The Western criticism of African images

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What is meant by the naivety of African film? Is this just another way of limiting Africans to their difference?

« Purse your lips before you whistle »
Congolese proverb

At the last Cannes film festival, a three minute film giving voice to the sans-papiers movement, was screened repeatedly at the start of each Quinzaine des Réalisateurs showing, and was vigorously applauded. This interest in Black people fighting for their integration into French society starkly contrasted with the lack of interest in the films from their culture of origin, which were often ignored or little appreciated by the critics. One word cropped up time and time again like a leitmotif in their writings: « naivety ».
What exactly is this naivety at the root of difference? The dictionary gives two definitions. On the one hand, ingenuousness. On the other, a thoughtlessness arising from ignorance and inexperience. Two definitions which seem to me to correspond perfectly to the reception of African film in France, but which are spread over two very distinct historic phases.
The first definition became predominant in the second half of the Eighties: films from Africa injected a serene freshness into an increasingly monotonous European cinema, worried about its future in the light of the developing television minimalism. This was the time of the ‘black’ trend: world music, acclaimed athletes, and all kinds of exoticism. The Cannes public discovered a cinema which had hitherto rarely broken out of the confines of the specialist festivals, and showered praises on the films of Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouedraogo (Yeelen in 1987, and Tilaï in 1990). Audiences were enchanted by the magic they perceived, without appreciating their political slant (the criticism of the transmission of knowledge in Cissé’s work, and the yoke of tradition in Ouedraogo’s): they saw mysteriousness, naivety, primitiveness, contemplation… They saw escape and seduction, « more soul », at a time of dreary economic crisis, whilst neglecting any understanding of the Other. In his/her difference, the Other became the setting on which to project themselves, the backdrop for the stereotypes of the collective imagination conveyed by colonial cinema: blacks as good savages, as eternal anti-materialist man Fridays who thrive on social warmth, big children whose, as the French dictionary Larousse recalled in 1932, « intellectual inferiority requires that we protect » them.
African film is both a source of fascination and a repellant. The more exotic it is, the more its difference reinforces a national unity undermined by the inner-city uprisings instigated by youths of immigrant origin, and a European identity which is having difficulty emerging with just the simple signing of the Act of Union in 1986. The late Twenties to Thirties saw the nègre trend in France with Josephine Baker, l’art nègre, and the bal nègres, whilst a diffuse Negrophobia developed parallely as a precursor of the rejection manifested by the following generation. Similarly, the Eighties black generation is paradoxically marked by the renewal of racism, the Lepeninization of political discourse, and the banalization of exclusion. It’s the same old « Franco-republican dilemma », to coin Pierre-André Taguieff’s expression: a Republic which claims to be universalist, levelling, and assimilationist, paradoxically considers some of its members, its former colonized, as impossible to assimilate. The films from Africa which are popular with European audiences are those which best lend themselves (often very much in spite of themselves) to projection, to the folkloric, to exoticism, to the accentuation of difference. The more the Other is different, the more clear it is that he/she cannot be integrated, is incapable of evolving, and of taking on the precepts of civilization.
In the Nineties, however, the picture(s) has become less clear: the increasing unrest in our inner-cities and minds painfully echoes that of the drawn-and-quartered continent. Rwanda did even better than Yugoslavia, whilst the extreme-right is taking root in Europe, and African attempts at democratization have come to a dead-end. The good savage myth is no longer pertinent: times are serious and French cinema has gone in for the existential couch, for realism, for the social. It would like Africa to follow suit, so that it can better understand what the media no longer fills us in on: due to a lack of means, the news now practically only covers humanitarian emergencies. There isn’t the time to let journalists delve deeply into countries which aren’t popular anymore! Numerous permanent foreign correspondent posts have been done away with. An ethic of wretchedness has replaced people’s words, and it takes a long time to understand Western errors, such as France’s intervention in Rwanda. Ah, if only African cinema would explain it to us! If only it were urban instead of getting bogged down in the countryside! If only it painted contemporary portraits instead of tales! If only it recorded the crisis that interests us so much as it is our crisis too! But it insists on not doing what we would like it to be…
