From métis to nomadic : in defence of African film

By Olivier Barlet*

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Like a recurring leitmotif, a single issue dominates discussions on African film. « African film » is apparently ignoring its public. Filmmakers are taking a fresh approach to the issue.

This accusation is a mask for the perversity and dishonesty of underlying, contradictory charges, such as it is not African enough (lacks authenticity), it is intended to seduce the West (contaminated by the West, since numerous African filmmakers are based in Western countries), it no longer defends anything at all (is less committed to awakening the black consciousness), it is not for the masses (is intended for intellectuals or amateurs of exoticism), it has financial motives (filmmakers in search of Western funding and easier access to media coverage in the North), young people do not like it (boring, not modern enough), it is not urban enough (should document an Africa in crisis and provide spectators with real-life situations that they can relate to), it belongs to others (Western technicians, European money, requirements of aid committees), etc.
Breaking free from essentiality
We should not be too harsh on what are sometimes expressed as crimes d’intention, that is, convictions based on suspicion, charged with violence and hatred, because they provide some genuine and very necessary food for reflection. Behind these accusations lies a very contemporary quest for identity that is not specific to Africa: we live in a world with an uncertain future, in which la pensée unique, or politics of no alternative, reigns triumphant and we are subjected to bulldozer-like globalisation.
The cinema was originally a popular art. Therefore, we are perfectly justified in questioning its impact and relevance, or even legitimacy. However, let us not dwell on the essentialist issue. Furthermore, it is often brandished by single-mindedly purist Europeans who are convinced that they are defending a good cause by making a fuss each time a film strays from what could be deemed to be an authentic African identity, concocting immutable criteria upon which to base their exclusion and that constantly bombard Africans with images of what they should be and should do. Such purists are always the first to accuse the film of not suiting its « natural public », except that they decry a lack of Africanity better suited to their own image of Africa than the aspirations of Africa’s youth, who wear jeans and American-label clothes. Africa’s youth is enthusiastic about globalisation because it brings rest of the world closer. The very real forms of resistance they adopt to deal with cultural brainwashing are a far cry from the identitarian mentality that others would like them to adopt.
Similarly, attempts to define what is or is not « African film », which form the basis for numerous, and even recent, texts on this cinema, necessarily fall back into an essentially colonialist system of classification that has little respect for the gaze and point of view offered by the films themselves. Such definitions do not take into account a new wave of films remarkable for their innovative discourse and aesthetic that have emerged over the past 10 to 15 years (1).
From Neorealism to the Nouvelle Vague, etc., critics have been quick to apply schools of thought where the filmmakers were simply following their own personal approach. However, this is entirely normal. It is the critic’s job to establish parallels to shed light on the issues involved in individual films. Nevertheless, while there is a noticeable shunning of past attitudes, even today’s filmmakers tend to gravitate into groups, although the Guild of African Directors and Producers has imploded and is far from englobing all of it breakaway filmmakers. This new generation do not adhere to common criteria, but this is surely not their destiny anyway, as their aim is to rid their cinema of the earlier rigidity. What maintains it within the African context is the fact that it raises, not for the first time, the issue of Africa’s place in the world rather than attempting to reinforce the power of its origins. As Chadian director, Mahamat Saleh Haroun says, « Contrary to what Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ said (‘In order to know where you are going you have to know where you come from’), we are numerous in saying, ‘The most important thing is to know where you are at, in order to know where you are going’. You can know what your origins are but not know where you are at now. It’s by understanding this that we can work on our aesthetic » (2)
Rejecting métissage
Knowing where we are at implies challenging our place in terms of territory, influences and knowledge sharing. This gave rise to the concept of cinema métis, or culturally blended cinema, which was gradually replaced by the concept of nomadic film. This semantic evolution denotes a fundamental change in positioning. It is significant of a period where Africa is providing some vital questions concerning film history.
It is not surprising that the Guilde rejected, in its bulletin (3), the term métissage (cultural blending) so often applied to films by « European Africans ». The postcolonial generation is more oriented towards global cinema, refusing to be confined to producing films clearly oriented towards African audiences, just as Togolese writer Kossi Efoui states that « The work of African writers cannot be confined to the folklore at its roots ».
