The Five Decades of African Cinemas

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During the African film retrospective Africamania, from January 16 to March 17, 2008, the Cinémathèque française in Paris recounted the history of African cinemas through more than 80 films. Published in the event’s catalogue, this article briefly summarizes it.

1- The Sixties
Pioneers of decolonization: with the aim of reappropriating the gaze and thought, early African filmmakers were something of an oddity.
African independences were not generously granted but laboriously gained. Before the 60’s in French-speaking Black Africa, the decree issued by Laval in 1934 (while he was Minister of the Colonies) imposed the obligation to have administrative authorization to shoot. African people were only able to access a representation of themselves that was ideologically charged made by colonial filmmakers, ethnologists or missionaries.
Early African filmmakers had to fight against the negation of the self conveyed by colonial images in which African people were part of the setting of a history forged in spite of them, or the « insects » denounced by Sembène Ousmane and Med Hondo. Their films were militant but not banner-waving, as they were aware of the necessity to reach an audience that was not sensitive to slogans. Their goal was to replace « civilization » by « progress » by denouncing obsolete customs as well as the corrupt elites. Their fathers in literature were Senghor, Césaire, Dumas; all committed poets against assimilation. Their cinema was not devoid of poetry. It was a decolonization of the gaze and thought, the regaining of one’s space and self-image, but it was a cultural assertion too. Seeking to regain and pass on the founding values of a new society, its works of fiction often had a documentary dimension.
The French colonist did not leave any structures and the « Film Units » left by the English were not maintained by states faced with other urgencies: the early filmmakers were an oddity who lacked means. They could only resort to co-productions or the success related to popular theatre forms (as in Nigeria), or the foreign help only granted to the French-speaking. Indeed, anxious to get back in touch with an Empire that was slipping away from it, France supported filmmakers through the Ministry of Cooperation as early as 1963.
All this did not prevent criticism. As early as 1955, Afrique sur Seine, which everybody considers to be the first film ever made by Black Africans, the aim was to reverse the colonist’s gaze. The film was shot in Paris because Senegalese Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and his friends from the Groupe africain du cinéma of the IDHEC did not obtain authorization to shoot in Africa. Yet, they remained aesthetically and thematically close to a French universalist view of cinema.
Oumarou Ganda, a docker from Niger, would be the main protagonist in the 1957 Moi, un Noir by Jean ROUCH, which was acclaimed by Godard as a « cinematographic revolution ». Denouncing what he saw, however, as a distortion of his reality, he would later appropriate the movie-camera to shoot Cabascado (Le dur à cuire, 1968), an autobiographic movie about the tragic return of a soldier from Indochina, following in the footsteps of Mustapha Alassane who had just shot Le Retour de l’aventurier (The Return of the Adventurer) in 1967, a brilliant parody of the influence of westerns on young people. The undertaking was similar for docker Sembène Ousmane who, at the age of forty, in 1963, directed Borom Sarret, the first movie ever made in Africa. He also marked the start of a neorealist conception of cinema: the quest for the self incarnated by this carter from Dakar clashes with the power of the elite who imitate the West.
2- The Seventies
A Social mirror: revolutionaries who weren’t just pamphleteers made sensitive films in line with an awakening continent.
In response to the Rencontres cinématographiques de Carthage created by Tahar Cheriaa in 1966, a « Week of African Cinema » was held in Ouagadougou in 1969. The Voltaic government’s policies in favour of cinema led filmmakers, gathered since 1970 in the Fédération panafricaine des cinéastes (Panafrican Filmmakers Federation, or FEPACI), to set up in its capital what would become from 1972 the Festival panafricain du cinéma de Ouagadougou (Ouagadougou Panafrican Film festival), or Fespaco. Under the impetus of the lively Senegalese Ababacar Samb Makharam, the views of the FEPACI were both militant and panafricanist. Cinema needed to be a tool for the liberation of colonized countries and a step toward the full unity of Africa. But when Samb directed the great Kodou in 1971, it was anything but a slogan. After being rejected by the community of villagers because she did not stand the pain of initiatory tattooing of the lips, Kodou is sent to the White’s psychiatric hospital until a traditional exorcism reintegrates her into the group.
Similarly, when Samb linked the denunciation of oppression to African cultural values in the 1981 Jom ou l’histoire d’un peuple (« Jom, Or A People’s History »), it was to insist upon the African « jom », which is honor, dignity, courage and respect. Thus, whereas in 1975 the FEPACI met in Algiers and refused any form of commercial cinema to unite with progressive filmmakers of the other countries against neo-colonialism and imperialism, the films chiefly focused on finding the self again. Senegalese Safi Faye’s gentle pan shots of the African bush in the 1975 Lettre Paysanne (« A Farmer’s Letter ») or the 1979 Fad’jal end on people laboring: Africa was no longer a setting, it was the place of human activity.
