Notes on Vues d’Afrique film festival

Montréal, April 19-29, 2007

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The following notes represent my summaries and reactions to a series of short films and feature films presented at the Vues d’Afrique film festival this year. The presentations were divided into the following sections: International long métrage fiction, international court métrage fiction; an homage to Henri Duparc (1941-2006), with showings of seven of his films. An international section of long and short métrage documentary films, and of international documentary films. What are called « films » are celluloid, which are distinguished from the next set of categories, « numérique » films. These include long métrage, court métrage, and then séries and feuilletons télé.

The large number of digital films in these last categories attested to the radical nature of the change in African filmmaking, while the large number of « international » films attest to the continuation of celluloid for European and American films. More importantly, the popular cinema styles that characterize digital filmmaking are clearly the dominant modes, despite the inclusion of numerous « international » films.
The revolution begun in Ghana and Nigeria in the late 1980s has quickly become the dominant, and the festival is chasing after that revolution in its stubborn adherence to past modes. This is perhaps best seen in the featuring of Duparc’s films. On the one hand, it is a fitting homage given his relatively untimely death last year; but on the other, it is clearly nostalgia that marks the choice of his oeuvre, delightful as it was to reexperience or to discover his films. And perhaps it was altogether fitting in the sense that he too, a filmmaker who began in the early 70s as one of the « serious » African filmmakers, came to embrace the crowd-pleasing modes of romantic comedy that bridged the gap between the « nightschool » that Sembène thought he was creating, and the popular market literature that held such different goals.
Z’Aime. Guy Kpakpo, Lean-Claude Hellequin, Jean Luc Lian. Benin.
A short series of 10 3 minute episodes, in French, about the life and times of a moto taximan in Cotonou. The skit we saw has the poor driver caught between two women who hail him, and then, arguing from each side of him, as he is standing over his motorcycle, engage in a fight in which he receives most of the blows intended for the other woman. This is broad slapstick, with the man in the middle the pitiful target. At the end of the fight, he is hit with a raw chicken, which sticks to this neck. We could almost hear the waa-waa-waa from the music of the silent era slapsticks. The series of encounters leads him to accept as a passenger a woman who is too fat to get on. When she finally succeeds, the weight of her body squashes the bike; and eventually, as her enormous behind is featured, we hear a loud fart.
After each incident, the driver is presented before a whiteman whose job is to advise him and fix the problem. The farce leads the whiteman into the same situation. Thus when the driver takes a passenger-business type who has innumerable cellphones which keep ringing, the mediator confronts the same situation with an equal degree of failure in resolving it. The power of the white man, or the paternal signifier more generally, is mocked shamelessly, and the women succeed in reversing the roles of power, at least so as to create a humorous situation.
Quand les elephants se battent: Abdoulaye Dao. Burkina Faso. French.
A feuilleton of 52 tv episodes of 26 minutes each. The episode we saw begins with a well-to-do older man dressing for work, and leaving his family after breakfast. He is one of the « elephants, » a man of power in society, with powerful connections in the government. The second elephant is the commissioner who has captured an illegal shipment of arms and confiscated it. It then turns up missing, and he discovers that the first man, his cousin, has sold it off after obtaining it from the police warehouse. The war between the elephants is then set.
We see the importance of gender, and of women who assume increasing roles of power as the men; the latter are marred by weakness, corruption, or disease, and are represented so as to evoke the anxiety over a patriarchy that apparently feels itself to be threatened. One sign of the rise in woman-power is in their heft. It isn’t simply that cultures of W. Africa privilege large women, their weight being a sign of their access to money. It is also, in these films, the physical sign of their heft in all senses: their increasing weight in relations, society, and especially assertiveness. They weigh in, and prevail.
The wife of the wealthy businessman is seen repeatedly sucking her teeth in disapproval and making comments to put down servants. There are two male servants in the kitchen who laugh behind her back, but who demonstrate their lightness in their levity. In contrast, the female maid, when criticized, shows no reaction and continues on mopping despite the complaints of her mistress. The « real » heavies, the elephants of the proverb (when elephants fight, the grass between them gets crushed) and of the series title, are soon enmeshed in a battle royale. We see the police commissioner led away in the middle of the night, and made to disappear. His wife, another large woman, can’t find him at the Surete Nationale, where she goes at night in search of him. She is threatened by the guards, and, without ever displaying fear or hesitation, leaves to pursue her own inquest. The notion of a woman driving at night to the national police to demand information about her arrested husband, instead of quaking with fear with her children at home, demonstrates the sea-change in gender roles. Nonetheless, the two wives are shown as subordinate to their husbands, despite their power. On the other hand, they both actually weigh twice what their husbands weigh, and offer a new concept of « heavies » who can challenged the established, patriarchal order.
