Film Travels 2020: Africa

When I set out to do this filmtravels2020 exercise back in January as part of my new years resolution plan, I don’t think I considered, or at least failed to imagine just how rich the experience would be. Seeing films from around the world and experiencing new cultures through film has not only enlivened my personal viewing experience, but has enriched my understanding of the ways in which film history intersects with cultural and political histories around the globe. Living in Canada it is far too easy to simply succumb to the shadow that is the great American industry. The degree to which my own viewing habits are directed by American culture and film undoubtedly looms large. Seeing the development of film industries across the world up close and personal then has done two things- reminded me that the world is much larger than this Canadian-American bubble, and second, encouraged me to dig into the distinctives of my own Canadian culture. After all, the question of what makes culture and what makes a people is intimately tied to the development of its dominant public artform, and for the last 120 years film has played that role around the world.

In arriving in Africa, a vast and diverse continent in its own right, another thing I never expected was some timely overlap in my reading life, particularly in relationship to my interest in theology and the Christian faith. A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading a book called “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” by Thomas Oden. This was one of those pivotal and revolutionary reads that kind of shook up many of preconceptions and changed how I see faith and the development of faith in my own life and in the world. This book made an excellent pairing with two more subsequent reads: “The Non-Violent Atonement”, which gives a good deal of time exploring how Westernized versions of the Gospel have long been extrapolated from their African (and Eastern) roots, formulating an indivdualized Gospel built around notions of violence, power and conquest that has informed Western Theology as a “spiritualized” concept of atonement that then gets lobbied back onto the more collective African experience that is far more aware and familiar with a “liberating Gospel” (centered aroun “The Exodus” story) through the concept and idea of Western missions.

It is no coincidence then that the ongoing and continued development of a localized film industry in what is a diverse continent mirrors a similar movement in its pushback against Western advancement and colonization, western stereotypes and the pressures of navigating a broad country divided and detached from their collective story.

What is worth pointing out about the African cinema right from that start then is that there is no one single African cinema. To uncover African culture and the development of its people through the lens of its film history is to find the power of the collective within its diversity. There are differences between North African and Sub-Saharan cinema, and between the cinemas of the different countries that make up the whole.

Within this diversity though it is possible to locate key, driving forces, be it the the vastness of the Nigerian Film Industry, which has been documented as the second largest film producer in the world and its vital economic center, or the cultural touchpoint of “Cinema of Egypt”, recognized as one of the oldest industries in the world and arguably the epicenter of the ancient African Tradition. Throughout Africa’s long history of colonization, which has translated to imported cutures across North and South, these two centers of played an equally important role in protecting some sense of who Africans are outside of the acculturating effects of both Christian and Muslim conquest (among others). In terms of an interest in colonizations overlap with the film industry, history recognizes the colonial period as “the Scramble for Africa”, which occured at the hands of Western powers during 1881 and 1914. Thus the interest of Africa’s colonial and post colonial reality coincides with the development of its film industry as a vital part of that history given the development of film leading up to the year 1900 and hitting is formative stride in the early 1900’s. 

Of concern for this discussion is the fact that during the colonial era the ongoing Westernization of Africa was in full force, including the film’s occupation by Western filmmakers. There is much in the way of documentation that reveals the ways African’s were percieved by other territories through film, including Latin America, Europe and of course America. They were shown to be an underdeveloped and lesser people akin to the natives of their land, often romanticized and made ‘exotic” (read: strange, backwards and unfamliar) in ways that degraded them, and often capitalized so as to place them within those localized, national narratives in subervient ways. Maybe even more destructive was the way these depictions began to feed back into African industries as well, framing their percpetion of themselves in particular and largely damaging ways. This paved the way for this Western encroachment through colonization to become a matter of “civilizing” a uncivilized people and nation. And what better way to do this than through control of the film industry, the primary way in which a people and a culture is able to document its collective narrative and story.

Thus, to speak about the development of a truly African cinema one not only needs to look fairly late in the game to document its rise and capture its identity, but we also need to locate it is a developing industry against the reality of colonization. As a post-colonial expression, African Cinema has a definite past-present-future concern and focus, trying to recapture their narrative in a similar frame of the African Christian Tradition, ensuring they don’t forget the struggle of colonialism as the driving narrative, while also making sense of this new and unfamiliar land that awaits them, rich with history and Tradition and a buried cultural presence ready to be made alive and uncovered. It is through the development of the film industry that one can then begin to see the tables hopefullly beginning to turn, for Africans to find themselves in light of their own story rather than the one long imposed by the West.

