AFRICAN CINEMA?

AT THE CANNES INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, three films made by African directors were featured: Abouna, notre père, by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad); Heremakono, by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali); and Kabala, by Assane Kouyaté (Mall). Almost every year since 1966–when La noire de… by Ousmane Sembène from Senegal was shown–African films have been included in the official or parallel program of the festival. Cannes is certainly one of the most prestigious and globally recognized film festivals, and having a film selected there is no small matter. It is noteworthy then that African films shown at Cannes and numerous other festivals are rarely programmed for regular screenings in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s and early 1990s African films did gain considerable visibility, for they were in cinematic fashion at the time, later to be replaced by Iranian and new Asian cinemas.
The ubiquitous term African cinema usually refers to films made by directors from countries of sub-Saharan Africa where French is spoken, but it also generally evokes a type or genre of film. Strictly speaking, African cinema refers to all the films made by directors from any country on the African continent from Morocco and Egypt down to South Africa, including the diaspora. In practice, however, Egyptian cinema is labeled as such (or as part of Arab cinema). Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cinemas are often called
North African, Maghreb, or Arab cinema. Nigerian and Ghanaian cinemas are usually grouped together because of their common colonial history and because their industries developed in a somewhat similar manner. There is also sporadic film production from other English-and Portuguese-speaking regions. In the South African region, filmmaking evolved in a distinct manner because it was far more integrated into the American system. This essay high lights film in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, which is the most internationally recognized African cinema.
It is noteworthy that films made in certain countries are labeled nationally, whereas others are labeled with the generic term African cinema. For example, Fetid Boughedir and Moufida Tlatli are considered Tunisian film directors, while Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) and Ousmane Sembène (Senegal) are often referred to as African film directors. This lack of a national or more specific reference in the latter case should be noted. It is often justified because there are commonalities in the film history of the sub- Saharan countries, in part due to the influence of French policy and in part because the countries face similar conditions of production, distribution, and exhibition. Indeed, there are no clearly distinguishable genre differences that adhere to national boundaries in the area, so in one sense there is a regional logic. Even so, in a film world that has historically sought its legitimacy in national terms, the denomination in a singular form remains problematic. Before turning to feature filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa, a brief cinematic tour d’horizon of the continent would be useful.
A CONTINENTAL Tour d’Horizon
IN SOUTH AFRICA, systematic film production began in 1911. It was not until 1956 that Americans really took over the market, buying out the main South African interests. Even prior to 1957, film production in South Africa consisted mostly of Hollywood-emulated products made mainly for white audiences. During the 1980s, as the anti-apartheid boycott gained strength, international distribution linkages slowed down and production all but collapsed. “What apartheid therefore facilitated,” according to Tomaselli and Shepperson, “was the exclusive institutionalisation of a Hollywood and domestic conservative cinema within a specific set of relations of regulation: race/space, authoritarian censorship, and financial access mainly for whites.”(n1) During the 1990s, South Africa restructured its film industry, adapting French and Australian models. Zimbabwe then followed South Africa’s example, adopting new legislation in 1996 to establish greater coherence between these two important African film industries. With the end of legislated apartheid, many countries on the continent looked to South Africa, hoping to collaborate cinematically with this wealthy country that had a long-standing film industry. After 1995 some sub-Saharan directors filmed and used the postproduction facilities in the region. For example, Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) and Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon) worked on Kini and Adams and Aristotle’s Plot, respectively, in Zimbabwe. As yet, however, there has been no significant change in African filmmaking as a continental project.
In Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, cinema developed in a revolutionary spirit, often as documentaries linked to struggles for independence and inspired by film movements in Brazil and Cuba.
Mozambique was particularly active in this domain and hosted filmmakers from around the world to help develop cinema in the country. When Ruy Guerra directed the National Film Institute, he invited Jean Rouch and Jean- Luc Godard to spend a year working and helping develop a national film policy. Today, the rare filmmakers who surface in these countries are more or less integrated into the francophone film circuit in Europe.
Somalia used to host the Mogadishu International Film Festival, but, as is the case in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, feature films are exceptions. These anglophone countries have not been able to benefit from the same support as filmmakers in the francophone countries, making it even more difficult for a filmmaker to reach the international circuits. In Nigeria, a theatrical cinema trend–in which Yoruba theater performances were filmed- surfaced during the 1970s and became highly successful with popular audiences, but for the development of cinema this did not prove very beneficial. Ola Balogun, a well-known Nigerian director, resorted to making films of Yoruba theater in order to earn a living, but the public was less interested when he made his own creative films. This practice of filming local theater traditions is not exclusive to the Yoruba in Nigeria and can be seen elsewhere on the continent (e.g., with Koteba theater in the Ivory Coast).
