African filmmakers’ new strategies

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Faced with the demand for an authenticity thought to constitute the African identity, the question of reality remains central in film. A review of the new strategies filmmakers have adopted in several recent works to avoid being labelled without renouncing who they are.

Confronted with Western criticism (which, after all, reflects the public’s desires and thus the success of these films in Europe), films by directors of African descent have intrinsically to prove their Africanity. They can then receive the holy unction: in general the recognition of their « authenticity ».
Two contradictory criteria come into play:
a demand for exoticism: films must be limited to both a geographic territory (it must be shot in Africa, a condition for a long time imposed by the French inter-ministerial Fonds Sud commission, one of the main sources of funding of African film) and an ideological territory (a magical, immemorial, legendary, mythical Africa).
a demand for reality: films must document contemporary African problems, which, in general, are limited to those of the urban milieu. Fictions must be based on the experiences of a disintegrating Africa.
African criticism, for its part, is often a distorted mirror of the North’s, at times also spurning « bush films » or very often closely examining the veracity of the film.
These two demands have evolved over time: we have already examined the turnaround in « mainstream » criticism (the national newspapers and film journals) in the early Nineties (1), which favoured the second demand over the first, rejecting new films after having lauded the authenticity of earlier works. These were qualified, depending on the case, as natural, contemplative, primitive, ingenuous, a « cinema of origins », their charm, or even delicious naivety celebrated (2).
Before this loaded gaze, filmmakers have developed survival strategies so that they can exist without renouncing who they are. In short, so that they can affirm themselves beyond all projections. A difficult exercise!
A historical recap
Gaston Kaboré used to say that « reality is the heart and body of films » in African cinema. This had always been so, but, after a series of impasses, an evolution became imperative.
At the time of Independence, film was about re-appropriating one’s own gaze, one’s own space, one’s own modes of thought. The aim was to replace the ethnologist’s external or the colonialist’s propagandistic gazes with one’s own vision of the self. Like the African thinkers, filmmakers believed that Africa could resolve its contemporary problems by affirming its culture. In around the Seventies, the first films made by Africans in Africa formed a cinematic mirror, a denouncer of obsolete traditions, rife with anathemas against neo-colonialism and corrupt elites, and full of calls for values that would replace « civilisation » with « progress »…
This radicalism and its didactic designs did not survive the invasion of television or the assaults of a Hollywood cinema that quickly imposed itself as much as the imaginative model as it did reassuring entertainment. It came up against the ambivalence of relationships with the West, experienced both as dream and nightmare.
It was the trap of the mirror: the refusal of a reductive view of the Other required a self-affirmation that in turn led to an idealisation of difference, which became dogmatic. The illusionary dream of a world without the Other loomed behind the demand for authenticity. Asserting one’s specificity to escape the exclusion of being made to feel inferior led to the formulation of a territorial and racial discourse. Belief in a fixed identity proved to be xenophobic, negative, and to go round in circles.
Novelistic-type strategies offered a way out in the Eighties: by favouring events over action, the succession of occurrences over causality, « then » replaced « therefore », as André Bazin put it when talking about Neo-Realism. Idrissa Ouedraogo applied these principals right from his first feature film, Yam Daabo (The Choice, Burkina Faso 1986): a rural family flees the drought and awaits international aid; misfortune befalls the family, but it manages to find its coherence again. The children in Nyamanton, The Garbage Boys (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali 1986) simply relate the daily trials and tribulations of a poverty that is nonetheless not devoid of humour. The message is less explicit in these films, the voice-overs absent and the screenplays follow life’s chance happenings, in natural settings, with actors who concentrate on being rather than on expression, whilst the narrative continues to respect the duration of things, the ellipses being no more than gaps in reality.
Enthusiasm was great in a Europe that needed images of the South to cope with its own culture shocks: the films broke out of the confines of the specialist festivals, and Cannes showered praises on a cinema it had just discovered, awarding the Malian Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (The Light) the Jury Grand Prix in 1987 and the Burkinabè Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilaï in 1990. These films were seen to bring « soul » to a cinema under attack from the television, misappropriating their very raison d’être: people only remembered Yeelen‘s magic (the film drew 340 000 viewers in France), whereas the film was in fact a vehicle for a political message against elders’ appropriation of the power of knowledge.
This novelistic-type approach, unlike Brazil’s Cinema Novo, for example, developed the ontological rather than the aesthetic: these films, whose form is often linear and relatively academic, marked a rupture with the epic poetry developed in the first period, but gained in internal evidence.
But this cinema found itself in an aesthetic impasse: that of fictionalised reporting whose realism soon became a cliché. Directing styles soon got the upper hand again, affirming a point of view vis-à-vis the degradation of living conditions in Africa. For simply testifying was not enough: it was necessary to help rebuild a reality under perpetual degradation. And urgently so.