For this reason, much of the scholarship insists that locating the African film industry begins in the 60’s when many of the diverse African Countries were able to claim some form of independence. This leads to a truly divere continent full of a diversity of films and “kinds” of industry movements, but a diversity shaped by a desire to

“use the art of filmmaking as a political instrument in order to rightly restore their image which had been wrongly depicted by Westerners” precisely by focusing on aspect of the “neocolonial” condition.   

Just to give a sense of how long it took for Africa to be able to reclaim this sense of identity, a few stats:
– Considered the first film directed by a black African, Afrique Sur Seine explores the difficulties of being an African in 1950s France.- Allégret later made Zouzou, starring Josephine Baker, the first major film starring a black woman
– The first African film to win international recognition was Sembène Ousmane‘s La Noire de… also known as Black Girl.
– the first African film to win an Academy Award for Foreign Language Film was Tsotsi (2006), a South-African production.
Stats like these show just burdened the continent was by its past, and how long it took them to even begin to overcome this long shadow and find representation of themselves even in their own context, countries and land. Perhaps even more striking is the battle that the Director considered to be the “father of African Cinema”, Ousmane Sembene, faced in terms of trying to pull from the most influential voices in African cinema, who were not African at all, a sense of African’s as people rather than, to borrow Sembene’s own words, “insects”. To work in film on their own land and in their own industries largely meant working under a foreign culture casting African’s in particular roles. Sembene, along with Oumarou Ganda, had to fight like hell to make something out of nothing, and he became incredibly influential, particularly in the area of Senegal.

One of the ways to track the rising diversity of the African film inudstry and cultural identity is through the different colonizing powers. For example, the struggles that French colonies faced as industries intimately tied to the support of the French Ministry of Cooperation, a fact that prevented Africans from making “African” films (see the Laval Decree), was slightly different from Portugese colonies who had little to no industry influence and simply used the local film industry for colonial propaganda, which again depicted Africans working in the industry as insects.
Add to this that colonization left a fractured continent having to navigate three main cultural and religious influences- African Tradition, Arab-Islam, and Euro-Christian, and you have a complicated and complex landscape that Africans as a whole have had to try and navigate.

“Like other forms of creative expression by Africans, filmmaking constitutes a form of discourse and practice that is not just artistic and cultural, but also intellectual and political. It is a way of defining, describing and interpreting African experiences with those forces that have shaped their past and that continue to shape and influence the present. It is a product of the historical experiences of Africans, and it has direct bearing and relevance to the challenges that face African societies and people of African descent in the world in the present moment and in the future. As product of the imagination, filmmaking constitutes, at the same time, a particular mode of intellectual and political practice. Thus, in looking at filmmaking, in particular, and the other creative arts, in general, one is looking at particular insights into ways of thinking and acting on individual as well as collective realities, experiences, challenges and desires over time. African thinking and acting on their individual and collective realities, experiences, challenges and desires are diverse and complex, and cinema provides one of the most productive sites for experiencing, understanding and appreciating such diversity and complexity.”
– Mbye B. Cham

The essential reality of the African experience through the lens of the African film indusry according scholarship is that “The situation contemporary African societies live in is one in which they are dominated on several levels: politically, economically and culturally.” As one source reflected, the African filmmaker is often compared to the traditional griot., whose primary task is to capture and give back to the people pictures and narratives that can speak to their collective experience. Looking back to African Tradition, the primary point of expression which would then unfold into South Africa in its diveristy, we can located the prominance of oral practice, which African filmmakers have been able to use to recapture a true sense of African identity. Given the prominance of colonization in its narrative, what much of the scholarhip also narrows in on is the ways in which Africa was able to take the revolutionary movements and language of Italian neoralism and New and Third Wave film expressions and shape it around their own revolutionary language, a language that is well suited to oppressed societies looking for reform and third world practices. Before arriving at the modern shape of African Cinema, a big part of what helps give shape to these different industries today is this indebted style and focus to giving film back to the people on the ground and allowing film to tell the stories of the people on location and incorporating real Africans who are then empowered to tell their stories.