Qualifying their films as métis is like reading into them a variety of supposedly autonomous or distinct origins that still follow a clear-cut hierarchy in many parts of the world. Such a reading subjects them to the same tired old view of Africa and Africans. This kind of essentialist vision of Africa feigns ignorance of the fact that the filmmakers’African origins are themselves influenced by contact with other cultures: confining African filmmakers to their African identity traps them within a difference portrayed as their primary characteristic. Africa is marked by the passage of the Other because the Other’s culture was forced upon it (slavery, colonisation, neo-colonialism) but also because it is wants it so. The Other is generally welcomed, even after all the crimes she has committed there. African culture is voluntarily syncretic, its strength being to constantly and skilfully sift out what it wants to take or leave from the Other’s passage. This is not cultural blending but rather an appropriation of culturally beneficial influences.
On the other hand, in staging himself in an overflowing Parisian supermarket that he has entered to buy an enormous stuffed toy at the beginning of La Vie sur terre (Life on Earth), Abderrahmane Sissako is making a skilfully ironic reference to the idiocy of certain cultural influences! His film pulses with the violent, complex relationship between the North and the South, manifest in his calling upon Césaire as he reviles the way that Westerners succeed in making a spectacle of Africa (gloomy negativity, anecdotal images, sensationalism, superficiality, seduction, etc.). The difficulties experienced by the inhabitants of the village of Sokolo when making phone calls, allows him to convey the extent to which the Continent is trying to communicate. As the telephone operator says, « Communication is a matter of luck. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. » More than the effectiveness of communication, the important thing is the desire to communicate. Apparently immutable aspects of village life-here everything moves at its own pace-are animated by the inhabitants’will and the simple desire to communicate provides proof of their interest in communicating with the Other. When Sissako meets a woman a bond is created, but it does not last. Vacillating uncertainty is a characteristic of his work. Rather than putting paid to action, the presence of chance opens a door onto the realm of the possible. This is manifest on the set where the readily scenario evolves as characters are encountered and stumbling blocks addressed. Thus, the woman steps into the film. And so, the film is marked by Sissako’s ability to listen, which he offers as an ethic of the gaze. « The eye must listen », said Godard. This cinema is a far cry from the cinema that celebrates Africa’s cultural greatness. This cinema breathes an awareness of the current challenges facing the continent. The ready-made solutions of the past, with their commanding messages and messianic ideologies, are no longer appropriate. It is time that we undertake a humble but resolute search for the path that will guide us through an uncertain future.
The new role of the spectator
This can only happen if we are willing to examine not just our perception, which mobilises new thematics exploring the intimate and introspection, but also a relation to the subject that attempts to find the right distance, each and everyone will be able to identify with this quest So, the spectator is mobilised, not as an African who recognises himself in a common discourse but as a human being. This kind of cinema speaks to us all because it holds a trump card, that of poetry. It is man himself who becomes the subject and not just his problems. The more we explore the intimacy of relationships between men and women, for example, the more it become important to reveal the contradictions and divergences rather than affirming certain values or a given message. In (Paris xy) by Zeka Laplaine, Max is Mr Everybody: everybody has relationship problems and he is no exception. What is interesting for the spectator is that he gradually becomes aware of his weaknesses. This low-budget film in black and white dares to use uncertainty and improvisation to achieve greater interiority and sincerity. Like Haroun in Bye bye Africa, the director risks placing himself in the role of a dislikeable character. Not just because life is like that but also, and mostly, because at a time when reality shows feature almost no reality other than their name, and after a century of film that reassured the spectator through a comforting complicity with the characters, it is important that we seek the means to understand Africa’s role in the world, that is, an imposed marginality so dominating that the continent has ended up making it her own, lacking the ability to overcome it.