It was not a question of dropping realism: if filmmakers had shown reality, they had charged it with meaning. Unlike naturalism, which simply records the real, realism made the visible readable. But, even though necessary, fiction was no less of an impasse: wasn’t it still the fiction of the Other? Of that West which, due to the state of Africa, remained both the financier and the market for the films? Of the Western demand for a ready-made discourse of invented tradition – that colonial library which kept rearing its ugly head, even in the very discourse that claimed to refute it, as Mudimbe analysed and denounced?
Although reality took on greater force in film, it was at the expense of the entertainment. Put extremely schematically, an opposition emerged in world cinema: Hollywood wielded illusion to rework modern fears, deploying means that created an unrivalled professionalism in entertainment, whilst the other cinemas raised the terrible challenge of affirming reality, with a contradiction into the bargain: the more you show reality, the more you manipulate it. The stake was to bank on the veracity of the characters rather than using them or turning them into symbols; it was to avoid didacticism by having confidence in the facts, and to encourage the audience to think by avoiding the habitual rut of representation.
Current strategies
Faced with the expectations of a nostalgic West, which tries to find its lost values in Africa, but which also constantly seeks a mirror for its own crises (which it now more often finds in East Asian cinema, thereby excluding Africa from « modernity »), faced with this vampirism that defines what it wants before looking and listening, Africa’s films are developing new strategies for survival:
Depict the complexities. The aim is not to dress a story in reality, but to grasp it in all its complexity, in short, to scramble the markers to depict Africa’s complexities and to move away from reductive simplifications. There are no ready-made answers: the mixed-race youth who goes looking for his father in Guinea in Immatriculation temporaire (Gahité Fofana, 2001) will only manage to do so by accepting the complexities, the lack of clear logic, the dispossession. The narrative adopts the same uncertainty, the image flirting with curtains which partly mask the real. He can only find the paths, which we realise will never fixed, by adopting the young delinquents’ lifestyle, by taking risks.
Go beyond autochthonism. This presupposes letting one’s characters exist freely, for themselves, in all their singularities. It presupposes not making them the emblematic symbols of a cause. This is so with El Hadj in L’Afrance (Alain Gomis, 2001): this Senegalese student builds his solidity in Paris on his project of returning home to serve the independence preached by the decolonisation heroes. But he is completely destabilised by the exclusion with which he is confronted and, like Samba Diallo in Cheik Hamidou Kane’s L’Aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure), ends up on the brink of suicide. This deep and painful deconstruction, which takes the form of an identity quest in which he renounces his values, ultimately leads to a renewal that allows him to share what a woman in the immigrants’ hostel says to him: « Home is where both my feet are ». Becoming the subject thus presupposes going beyond autochthonism. Asserting one’s citizenship – a major theme in Jean Odoutan’s films (Djib, 2000; Mama Aloko, 2001) – is a self-affirmation in the society of adoption: a specifically physical presence is the alternative to the so-called visible minorities’ media invisibility. In Alain Gomis’s film, the camera hugs the black skin: a sensuality devoid of eroticism that demonstrates, that unambiguously incarnates the belonging to a social body, to society.
Capture the present. The filmmakers show not pity, of course, which would be a slight on dignity, but a deep tenderness for their characters, an affection in the order of respect. Their behaviour is never anecdotal: it is that of human reality. This presupposes taking risks, and one finds directors themselves playing contradictory characters who are quite simply human. The Zeka Laplaine of (Paris: xy) (2000) is your average type of guy: he works too much, cheats on his wife from time to time, spends his time at the bar, has his good and bad points. When he postpones his family holiday, it’s the last straw: his wife leaves him, leaving him in quandary. The fact that he is mixed-race, that his mistress is black and his wife white is not central; it is simply the basis of some cultural differences, periphery data. His very run-of-the-mill chauvinism is widely shared around the world, and this humanity constitutes the force of a film that does not exist through what is ultimately its rather banal subject, but through the life it unveils, a man’s attitudes and behaviour. The directing pales before the convolutions of the actor, the filmic time is that of life’s uncertainties, which itself becomes a spectacle, thereby acquiring poetic strength. Here, film captures the human condition and it does so in no uncertain terms, in the present: it is not about memory or about forecasting. Being conscious of being human implies capturing the present.