For instance, the commissaire’s wife stands up to the guards at night, until she is threatened. And, similarly, in the series Petit Sergent (described next), it is another very large woman who stands up to the soldiers, despite their guns, and who chases one soldier with a heavy branch as his gun misfires. He throws his gun away and we see them both running off.
The « mères porteuses » have come out to the scene to dispute with the men for their power and authority; the women’s authority is rendered comic so as to negotiate the anxiety over their new roles. In Petit Sergent it is in the villages. In Z’Aime and Quand les éléphants, it is in Ouagadougou.
Finally, in another thread of narrative in Quand les éléphants, one of the houseboy, who is appears in one scene at home, is represented with his girlfriend (or wife, it isn’t clear), another fat woman. She is seen, in early morning, sleeping outdoors as he rises for the day, comes out to the courtyard, sits to clean up the dishes while singing of his love for her. She wakes when a little boy comes and whispers something to her. She jumps up and runs off with him, telling her boyfriend/husband to accompany her. He trails along as she goes to find her son who has been beaten by two boys. She wants the houseboy to go and settle the issue by fighting for Ahmed, her son, all the while badgering the houseboy-boyfriend. In fact, when she had risen, she wrapped a cloth belt on in preparation for the fight. She is twice his size, and talks of getting that « sorcière » once and for all. The houseboy says to her maybe they should find out if Ahmed provoked the fight, and she mocks him. He goes off reluctantly, only to be confronted by the mother of the two boys who beat Ahmed. She yells at him and intimidates him. He then enters their courtyard to « talk » to the two boys’ father, who is seen to be big, muscular, and practicing karate. He apologizes and leaves.
The houseboy’s day and his life are one long humiliation. For him, the Time of the Father is over. In class terms, both the employers, the « big men and their large wives, » are the elephants. But his own wife is also an elephant, and the two parents of his child’s opponents are elephants. He is the grass, the « petit, » that gets crushed. In almost no scene do we see men commanding or abusing women, except when the police threaten the commissaire’s wife and tell her to « get the fuck out. » We laugh at the houseboy’s expense and he lacks the means to defend himself except by mockery and by parodying his mistress. He is like the woman who, in the past, had to resort to such defenses. He has become a woman who washes and fears the powerful Other, especially in terms of other women. « She » is contending for the power of the Law of the Father, and even the abuse by the police is countered when the episode ends with the commissaire’s wife (played by the same woman who played Chien Méchant’s first wife in Quartier Mozart) looking directly into the camera and asking, what this country is coming to when the police act as they do instead of protecting ordinary citizens. She has the voice, power, and authority to challenge an order which still exists on the level of the symbolic, i.e. where the audience still lives as it leaves the theatre, but not on the order of the imaginary which she controls (as we see when she goes out at night in search of her husband, telling her maid to lie down with the children, not to open to anyone still she returns). His arrest, in pajamas, handcuffed, unable to control the police who take him in, despite being an elephant commissaire, marks both his fall and removal from the scene and her ascension to authority in the house, and subsequently on the screen. Her time has come.
We are in full melodrama-with family drama, ribald comedy, and fat mamas taking control. If it is the time of the hyenas for Mambéty, now, after the hyenas, it is the elephants, female mamas, who are in control of the scene. The elements of this are prepared for at the scenes in Draman Drameh’s shop in Colobane and at the fair where we see demanding women as consumers. Their weight is the measure of their success as measured by consumption, whereas skinny, slinky, cowardly hyenas convey the measure of those who merely follow on the lion’s kill. As Lingere Ramatou says, they will never be invited to the lion’s banquet. But of course, it is elephants whom we see at the end-the time of the lions having passed.