Admittedly, Rossellini had already staged in Stromboli an Ingrid Bergman who was not particularly easy to identify with-her painful resistance forced the spectator in a difficult ambivalence. Antonioni, for example, also had irritating characters that pushed the spectator to the brink of tolerance. This the energy that inhabits Abdallah in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono. He dawdles, hesitates, remains silent and shy in front of girls. He is waiting for an uncertain happiness that he thinks is in flight, while others try to find it there. He is poised, in limbo in an Africa that too chaotic to be rationally qualified. We would like to see him step over that line-the line that enables us to belive in what we would like to be-but it remains invisible, both on-screen and in real life. Is film not supposed to help rekindle the desire to live? As religion declines, cinema becomes a new credo. This cinema no longer constructs reality but invites us to reinvent reality. « Do they really need light? » asks Maata, the electrician who does not know how to get the lamp to work. Khatra, his young apprentice who wants to become an electrician one day too, firmly believes so. Maata’s burnt-out lightbulb, which he throws into the sea, will come back to him. He needs light. He will succeed in obtaining it. But not the light of the television screens, nor will it even be the journey to elsewhere that the train he is prevented from taking would have led him to. Like the child in Yeelen (the light) by Souleymane Cissé who discovers the egg of knowledge and brings it to the men, Khatra uses the lampe as a tool. The film closes on a dune with sensual contours. The future is in this kind of sensibility. His apprenticeship is necessary, like the child who learns to sing. It is the act of poetry itself that incites us to see clearly and realign the masculine and the feminine throughout. It is through doubt that the future of the world can be constructed.
A transformation is taking place, born of mise-en-abime. The protagonists in Jardin de Papa by Zeka Laplain are changed after a night of horror. They have revealed themselves and chosen their positions. The film not only provides a stage for their evolution, it is also aesthetically a work in progress from which we are somehow excluded. There is nothing surprising in the negative reactions to Heremakono receiving the Etalon de Yennenga at Fespaco 2003. It is not easy for the spectator to see themselves cast aside, without any way of identifying with the protagonists. The filmmakers is like an outsider who comes between the spectator and the character, pushing them apart rather than drawing creating intimacy. The film is heavily influenced by the documentary. We become spectators of moving bodies that are no longer ourselves but others, experiencing a modern irreducible alterity that is essential if we are to understand that Africa is not simply a project of what we think, either in Europe or Africa.
A new consciousness
Métissage is no longer the issue here. The spectator’s solitude cannot be resolved through blending but rather in a new kind of solidarity. Ties need to be forged through a common view of his or her place in the world, hence the importance of documentary film and the current search for proximity now discretely recognised. When Moussa Touré screens raped woman in Nous sommes nombreuses, or Brazzaville’s street children in Poussières de ville, he is not trying to engender the spectator’s compassion. Instead of playing on our feelings, he remains suitably detached and the spectator is not compelled to tears. His quest for a new consciousness is interpreted through his aesthetic. When he frames the women, and the children, he is extremely careful about the décor and the light that he chooses. The position and distance of his camera leave nothing to chance. He weighs the questions he is going to pose and whether he is going to offer a right of response-what he is really sharing with them. His proximity is essential and is nourished by sincerity. It is these two factors that enable the subject to no longer be seen as African but rather simply human, providing an alter ego for people all over tpeople all over the world (a similar Other), and not a tear jerking curiosity.
« The times call for an awareness accompanied by a clear line of thought », says Mahamat Saleh Haroun. « It is no longer sufficient that we keep on producing in order to waken people’s consciousness, etc. We have to be humble enough to move the debate onto film as a form of artistic creation in itself rather than as a means to achieve progress for a cause ». But that will actually have to start happening. How much space do the media give to criticism? Where are the critics and film journals? It is no longer enough that we all marvel at the relevance of a Sembène film, however incisive it may be. There is a very real need for debate, without fear of questioning or discussing the struggles at its root-because the stakes have been raised!
Diving into digital
Thanks to digital technology young amateur filmmakers no longer require outside intervention to create the images that they are trying to distribute beyond their close circle of friends. In doing this, these young filmmakers are creating competition for the established system known as « African film », where directors who have received both festival and critical acclaim struggle to make their auteur films.