Use the intimate to disorient. The purpose of this quasi-documentary approach is to affirm the human. The filmmaker manages to reveal what reality beholds by opening him or herself up to the intimate, far from grand discourses. Far from offering a globalized vision of Africa, the filmmaker affirms a here and now, a place and a country, a relationship. The intimate crops up there where it is least expected. In Bye bye Africa (Mahamat Saleh Haroun, 1999), in an N’Djamena where « war has become a culture », Africa’s problems, from Aids to police checks, from violence to the decline of the city’s movie theatres, are present. But the film is narrated in the first person: a filmmaker, who goes back home when his mother dies and who tries to make a film, gets tied up in an old amorous relationship again. Caught between the elsewhere of exile and feeling disoriented in his own country, this man, who happens to be African, shows himself to be displaced within, revealing the paths of his own disorientation, his own loses of identity, his own failings to the viewer.
Favour similitude not singularity. Why do I relate to a story like Daressalam (Issa Serge Coelo, 2000)? After all, the never-ending war, the mirage of revolution, the compromises of all sorts are the Chadians’ problem. These two rebel friends who share the same ideal and the same commitment end up taking opposite paths in the twists and turns of the war. The film does not judge them, nor pit one against the other in a Manichean way as the director is interested in what they have in common, not what divides them. Rather than confronting us with our singularities, he encourages us to treat one another as fellows, and it is this impression of belonging to humanity, this familiarity between alter egos that enables people peacefully to find their place in the world.
Examine memory. This does not rule out the fact that slavery, colonialism, and apartheid still cast their shadow on thought and dignity. But rather than focusing on the torturers’ guilt and repentance, these films carry out a salutary examination of memory. Asientos (François Woukoache, Cameroon, 1995) forces us to look our own History in the face, Adanggaman (Roger Gnoan Mbala, Côte d’Ivoire, 2000) depicts African involvement in the slave trade, and Fools (Ramadan Suleman, South Africa, 1997) speaks of black people’s integration of violence under apartheid… This cinema thereby decentres the victimised position of slave that precludes all self-criticism: it takes the past by the horns, not endlessly to denounce a fatal castration, but to explore what caused it and what so much suffering means for the subconscious. The Rwandan genocide proved that the West does not have a monopoly on barbarity: filmmakers have not finished exploring man’s fratricidal penchant, for example in La Genèse (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali, 1999).
Back to orality. To avoid being reduced to their difference, which turned them into caged monkeys and their films into a genre, filmmakers insisted that they were simply « filmmakers full stop »: an illusory fantasy that supposedly put aside their determinations, their own specificity.(3) A new impasse. So, as it is precisely here that the crux of the problem lies, directors realised that they might as well use their cultural foundations as a way of transporting spectators elsewhere, there where they want to take them. Balufu Bakupa Kanyinda told me that in Dix mille ans de cinema (Ten thousand years of cinema, 1991), he drew on the oral forms of the Congolese kasalas, which function in intertwined patterns. The similarity between the way in which Ahmadou Kourouma’s writing and that of Mahamat Saleh Haroun in Bye bye Africa use oral techniques is striking: the deliberate narrative approximations which connote the sought-after incertitude, the precisions and digressions that form parentheses in the narrative they serve to illuminate, the direct addressing of the reader or the viewer in the full-face shots of people looking into the camera, the maintaining of the illusion of the presence of an audience evoked by the double gaze of the video camera in Haroun’s film… The outcome is a veritable blues piece, a musical form characteristic of many films, one of the finest examples of which is a docu-fiction about Senegalese immigrants in Milan, Waalo fendo (There where the earth freezes, 1998), by the Black Algerian Mohamed Soudani. Here too, testimonies addressed directly at the camera, a rhythm-like rather than linear narrative, sensitive images of the urban environment interspersed with shots in Africa, etc., help punctuate the film with visual interrogations in a splintering of discourse that expresses a plural me as much as it does the linguistic multiplicity characteristic of the exile’s experience.
But is all this specifically African? No. The recurrences or constants observed do not constitute an African identity. These strategies are found in other films from elsewhere. Far from being characteristics, they are paths which these filmmakers choose today in order to bear witness to their multiracial, multicultural Africas, to the Africas in the making, those here and there, those they live and try to interpret in their art. Only one thing does not change: their art is more real than reality, as it was for their elders.

1. Cf. La critique occidentale des images d’Afrique/The Western criticism of African images, in : Africultures n°1, Oct. 1997, p. 5-11; Cinémas d’Afrique noire : le nouveau malentendu, in : Cinémathèque n°14, automne 1998, Cinémathèque française, Paris, p.107-116.
2. Cf. Les Cinémas d’Afrique noire: le regard en question, L’Harmattan 1997, p.228-238/African Cinemas: Decolonising the Gaze, Zed Books, 2000, trans. by Chris Turner.
3. Cf. Postcolonialisme et cinema: de la différence à la relation/Postcolonialism and cinema: from difference to relationships, in : Africultures n°28, May 2000, p.56-60.
///Article N° : 5505


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