Petit sergent: Adama Roamba, Burkinna, 12×20 min series
A series of 12 tv episodes from Burkina focusing on a boy whose parents are killed by brutal soldiers. The soldiers are from the Ivoirian army, and in threatening and killing villagers, whom they suspect of supporting rebels, they establish their evil nature. The one good soldier who refuses to acquiesce is taken out and shot; the others are stupid, cruel and cowardly. The good rebels come on the village, which had in fact known nothing of them, but save them from the army. They are ostensibly of the same ethnicity, although that is a claim from the commander of the national army group, whose word is doubtful. The dialogue is all in French. The boy whose parents were killed will, we learn, sign up with the rebels who already have child soldiers. The child soldier who is a real child is too small and innocent looking to be brutalized, but he does shoot a soldier and take his gun, and he is used, with another child, as a scout when the situation seems dangerous. The leader of the rebels is articulate and expresses moral sentiments about the inhuman brutality of the army he is opposing.
This is a sentimental series; not high culture and consciousness raising, but entertainment based on the filmmaker’s sense of actuality. Part of this was shot in Côte d’Ivoire, presumably under difficult or semi-dangerous circumstances, according to the colonel, leader of the rebels, who is the filmmaker’s brother, and who spoke at the festival. They were aiming to convey the realities of today, not just in Côte d’Ivoire but in their « neighboring » country like Rwanda (which, incidentally, had not been, and is not known for child soldiers, ironically, in contrast to all the other major conflicts in w and Central Africa today.
The two episodes I saw were marked by the brutalization of the villagers by the army, and then by the fighting. It was not marked by a high degree of quality in acting or narrative: there was a minimal narrative, with most of it action that spoke for itself. But what was striking was a serious subject, or a sense of a serious subject, undertaken in a mode of low tragedy usually reserved for melodrama or daytimes series, not for cinema engagé. In fact, there is no visible ideological claim, other than the rebel colonel’s disgust at the inhumanity of the army. But the dominant action, the fighting and brutalizing of the population, which took up most of the deigesis, expressed something of the current disillusionment with any political party or political claim, any ideologically grounded understanding of the situation. The villagers would mostly « say, » « leave us alone. » The fighting is not over justice or rights; it is force, as Ken Saro-Wiwa would have put it: force that makes anything happen, force that rules and that is its own raison d’être.
Having the gun is to rule. But when the army soldiers were defeated and running away, often their guns misfired, and they threw them away. The rebels picked them up. So force is not just having a gun, but having the power to speak through the gun.
It is unclear where the series is going. The actor who spoke to us in question and answer afterward said that the episodes had been critiqued for being too bland and had been rewritten. He said they wanted critiques, like my statement that if the rebels were the good guys, still they were the ones with the child soldiers, which was, in fact, a crime. He welcomed all criticisms, saying they were there to be critiqued-perhaps taking us closer to the original goals of Third Cinema, which were to open discussions on issues central to the lives of the ordinary people. Here the killings seemed too gratuitous to allow for much discussion: and what can one actually say when it is force that seems to provide the authority to rule.
Urbain Kam. Desiré Sawadogo et Mamoudou Belemvire, dir. Burkina.
Documentary on man who sets out to save burkinabe culture and creates musée de la musique. Terrible film.
Two Portuguese language films: one not great, but with interest. Another ultimately a disaster:
Le Jardin d’un autre homme. Sol de carvalho, Mozambique. 2006
The title: when you « arrose » a daughter, she goes off to give her fruits to « the garden of another man. » So why bother? A daughter, Sofia, who dreams of becoming a doctor, is a bright student, and she has caught the eye of her teacher….unfortunately. Her boyfriend, a soccer player, of admittedly less than stellar talents, encourages her to drop out of school. Eventually the value of his advice can be measured by his triviality in affairs of the heart: Sofia catches him with another girl. In her garden, as it were, and she dumps him. Sofia’s father is absent, mining in South Africa. Sofia’s family subsists on next to nothing; for instance, when she loses her school shirt, she tries to steal another, and is only rescued when her teacher happens to show up as the shopowner catches her. Sofia, faces obstacles at every point; and like all the high school girls of her age, faces teachers who put the make on her as well as those of any other man, all of whom are potential AIDS carriers. The major plot line turns on Sofia’s indiscretion in helping a fellow student cheat, in being caught by her teacher, and then subject to his blackmail for sex.
So, her father is dying in s africa from aids; her boyfriend is sleeping around indiscriminately;
her teacher, who is married and has a kid (and who can’t get a job in a private school because he has no connections, and is denied any chance despite his qualifications), also sleeps indiscriminately with his students, and those who can’t pay him off yield to his demands. There isn’t much good one can say about the men: they are systematically deficient; the day of the patriarchy here is over, morally if not in practice. The women are not marked by the above failings of the men; they are victims who resist and fight back. The hero is a close friend of Sofia, a young woman doctor, who has all the power to stand up to the men, to help Sofia with her dream of becoming a doctor. The garden Sofia will water some day is perhaps not to be that of another man, but of the women whose turn it would seem to be.