Films that are produced without outside aid, through the simple synergy of locally available means and good will, are entering the impenetrable realm of the privileged few that have earned their place through hard work and determination.
Just as the death of film was a major issue in the 1980s, when television imposed itself as the main reference for young people, the question of African filmmakers’subjugation to Western funds providers has now become the subject of much debate. Established filmmakers are being accused of conforming to an accepted model for African films without consideration for the fact that this subjugation is also, and most importantly, makes quality (a factor that is both ambiguous and necessary) a primary requisite. By expecting the films to be works of arts, funds providers issue an unspoken imperative that the filmmakers reflect on representation. « Quality » is viewed within the context of the history of critical thought, with an emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the thematic aspect, that is, the film as a producer of meaning-the analysis that the audience is offered through fiction-is not only conveyed by a message associated with a given thematic, but in the way that it is said, so that the aesthetic encompasses photography, sound, editing, etc.
This assertion of the self (or even patricide) is noticeable in the increasing number of digital films being produced without Western funding, which gives rise to the following essential question: what will be the terms of reference for this new cinema, for this new wave of images being produced in massive quantities? The fact is that these films are more likely influenced by the aesthetical code of the predominating Hollywood film industry, and even in special effects in video clips and advertising spots, than auteur films. By becoming producers of images, the world’s jean-clad youth often imitates, through the effects they use (and quite simply in their lack of critical thought on the status of their representations), a vision of the world that profoundly challenges the references and values of their birth culture. Paradoxically, this vision is symbolic of the very thing-globalisation-these young filmmakers are trying to oppose with their acquired radicality.
This highlights the importance of guidance provided by « confirmed » filmmakers within the framework of film schools such as the Média Centre in Dakar or Profis in Ouagadougou. During their studies, the young filmmakers are confronted with the opinions and methods of their elders, who had to deal with the mass of aesthetical questions and to which they brought their own personal response. Masters of their choices, the younger generation are also free to innovate, as they are not bound by the formal rules governing the older generation’s cinema. Instead they are being asked to answer the issues raised through their questioning.
The need for criticism
It is no coincidence that critical thought is structuring itself in relation to such a historical turning point as this. The recent creation of the FACC, French federation of African film critics (November 2004, www.africine.org) is testimony to an urgent need for greater critical involvement. Should film be viewed within the context of thought concerning the moral stakes of film directing? Young video filmmakers in Nigeria, for example, are reproducing the same kinds of atrocities already at work in mass productions worldwide, including unbridled, manipulative violence, disrespect for the subject through exaggerated voyeurism, negation of society’s primary values, etc. This line of thought is directly in line with critical thought developed in the West after the shoah, about which Claude Lanzmann expounds a theory in his film of the same name, drawing on theories by André Bazin and Godard, stating that « a tracking shot is a moral statement ».
However, should we be issuing criteria for determining whether a film is honourable or contemptible with, as Jean-Michel Frodon wrote in a recent article for Cahiers du cinema, « a whistle in his mouth and a list of infringements in his hand »? (4) Frodon is speaking in favour of a type of criticism that does not aim to standardise, and which restores the uniqueness of both the work and the gaze upon the work. Is this not the very thing that these-African-filmmakers are trying to achieve? These filmmakers have moved on from the concept of film as education (night school) in favour of film as art-not art for art’s sake in a sterile way, but an art capable of engendering an unsentimental emotion that stimulates thought. The « show » is no longer their centre of focus as they try to mobilise the spectator as an « active » subject rather than « objective » consumer. In this case, it is up to the critic to analyse the relationship between the film and criticism. Subsequently, the only difference between the spectator and the critic is that the critic cultivates his or her knowledge in order to analyse the aesthetic strategies implemented by the filmmaker. Therefore, it is not a question of there being a filmable or unfilmable way to represent sex and death, but rather that the filmmaker has a positive way of mobilising the spectator’s autonomy, or a negative way of immobilising the spectator’s autonomy by satisfying an impulse.
