Writing on Walls

Documentary, the future of African cinema?

In following the issues and day-to-day workings of a neighbourhood video-club in Ouagadougou, home of the FESPACO and capital of African cinema, my latest work, « Sacred Places », allowed me to question my own work as a filmmaker in Africa, and to consider the direction that cinema is taking on the continent.
Offering a personal reading of both past and present documentary filmmaking in Africa, this article aims to continue that reflection, raising one of today’s most salient questions: that of transmission. As the visionary Abbo reminds us in « Sacred Places »: « In the beginning was the word… » But who is speaking? And to say what to whom?

When I arrived in Ouagadougou for my first Fespaco in 1983, I was struck by the intensity and abundance of debates about African film. In the endless discussions to define African cinema and its future, one of the points that kept coming up was the impression that the first films by African filmmakers were either documentary in style or of documentary value.
This overriding view apparently emerged as most of these first films – « Afrique sur Seine », « Contras’City », « Borom Sarret », to name but a few – took place in urban settings, with characters often playing their real-life roles. Moreover, the content of these stories, often rooted in the social and political context of the time, led many people somewhat disparagingly to equate these films with documentaries, at a time when documentary film had not achieved the levels of popularity it has gained in recent years with the films of Michael Moore and other European and American directors.
If realism in African cinema led critics to associate narrative films with documentaries at a time when documentary did not have the appeal of fiction film, who can blame African filmmakers for turning their backs on realistic stories set in African cities to embrace stories set in the imagined and idealized village, giving rise to what became referred to as « calabash cinema » in the Eighties?
Along with Idrissa Ouedraogo and his award-winning films « Yaaba » and « Tilaï », the most striking example of this to my mind is Souleymane Cisse, who first made « Den Muso », then went on to make what I consider to be one of the masterpieces of African cinema: « Baara ». Released in 1978, « Baara » is a well-crafted film that has barely aged and can be seen as an example of an African cinema that is both challenging and popular. Cisse went on to make « Finye », before completing « Yeelen », one of African cinema’s most mysterious, complex and sophisticated films, bringing him the international recognition he deserved and encouraging him to embark on the strange adventure of the film « Waati », a multi-headed monster that almost sunk his career.
Before Cisse, the very first wave of African filmmakers had successfully appropriated the film medium in their efforts to accompany the social and political struggles of the early years of African independence. Their works directly and indirectly challenged colonial discourse and offered African audiences representations that promoted dignity and gave them the hope, strength and confidence to embark on the task of inventing a future in a turbulent and changing world.
The Sixties saw the emergence of masters such as Mustapha Alassane, who went from narrative, to documentary, to animation to address issues that were relevant at that time, and which remain relevant today, fifty years later. One fully appreciates the talent of this man when working, as I currently am, with young avant-garde filmmakers in the US, who still use 16 mm today to reinvent, create and propose daring metaphors about their lives. In his 1966 film « Le Retour d’un aventurier », Alassane did just that and more in his little village in Niger, creating a parody of the western to brilliantly and metaphorically address the intrusion of colonial culture in African societies. This is another example of what popular culture can be at its best: inventive, funny and relevant to the contemporary socio-political situation.
By reappropriating ethnographic codes and blending them with elements of oral tradition, and specifically the griot’s narrative style, Beninese filmmaker Richard de Meideros’ short film « Teke, Hymne au Borgou » (1974) paved a path we are still following many years later.
Both Mustapha Alassane and Richard de Medeiros shared a legitimate concern: how to find ways to represent African realities in an accessible form, incorporating African narrative approaches and European aesthetics, but reframing these to serve new purposes. This strategy worked in other art forms too, such as the visual arts and music in particular, with musicians like Manu Dibango or Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Afro jazz. By blending African and Western music styles into what would become the new modern African music, they durably changed African music and found a way to impose it internationally without losing their souls.
Almost ten years older than me, Samba Felix Ndiaye followed in the footsteps of these two pioneering filmmakers, while at the same time developing his own personal style.
Unlike Mustapha Alassane’s popular approach to film, however, the late Samba Felix Ndiaye saw himself more as a painter, an artist looking at society, bringing elements together for everyone to see, irrespective of whether the majority of the audience was able to read the relevant connections between them or not.