The film throws in too many twists, and for a totally broke Sofia inexplicably inserts a quick jaunt down to S. Africa where she can miraculously find her father, who is now bedridden and cared for by his S. African woman and their child…. The only strong issue the film successfully highlights is the abuse of the male teachers-their systematic and even cruel exploitation of the girls. The girls have their own boyfriends, but no one has money to resist the teachers’ demands, so that the corruption they represent conveys the sense of the failure of the entire patriarchate.
This was the first film shot in Mozambique since the disastrous fall of their film industry 25 long years ago. Imperfect though it may be, it is quite encouraging to see the return of feature filmmaking. And, inevitably, in digital.
Cap Verd, Mon Amour. Ana L. Ramos. 2007 Video.
The second lusophone film, Cap Verd Mon Amour, was a film that turned into a catastrophe. Again the now all too familiar sequence of beautiful young and even middle aged women, suffering, all suffering, at the hands of violent, brutal, lascivious, immoral men. Well, there is one exception this time, the good lawyer who defends young girls from rapacious men who abuse and impregnate them. Girls of 13 or younger.
One of those girls, Indira, is the daughter of a women who had several children by different men, none of whom appreciated her, or stayed with her. None of Indira’s friends have fathers, or know their fathers. In the case of Indira, her father becomes concerned as he sees he growing up, and tries to convince Laura, Indira’s mother, to accept his aid. She still resents his having abandoned them for all the years Indira was growing up and refuses him. He is actually the second decent man in the film, and a doctor to boot, who winds up with another woman in seemingly happy circumstances. The soap opera sequences would seem to require this small bit of happiness, along with Laura winding up happily tied to the lawyer, in order to set off the vast amount of time dedicated to women being beaten, abandoned, raped, and suffering greatly.
One such woman is a beautiful lover of an artist. She cheats on him incessantly before he commits suicide; we learn this behavior was due to her father having raped her as a child. She has dreams of killing him, but doesn’t have to since her mother, learning the truth on his deathbed in the hospital, smothers him herself. The beautiful Flavia becomes a nun.
The film becomes a parody of itself it is so melodramatic, so violent in its sequences of abuse and nightmares, in its program of representations of misogyny. It is a film of hatred, violence, and incoherence. This, we must gather, is the consequence of patriarchy’s abusive tendencies. Unintentionally the title, « Cap Verd mon amour, » parodies amour gone awry.
The film was artistic, too, in the old fashioned sense of aestheticized. The scenes of Cape Verde’s rocky beaches approach the qualities of modernist photography, and reveal not splendor but striking force, especially when the color verges on black and white. Similarly, the attachment to the beauty of the women, in this film and to a lesser extend in Le Jardin d’un autre homme, is reminiscent of the films of the 70s that evoked the power and beauty of mature women, Three Women, as D.H. Lawrence, and especially the filmmakers inspired by his heavy masculinist vision, are here given, fully, and often sensually, without hesitation. Most of the films at the festival are vaguely reticent about representing sexual moments: this would seem to be changing with the current generation of filmmakers for who the beauty of African lovemaking is represented by more than waves crashing on the beach or the moon shining down….
Le President a-t-il le sida? Arnold Antonin, Haiti
Dao is the quiet, superstar singer. All the youth love him, but from the beginning we see he is ill. Not too long before we know he has Sida. And at the beginning his manager rousts three girls from his bed. From the beginning we know we are in for lessons. After the projection was over, Antonin, the director, admits he is really a documentary filmmaker-and it shows, with weaknesses in editing, in awkward shots, in gauche attempts to give the shot an unusual angle or to manipulate the camera. The documentary is, on the first level, about the interaction between the star and his fans; but as the plot unfolds, we get the message: Sida will strike even famous stars; in fact, especially promiscuous, rich and famous people, despite Dao’s pleasant demeanor and educated speech, despite his winning the beautiful, but aloof, Nina, with his kind personality. Eventually even he has a bestial sexual side (which comes out when they first go to bed and he gets angry over her insistence that they use a condom).