The danger would have been taking refuge in a fossilized identity or a restrictive authenticity. But such accents of the Negritude do not lead to a cutting off from the world. In the 1979 Baara, Malian Souleymane Cissé (who, like Sembène, was trained at the VGIK in Moscow) focused on a young engineer trying to improve the functioning of his factory who eventually gets slaughtered. What he was interested in was not the character’s subjectivity, but how he analyzed the collusion between economic and political issues. Social commitment prevailed over feelings; the world was the center of gravity.
One Senegalese guy brilliantly situated the issue of the founding values of a society as the quest for the imaginary. To him, it was non-conformism that offered an insight into one’s origin. A surrealist and prophetic manifesto, Touki bouki (1973) later influenced all African filmmakers. Anta and Mory are both attracted by the adventure of the West (« Paris, Paris, ce petit coin de paradis » -‘a small idyllic spot’), but one of them will take the boat while the other goes back to his roots. The film in no way said what the right choice is, but gave an account of the split characterizing a society whose members are all torn between the country and elsewhere.
3- The Eighties
The Fiction of the self: with the disillusionment of independences, fiction offered new perspectives for both social change and world vision.
When filmmakers gathered in Niamey in 1982, they wrote a manifesto calling more for the construction of a cinematographic industry than for anti-imperialist struggle. The notion of « economic operator » emerged. The first Inter-African Consortium of Cinematographic Distribution, or CIDC, had, led by Inoussa Ousseini, started its activity in 1980 by buying out the distribution circuits of a subsidiary of the French company UGC, which monopolized cinematographic distribution in almost all French-speaking Black Africa. But the experiment would not last long, as the CIDC went bankrupt in 1984.
Yet, in the heyday of African cinema, some films achieved great success. For Djeli (by Fadika Kramo-Lanciné, Ivory Coast, 1981) or Finye (Le Vent,’The Wind’, by Souleymane Cissé, Mali, 1982), attendance figures reached record levels in their respective countries, and the figures were also good abroad. By demanding that their States nationalize the sector, FEPACI filmmakers had stuck their heads in the lion’s mouth: nationalization led to an increase in bureaucracy and, in many countries, a state control that would no longer let disturbing films to be released. The Niamey manifesto sought to escape state supervision by asking for support for national productions that left the choice of themes to private producers.
The CIDC’s bankruptcy was a reflection of Africa in the Eighties. Disillusionment was intense after the dream of independence. The « Fathers of the nation » set themselves up as dictators. The subversion characterizing African cinemas since their early moments could not express itself as freely as in literature, especially Sony Labou Tansi’s works. A new generation of filmmakers continued to be the mirrors of reality but chose fiction to approach it with emotion and sensuality. In the 1986 Le Choix (Yam Daabo,’The Choice’), Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo told the adventures of a Sahelian family seeking a better life in the South. The image suggested more than it showed, like the off-screen death of little Ali, the son, who gets knocked down by a car in the street of the big city.
The main character in Wend Kuuni (by Gaston Kaboré, Burkina Faso, 1982) suffered a trauma that left him dumb. His movements, his looks and the speech he will eventually regain have all the more strength for it. By using the narration and time of a tale, Kaboré explored the reason behind actions and did not only show them, thus creating assertiveness. The movie called for another social order, but wished at the same time to situate it in the order of things.
When the films took this path of fiction strongly couched in myth, international recognition was granted to a cinema that was restricted until then to an audience of initiates. The Western craze was huge and the Cannes Film Festival acclaimed a cinema it was just starting to discover, awarding the 1987 Jury Prize to Yeelen (‘The Light’) by Souleymane Cissé, later a success in France with 340,000 tickets sold.
4- The Nineties
The individual and the world: whereas the West confined African cinema in a genre that soon became dated, filmmakers explored the crisis individuals face trying to find their way between individualism and the illusion of identity.
In the 80’s, African films brought a serene freshness to a stagnating European cinema which had doubts about its future, in a time dominated by the dogmas of communication. Seeking seduction in those films rather than a real understanding, the Eighties yielded to an exotic projection, a’folklorization » that went hand in hand with the exacerbation of difference. By defending the authenticity of a culture, they reinforced the lack of authenticity of our relationship to the other. But the issues became durably clouded: the growing disorder in our suburbs, our loss of markers and the rise of the far right were a painful echo of the crisis of the torn continent. Expectations had changed: during the Nineties, the success of Black Africa films decreased because we were unable to listen enough to what they had to say.