Since then, French critics have tended to crystalize African cinema into a genre to be written off per se. Without recognizing this cinematography’s evolutions, without even differentiating between directors and countries, it rejects what Didier Peron in Libération (13 May 1997) calls « the overt naivety of numerous African films, which explore the timeless schema of the tale ad infinitum, opting for an always identical moral (tolerance, coming to maturity, etc.), and which we may wonder whether or not constitutes a form of academicism« . Which brings us on to the second definition of the word naivety: we cast off the former delicious ingeniousness to impugn a lack of evolution, a thoughtlessness. In France, the Nineties have thus seen a slump in the popularity of films from sub-Saharan Africa.
The African « genre »
We continue to class films as different, as divergent even, as the six films from sub-Saharan Africa presented at Cannes in a distinctive and vast category: the « African film ». In the same way that people stigmatize immigrants in ethno-cultural terms as « Arabs » or « Blacks ». The African film has become a genre, « the bush film », which Jean-Michel Frodon defines in one of his articles: « family and community dramas in the village; conflicts between tradition and modernity; the symbolism of an Africa immemorial » (Le Monde, 13 May).
This reveals a deep lack of understanding of the evolutions of this cinema. The eternal reproach that films from Africa remain confined to the village reiterates the desire to understand what it is that makes the towns, where contemporary Africa’s stakes are played out, tick. There is thus a tendency to accentuate a perfectly instrumental town/countryside dichotomy in order to get to grips with something which turns out to be much more complex, the reciprocal influences of the two being as evident in the town as they are in the bush. Films from Africa have never stopped documenting these influences and the contradictions which they engender in one another. Once again, one finds a typically Western methodological violence (the « single criteria » that Wole Soyinka opposes with a written style that combines several registers of African scripts/scenarios) which culminates in the supreme negation of the Other: telling him/her for his/her own good what he/she should be.
The family and the community are the antithesis of the individual focused on by Western cinema, and theorized in the persona of the cowboy hero. It is when Western critics recognize this kind of hero who affirms his future by exerting his own will, who is capable of mastering and maximizing on his destiny, that they stop considering African film as old-fashioned or academic (cf. Jean-Michel Frodon’s highly positive review of Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Kini and Adams for this very reason in the Le Monde article referred to). But are the critics aware that this kind of analysis is based on a specifically Western modern conception of the individual which, on the one hand, refutes destiny, and, on the other, denies the Other his/her alterity? It is by listening to the ancestral word passed down by the family and the community that the African faces both his/her limits and determinisms, and recognizes that the integration of the Other is necessary in order to be able to develop.
This word is not tradition, but rather myth: it is by questioning one’s roots that light is shed on the present. Conflict only arises when this reference to the origin challenges the yoke of an outmoded tradition: when a woman flees a forced marriage, when a child refuses to be exploited or indoctrinated, etc. The opposition between tradition and modernity belongs to a bygone historic moment, to a quest for values prior to the colonial shock as theorized by the Negritude movement, values which have the potential to found a modernity stripped of all mimesis. The days of opposition between an imported modernity and an obsolete tradition have given way to hybridity, to a well thought-out syncretism, to a sifting of influences, and a throwing out of all that negates what is considered essential. A film such as Flora Gomes’s Po di Sangui (Guinea Bissau), presented in the official competition at Cannes in 1996, celebrates the coming together of cultures, recalling that the sacrifice of a part of the self is necessary in order to take on that which constitutes the Other’s value, and calls for a rejection of the damage done to both the environment and people. « There are good and bad things in every culture« , Flora Gomes put it simply before an empty room at his press conference. In a magnificent scene, the mother of the twins, Hami and Dou, goes into a trance. She exclaims: « The ancestors decreed that one of you should die, but your father and the imam refused « , before birthing the pitcher of reconciliation. African responsibility is evoked, and stops the sacrifice from being carried out. The village must undergo an entire collective initiatory exile to pick up the red threads the spider of life spins around the corpse of the diviner again: the original word remains central, but a new reading imposes itself.
The so-called « symbolism of an Africa immemorial » refers to the timelessness of certain films from Africa. Seeing only an attachment to the past in timeless cinema, however, boils down to not recognizing what makes the myth contemporary: its affirmation of simple ideas at a time of confusion, its recalling of essential values, and its return to the human and what he/she is, and has always been, thereby rediscovering the energy to live in a complex world. It is absolutely not about reifying an ancestral word, therefore, but about re-writing it in relation to today’s social stakes.