The message has to carry all the weight of what needs to be cured in Haiti before the star and true love can prevail. Thus Nina and her dead broke mother need to find the right man to save them from destitution; Voodoo and Christianity have to be exposed as failures in their attempts to cure Dao; a modern doctor will have to intervene and save Dao so that Dao and Nina can eventually become the couple they were always meant to be. Even more: Dao recognizes that he needed to have had a father, and that without one he couldn’t become anything but an immoral materialist.
In short, the documentarist made dozens of documentaries here, while using Dao to lace the story with music and dance. At the same time, Nina has to fend off the corrupt, rich, evil suitor, a man who is surrounded by sycophants and his gun-bearing thugs. Antonin cited praise for the film as one succeeding in combining a useful social message with popular entertainment. But in a film à thèse like this, is there any message that goes beyond popular beliefs and ordinary common sense? It is impossible to think this film will raise anyone’s « consciousness. » If anything, it condescends to its public who ostensibly are thought to be incapable of thinking for themselves. What the film really demonstrates is how melodrama now reigns, even over the mode of « documentary » in disguise. To such an extent has cinéma engagé fallen, to such an extend has Third Cinema as dialogic fallen, that now its realism and dialectics seems the greatest fantasy, while the real of fantasy has now come into its own.
Henri Duparc
This festival honors Henri Duparc. Most of us really came to know Duparc through Bal Poussière, and though it was a great success, in a sense, it was also a great disappointment for most people working in and on African film in that it represented considerable talent pandering to popular tastes. Romance stories, no social significance, music and dance. And the « real » Africa far from the suffering images to which we were accustomed. Even wealthy farmers were presented; and polygamy couldn’t stop the fun and the beautiful women from finding what they wanted. A film of desires; and with all the Duparc films since, desires and fantasy, married to beautiful women and obstacles meant to be overcome. We are in the stage Zizek identifies with an order, social and symbolic, in which autonomous subjects are capable of action without being annihilated by the repressive apparatuses of the state or of the corresponding patriarchy. In short, as far from Sembène as possible; and by inference as far from the model of « African cinema » he helped foster, cinema engagé.
Thus it is with considerable pleasure that we can return to this Duparc fellow after many years. He has been producing films on this model for twenty years, perfecting it. And now that I have had a chance to see 4 of his films, I can judge better their qualities:
Abusuan, 1972
Caramel, 2004
Une Couleur Café, 1997
Rue Princesse, 1993.
Madame Duparc has been here at the festival, representing her husband (and her) work as they collaborated closely, it would seem. This is an African filmmaking practice in its entirety, in the sense that the couple lived and filmed in Côte d’Ivoire, and more to the point, says Madame Duparc, in response to my question about his deviation from the socially conscious filmmaking practices of the school of committed filmmaking, Duparc always focused on and filmed society. He too was concerned with his society, but he saw it less in relation to the state, to corruption, to problems needing social solutions.
That wasn’t always the case. His first film, Abusuan , is a socially charged film dealing with the influx of rural peasants to the city, the failures of society to accommodate them, the poverty of the village. As the hero is an architect who is frenchified, rich, and married to a beautiful urbane woman, one of the solutions would seem to be the elimination of « taudis » from the country in ten years, as the president is reported to have been saying. The city is in its boom, as mme Duparc remarked about those years of growth in Côte d’Ivoire, and the rural exodus (remember way back when, when we used to see this as the major problem on the continent) is getting underway. The problem is resolved when ALL the hero’s nephews and nieces realize how they are people of the earth, that that is where they really belong, and decide to return home. This solves the architect’s major problem, how to continue enjoying his life as a rich bourgeois African. But his spoiled wife has now seen the light, and she reproaches him for not having done enough for his family. Abusuan means family.
This film won a prize at FESPACO in 1973, right there at the very beginning of the festival. Mme Duparc reminds us that her husband was part of a coterie of African filmmakers who created Fespaco. And if we can remember their goals at the time, they included the belief in creating an African cinema, one that would work for the betterment of society, that would speak with an African voice (not yet in African languages, however…. A point Duparc never seems to accept). The needs to create African voices and eyes, to find cinema halls for African films, to train African filmmakers and technicians. All that was at its beginnings, and she remembers so clearly the expense of shipping all those cans of film to Paris to be processed. An enormous expense in those days, that usually meant one take per scene. So there are the inevitable uneven shots, the maladroit moments in editing.
