Ode to Africa

Many films today explore the complexities of daily life and what modernity means for Africans. In terms of genre, one finds, for example, comedies, road movies, and many dramatic narrative films. An important facet of many African films lies in the rich storytelling traditions of the continent. Not only
has the history transmitted through oral tradition become the subject of many films, but narrative and aesthetic techniques from that tradition are also often manifest in the film language.
A sociopolitical trend continues to be a very important thematic in African filmmaking, and Diawara has defined it more specifically in terms of social realism. This is not a genre, however, for sociopolitical concerns cross many different types of African films. In multifaceted ways, modernity is a common thread found in these films. In some cases it is postcolonial modernity, in others it is a specific African modernity or a global modernity that is addressed. Films like Mandabi (1968), Xala (1974), Guelwaar (1992), and Faat Kiné (2000), by Ousmane Sembène (Senegal), are good examples of this category, as are such films as Finye (1982) and Waati (1995), by Souleymane Cissé (Mali); Nyamanton (1986), by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko (Mall); and Laafi (1991) and Wendemi, l’enfant du bon dieu (1992), by Pierre Yameogo (Burkina Faso). For example, Djibril Diop Mambéty, the inspirational and very contemporary Senegalese filmmaker, turned the struggles of everyday people into urban poetry with films such as Touki Bouki, Le Franc, and La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil.
An explicit moralist trend is less evident in contemporary African film, although the dilemma between old and new is sometimes represented in these terms. An all-encompassing, ideological militancy is no longer the order of the day, and it is at a much more personal level–through the daily social intricacies of life–that films struggle with moral issues. Films like Haramuya (1995), by Drissa Touré (Burkina Faso); Le prix du pardon (200l), by Mansour Sora Wade (Senegal); Hyènes (1992), by Djibril Diop Mambéty (Senegal); and Le Damier (1996), by Balufa Dakup-Kanyinda (Congo), among others, attest to this tendency.
There is an interesting tendency toward reflexivity–in terms of filmmaking as a profession in Africa and in terms of questioning the cinematic medium– that is far more predominant than an earlier umbilical trend: for example, in films like Un certain matin (1992), by Regina Fanta Nacro (Burkina Faso); Bye Bye Africa (1998), by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad); Souko (1997), by Issiaka Konaté (Burkina Faso); Aristotle’s Plot (1996), by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon); and, less explicitly, in Life on Earth (1998), by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali).
Sissako, whose films have practically all been shown at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of the most well-known and interesting African filmmakers on the scene today, and his best work is highly reflexive. He combines a poetic and intellectual film language that is often an exploration of the self. His refined minimalist aesthetic orchestrates space, light, sound, and silence in ways that beckon the spectator to read between the lines. In contrast, Haroun, whose latest film was also selected for Cannes, often strives for a style of cinema that is more concerned with engaging the spectator through emotion, color, drama, and suspense and through more constructed narrative forms concerning issues of contemporary identity in Africa.
Just as it has become an increasingly pervasive subject in many of the world’s cinema traditions, the cultural trend continues to flourish in African filmmaking, although it has evolved in diverse dimensions. The way that traditional social and cultural practices participate in contemporary society is
a concern of many groups, in particular those who feel threatened by the various guises of hegemonic forces, from local to globalized forms of governance and power. In its most evident cinematic form, this tendency is seen in films that are directly inspired by historical and oral narratives: for example, Keita! L’héritage du griot (1995), by Dany Kouyaté (Burkina Faso); La Genèse (1999) and Guimba (1995), by Cheikh Oumar Sissoko (Mali); Ceddo (1976), by Sembène Ousmane (senegal); and Taafa fanga (1997), by Adama Drabo (Mali). There is also a tendency within this cultural trend to highlight particular moments or cultural traditions within the history of a particular group, and the attachment to political issues is often absent or abstract in such films as Yeelen (1987), by Souleymane Cissé (Mali), and Tilai (1990) and Yaaba (1989), by Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso).