In terms of giving shape to a more recognizably modern and now developed (and still developing industry) across Africa, we begin with this overarching truth:

“The African cinema industry acknowledges undeniably the need to develop its own way of making films, support their local initiatives, and invest in cinematic cultures such as films festivals. Although the African film industry does not currently attract the same levels of popularity claimed by the well-developed European and American industries, it has shown significant growth and progress in the beginning of the 21st century, a fact reflected in part by the creation of a Journal of African Cinema and African TV channels.” This can also include the creation of the African Film Summit in South Africa in 2006 and the African Movie Acadamy Awards which started in 2004, which has been instrumental in the growth of the Nigerian Film Industry, a kind of epicentre, and in creating a unified ability and opportunity to develop industries across the continent. Or things like the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers created in 1975 and the the Charter of the African Cineaste that flowed from that. This helped give a unified focus to the larger continent on the importance of giving voice to past-present-future driven narratives.

To narrow in on Nigerian Cinema, known for the growth of “Nollywood” (which produced 1844 films, a record in 2013, and has only been growing), what brings definition to this bustling industry is low budget films made for the local communities and without concern for international focus. These are stories meant to build up, reinforce and give voice for a local culture, and more importantly to do so without being dependent on outside industries such as France and America. This industry is pushing for the cause of indepence and autonomy.Contrast this with a more continent wide movement into a genre known as Afro-Futurism (think Black Panther, or if you are an ignorant and uninformed white male like me:
These films have a specific interest in speaking into the Diaspora and finding a way to connect voices abroad with voices in Africa.

Contrast this still yet with something Somoliwood, a more youth oriented industry (in contrast with Nollywood) interested in pointing towards the future expressions of young Africans.

All across the Continent you can find these kinds of stories. Stories on the one end like Equatorial Guinea, who continues under a Dictatorship that has stifled its ability to build a localized industry, to the superpower of the Continent in South Africa’s rise in financial status. Two very different expresssions both located within the larger African experience. Or a place Burkina Faso, a smaller locale which boasts a wealth of locally driven entities who are pushing to have a real international presence. Or the one-two punch of Nairobi and Kenya, with Nairobi doing some exceptional work in investing in and uncovering local talent (behind the award winning film Nairobi Half Life and Out of Africa and the home of the Hot Sun Foundation) and Kenya doing the leg work of building international connections. And one can’t overlook the cultural forces of Morroco, which boasts desired locales and festivals, and Egypt, which holds a massive influence and presence in the Middle East and Arab world. It is still the oldest and one of the most cultured and enlivened industries in Africa.

“In spite of its youth and the variety of overwhelming odds against which it is struggling, cinema by Africans has grown steadily over this short period of time to become a significant part of a global cinema civilization to which it brings many significant contributions. More specifically, it is part of a worldwide film movement aimed at constructing and promoting an alternative popular cinema, one that corrects the distortions and stereotypes propagated by dominant western cinemas, and one that is more in sync with the realities, the experiences, the priorities and desires of their respective societies.” This sets its sights on things like the loss and reclaiming of Tradition, oppression and liberation, immigration, diaspora and localized cultures, colonialism and post colonialism, racism and reclamation of identity and image, among many other things.

If there is something that emerged from the discussions of scholars and historians and filmmakers it is the necessary focus in Africa on film as communication:

“One can argue that film is an important part of the cultural domain in any country, but particularly so in South Africa where social change depends on the quality of communication in the society. Communication is one of the cornerstones of democracy, and film and video can make an important contribution to the democratisation and development that need to take place within this society… most Afrikaans films communicated by means of obsolete symbols that had little intercultural communication value. They painted a one-sided and stereotypical portrait of the Afrikaner, leading to a misconception about who and what the Afrikaner was. Furthermore, the negative portrayal of blacks as a servant class in these films is a visual symbol of the deep-seated apartheid ideology.”  If this is the damage that coopted communication can represent, what is happening in the current African rennasaince is a film industry looking to communicate better, both in terms of the importance of their diversity which moves from North to South, but also in the sense of affirming a true African identity. This is what lies behind the goal of all of these movements, modern developments and industry developments. And if it has the opportunity to say anything, the future is hopeful.

As a fun note to leave this on to that end:

“In Mauritania CINEPARC RIBAT AL BAHR is an open air Drive-in Cinema located in Nouakchott, the only one of its kind in Africa. In addition to the projection schedule, the drive-in have a new application iOS and Android provides you with the biggest international movie database in which you can find information such as plot summaries, cast members, production crews, critics reviews, ratings, fan trivia, and much more about movies, series, and all cinematic work.”

African cinema: a historical, theoretical and analytical exploration by Martin Both
Cinema and Media StudiesAfrican Cinema
Frank Ukadike
Questioning African cinema : conversations with filmmakers / Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike
Flickering shadows: cinema and identity in colonial Zimbabwe / J.M. Burns
African cinemas: decolonizing the gaze / Olivier Barlet

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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