Despite this, Abusuan hangs together, without the excessive deviations from plot lines that now mark the melodramatic turn. We don’t have the heavy emphasis then in close up shots and characters moving in close to a fixed camera so as to establish the dramatic moment. There is a naivete about the instant corruption of the children by their city cousins; the contrast is of that moment when « villageois » was the worst thing to be in the cool 70s (just like the cool 50s). so there are inevitable dance scenes at boîtes de nuit where the good life is enjoyed by the successful class; and where a phone call to a commissariat resolves the problem, rather than worsening it.
How different from the splendid Rue Princess where Josie (Jeanne Bana) sweeps the film away with her exuberance and winning smile. The film does, however, open up the space for what I believe is the essential mark of Duparc’s films: the spot for what Zizek would call the void, the unassimilable moment in the Real that cannot be integrated into an ordered world, that is, a symbolic order; that cannot be negotiated away; and most of all, that opens up the need for fantasy to exploit the role of desire in our lives. Desire comes with its prices, its suppressions, its disasters that must be displaced, if not sublimated. Desires rule every pulse of Duparc’s films, at least since Bal Poussière. They were always there, but had to obey the higher exigence of the Message. With the disappearance of that message, of the struggles that began with national liberation and that ended with the endless regime of Papa Houphouet, it was the reduced scale of the personal and interpersonal that mattered, not the social universe in which the political and economic pressures, powers, corruptions, and repressions operated.
So the repression had to come from within the family. The father lurking behind the earlier scripts, now becomes the older husband whose powers to control desire are attenuated by the insistence of the new woman. She is a prostitute in Rue Princesse, one of a number of the irrepressible girls who, in true class stereotyped fashion, are crude, noisy, ebullient, unstoppable. The wealthy try to exclude them, but they seduce all the men, including jean, the hero, son of a rich lumber merchant, who want to be a musician. Straight out of the French 19th century romance, Jean falls for Josie, and she cannot tell him no. Even though, as we find out, there was the earlier road to her bed, and that of all the other « girls, » by practically all the older men in town, including, especially, Jean’s father.
So it is finally there. Incest, in one form or another, returns. One of the women seeking to seduce jean is his mother’s friend; old enough to be his mother; sexy enough to refuse to accept the role of the older woman. The dark spot in desire runs though the entire older generation, and we see the way that desire will not be quenched and realize that the next generation will eventually have its turn at the unacceptable moment as well.
Une Couleur café. A mere ten years ago. How easy it was then for Africans to come to France. And « Docteur’s » little « combine » to take Kaba, his young, new second wife from the village, with him. He appears the fool as he shows up in the village with an umbrella hat to protect himself from the sun, but he is smiling, congenial, harmless. So, obviously lying about his house in France and his money, we are not surprised to see him leading Kaba into his basement, one bedroom flat, one he shares with Awa, his first wife. Immediately the two women get along famously. They are the couple who will make things work, while Docteur immediately goes off philandering with his white girlfriend. We know it will eventually all blow up since he hides everything from everyone outside the house or community of Africans.
Eventually Kaba falls in love with the Algerian butcher, « Peter. » Docteur tells his white girlfriend that Kaba is his niece, and even has her over for dinner. There are lots of winks and nods, silliness, and jokes, but eventually Kaba falls pregnant from Peter: she loves him and takes revenge on Docteur for his white girlfriend. When Kaba gets morning sickness at school, everything comes out as Docteur foolishly expresses his joy to the school officials, thus revealing his relationship with Kaba (he is apparently sterile, as his failure to have children with either of his wives demonstrates, and as Kaba’s pregnancy with Peter confirms). The school officials, however, who had been told Kaba was his daughter, are convinced he has committed incest, and has him dragged off by the police. When he is questioned by the juge d’instruction, he admits having paid to have Kaba’s papers forged in Africa, and attempts to bribe the judge in the same manner. This gets his deported. We see him, and his marabout friend, handcuffed and led out to the airport.
As with all Duparc, all is lightness, but beneath the comedy there is the sense of two cultures not speaking to each other. The polygamy, en famille, is sorted out by the women, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But his affair with the white mistress mixes European infidelity with African polygamy, and is not resolvable, whence Kaba’s abandonment of Docteur for Peter and true love.
All the Africans are living on the margins of society since they can be employed/exploited as illegals. The police, too, are there as the threat of a society whose norms will prevail over the visitors, but they are not brutal or racist, and when they are vaguely racist, it is not particularly offensive. The sense of Europe as a fortress is not there; the sense of desperate attempts to break the barriers isn’t there. Docteur is too likeable, pitiful, lightweight, to be an object of hate, or even to be a victim. He is the figure for African poverty stuck at a level that always brings problems, but never catastrophes. And in the end, we know the two women will stay and prevail.
