From ethnocentrism to postcolonial criticism

By Olivier Barlet

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The question of the necessity of film criticism is more relevant than ever. The issue arises out of criticism’s shortcomings, particularly through the clichés that it transposes onto Southern film. The question of a different voice, that is, an African voice, is addressed in a somewhat simplistic fashion, without the financial conditions (media support, funding, and equipment). Film critics in the South bear the heavy burden of helping film to obtain worldwide recognition and bringing the historical importance of certain works to light. In order to achieve this, a certain number of misunderstandings need to be cleared up.

1) Criticism should not be judgment
One does not dream of becoming a film critic in the same way that one dreams of becoming a doctor, soldier or fire fighter – it just happens.
This path that requires a profound preoccupation with trying to understand the world.
It is only legitimate within the dual context of film culture and global culture.
I would also add another condition: to consider films as a living entity and honour them by not confining them to a certain system of thought, that is, to try and avoid any kind of dogmatism.
Frustrated with the kind of cut and dried statements commonly seen in the media, we feel compelled to pose the same question that filmmakers pose: for whom are we writing? For my own part, I contribute to two magazines, a website and a journal, and tend only to address this question in « technical » terms – that is, by adapting my writing style to the realities of a given medium with regards to readability and depth of analysis. My analysis will not be as deep for 1.5 pages as for three pages. On the other hand, I think that critics are in the same situation as the creators: in addressing the issue of audience, it is too easy to get caught up in the issue of being liked. This is a perfectly normal question but it’s the worst kind of question you could ask yourself when creating a work of art. Likewise – to my mind – works of art that do not challenge their audience are not art. Pandering to the audience will not achieve progress.
If I try to pinpoint the aesthetical and intellectual principles that motivate my reflection and writing, I find myself pleading for a criticism born of necessity. Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: « A work of art is good when it is born of necessity » (1). I would like to see a truly subjective form of criticism emerge, like that envisaged during the surrealist period by the team of the first Revue du Cinéma of which Auriol was the director. Thus, the critic would talk about a given film with a feeling for its very essence, favouring the internal logic rather than the surface logic, without seeking to justify their own position or personal point of view but instead by trying to fathom that which made the film necessary rather than its objective genesis. They would let themself be carried away by spontaneous writing and a certain amount of lyrical improvisation, and be respectful of creative individuality so as to avoid confining the film to a given genre…
The work of the critic does not consist in adopting a « Judaeo-Christian » point of view, which would involve deciding whether the film is good or bad. Admittedly, the public expects the media to help them decide whether to see one film or another, in the same way that we might seek a friend’s opinion. This is often where the problem lies because criticism is not intended to annihilate or deify a film in five lines but rather offer enlightenment and provide an analysis that will accompany the film by elaborating on the subject and analysing the extent to which this treatment tends to magnify the subject or not.
The creator offers their audience a snapshot of their thinking at that moment. What most contributes to the quality of a creative work is often the extent to which intuition and symbolism are involved as they enable it to go beyond a strictly intellectual framework. Sartre has shown that Valéry’s writings were largely lost on the petit bourgeois that he was – the motivations and value of a film do not suffice for a full explanation. If the film is good, it is not limited to what the director « wanted to say ». The roll of the critic is therefore to unearth this supplementary, invisible part, and put it into perspective not only in relation to the overall work and evolution of the artist but also within the context of the overall dialogue pertaining to contemporary cultural expressions. In short, their role is to expound a non-judgmental, enlightening (in the true sense of the term) point of view (this should also be read in the true sense of the term).
In this sense, film criticism feeds on, but should not be confused with, academic research, which employs less partial criteria in its analysis of film. Criticism’s legitimacy is founded on its point of view, hence the reason why it is so blatantly partial.
2) The necessity of criticism
Is this criticism of necessity necessary?
To my mind, more than ever, in both the North and the South. In the North because we have to combat ignorance and the clichés that reduce and distort our understanding of African cinemas. In the South because the almost total absence of film journals means that the only available commentary is that of journalists who generally do not have any film culture and therefore struggle to formulate their own analytical framework. The rare African critics who are different rarely feature in the media, which is not surprising because the media are not concerned with analysing film from a cinephile’s point of view.