Samba felt that cinema could stand only for what it was, nothing more. This gave him the ability, the freedom, to step back and achieve a distance that allowed him to make films that I considered observational and at times even a little « bourgeois », as I felt they sometimes lacked political edge at a time when I personally considered this crucial in the fight for democracy in Africa.
In all fairness, Senegal in the Eighties was in a far better political situation than many other African countries, even if the situation has since declined. In April 1984, we had a mini civil war in Cameroon; Paul Biya came to power in 1982, and we thought that the 25-year-long nightmare of Ahidjo was over and that the country would move towards democracy. We were deluding ourselves, sadly, and we slid deeper and deeper into the mire. It was in this context of a totalitarian society that I started and continued to make documentary films. One of the goals I set out to achieve was to decomplexify life around me and to present the social and political situation in Cameroon in a comprehensive manner. That is why I choose to narrate my films. In 1992, in « Afrique, je te plumerai » I adopted first-person narrative for the first time and I have continued to use it to bring viewers, wherever they are, to look at the world through my eyes, through the eyes of an African. My latest film « Sacred Places » took me into St Leon, a neighbourhood of Ouagadougou, the « capital of African cinema », to meet Bouba, the video-club operator, Jules-Cesar, the djembe-maker who sees the djembe as the ancestor of cinema, and Abbo who writes philosophical statements on the neighbourhood walls for everyone to see. Together, these three characters are a metaphor for African film: Jules-Cesar incarnates sound and film’s creative aspects; Bouba the image and its constraints; and Abbo is like the filmmaker, writing on the « walls » of his neighbourhood, hoping for people to come by and read his words.
Many other filmmakers choose to use first person narrative like Zeka Laplaine in « Kinshasa Palace » adding another dimension of complexity by incorporating themselves in the film as another fictional character. A way of blurring the boundaries of fictional documentary or an attempt to confuse the viewer and leave him wandering where the truth lies in the story unfolding in front of him. The visual presence of self in films as a narrator and as a character was also present in Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s film « Bye Bye Africa » and in Abdherramane Sissako’s « La Vie sur terre ».
Samba Felix and I often ran into each other at film festivals, or in Paris, where we discussed our work avidly. He repeatedly told me to pay more attention to the form. In retrospect, I realize that my work kept unconsciously answering: « forget the form, as long as I truthfully represent my perception of African reality without loosing my audience ». Personally, my main concern was to improve my filmic structures and make my narration as poetic, funny and engaging as possible without compromising the content.
Samba studied his classics in film school and was fascinated by a Dutch filmmaker, Johan Van der Keuken, whom we both knew. In Berlin in 2000, a year before his death, Van der Keuken told me that he was fortunate to have been born in a place where the basic issues of democracy had been resolved, and that he was not sure he would have made the same films if he had been born in some of the places he had filmed. This was a kind way of acknowledging my work, even if it was totally different in its approach to his, and I remain grateful to him for that.
Samba Felix Ndiaye and Johan Van der Keuken belong to the family of great filmmakers whose empathy for the people in front of their cameras transpires clearly in their films. They also showed the same empathy to their peers, and especially their younger colleagues, for whom their time and advice was precious. Their absence will leave a long and lasting void.
Despite the disdain for African documentary film that has prevailed up to this date, there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful: 2009 confirmed both the increase in the number of documentary films produced by first-time filmmakers and the number of festivals on the African continent dedicated to documentary film. At the same time, it also saw European cultural institutes, such as The Goethe Institute and the French Cultural Centers, and organizations, such as Africadoc, vying to offer training to young African filmmakers.
This latter situation brought back to mind the words of one African professor from Cheik Anta Diop University in Dakar, whom I met after a screening of « Afrique, je te plumerai ». He commented: « Your film ends with the affirmation that education is one of the solutions for the future of Africa, but the question is, what education? »
Indeed, one of the recurring problems of cinema on the continent is the absence of transmission from one generation to the next, partly due to the lack of local policies to support film. In such a context, filmmakers rarely have time for anything other than their own daily struggle to create and survive. This does not nurture filiations or long-time collaboration between filmmakers of different generations. Each generation is thus left to fend for itself and each new generation acts like it thinks it has reinvented the wheel!
