Are African films an exception? Yes, in many respects. Firstly because they repeatedly flop! Whilst cinema audiences grew by 11% in France in 2001 and French cinema managed to hold its own against the American steamroller, the rare films made by directors of African descent had great difficulty in finding a Western audience. After having widely lauded its exoticism in the Eighties, the West tends not to give a damn about the real Africa, which differs from its own image of it. Africa has been banished from the world, and its cinema with it.
Secondly, in the way people speak about African films or rather don’t speak about them. For the so-called recent discovery of black people’s absence from the French audiovisual landscape has its filmic equivalent. Hardly anyone other than the Americans brings their quota of black people to the screen. African films are as absent from specialist film magazines as they are from Cannes. There are no extensive studies. Lack of consideration couples with complete ignorance. You can count the critics devoted to really understanding the films from the world’s largest continent on one hand. And when the Cahiers du Cinéma recently ventured onto this terrain (n°557), it was to develop an Afro-pessimistic vision entitled « L’Afrique fantôme » (« Phantom Africa »). But Leiris, author of the book in question, was referring to something quite different, namely the difficulty of apprehending Africa. Africa isn’t a phantom; we just don’t listen to it!
But in spite of everything, these films exist. This is unquestionably what makes them an exception at a time when so many other film corpuses are withering or selling out! The economic situation is catastrophic, of course, and too few films get made. Bar a few notable exceptions that have set up active Film Institutes, the African states have never seen film as a factor of development and technical assistance policies have played on the north-south axis to maintain control. The result is a glaring lack of structures in Africa and too few films facing too many difficulties. It also perversely forces filmmakers to come Europe to be near to the sources of funding. This has created an imbalance between Africans in Africa and the Diaspora Africans. A nomadic cinema has thus emerged, whilst filmmakers living in Africa have great difficulty in producing images for their countries. But it is too easy to set one up against the other. This nomadism is cultural and the opposition too Manichean.
People dream of a popular cinema but there are no local film industries. Light comedies appear sometimes too light using humour to address topical issues. Time will root out the good from the bad. But it is not this that constitutes the exceptional novelty. A profound and radical questioning is well and truly taking place, constituting a site of rupture. Young directors are producing a different cinema to that of their elders.
Even though their words are often radical, they do not spurn their elders. They respect the political commitment of the Sembenes, the Cissés, and so many others. They even respect the films that, using the myth’s topicality, continue to proffer the world an essential message, a message of humanity. But they defend a new approach, namely an intimate introspection that deconstructs male-female relationships, their relation to Africa, and their bi-cultural position in forms that encourage blending and responsibility. This has produced some real gems, and it is on this exception that this dossier has chosen to focus.
These young Diaspora filmmakers, most of whom belong to the « African Guild of Directors and Producers », call for a revival. They refuse to be marginalized, struggle against a certain image of Africa left over from colonial cinema, assert their Africanity in a wandering, nomadic culture far from rigid identities, seek an appropriate cinematic language for dealing with Africa’s urgent problems, and develop ties amongst themselves in order not to reproduce the individualism of their elders.
It is impossible to grasp African films in economic terms alone for risk of slipping into the ambient Afro-pessimist discourse. It is not at all a new problem. It has always been the case. Despite being biannual, the FESPACO (Ouagadougou Pan-African Film Festival) has never really been able to be selective. The Guild directors do not refrain from criticising its organisational shortcomings, the Burkinabè state’s sway over the festival and the way it is increasingly being run by civil servants. They want a FESPACO that includes African film professionals in its selection and running committees, a FESPACO capable of reviving the original spirit of a fiery cinema of resistance.
In their own way, they too are seeking the spirit that was originally behind the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI). Initially a vibrant lobby, the FEPACI was later torn apart by power struggles and no longer seems able to rise again from its ashes. Their slogan is solidarity and sharing, collective criticism and mutual aid. They also refuse to be caught up in the movement that no longer wanted the adjective « African » to be added to « filmmaker ». This refusal of the « filmmaker full stop » ethos does not represent a fixation with a single identity, an authenticity that always proves to be the fantasy of the other. It quite simply reflects the desire to position oneself in the world, to show solidarity with all those who refuse standardisation. Asserting specificity is not about proclaiming a truth; it is about trying to say where you come from, where you are at, where you would like to go, to question one’s own reality and the sufferings encountered. It’s because these films sincerely explore modernity’s traumas in the first person that they reveal a different Africa to the one depicted by the media, that they highlight the urgency of addressing such issues. This gaze challenges the colonial representations that still haunt imaginations and images, and not only in the West. It asserts itself as the alter ego of all filmmakers worldwide who defend an alternative world.
This entails new forms and methods that in many respects recall the French New Wave, notably the shoestring budgets, improvisation, short location shoots and natural settings, small crews, chronological discontinuity, and a fragmentation and lack of cohesion that echo the troubles of our time. Their films mark a break-away from the security of narrative linearity, a certain return to the sources of orality1, the embracing in the montage and ellipses of the flaws of perception, the absences, the voids that arouse the spectator, goading him or her into reflection. This is where the African exception asserts itself again, in all its naturalness. They do not belong to the invisible population for nothing. History has not condemned them to exile without it leaving its mark on their artistic creations. These films are none other than voyages, an inversion of the gaze. There where the Other believes he/she has found plenitude in the African experience, these filmmakers explore the void, the gaps in History, in their singular histories, the deficits of peace, democracy, transmission, and filiation. The aim is not to fill this void, but to assert its fecundity. It is precisely these harrowing voids that generate a self-questioning, a need for the other, an opening up to the world, an aspiration for progress. It is about finding the paths of one’s own self-affirmation, not about making up for being behind. They are inhabited by Africa, even though they don’t live there.
What is exceptional in the current stagnation of cinematographic conveniences is that they open this path up to everyone. I am inhabited by Africa when the scandal of the inequalities and the desire for all possibilities penetrates me, in terms of responsibility not compassion, utopia not debt. I won’t grasp everything, but it is the quest that matters.
1. Cf. Olivier Barlet, « Les nouvelles écritures francophones des cineastes afro-européens », Ecritures dans les cinemas d’Afrique noir, Revue Cinémas, Montreal, Autumn 2000, and « Recent African Cinema: A Farewell to Orality? », Ascalf Bulletin 20, Nottingham, Summer 2000.///Article N° : 5423