Postcolonialism and cinema: from difference to relationships

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Postcolonialism in film theory still only rarely tackles the question of difference head on. And yet, it is thus that it could encourage Western critical discourse at last to focus on something other than reducing the Other to his/her difference, to accept questioning its own view of the Other. The question is essential in the French context.

The can be no ethnology possible « other than that which studies the anthropophagous behaviour of the white man ».
Stanislas Adotevi, Négritudes et nécrologues, UGE 10/18 1972, p.182.
The concept of difference marks the sphere of French critical thought to such an extent that it is, no doubt, useful to summarize the situation:
– The complex relation between France and Africa is evolving. The films made by filmmakers of African origin reflect and/or herald these evolutions and ruptures. New styles and new aesthetics are emerging. This is especially so amongst the filmmakers living in France, who, in general, are born after Independence, are often mixed-race, and who always articulate – once they have moved beyond the ideological schemas of their predecessors – a questioning of the concepts of authenticity and identity, in order to go beyond a simple African belonging, thereby challenging the communalistic, culturalist, or essentialist discourse, which places cultural values before the quality of the works themselves. These « Afro-Europeans » – as they sometimes call themselves – urgently address both African social reality and the question of memory, but also examine the experience of Africans in the West, confronted as they are with the difficulty of living in a society which finds it hard to accept its multiculturalism.
– Faced with this difficulty related to the all-consuming universality of the dominant culture, anti-racism was lured into founding its combat on the defence of cultural differences, which became seen as absolute values. This ran the risk of limiting the Other to a place, a role, to mythical values. In order to break free from this, immigrants in France changed from demanding the « right to difference » in the Eighties (with SOS-Racisme), to the « right to indifference » the following decade. In the light of society’s discriminations, then, they demanded the same rights as every « Tom, Dick or Harry », to quite simply be left alone at a time when racist discourse became banalized (in an recent opinion poll, over 60% of French people declared themselves to be racist, which is not so much worrying because they are racist – we already knew that- but because they dare to admit it openly). (1)
– This straight jacket of racist prejudice – be it provocative comments, or the choice of words and images, from the counter of the local bar to the most profound of media – poisons relations with Black people (and Arabs, but with their own specific projections). It plays on a constant contradiction. On the one hand, are the worrying, or even scary archetypes (fascinating for Judaeo-Christians, who are frustrated in their relation to the body by the repression of desire, conjugal norms, the social utility of behaviour): the animality of the Black, who is difficult to tame due to his/her proximity to nature (brutality, transgression of the sacred through anthropophagy, unbridled sexuality, etc). On the other hand, is the moral duty to « civilize »: paternalism towards this good savage, « big-child », who, at heart, is crying out to be educated. The fundamental misunderstanding of French republican assimilationism thus consists of « civilizing » whilst, at the same time, carefully keeping this Other subaltern, thereby reducing him/her to reductive stereotypes: naive, primitive, contemplative, ingenuous, candid, inexperienced, and, thus, ultimately, intellectually limited. (2) This contradiction is the basis of a relation to the Other which comprises projections in which difference serves as a foil for forging one’s own identity, but which also offer an escape from the mundaneness of the daily routine.