And yet, they had something to say. Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilaï, which was awarded the 1990 Jury Prize in Cannes, was the last film to achieve real international success. Beyond the criticism of customs in the name of the same values governing them, the film has the pathos of an existential cry, that of a being in crisis. In 2007, no African film had been in the running for the Palme d’Or in ten years at the Cannes film festival. Until 1997, however, films were entered each year for the official competition. Djibril Diop Mambety’s Hyènes (‘Hyenas’, 1992) splendidly reminds the cupidity of the hyenas men have become. Souleymane Cissé’s Waati (1995) mingled an initiatory quest and cultural memory to find the way to African unity and solidarity. Flora Gomes’ Po di Sangui (Guinea-Bissau, 1996) was a celebration of the meeting of cultures; it recalled that sacrificing a part of oneself is necessary to accept what makes the other’s worth. It also called for the rejection of the damage caused to the environment and the human being. Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Kini & Adams (1997) explored the growing incomprehension among people within a society torn between what it is becoming and what it has been. Its characters expressed their quest for individuality through this refusal of individualism. In this respect, this cinema continued to be subversive.
Reinforcing the bitter disillusion the African continent already experienced when it was merely a stake in the Cold War, the democratic hope sparked off during the national conferences of the first half of the 1990’s would result in another disenchantment. It was indeed the crisis-ridden being that this cinema explored, but it was devoid of the illusions of identity. In order not to be trapped in cultural difference, young filmmakers vigorously rejected the term of’African filmmakers’. They discreetly applied the famous maxim by Nigerian Wole Soyinka: « A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude; it pounces on its prey and eats it. »
Indeed, a new cinema emerged at the end of the 20th Century, through movies like Abderrahmane Sissako’s La Vie sur terre (‘Life on Earth’, Mauritania, 1998) or Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s Bye bye Africa (Chad, 1999), emblematic of a new writing now capable of taking risks in form as well as in content, of asking questions without answers and exploring the human being uncompromisingly.
5- The 2000’s
A Journey into the human: The return to cultural roots makes it possible to express one’s epoch better through a lucid and equal dialogue with the rest of the world.
In order to escape the bonds of difference and complexify the issue of identity, a new cinema is making a real return to the roots, using its cultural background for an aesthetics that is adapted to the requirements of its modern discourse. Just like’oraliture’, which was developed in literature by Ahmadou Kourouma, films thus resort to the techniques of orality: the assumed vagueness in the narration connotes the uncertainty sought, the digressions as interludes clarifying the narrative, the direct addressing of the camera and the sustained illusion of the presence of an audience…
The resulting rhythm is comparable to the blues, with themes related to marginality and restless wandering. Already, from Souleymane Cissé to Idrissa Ouedrogo or Djibril Diop Mambety, films used movement and constant’delocalization’ as preferred elements in the direction. The films of the 2000’s ask questions by journeying into the world. Their nomadism is a philosophy of the understanding that enrichment comes from the other. In L’Afrance (2001), Alain Gomis radically modifies the views of L’Aventure ambigüe (‘Ambiguous Adventure’) -a famous novel by Senegalese author Cheik Amidou Kane taught in every school suggesting that hybridization results in death- to say that one does not die of going to meet the West.
As in Verre cassé (‘Broken Glass’), Alain Mabanckou’s award-winning novel, filmmakers increasingly resort to intertextuality with global cinema. To explore the ways out of the vicious circle of violence, in Daratt (2006), Mahamat Saleh Haroun develops a minimilistic and tight, almost Hitchcock-like aesthetics. In Bamako (2006), Abderrahmane Sissako recounts a trial of globalization in an African Court. Such a cinema is convinced that the solutions to the continent’s crisis cannot be implemented without a more humane functioning of the world, but also a lucid vision of man. The agenda is hope, whatever it takes. It is based on an acute consciousness of the state of Africa to ask once again the question of its place in the world, rather than trying to idealize the force of its origins. Its marginality is no longer an issue, the contemporaneousness of its cinema has already been proved but the films vibrate with the complex and violent relationship with the West. Through allusions to Césaire, La Vie sur terre strongly criticizes the way Westerners make a spectacle of Africa. The tribulations of the villagers of Sokolo to make a phone call show that the desire to communicate is essential, not efficiency.
Comprehending the desire of beings implies opening up to poetry, which results on the set in the mobility of a script that is ready to change according to successive encounters and questionings. The viewer is mobilized, not as an African relating to common views, but as a man expecting happiness. Such a cinema no longer shapes a truth, but encourages us to reinvent it.

Translation by Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7954

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