Yet despite this assurance, there is one dark side to the comedy and play of dissembling: that is the relationship between the elder man, Docteur, and his younger wife, Kaba, which is presented to the French as father-daughter. Her pregnancy discloses another margin, that of incest, which is technically and legally not the case, but which is metaphorically very much in the background, so that we are reassured when she finds her Peter, who is younger and virile, who is an object of love, and is the necessary mate for a film that wants us to see the appropriate couple succeed in the end.
This leads to the most powerful, for me, of Duparc’s films, one I felt lucky to have been able to see: Caramel. She is light skinned, like the beauty that arises from the waters. We don’t know where she came from, but one day she was there, in the movie theatre, waiting to see Mangala, fille des indes, a film her father had loved seeing. This wonderful film integrates moments from all of Duparc’s earlier films, including posters and clips, as the hero, Freddie, manages and owns a movie theatre. One ostensibly in its last days. It is there he meets Caramel, named for the sweet candy flavor her face conveyed to her father. They fall in love; Freddie’s sister does everything she can to subvert their love, but she is now the obstacle that makes the love all the sweeter. She is fat, comic, not attractive; Caramel is svelte and beautiful, sweet in her smile and look; irresistible.
Ah, that is how it is with Mammy Watta. And when the inevitable comes, and she closes Freddie’s eyes with her hands, she the Mammy Watta who has already long since gone on to the only place where true love can exist, we see the dream of the urban myth come alive before our eyes. Romance was always there for Duparc, but he didn’t get the formula quite right till he found his Mammy Watta. She brings to the sentiment an African notion of transgression and transcendence, two of the key features for fantasy to reach its culmination. Fantasy and desire: everything the « fathers » of African cinema wanted to eliminate. But the desire would not stay repressed. Mammy Watta always returns because, after all, isn’t she la belle dame sans merci, the mammy whose love is death, and whose watta is desire. Mammy Watta at the movies; it now seems only Duparc could have carried it off, and he does so magnificently, if that is the right word for an obsession that is not only for Hollywood, or for Bollywood, to have brought.
One would say the time of the fathers is over. Make way for Nollywood.
And here it comes with the two last films I saw. Actually, one is older school celluloid with the irrepressible King Ampaw. The second is a mainframe offering by one of the now established Nollywood figures, T. Kelani.
Ampaw, No Time to Die. Ghana.
Kelani: The Narrow Path. Nigeria
In No Time to Die, we are presented with the classic love story, one whose unfolding skims along the edges of the fantastic, in the manner of Terry Gilliam, or Brazil, or the Cuban film with the corpse. The fabulous figure of a Asante, boyfriend of Edi, appears to us drawing a hearse marked with slogans about death. It looks like one of those crazy caravans, like that in Brazil, and Asante is dressed throughout in tophat and tails. His apprenti or assistant is a fast talking youth who has an equally bizarre appearance with goggles and flight cap. Together they are already skirting the edges of the unreal as they bounce down the dirts roads outside Accra. Asante picks up the corpse of Esi’s mother, and encounters the love of his life. The rest of the film brings us the expected sequence of obstacles that match the flowering of their love.
Thus, Esi’s wisecracking father can’t stand the notion of a hearse driver for a son-in-law, and threatens to throw him out; Esi’s boss tries to keep Asante as far away as possible; and minor mishaps dog the path of true love.
What makes this film interesting is the role of death. There are many objects that can function to bring lovers together, but normally it is death that drives them apart, unless they are destined for an eternal romance, as in Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. This, however, is a middle-aged couple; they don’t have to wait till the end for some transcendental metaphorization of lovemaking: the back of the hearse will do, if need be. But when Asante brings the schnapps gift-offering to Esi’s father, he drinks it, and in a fit of rage over hearing that Asante intends to marry his daughter, keels over dead.
The previous encounter with Asante had resulted in Esi’s father having stored a coffin in his room, temporarily, and now it was to be used for his own body. The next day, Esi, Asante, and his helper set out to Accra, down a bumpy road, but the apprenti continues to hear a noise coming from the coffin. When he opens it, and they see the corpse rising up, the three jump from the moving vehicle and run for their lives. Esi’s father has to hightail it after them, and when he finally catches them, convinces them he is not a ghost. He accepts the nuptials of the couple, now having returned from the dead, and the film ends happily ever after.