And this is where the problem lies. Without necessarily being art-house films (this historical concept could be problematic if we were to apply it to an entire body of film), films by African directors all have a heightened awareness of today’s Africa and a will to contribute to its evolution. They are not interested in art for art’s sake. They may be comical and entertaining, however reflection is generally their main motivation rather than entertainment. Around the world, film constitutes a leisure activity in which we pay to be entertained. However, it should be noted that we don’t necessarily always refuse to make any mental effort while partaking in this activity. The roll of criticism is therefore to make this meeting possible – to motivate the public to see films that offer more than simple entertainment. However, it would defeat the purpose if critics only promoted films since the public is not stupid and is not particularly susceptible to publicity. Putting a film into perspective and shedding light through criticism contributes to reinstating the film back as a work of art capable of inciting reflection and debate, and that encourages the spectator to go and see other films. Developing enthusiasm for film is vital if African films are to build a loyal audience.
In 2003, I took part in several film writing workshops in Ouagadougou and Tunis and I could see how incredibly thirsty for knowledge African cultural journalists and critics were as they have a lot of trouble accessing films, and film books and journals. Is there any need to say it yet again? Africa’s wants are the result of History’s vicissitudes. They are in no way due to a lack of talent but rather a lack of means. The aim of the Africiné project is to encourage interest in film through workshops, a website, and an African network for film writing, which would seem to me to be vitally important. There needs to be an African voice speaking about African films, to create a counterbalance for international thought on film and on art in general, and to provide stimuli for the creators, who are sometimes unaware of the potential this offers for their work as a creator.
3) Breaking away from ethnocentrism
However, this does not mean we should call for Western critics to bring their knowledge and the good word to the South. Workshops would gain by inviting guest critics from both the North and the South. We need to encourage information sharing and exchange rather than didacticism. An endogenous voice needs to evolve and – as highlighted by the type of postcolonial developed in the English-speaking world (cf. Africultures issue 28) – there needs to be peripheral writing in opposition to the universalising central writing. A critic from the same culture as the filmmaker will detect pertinent elements relating to comprehension and analysis that will serve as a guide for other writings. This does not mean that they should let themselves get caught up in authenticity or identity and exclude other readings but rather that they should work within the framework of a relationship as defined by Glissant – with equal respect for all points of view and for each individual contribution. However, the Guilde africaine des réalisateurs et producteurs (African guild of directors and producers) is perfectly right to make a stand against prejudices governing the perception of films that are expected to « first and foremost act as testimony, to speak for others, to serve as a social X-ray or provide a dose of exacerbated exoticism ». Western thought is still very colonial and the imaginary representations born of colonisation are still present, confining Africa within a generalised and archaic vision that prevents it from embracing contemporaneity. In the same way that numerous filmmakers try to inverse the media’s vision of Africa in their films, Western critics need to target established prejudices. « There can be no ethnology possible other than that which studies the anthropophagous behaviour of the white man » (2), wrote Stanislas Adotevi as early as 1972 in Négritudes et négrologues.
Film criticism needs to be done with uniformist categorizing, which reeks of colonialism, and eliminate reductive stereotypes represented by such terms as naive, primitive, contemplative, ingenuous, candid and inexperienced, and thus, ultimately, intellectually limited, as they only engender further rejection. On the contrary, our work needs to reflect the inverted gaze offered by the films because, in critical terms, it is also about the gaze, a gaze that thinks of otherness in terms of solidarity, where this is seen to be a dual movement implying, as Claude Liauzu wrote in Race et civilisation, that « we recognise a part of ourselves in the Other and see a part of the Other in ourselves » (3).

1. Translator’s note: This quote has been translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. It is not an official translation.
2. Translator’s note: This quote has been translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. It is not an official translation.
3. Translator’s note: This quote has been translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article. It is not an official translation.
Olivier Barlet coordinates the editorial team for Africultures,
///Article N° : 5706


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