– Film criticism is no exception, widely reiterating these prejudices. It replays the old tune introduced by the cubists with their ‘art nègre’ when, by appropriating it, they glorified it so as better to deny it, elevating it to the statue of the work of art, and thereby confining it in their own aesthetic criteria: recognition and distancing, respect and being placed in a position of respect. (3) At the end of the day, the quest for authenticity is still at the service of a fundamentally unauthentic relation, in which seduction is prioritized over understanding. « To caricature the situation », Roland Louvel notes, « the Africans can only produce beauty unintentionally, whereas Westerners reserve themselves the privilege of a disinterested aesthetic production ». (4) Hence, by portraying the Other as exotic or folkloric, or, much more recently, accusing his/her creations of being old-fashioned or academic, we trap him/her in his/her difference, making sure that he/she stays there. A Republic which claims to be universalist, levelling and assimilationist, paradoxically considers part of its population – its former colonial subjects – as incapable of evolving and integrating the precepts of civilization. (5) It would be interesting to draw a parallel with the mythical American melting pot
– In the light of this, and anxious to escape the categories of authenticity, identity and a single origin, filmmakers of African origin often claim the undifferentiated status of « filmmaker full stop », which, paradoxically, boils down to denying their specificity. Yet, the label ‘African’ remains their main selling point, in terms of distribution (paid, but often for want of being able to release their films on the movie circuit) in the specialized festivals, but also for the financing of their films, as it gives access to funds to which the French filmmakers are not entitled (the Fonds Sud, Francophonie, Coopération, foundations, etc.). They thus play a tango that hedges the issue, between defending their African identity and their desire to be rid of it to avoid projections.
This desire to escape being trapped in one’s difference is the source of new misunderstandings:
– the risk of non-differentiation, at a time when everybody is exploring his/her roots, his/her origins, in order to highlight the specificities which define his/her originality.
– the fantasy of a undifferentiated status, as if there were such a thing as a « filmmaker full stop », devoid of cultural contingencies, and beyond the power relations of the post-colonial situation.
This desire is a reaction against restrictions and prejudices. In order to be free of them, the filmmakers tend to affirm that their specificity is precisely that they have none, defining it, rather, as in the process of becoming, a quest, a cultural going-between in constant mutation, a fluctuating hybridity between two cultures.
This claim to belong to a greater ensemble than just their original community distances them from the affirmation of difference theorized by Férid Boughedir (6) or Gabriel Teshome (7) as a means of resistance and subversion for the societies concerned. It also distances them from a difference posited as the source of meaning as highlighted by the neo-structuralists, such as Lizbeth Malkmus and Roy Armes (8), who strive to identifying it in the films’ texts. They, are, alternatively, closer to a modernism which affirms the primacy of the author’s subjectivity and independence over the power of politics and money. The theoreticians sensitive to this approach, such as Manthia Diawara (9), focus their writings on the analysis of this independence and on the aesthetic, to the detriment of the actual content of the films.
In his recent critique of these theoretical approaches (10), Stephen Zacks insists on the dangers of the neo-Marxist classifications of a Boughedir or a Teshome, who have great difficulty in fitting everybody into categories whose criteria of Africanness end up strangely resembling the old colonial criteria. As for Armes and Malkmus’s binary distinctions (voice/orality, time/space, individual/group, etc.), they tend to universalize elements which strove to be anything but that, and end up falling into the over-simplicity of presuppositions, creating a new colonized subject. The modernist approach, finally, tends towards being apolitical, whereas neocolonialism is still raging in both countries and mentalities. Postcolonial thought, on the whole, re-poses the question of difference by insisting on the specificity of the margins in relation to the centre. By situating it in a process of deconstruction of colonial codes, however, which inevitably involves a affirmation of identity, the approaches described never ask the question of knowing how the differences established between African cinema and Western cinema affect the criticism and perception of the films themselves, whereas that seems to be the determinant question today. Determinant for the success of the films themselves for both Western and African audiences, as the penetration of Hollywoodian images blurs the differences in the criteria of reception a little more each day. Determinant too for the African critics who are forced to reconsider identity once again as the modern artists call fundamentalist fixations into question. Determinant, finally, for Western critical thought, which, confronted with films which pose the question of the gaze more and more every day, should end up considering deconstructing its own imaginary representations born out of the colonial relations.