Ferran Iniesta has clearly shown that Africa was in fact the theatre, and the result, of multiple migratory trends, influences and blending well before the colonial period. Africa has never been eternal and static, nor plunged into a lethargy that goes back to the eve of time… The immemorial nature of Africa, therefore, is as much a legend as its cultural uniformity. Even within each ethnic group, whether the anthropologists who propagate notions of unity like it or not, divisions have come to light which refute the visions, the metaphysics even, imposed by the mystico-religious powers, thus revealing the dynamism of internal debates and the permanent redefinition of the traditions.
For a subjective criticism
Naivety, filmic genre: Western attitudes to films from Africa limit them to restrictive criteria which deny their own aesthetic. The reproach that they are slow is so common in criticism that it has become tedious. This rhythm has as strong a coherence as the Asiatic slow rhythm, however (which is no doubt seen as less problematic because it is part of an uncolonized culture, i.e. it is recognized as truly other, and not as an other of the self). Fatima Sanga, the grandmother in Yaaba, was reluctant to travel by car during the shoot as she lost the notion of time when she wasn’t able to see the landscapes. The image thus gives body to time, not only through the length of a shot, but also through its spatial economy. Hence the importance accorded to journeys in African films, in which an ellipse would be more an intellectual choice giving soul to the narrative than simply a technical means.
The coherence of film thus comes less from the form, than from the rhythm that animates its very being. It is a difficult nuance to grasp for the Western mind, which is resistant to the intangible, and which insists on understanding forms to the detriment of their movement. The aesthetic in Africa is not dissociated from its environment: art finds its expression in the very midsts of life, rather than in a specific or reserved space. The arts are not compartmentalized, nor subjected to a hierarchy. Music is inconceivable without movement, and an oral civilization has no problem in dealing with the ephemeral or with repetition. Music, colours, words, gestures, rituals, greetings form a coherent rhythm. It is not surprising that cinema, the art of fluidity and movement, is so popular in Africa!
Privileging the form of a film to the detriment of its content can lead to this rhythm being misunderstood. « Must we insist on applying a fetishistic* critical model to films whose interest and beauty at times lies precisely in the fact that they are not? » asked Michel Chion in the now famous article on « the detail which kills film criticism » (Libération, 22 April 1994). Western thought loves aesthetic dichotomies, whereas the material and the spiritual, the functional and the symbolic are indissociable in films from Africa… Which does not encourage us to take the film for what it says before considering it for what it is, that is, only judging its value once the project it bears within it has been assessed. Whether it be a case of glorifying a film’s cultural difference, or denying its alterity, by attacking its naivety or primitivism, the critic refuses its simple accession to an aesthetic status.
Criticizing a film for what it is, rather than what it says, amounts to seeing the Other as an object, rather than a subject, and thus denies him/her his/her novelty and irreducibility. It amounts to taking interest in the Other without taking interest in what he/she produces, in his/her text, work, in short, in his/her word, which goes well beyond the words he/she uses. Satre showed that Paul Valéry’s writings went well beyond the « petit bourgeois » he was: the motivations and the interest of a film do not suffice to explain it entirely. If the film is successful, it goes beyond what its director « wanted to say ». It is this going beyond that the critic should be trying to apprehend.
Art is difficult when it is the product of another culture. A critic who knows little about the cultural references of a film risks making errors of judgement. Must we no longer write about another for fear of lacking « authenticity »? The answer seems to me to lie in subjectivity: taking one’s own gaze as subject, rather than treating the film as an object. And above all, not limiting the Other to his/her difference, which always boils down in one way or another to dominating and appropriating, or even seeking to convert!
We dream of a truly subjective criticism as envisaged in Surrealism’s day by the first Revue du cinéma team directed by Auriol: to talk about a film whilst marrying it in its « flesh », privileging its internal rather than external logic, seeking what made the film necessary, and not its objective genesis, abandoning oneself to the spontaneity of writing and to a certain dose of lyrical improvisation, respecting creative individuality so as not to confine the film to a genre…
That would facilitate the desired banalization of a relation poisoned by cultural difference – that all-purpose concept used to explain away all misunderstandings. We need to aim for a critical relativism which stops taking the discrepancies observed for differences, and which takes the underlying power struggles into account. We need to understand, in short, what a century of Africanism has hardly facilitated: that African societies are just like any other, that an African filmmaker is a filmmaker, an African film a film, and that each time I highlight its difference, I am in fact seeing it as I need it to be.

* ‘fetishistic’ in the sense of giving excessive attention or value to filmic details, a critical practice widely practiced in France, particularly in journals such as the Cahiers du Cinéma. (translator’s note).///Article N° : 5273


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