Just as Henri Duparc’s romance comedies skirted around issues of incest, of corruption, and finally, with Caramel, death as well, so does this comedy skirt along the edge of a postcolony that is off track, to the point of losing its hold on the solidity of the symbolic order. The end of the celluloid era, here with one of its fathers, deploys a wonderful combination of skillful shooting, emplotment, and language. Its lightness is very much in tune with the very digital revolution against which King Ampaw inveighs, as he insisted to the audience that filmmaking is not just a story, but « technique, » by which he means all the old-fashioned skills of cinematography that he apparently believes digital filmmaking lacks.
Yet the competition with digital couldn’t have been, ironically, more intense than that between No Time to Die and The Narrow Path, which were scheduled, twice, so as to overlap with each other-these, arguably, the most important anglophone films at the festival!
The Narrow Path, directed by Tunde Kelani, is the product of Mainframe film of Lagos, the most important digital studio now functioning in Nigeria. The film turns on the beautiful Awero who is being courted by two suitors, Odejinmi and Lapade. As the rivalry develops, Lapade’s unattractive personality is increasingly revealed, and he is defeated by a combination of chance events and his own negative character traits. Odejinmi, thinking his rival is gone, proceeds to plan his wedding with Awero. But an inauspicious meeting between her and one of her male friends in the village results in his raping her, destroying her chances of an acceptable marriage as her virginity is lost.
The high melodramatic tone of the events and the characters’ reactions all underline the qualities we now expect of the Nigerian video drama: extreme emotions, great shifts in fortune, appeals for sentimental relations, and an absence of any larger contextual framing, such as political or historical films would supply. This is the close-up of the personal drama elevated to the highest pitch, and it captivates an audience in ways that the conventional romantic comedy, like Akpaw’s, can never do. There is a kind of space that this digital filmwork imposes, in its extravagances of plotting and emotion, that conform to the smaller screens that televisions provide, and the smaller social spaces, the intimate spaces of the home. The less concentrated attention of the lit room and its viewers, where conversation and inattention might occur without imposing an unwelcome intrusion on others, all are relieved by a drama where it is possible to miss the beginning or ending without being surprised at learning about what was missed. Awero will find the strength to carry on, despite her pregnancy; she will prevail over the backward thinking of her community and embrace the modern values of the female government worker who comes to bring enlightenment and development to her less developed neighbors. This does Kelani negotiate a plot that will be bought by his viewers with their urban sensibilities and needs, while still adhering to a broader economy of gender relations in which, once again, every male figure is reduced, while the community of progress is being forged by the woman.
The festival provided a strong mix of digital and celluloid films. Some of the documentaries had to rate as among the worst filmmaking I have ever seen-not only in terms of camerawork but also intellectual content. At the same time, the world of African cinema might be thought to resemble in greater and greater proportions the decaying halls of its exposition. The old movie palaces have all but disappeared from the continent. The newer models might include a small number of multiplexes, as in Nairobi, but for the most part are now reduced to small theatres for digital viewing, or, in most cases, homeviewing on television sets. The melodrama is the counterpart to a cinema that no longer enjoys the support of a larger social community; the experience of the film cannot be generated in the same ways, and thus the films themselves have changed. This film festival provides an interesting record of that change, especially as we are now seeing, with Petit Sergent and other series made for television or for the home, the appropriation of the melodrama, in all its forms of the tragic or comic, for topics that extend beyond those of the films shot in the first decade of video drama-that is, topics like war or AIDS that are impinging on millions of people on the continent, and whose presentation, as social issues, is no longer in terms of any grand narratives at all.
The Fathers of African Cinema would never have dreamed that all their groundbreaking work in the 60s and 70s would have come to this. Yet they should have known, after 2 decades of fruitless endeavor, that the old order could not be sustained, and that the costs of adhering to an ideological program of high moral character would result in the eventual disinterest of the mass audience. More significantly, the economic turn to digital filmmaker has generated its own genres, along with its own marketing. That is, specifically, the requirements of a world of selling pirated videos, which have spelled out not the demise but the transformation of African cinema. The battle between King Ampaw and Tunde Kelani could not be more apposite: whereas the former refuses to exhibit his film in Africa before he has made the circuit of international festivals for a year, for fear that he would lose control over the print with the first showing in Ghana, the latter is set for mass marketing on the continent, in a market where more films are being shot every year than in practically all the rest of the world put together.

///Article N° : 5932


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