Today, Nigeria and Ghana are rather exceptional because of their prolific videofilm industry, which followed the breakdown of the developing film tradition. Homemade videofilm theaters flourish, with entrepreneurs setting up a videocassette recorder in a private or public space and selling cheap tickets for the projections. Mechanics, taxi drivers, and the average person about town now make their own films on video. Melodramas flourish as a soap-opera genre, as do films that delve into religious and spiritual beliefs in the everyday lives of the people. In both Nigeria and Ghana, this videofilm industry has even appropriated parts of the cinema infrastructures through collaboration in exhibition, distribution, and production.(n2)
Egypt has the oldest film industry on the continent, and from the postwar period and into the 1990s, Egypt was producing about fifty films per year and served as a major exporter of films throughout the African continent. Most of this cinema consists of melodramas, social dramas, historical epics, and farces–all with much singing and dancing. It is largely a popular cinema, although some filmmakers, such as Youssef Chahine, grew out of this mainstream industry to become internationally renowned making films that were both popular and intellectual. Today, Indian musical melodramas and Chinese kung-fu films have replaced the strong position that Egyptian films held in export markets throughout Africa.
In northern Africa, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia also have a long film history. Screenings of the Lumières’ cinématographe were organized in Algiers and Oran in Algeria in 1896 and in Tunis in 1897. Although films produced in these countries have not benefited from the same local popularity as the Egyptian films, they are better known abroad, especially in European art houses. Nevertheless, post-independence cinema was at first a state enterprise in these countries. Algeria was the most structured in developing its cinema, although conditions deteriorated again significantly in 1995 and have changed little since then. Filmmakers like Mohamed Lahkdar-Hamina came to the fore with Le vent d’Aurès (1966) and Chronique des années de braise (1975), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1976.
In Tunisia and Morocco, the local productions were seen even less than in Algeria. Tunisian filmmakers like Nouri Bouzid, (Bezness, 1992), Moufida Tlatli (Les silences du palais, 1994), and Fetid Boughedir (Halfaouine, 1990) have brought sustained international attention to their national cinema. Local producers (Ahmed Attia, Dora Bouchacheb), film editors (Kahena Attia), other personalities (Tahar Chariaa, Nourredine Sail), as well as the Carthage International Film Festival all contribute to the industry. Like the sub- Saharan filmmakers, these North African filmmakers also find support in France and Europe, and their films also circulate largely within the European film and festival circuits.
SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA
THERE IS A STRONG FILM CULTURE in such countries as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. Burkina Faso, for example, hosts biennially the renowned Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) and is a central hub of activity in the region. Since the 1960s, filmmaking in this region has slowly but consistently developed into a diverse and rich panoply of cinematographic images.
Many people think of African cinema as a certain type of filmmaking: that is to say, “village” films with themes of conflict between “traditional” and “modern” ways of life. In reality, there are many different types and genres of feature films made by African directors as well as a diversity of aesthetic forms. Some scholars have typologized African films–like Fetid Boughedir and Guy Hennebelle, who were among the first–with revisions made by scholars such as Manthia Diawara.(n3) While it is nearly impossible to quantify the work of so many filmmakers, Boughedir proposed five main trends in African films: (1) a political (or sociopolitical) trend, in which “the filmmakers analyse reality through social, economic and political criteria. The clash of the old and new is explained in terms of a confrontation between social classes with antagonistic interests, in terms of national or foreign power, in terms of economic choice, in terms of dependence and independence, in terms of a struggle to change the authorities and institutions from which the situation criticized arises”; (2) a moralist trend, in which the emphasis is on human change as opposed to institutional change and the clash between old and new is given as a moral choice; (3) an “umbilical” trend, reflective of an identity crisis on the part of the filmmaker, corresponding to Fanon’s “second phase” of the colonized intellectual who has first sold his soul to the West and attempts a “blind return to his roots”; (4) a cultural trend, in which a discussion of civilization is based on culture rather than on politics or morals and tradition is integrated in its positive and negative aspects; (5) a commercial trend, in which films often have a moral message.(n4) These categories provide an initial basis to better understand early African cinema, but they need updating to capture the scope of contemporary sub-Saharan filmmaking.

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