After a promising 1997, this year’s almost complete absence of African films highlights how few films were produced and their marginalization.
For the third consecutive year, Marc Nekaïtar and his team offered an alternative to the official African cinemas sites (the useful, but inevitably sterile Ministry of Cooperation and Agence de la Francophonie stalls), along with a vibrant and friendly African-style meeting place (meals, concerts, meetings, screenings). Banished at the last minute from the central position it held last year, the Agora du septième art d’origine africaine found itself located in a youth centre on the other side of the station, unfortunately too far from the hub of the festival to promote African film properly. Filmmakers, producers, actors, festival organizers and journalist gathered in the Agora’s pleasant atmosphere nonetheless, bravely resisting the exclusion also felt in the official film selections.
Was there a real exclusion? Gilles Jacob, the festival director, has certainly been reported to have said: « Let’s end the paternalism! » There is always the same old contempt for films whose merit is precisely that they offer something other than the criteria defined by the international film industry! Or was this year’s almost total absence of African films at Cannes a result of low production rates? To a degree, perhaps, but there has been a certain marginalization. Interest in Africa has diminished completely as its films refuse to document what interests the Western pubic most, namely its own crisis. There may not have been any masterpieces this year, but there were certainly some very powerful films that we would have appreciated seeing, like Pierre Yaméogo’s Tourbillion, Mama Keïta’s 11ème commandement, Moussa Touré’s TGV, and Henri Duparc’s Une couleur café.
The Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako had more success, as his film La Vie sur terre was selected in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section, drawing a lot of interest. Whilst the film’s indisputable qualities (cf. critical review) justified its selection, it may well also be an indication of the festival selection committee and the critics’ new propensity to fall for the meditative images, enunciatory text, subtle humour and documentary approach of Sissako’s film, which, in a nutshell, is a profound, but detached reflection on the state of things, rather than to listen to the lucid, fictional presentations of contemporary Africa and its diasporas proposed by the other films.
One film that does make the link between Europe and Africa was not overlooked. Pièces d’identité, Ngangura Mzeze’s second film after his well-known La Vie est belle, co-directed with Benoît Lamy, was selected by Cannes Junior. Papa Wemba, who was the main character in the first film, also makes a guest appearance in Mzeze’s new film, which is a kind of light-hearted thriller set in the immigrant milieu in Brussels, affirming human dignity in the face of contempt and misunderstanding. An African king played by Gérard Essomba comes to Brussels to find his daughter who has gone astray and broken off all contact. Little by little, both change their attitudes, enabling them to return home together. Mweze again displays the tenderness he already showed for his adoptive milieu in Les derniers Bruxellois, an ethnologic film in reverse featuring the inhabitants of Brussels’ working-class neighbourhoods. He also makes reference to his Bashi origins, which he previously examined in Le roi, la vache et le bananier.
Souko, le cinématographe en carton by Burkinabè filmmaker Issiaka Konaté, was also selected by Cannes Junior. When a group of cinema-mad children make a projector, a magical white horse appears at their first screening, taking the children into a dream world that challenges established norms… This successfully poetic film was warmly acclaimed all round, winning the short film prize ceremonially awarded by the French Ministry of Cooperation.
The prize for the best feature film went to Faraw, Mère des sables by the Malian director Abdoulaye Ascofaré, giving a new lease of life to this moving and at times unforgettably charming film which has still not found a French distributor since it was selected in the Semaine de la critique section last year. This powerfully directed illustration of a Mother Courage’s determination – brilliantly played by Aminata Ousmane – in the face of the harshness of her living conditions, pays tribute to the deep-rooted values of the Songhaï people.
Everyone was of course impatient to hear what the Secretary of State for Cooperation would have to say about the future of French aid to African films. He reassured filmmakers by announcing that 1996’s 30% budgetary cut would be compensated for in 1998 by a 16 million French Franc endowment that would increase the subsidy allocated to the Fond Sud (the inter-ministerial aid for the production of films in the South) from 4 to 4.5 million FF, and the ministry’s direct aid (which gives the films a useful additional source of post-production and promotional funding) from 5 to 6 million FF. This reassurance was only partial, however, as the aid is to be limited to filmmaker’s first two films… Affirming the priority given to audiovisual programmes (which received 4 million FF in aid compared to the previous 0.6 million FF), the Secretary of State confirmed a change in policy apparently dictated by the reality of film distribution in Africa and film’s unavoidable passage via the television.
///Article N° : 5310