Breaking out of the margin
It is a historical moment for African film and related critical thought because Africa is struggling against oblivion. Once legendary for its cultural resistance, it is becoming increasingly hard to resist against escalating poverty and associated burdens such as corruption, intolerance and war. It is art not the economy that will help Africa to return break out of the margins and regain its place at the heart of representative art. Haroun explains: « There is a new intention, which is no longer related to ambition, to represent Africa with the idea that its place is in the centre rather than the margin. »
There is just one problem: the artists themselves have made the margin their own. Momar Désiré Kane, in his recent text (5), highlights the extent to which marginality structures African literary and cinematographic discourse. It is no novelty that Africans are expected to refuse progress and the issue of their « Africanity » is constantly being raised.
It is somewhat paradoxical that while African artists are concerned with breaking out of the margin and reclaiming their rightful place in the world, the margin also structures their identity. Métissage refers to a dual line of thought, just as marginality presupposes two opposing situations: a savage, menacing exterior and a reassuring core. Wanting Africa to break out of the marginality of the past without succumbing to the anti-colonial fixations of Negritude, calls for an attack on the imaginary underpinning this vision. Now, more than ever, filmmakers are condemned to fight the ghosts that would have them confined to a territorially defined, traditional, space. Thus, they have made wandering a characteristic of their place in the world. Rather than a culturally blended cinema, it is a nomadic cinema that is seeking to impose itself, without denying its origins but viewing them rather as a necessary passage. Djibril Dop Mambéty’s work is characterised by a prophetic cinema of cruelty through his representation of the way that Africa has been bound impossibly to violence. This self-searching cinema uses the threads of orality to assert its difference and resistance (6). The oraliture so dear to Ahmadou Kourouma can also be read in Mama Keïta’s Le Fleuve, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono, Bye Bye Africa by Mahamat Saleh Haroun and Alain Gomis’L’Afrance, which reads like a manifesto. A modern re-reading of L’Aventure ambiguë by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L’Afrance inverses the « programme ». The meeting between Africa and the West no longer results in folly and death. Hybridization is finally assumed by the son who returns to see his father at the end of his journey to the brink of suicide through the vicious cycle of rejection played out within French society. It is a matter of asserting yourself rather than denying your own identity and feeling guilty for it. In the final scene, when the father and son are framed face to face, as equals, the father says, « So, you’re going to leave us? » to which the son replies, « Yes ». By placing his hero amongst the baobabs at the end of the film, Alain Gomis, a métis himself, agrees with Haroun in saying, « The more we participate in the world, the more we carry Africa within. The further we go from home, the more we become attached to it! »
« So we come up against those who think that geographical proximity is a source of truth », he adds. Seen from this perspective, the audience becomes a ball and chain for the filmmaker. Haroun concludes, « The problem is to succeed in freeing ourselves from the other’s gaze and asserting ourselves as unique artists who are not the sum of everyone down there. The other’s gaze models everybody’s art. It is in structuring our thought that we can survive ». And it is this that will make it possible for African filmmakers to work towards defining a new place in the world together.

* Film critic Olivier Barlet is the Director of Africultures. He also heads the Images plurielles collection for Editions L’Harmattan, Paris. His latest book is entitled African Cinemas: Decolonizing the gaze (L’Harmattan, Zed Books, L’Harmattan-Italia, Horlemann Verlag/Arte).

(1) cf. « Film: the African exception », Africultures No. 45, February 2002, www.africultures.com.
(2) Quotations in this article are taken from a preparatory interview with Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Apt, November 2004, published in French on www.africultures.com.
(3) Bulletin No. 5, September 2001, « Nomadisme, errance, exil, voyages : nous sommes tous des charlots », on www.cinemadafrique.com
(4) « L’horizon éthique », December 2004, pp. 60-62.
(5) Momar Désiré Kane, « Marginalité et errance dans la littérature et le cinéma africains francophones : les carrefours mobiles », Images plurielles, L’Harmattan 2004.
(6) cf. Olivier Barlet, « Les nouvelles écritures francophones des cinéastes afro-européens »¸ in « Ecritures dans les cinémas d’Afrique noire », CiNéMAS vol.11/No. 1, Montreal, Autumn 2000.
All quotations have been translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.///Article N° : 5731

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