A commercial cinema, in the sense of having an industrial basis with popular spectatorship and a continual flow of production, does not yet exist. If we understand commercial as related to more mainstream and popular cinema, then there is a noticeable evolution in this direction. Films like Wendemi (1992), by Pierre Yameogo; Haramuya (1995), by Drissa Touré; Samba Traor  ́ (1992) and Kini  ́ Adams (1997), by Idrissa Yameogo; Faat Kiné (2000), by Sembène Ousmane; and older films like Bal poussière (1988), by Henri Duparc; and La vie est belle (1987), by Mweze Ngangura and Benoit Lamy (Congo), move in this direction, but they often maintain simultaneously a moral and didactic fiber. In this commercial direction, there is an increasing effort on the part of various film directors to film in video, specifically for local television.
The filmmaking culture that developed in the zones where French is still spoken was given impetus by a number of factors. After independence, France financially promoted African film production, which has contributed to a specific film culture and a cinéma d’auteur. A strong socioeducative tendency was also promoted in French policy, and this, too, has marked African fiction film. The beginnings of fiction filmmaking in this region of Africa are also influenced, to a certain degree, by Third Cinema politics and aesthetics. The idea behind Third Cinema was that film should take into account local realities and contribute to the educational, social, economic, and political development of the community. In addition, many African filmmakers grew up seeing Hollywood films, westerns, and action films, so this is also reflected in various ways in the filmmaking.
Filmmaking in this region has developed in a very collaborative manner between Africa and Europe, with considerable amounts of funding coming from sources in Europe. The films made by African directors from the francophone regions of Africa are the most widely known and distributed in Europe and North America. They seldom have distribution contracts prior to completion, usually circulate in international and alternative circuits, are often marketed in national or regional ways, and are highly dependent on the recognition gained at international film festivals. It is difficult to obtain distribution in Africa because the film markets are dominated by foreign films, especially Hollywood productions, Indian musical melodramas, and Chinese kung-fu films, but when African films are shown they are often avidly attended by local audiences.
It has been shaped by both the aesthetic qualifies of the cinema and by the conditions of production and distribution. On the one hand, there was an aspiration that African filmmakers would create a new cinematic language that was “authentically African”; on the other hand, the reality of a financially and geographically displaced system of production has shaped the way many scholars have approached this cinema. A boom of writing on the subject occurred in the 1990s following the first English monograph on the subject written by Manthia Diawara (1992). With few exceptions, most of the English-language work consists of edited volumes. Prior to this period, most of the writing on African cinema was in French, by Pierre Haffner among others, and the journal CinémAction has always devoted writing to African filmmaking.
The question of the authenticity of an African film language has long accompanied the subject. African filmmakers are generally expected to be Africans first and not simply filmmakers as such. For example, whereas Haffner (1978) argued that an example of authentic African cinema was the popular African cinema consisting of cinematic adaptations of Koteba theater performances made in the Ivory Coast, Frank Ukadike (1994) has argued for certifying the authenticity of African feature films because they are based historically in African oral traditions. While the question of cultural authenticity is, in itself, a problematic line of argumentation, it has largely been pursued because of the specificities in the context of production. The dialogue between cinema and oral traditions; the strategies of the griot; and various means of storytelling, improvisation, linguistic codes, et cetera, transformed and appropriated by the cinematic language, do nevertheless present some of the specificities of this African cinema.(n6) It is interesting to follow some of the current formal film analysis, which brings to the fore cinematic structures that draw on local oral narratives and transform and innovate oral practices into cinematic form and see this work in combination with ongoing historical, social, cultural, and political analyses.
That cinema should contribute to the social and political development of African societies lay at the origins of this art, and the creation of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) in 1970 was motivated by these objectives. Even though the FEPACI still exists today, it no longer plays the ideological role to which it once aspired, and African cinema has increasingly diversified. More and more, the desire of African filmmakers to use their art to express themselves does not always coincide with the desire to contribute to the development of “Africa,” be it a locality, nation, region, or continent. Even so, the idea of contributing to knowledge about Africans and contributing to the knowledge of Africans themselves, through fictional narratives and without didacticism, remains a very important characteristic in African cinema from this region.
In conclusion, African filmmaking in sub-Saharan African often foreshadows current and future discussions on contemporary filmmaking in many other parts of the world. As transnational financial collaboration and co-production become more and more of a necessity and as more and more groups of people continue questioning specific identities, the experience of African fiction filmmaking already has a long experience of mapping identity into a financially transnational and complex context.

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