It is fortunately no longer possible to speak on behalf of the Other today, as, with the assistance of postcolonial analysis, he/she is reappropriating the word, re-writing his/her History, shaking off the universalizing codes of the Western thought centres. « When the goat is present, you do not need to bleat in its place », said Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Which does not mean dropping the subject, but approaching it differently: speaking about a film by marrying it in its « flesh », prioritizing the internal rather than external logic, choosing a critical relativism, respecting creative individuality to avoid confining it to a genre, stop taking the unfamiliar as difference, and taking account of the underlying power struggles. That, in short, boils down to being in phase with the filmmakers’ own agendas, who, by confronting the daily head on, in their often hybrid experience as both Afro-Europeans and Africans, deal with social and political realities through the ambiguity of human relationships, thereby, by frequently using improvisation, prioritizing an introspection which leaves room for ambivalence, incertitude and doubt, opening themselves up to personal questioning for a more humane responsibility, as they take the risk of exploring emotional relations and desire, conceiving of their films in terms of small budgets and building new solidarities amongst themselves in order to affirm their independence vis-à-vis the traditional sources of finance, exploring new aesthetics to evoke what cannot be mentioned or shown, in order to evoke the lacking and emptiness of their exile, of their wanderings, of their cultural hybridity with all that they harbour in terms of anxiety, and also in terms of fecund energy and tonic intensity, thereby, through their personal stories, becoming the bearers of the History of their people. This also comes down to tackling the concept of difference head on in order to be able to put it aside all the better so as to concentrate on a convergence, a solidarity understood as a double movement which presuppose, as Claude Liauzu writes, « that we recognize in the Other a part of the self, but also that we recognize in ourselves a part of the Other ». (11) An engaged style, in short, which is openly subjective, perhaps lyrical, which, without denying the irreducibilities, focuses on the relational in order, by mirroring human diversity, also to reflect its unity.

(1) cf. Ce que filmer veut dire, entretien avec Youssef El Ftouh, in : Africultures nº3, « L’image de l’Autre » dossier, Dec. 1997, p.9-14.
(2) cf. Nicolas Bancel et Pascal Blanchard, Sauvage ou assimilé ? in : Africultures nº25, « Tirailleurs en images » dossier, Feb. 2000, p.36-43.
(3) cf. Olivier Barlet, La critique occidentale des images d’Afrique, in : Africultures nº1, « La critique en questions » dossier, Oct. 1997, p. 5-11 ; Cinémas d’Afrique noire : le nouveau malentendu, in : Cinémathèque nº14, automne 1998, Cinémathèque française, Paris, p.107-116.
(4) Roland Louvel, L’Afrique noire et la différence culturelle, L’Harmattan 1996, p. 30.
(5) cf. Nicolas Bancel et Pascal Blanchard, De l’Indigène à l’Immigré : images, messages et réalités, in : Hommes et Migrations nº1207, « Imaginaire colonial et figures de l’immigré » dossier, May-June 1997, p.8.
(6) Ferid Boughedir, Le Cinéma africain de A à Z, OCIC 1987, Bruxelles.
(7) Gabriel Teshome, Third Cinema and the Third World : The Aesthetics of Liberation. Ann Arbor : UMI Research Press, 1982.
(8) Lizbeth Malkmus, Roy Armes, Arab and African Filmmaking, Zed Books, London, 1991.
(9) Manthia Diawara, African Cinema, Politics and Culture, Indiana University Press, 1992, and his essays on aesthetics, such as, Oral Literature and African Film : Narratology in « Wend Kuuni », in : Présence Africaine nº142, 2e trimestre 1987.
(10) Stephen Zacks, The Theoretical Construction of African Cinema, in: Kenneth W. Harrow, African Cinema, Postcolonial and Feminist Readings, Africa World Press, 1999.
(11) Claude Liauzu, Race et civilisation – L’Autre dans la culture occidentale – Anthologie critique, Syros 1992, p.456.
Olivier Barlet is a film critic for several journals, and coordinates the Africultures editorial team. He is in charge of the Images plurielles collection at Editions l’Harmattan (cinema, audiovisual, and theatre), and of La Bibliothèque d’Africultures. Latest work published : Les Cinémas d’Afrique noire: le regard en question (L’Harmattan 1997, CNC Art et Essai prize, 1997).///Article N° : 5454


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