Monday, 29 November 2010

African cinema

What do we mean when we talk about African cinema? Well, once upon a time it was perhaps something like this:

What's interesting about the trailer, apart from the weird tone of voice of the narrator, is that the selling point is Africa, with its animal and its people. The actors are mentioned more in passing, and even though the director is as famous as John Ford his name is not mentioned. But the setting is emphasised again and again, in spoken words, written words and in the images.

Today, African cinema thankfully means something different. For some, especially younger audience, it might still mean a Western film set in Africa, such as Blood Diamond (2006), but for most it would mean films made in Africa, by African filmmakers. But the questions then become, what is Africa, who speaks for it, and what are they saying? And why are films from Africa called "African films", instead of Senegalese, Malian or from whichever country they might come. We do after all, call Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain 2001) a French film, and Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv 2009) is seen as part of the Romanian "New Wave", and not an European "New Wave". Well, perhaps it is, in non-Western countries. I don't know.

A case could perhaps be made that since African films are usually co-productions, it becomes only relevant to call them African, just as there is a term for European co-productions (Euro-puddings). To take one example, Ousmane Sembene's last film, the very impressive Moolaadé (2006), had at least five countries involved in the production.

Some say that films made by filmmakers born in Africa but making films in other countries, about Africans in that country, should be seen as African films. That too could be problematic though. If somebody from Senegal makes a film in Belgium about Senegalese people, what has that got to do with people in Egypt or Zimbabwe? And if you're a second, or third, generation immigrant filmmaker making films in France, are they still African films then? Are people with African roots "condemned" to always make "African" films?

It is of course always the case when you want to define something, at least outside hard science, that it is damn hard to do so. At best, it creates as many problems as it solves, and maybe it is unfair, or unnecessary, to focus to much attention on these difficulties. In any event when people talk about African cinema, it's relevant to ask the question, "Ah yes, but what do you mean by that?". In this blog post, when I use the expression "African cinema" I mean films made in Africa by people who see themselves as Africans, but only because it is convenient, not because I think that there is some kind of special African kind of filmmaking, that is true for all films made in Africa

African films do not get much distribution, neither in their own countries or around the world. Partly to compensate for this, there is now a number of African film festivals spread around the world. They usually have two laudable aims, to help spread African films, and to counter the image in massmedia of Africa as being all about crime, poverty, war and social strife. However, it becomes ironic since most films that they show are, well, about crime, poverty, war and social strife. You will not be as likely to see comedies about young, rich and successful people having cocktails in Lagos or Khartoum as you are to see films about rural people being oppressed. As much as I like Moolaadé, it could be argued that it caters to Western ideas about Africa, with its depiction of cruel ancient customs, harsh patriarchal societies and feisty, colourful women who sing and dance.

Most African films made outside Nigeria are financed in part or completely by France and/or the EU. Is it possible that it is easier to get funding for films which, as I suggested, caters to Western ideas, and that if these films were wholly independent, and locally funded, they might be very different, and deal with different concerns? I'm certainly not questioning the late Sembene's earnestness in wanting to address, in Moolaadé, the horrendous practices of female circumcision or genital mutilation. But if the film festivals were really interested in portraying a different aspect of Africa, then that is not the kind of film that will do the job, no matter how good it is.

I guess the main problem here is that, with these films and these film festivals, it is still mainly the outside world which gets to decided what is good, proper and worthy as African films. The people of Ghana, Uganda and Kenya and so on watch Hollywood films, cheap Nigerian films (from Nollywood), South American telenovelas and Bollywood films, the kind of films the (often elitist) audience of the African film festivals in many cases would avoid at all costs, instead going to watch films that make them feel good about themselves, such as films about those that are poor and suffering.

The point is not to discourage people to go to film festivals and watch what they've got to offer on African cinema, or to belittle the many great artists making films in Africa, it's just to point out some problems and possibly to some instances of hypocrisy. You should flock to the African film festivals, but not because the films are African, but because they are good.

To round things up, here's a trailer to a Nollywood film, Passions:


  1. Define 'good'.

    Also since the concept of nation is arguably one imposed upon African countries as a result of colonialism, then to propose national cinemas within Africa might - and this is only a hypothetical argument - be construed as too complicit with the colonial powers that shaped that identity.

    Perhaps African cinema is precisely challenging for its complexity, its defiance of easy understanding, its contradictions - as well as the 'collective' nature of Africa, which as a result is not divided by national boundaries.

    Perhaps this could work hand in hand with a regional or even, for want of a better word, tribal paradigm?

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is history behind this idea of 'African cinema' - and it is not solely a Western idea imposed from without.

    The formation of FESPACO and FEPACI in the late 1960s and onwards, including the mid-1970s 'Charter of the African Cineaste,' saw many African filmmakers self-identify as, well, African.

    But as ever, a most interesting blog.

  2. The point is not a defintion of "good", the point is that the audience should watch the films because they want to see good films (as in films they like), not because they are African.

    I agree that most African countries are colonial after-effects, but then again most countries in the world are, or have been arbitrarily put together by inside or outside forces. I suppose it should be up to the filmmakers to decide whether or not they are Senegalese, African, French or whatever.

    Is there a "collective" nature of Africa, which includes all parts of it, from the copts in Egypt to the Maasai in Kenya and so on?

    I know there is a history behind African cinema, and I actually meant to discuss FESPACO. There are still complexities here though, some which are related to politically sensitive questions (such as Léopold Senghor's and Aimé Cesaire's ideas of négritude). But I was mainly talking about the festivals ideas of African cinema.