With the exception of a few institutions such as Gaston Kabore’s Imagine in Burkina Faso, which offers training to African filmmakers from all over the continent, today’s training schemes seem to perpetuate a paradigm not dissimilar to the colonial era’s civilizing mission: the globalizing mission. Today, for example, the Goethe Institute brings young German filmmakers to Africa to train African filmmakers, as if there were not enough trained filmmakers on the continent to transmit their knowledge to their younger peers. Europeans training Africans to look at and represent themselves raises certain questions, especially if one considers many of these teachers’ lack of awareness and sometimes lack of interest in the history of the continent, and particularly the history of African representation.
Isn’t it ironic that, fifty years after the first generation of African filmmakers began the struggle to challenge and rectify colonial representations of Africa, Europeans are back to train our youth to look at and represent themselves, often taking as examples and references the ethnographic images they are familiar with, rather than the works of other African filmmakers?
When European organizations such as Africadoc claim to be initiating documentary filmmaking in Africa, what message do they send to their trainees about the legacy of the pioneering documentary filmmakers working on the continent before them?
Have African artists and filmmakers been struggling to introduce elements of complexity in the representation of Africa, to challenge simplistic and essentializing colonial representations, simply to see the return of a new form of cultural colonization fifty years on, in the name of globalization?
Despite the situation I have just described, there is hope. Amidst the numerous productions flourishing all over the continent, some real talents are emerging and their works are opening up encouraging perspectives for the future. Katy Lena Ndiaye (Senegal), for example, whose aesthetic approach is a pure pleasure for the senses, can no doubt be classed as a descendant of the director Samba Felix Ndiaye.
Nourished by her solid journalistic background and a fearless approach to injustice, Cameroonian director Oswalde Lewat has successfully managed in her three films to remind us all that the fight for democracy and change in Africa is still the responsibility of the artist.
In South Africa, the new individual voices of Khalo Matabene and Dumissani Pakhati are embracing and addressing the complexity of the new South Africa in audacious styles that complement the observational approach of experienced filmmakers such as Francis Webster.
In « From a Whisper », a sort of fictional documentary that puts some of the realities facing the African continent at the centre of the creative cinematic process, another impressive woman filmmaker, Kenyan Wanjiri Kanui, took a real event – the bombing of the American embassy – and created fictional characters to address the full complexity of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. This successful reconciliation of narrative and documentary echoed the approach of pioneering Mustapha Alassane.
Finally, I would like to cite the work of Moussa Toure, who worked as a technician on many of the classics of African cinema before directing his own 35-mm features « Toubab-Bi » and « TGV ». In 2000, Toure took a video camera and started travelling the continent, shooting « Poussière de ville » (2001), a film about street children in Congo after the war, followed by the poignant « Nous sommes nombreuses » (2003) on rape as instrument of war and its consequences. Moussa Toure has since gone on to deal with immigration and environmental issues in his neighbourhood in Dakar.
Moussa Toure’s work is interesting not only for his relatively atypical cinematic path from narrative film to documentary; his work also raises important ethical questions. When, while shooting « Poussière de ville », for example, Moussa went looking for the families of his characters, the street kids, he was going beyond the habitual role of the filmmaker vis-à-vis his subject by assigning himself the duty, the responsibility of taking the kids back to their relatives. At the same time, Moussa’s films remain difficult to find internationally, even if he does screen them locally: in a sense, it is as if Moussa were writing on walls like Abbo in « Sacred Places », as most of us are in our local communities.
For me, these two points raise the following key questions, on which I would like to conclude:
can the filmmaker, as an artist, allow him/herself to be defined by others who have the means to manipulate and orientate the reading of his/her work, or should he/she be writing on the walls like Moussa in his neighbourhood, at the risk of not being seen further afield?
Are those who choose to write meaningful things on the walls, for their communities, more likely to survive in the long run, to make a more lasting impact, than those who run after the mirage of a global recognition?
Whilst the walls cannot be moved, today’s new forms of internet technology do make it possible to relay those messages, offering a diversity of voices to challenge the standardizing tendencies of globalization. So, ultimately, the question still remains: what messages are we choosing to write on the walls?

March 2010///Article N° : 10003

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