Cannes 2002: towards a contemporary African cinema

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The leading international Cannes Film Festival helps to gauge the temperature of country or regions’ films. This year black Africa was back at Cannes. What is to be made of this phenomenon?

Cannes 2001 was really rough. Not one film from French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa was selected. Only Fatma (Tunisia) made it into the « Director’s Fortnight », and Hijack Stories (South Africa) was selected by « Un certain regard ». Yet suddenly, despite the dearth of recent productions, this year’s films wormed their way back into all the categories, apart from the sacrosanct Official Selection. Flora Gomes’ musical, Nah Falla (Guinea-Bissau), starring Fatou Ndiaye, was said to have been a serious contender, but was not ready in time. The film has, however, been chosen for the Official Competition in Venice. (1)
The Nineties were exceptionally lean times for African films, which were disavowed by both audiences and festival programmers alike. People grew tired of a cinema they perceived as backward looking. What was perceived as a mythical and immemorial Africa had gone out of fashion after being idolized in the Eighties for its exoticness. People now preferred reality to postcards. (2)
So much the better. That view of Africa, which guaranteed its success and provoked certain deviations that were attacked under the generic term « bush cinema » (which itself often hid a guilty ignorance of the real content of the films in question and deep misunderstandings) kept African productions from being considered contemporary, or, in other words, as having something to say to the world today.
Filmmakers fought back. They tried to shake off the label they had got stuck with, defending their individuality as artists and the singularity of their works. Furthermore, they no longer defined themselves as necessarily addressing an African public, but rather the whole planet. Just like any other artist, they started positioning themselves more on the world cinema stage. In the process, they triggered both thematic and formal experimentation – it is impossible to dissociate the two – reported on in our dossier « Film, the African exception » (Africultures 45).
As a result, festivalgoers discovered a new cinema this year at Cannes.
Awarded the International Critics Prize « for the poetry and tenderness with which he describes day-to-day life and its comic and sentimental imbroglios », the magnificent Heremakono (En attendant le bonheur) by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, presented in the official « Un certain regard » selection, also won first prize at the Arab Film Biennale in Paris. It was a much-deserved consecration. The depth of the film’s subject matter, the justness of its gaze, the acuity of its comments, and its profoundly poetical treatment command utmost respect. A man who is about to emigrate stops off first in Heremakono. He doesn’t speak Hassanya, the local language, but tries to communicate all the same. He isn’t on his own ground, but he takes root where he is, trying to understand his environment. The fragments he grasps serve as metaphors for a global understanding as the film builds up references, suggestions, and intuitions. Nothing is fixed; nothing is certain. What is hard is shedding light, just as it is for the electrician and his young apprentice who try to make the light bulbs function. But we come to understand that this light will not be a self-evident truth that simply needs attaining. It will be the process itself that leads to the truth if we are willing to assume and understand the voids, the shortfalls, and the roving of one’s History. The aim is not to fill the voids, but to take them as the basis of a wider reflection, an existential questioning about the state of a world that is losing its makers and about man’s way forward.
The Chadian Mahamat Saleh Haroun develops the same line of questioning in his second feature film, Abouna (Our Father), selected by the Directors’ Fortnight. In the film, an absent father who just ups and emigrates one fine morning when he is meant to referee his two sons’ football match, leaves the boys to scour the town looking for him. Here too a departure throws the whole notion of identity into question. Here too is an approach through the images, rhythm, anecdotes, lighting, sets, and music, an approach that proves to be a real eulogy to respect. « I feel that a certain moral is involved in filming people and that it is by being respectful that you can manage to reveal the characters’ truth », states Haroun.
It is undoubtedly this ethical and human proposition that helps this cinema achieve a certain recognition. It takes root there where we least expect it. If it is permeated by the state of Africa, it is not in order to deliver poverty-stricken or mythical images, and, above all, not to let people be defined by the other, but rather to offer a poetic and contemporary reflection on the world’s conflicts and stakes. And thus, without abandoning the singularity of the subject, to attain a universality of subject. Dialoguing with other film styles in this way, both in terms of form and content, it offers another vision of alterity. This is no longer an elsewhere that people exoticise or take interest in out of ethnographic curiosity, but an alter ego, a fellow human who contributes the specificities of his or her experience to the profound global questioning of established markers. This way of positioning oneself in the world does not signify turning one’s back on one’s own audience. On the contrary, it serves to enhance everyone’s understanding, to facilitate the taking of Africa’s experience in the world into account, and, by ricochet, to contribute openly to the African edification, not of a fixed identity, but of a human, moral, and even spiritual positioning.
Even a film like Assane Kouyaté’s Kabala (Mali), which was selected by the Critics’ Week, is « a simple story that poses the question of the future », to cite the words of the director. The village rejects Hamalla because he was illegitimate, but he nonetheless returns when he learns that it is threatened by an epidemic. Pretending to be mad to avoid rejection, he sets the records straight concerning identity fixations and an unhealthy isolationism. He is like the director – an intellectual educated in Moscow who goes beyond stigmas and obvious solutions to try to understand how Africa can avoid mimetism and create sustainable development.
Day-to-day reality is also part of the Algerian filmmaker Yamina Bechir Chouikh’s Rachida, which was also selected by « Un certain regard ». Even if it depicts the unspeakable cruelty of terrorist blindness in Algeria, the film is not at all sentimental, nor a tearjerker. And yet this schoolteacher who is nearly killed because she refuses to place a bomb in her school and who cannot flee has every good reason to be desperate. As an Algerian woman’s sensitive testimony to a tragic quotidian reality, Rachida is a kick in the teeth to all forms of abdication, a call to act, an affirmation of life, a celebration of hope.
The Djibril Diop Mambety prize, first created by the association Racines in 2000, was also awarded during a special session of the Cannes’ « Director’s Fortnight ». In Le Rêve de Rico, Selven Naidu’s award-winning film (Mauritius), a young Rasta worries about not getting to his end-of-school exams on time after he dreams about being late. Rastas, who are often outcast, make up 4% of the island’s population. Here too, the poetry serves to remind the world of its realities, going beyond local particularisms to show that they too can be surpassed. In short, a truly contemporary cinema.

1. Cf. Interviews with Flora Gomes and Fatou Ndiaye on www.africultures.com.
2. Cf. Olivier Barlet, « La critique occidentale des image d’Afrique/Western criticism of African images », in Africultures n°1, dossier La critique en questions/Questioning Criticism, Oct. 1997, p. 5-11 ; and « Cinémas d’Afrique noire : le nouveau malentendu », in Cinémathèque n° 14, automne 1998, Cinemathèque française, Paris, p. 107-116.
See www.africultures.com for a personalised day-to-day account of the festival (in French), plus reviews of the films cited and interviews with their directors (in English).///Article N° : 5616

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