Greatness and Ambivalences of the Digital Revolution

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During the Africamania African film festival, from January 16 to March 17, 2008, the Cinémathèque française in Paris recounted the history of African cinemas through more than 80 films. The following article, which is published in the program of the festival, briefly summarizes them.

While their places of distribution are decreasing due to the closing of cinemas, African filmmakers (who are often criticized for being out of touch with their audiences) are faced with the boom of video productions. They are now resorting to digital tools too, but with the aim of gaining the autonomy of a new aesthetics in order to open up an imaginative world for the present.
An opportunity for Cinema?
Whereas in English-speaking Africa, multiplex cinemas screen American movies most of the time, other cinemas are decreasing in French-speaking Africa as well, as in most countries. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But the need for images hasn’t stopped; television is becoming standard, as well as V-CD and DVD players on which pirated movies are often played. The South African private channel M-Net is organizing the future broadcasting of films all across Africa using VOD and cell phone connection. The management is paying cash on the nail to purchase one after the other the distribution rights for 25 years of every work belonging to the African heritage. This catalogue will eventually be very valuable! As a consequence, in Africa as anywhere else, the relationship with Cinema is evolving toward an individualized proximity, which is being swallowed up more and more every day by commercial interests.
Ambiguities of a spontaneous generation
Young people wearing jeans do not aspire to going round in traditional clothes. Addressing an African audience does not require returning to a cultural authenticity. Those who produce cheap videos everywhere have understood: they largely reproduce the codes of a dominant cinema.
Their success is dazzling. Burkinabè journalist Boubakar Diallo clocks up one success after the other with productions costing 40,000 to 50,000 euros for a 90-minute movie. The movies are financed by advertising: mineral water, mobile phone companies, motorbikes etc. « The idea is to bring people back to the movie theatres through genre cinema », he says. « If the audience doesn’t go to see movies, it means we are not offering what they expect. » In three years, he has made around ten movies – a thriller entitled Traque à Ouaga (« Hunt in Ouaga »), a romantic comedy (Sofia), a western (L’Or des Younga – « The Youngas’ Gold »), a political thriller (Code Phoenix) etc.
In Madagascar, the most recent 35-mm production (Quand les étoiles rencontrent la mer – « When the Stars Meet the Sea » by Raymond Rajaonarivelo) dates back to 1996. Since 2000, roughly ten feature-length video films in Malagasy are produced each year. The audience follows and doesn’t care about quality, because this popular cinema shot close to their homes deals with social climbing and contains cheap music, love stories and action.
The emergence since 1992 of successful Nigerian video productions, which constitute a real film industry, is presented all across Africa as an example of endogenous development that no longer needs foreign money to exist. With more than 1,200 feature-length movies produced each year, Lagos is supplanting Bombay! The fact that Nollywood is replacing Bollywood does not change anything: even if it is more and more exported, Nigerian video will not make African cinema greater. As in Bollywood, these heavily coded films keep telling the same stories again and again. The case of Ghana is typical: video productions have developed without using local talents and fundamentally seek profit. According to Kwaw Ansah, who achieved great successes with his films Love Browed in the African Pot (1980) and Heritage Africa (released in 1987), « Hollywood did so much against the Black race, and now that we have the possibility to tell our own stories, we are doing worse than Hollywood! »
Nigerian films rework the fears of a society confronted with violence and the growing importance of occult powers and money, while again playing on social climbing aspirations and stories of jealousy. But we do not have a real idea of the consequences for young people of the films’ unbridled representation of violence, while movies are reproducing a consumerist and ruthlessly ambitious model in which the denial of the self is frequent in favour of an exterior model. A prejudiced comparison between the North and South is indeed represented in Nigeria’s greatest recent successes like Dangerous Twins (by Tade Ogidan, 2004) or Osuofia In London (by Kingsley Ogoro, 2003). Both films sold several hundreds of thousands of VCD copies, sequels were produced and aimed at generating similar profits.
A tough response
Hit at its heart, art-house cinema strikes back, not in opposition to popular movies but because without a cultural policy, its existence and its enlightening role are endangered. Cissé has not shot in ten years, Ouedraogo has given up; making a film with a huge budget has become mission impossible. Yet, some directors are holding out. They seek to achieve quality with a limited budget but they are more dependent than ever on Western aid and co-productions. Their films fight preconceived ideas. Digital tools are thus a means for them to defend an autonomy of view, in documentaries as well as in fiction.
The’lightness’ of these tools brings lightness to the documentaries; Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005) by South-African Khalo Matabane is a pleasant journey among immigrants in Johannesburg. Low costs multiplies expression. The Senegalese filmmaker Samba Félix Ndiaye and Cameroonian Jean-Marie Teno are the historical directors in whose footsteps the young filmmakers follow. They tackle African reality, but never present themselves as victims. Starting with themselves, they invite people to take a frank look at themselves.
The lightness of digital tools also permits a new aesthetics for fiction. Newton Akuda, child of the Biafran war, invites us to piece together a jigsaw that child soldier Ezra cannot decode himself. But whereas Hollywood films lacking in dramatic motives repeatedly tackle African post-colonial history to portray apocalyptic scenes, Ezra (2007) never yields to the fascination of violence. On the contrary, the entire movie aims at showing how much it thwarts the human and how its ostentation hides the true reasons behind the African tragedy; weapons keep arriving where blood diamonds, oil and natural resources are yet to be stolen.
Similarly, the narrative is disjointed in the 2006 Zulu Love Letter, directed by South-African Ramadan Suleman. In his jerky shots, there is no gratuitous aesthetization; the facts are so charged with affects that they generate a collective imagination. Thandeka, who suffered the worst acts of violence, cannot condone the official discourse of reconciliation. This political discourse is useless if, in the meantime, there is no proper mourning in the private sphere.
« How to make a science-fiction film in a country that has no future? How to make a thriller in a country where you can’t investigate? » By reinventing the form with one’s DV. In Les Saignantes (« The Bloodettes », 2006) by Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo, the bizarre is a new form, strangeness a new bible, the album a new aesthetics, the unconscious the essential companion and desire is the diesel engine. But what is really quirky is not the film, it is reality. The two « bloodettes » Majolie and Chouchou (!), who know more about sex and death than anything else, are not only splendid. They are a hell of a couple who are able to control their destiny.
In times of general standardization, authors still have poetic resources that may disturb the collective consciousness, in Africa and here. The West does not need regeneration or cultural mixing. What it needs is to welcome these autonomous propositions of cinema as a new imaginative world that may also guide the tremor of our world.

Published with the kind authorization of the Cinémathèque française
Translation by Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7955

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