoire. She is not rich, a fact which she hides by taking on grand airs and dressing fashionably. She is very beautiful, does not really like studying and dreams of climbing the social ladder through a modelling career. Boris, who everyone calls Einstein, is from Mali. He is an orphan and was brought up by nuns. He is full of good sense and has a vengeful thirst to succeed. He is a hard and worker and gifted student, with a passion for science. Saga, who chose his own nickname, Beau gosse [Good Looker] is from Zaire. He is the son of a diplomat and is very much enamoured of his own body and is not in the least bit worried about his future. School is far from being his main preoccupation. Gravitating around this little group are Monsieur and Madame Barry, whose daughter Sophie constitutes the link between the school, the students, and the family home where the students often gather. Monsieur and Madame Barry are forty-something. Monsieur is a journalist and has a flexible attitude to education. Madame is a seamstress and has a somewhat stricter attitude to education even though she is very dynamic and always on the go. The students in A nous la Vie! are therefore lucky to be surrounded by an atypical family capable of offering them guidance whenever the need arises.
The setting for the second season is both African student life and the tribulations of the young people who decide to stop studying after high school and start out on their working life. The tone remains light throughout each episode, portraying a relatively well-off class of African youth. These young people are confronted with exactly the same kinds of problems as other young people all over the world. From this point of view, the sitcom could be criticised for its distance from the living conditions of most African high schoolers who are more preoccupied with the economic and political realities of their countries than the characters appear to be. Despite being considerably toned down, A nous la Vie! is nevertheless worth watching for its portrayal of the life of school students who have confidence in their future. Furthermore, the young female students are given considerable screen time, highlighting their desire to break the fetters of tradition. The series avoids becoming too provocative but does offer a relatively innovative image of young Africans separated from their families but still united by common values represented by Monsieur and Madame Barry.
The tone is quite different in Vis-à-Vis. This series is funnier and the episodes tend to use social satire as a means of heightening awareness and changing mindsets. Vis-à-Vis is produced by TNB and covers everything from the economy, politics, social issues, culture and the way the government is run. It attacks the perversions and absurdities of modern life. The series is situated around a buvette [drink stall cum outdoor bar]where people gather to talk out their problems. The series is inspired by the Latin expression « castigat mores riddendo » (« We can only change customs with laughter »). While A nous la Vie! is aimed at young French-speaking West Africans, Vis-à-Vis targets Burkina Faso’s adult viewers. Its success is partly due to a well-known local comedian, Abdoulaye Kimboudri. Komboudri is also a popular film actor and has acted in a number of African productions. In Burkina Faso he is seen as being the « people’s man ». In Vis-à-Vis he plays Hamed and has a friend called Ignace, played by Hyppolite Wangroua. The series broaches a wide range of subjects but always with a view to criticising society. For example, the episode entitled « Electoral Hubbub » focuses on electors’ lack of understanding and the fact that they are easily manipulated by wizened politicians during the electoral campaigns. « Millionaires on the run » speaks out against the dangers of the tote for gullible betters. In « Before Christmas », the series targets excessive Christmas spending whereby people indebt themselves to buy presents for their families without thinking of the financial complications that this will cause later. A black cat in the buvette denotes the power of spiritual healers and charlatans who use dubious means to swindle honest clients. In the episode entitled « The Ayateau empire », the series heckles the authorities about the power that money (sometimes dirty) has over moral values. Caustic dialogues and humour are used as a form of criticism. Absurd situations are used to hit home quickly.
Kadi jolie offers an ironical point of view of the realities of everyday life in Burkina Faso. In 1999, the director Idrissa Ouédraogo decided to venture into the world of sitcoms. His initial objective was to provide an alternative to the famous French sitcom, Hélène et les garçons. Like the French series, Kadi jolie is built around two groups the girls and the boys. However, that is where similarities between the two series end. Ouédraogo’s heroine, Kadi Jolie, is far from vapid and naive! Thirty-something, single and independent, her motto is « You’d better not mess with us ». Kadi Jolie is played by Aminata Diallo-Glez. Her friend is Nora, played by Léontine Zoundi. Auto-derision is the dominant flavour in this sitcom. The show is set in a natural decor and Ouédraogo keeps away from cinema techniques, and refrains from attributing artificial amplitude to these 10-minute mini-programmes. He uses few long shots, works with reduced surroundings, with a definite preference for close-ups of dumbfounded expressions. In fact, Idrissa Ouédraogo follows the rules of sitcom writing to the letter. Conspiracies are central to the story intrigue abounds and quickly formulated plans are in opposition with each other. But the women unfailingly win every battle. The men are lazy and not very smart, but endearing despite the fact that they are so useless and weak-willed. For their part, the men in power (government officials, imams) are gently teased by the children and the magical dimension is looked after by the characters whose little schemes are based on old superstitions (the role played by spiritual healers, apparitions by demons, metamorphoses, curses).
« Men. You just have to raise your little finger and they’re everywhere. The important thing for me is that my man works », says Kadi Jolie. Armed with determination, she reduces machos to ridicule in the episode entitled « Dom Juan ». She makes fun of the men chasing her in « He who laughs last laughs loudest ». She is the incarnation of the modern African woman who takes her destiny into her own hands and refuses to be ruled by men. The series, which is extremely popular in Burkina Faso, also ran on Tuesdays at 9.45pm on the French pay-TV channel, Comédie.
While the quality is sometimes uneven, these sitcoms are all interesting in some way. Not only do they provide viewers with innovative entertainment (Western series seem pale and boring in comparison) but they also constitute audiovisual vectors through which a wide African audience can easily recognise itself. All three series present a caustic, lively view of Africa. They feature a dynamic, young Africa, an Africa where the women are established in society, where the young are aware of their responsibilities, and where corruption and irresponsibility are exposed.
(1) see the press release on A nous la Vie!, Complètement Africains, Carrément Jeunes co-produced by Pyramides Films, the TNB and DCN.///Article N° : 5587