The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

About Some Meaningful Events: African Cinema and 50 Years of FESPACO

<em>De quelques événements sans signification</em> © Observatoire/Filmoteca de Catalunya/Basma
De quelques événements sans signification © Observatoire/Filmoteca de Catalunya/Basma

In a festival where a major part of the lineup consists of the newest restorations of “Old Hollywood” filmmaking, recent editions of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna have been marked by a refreshing turn towards lesser known cinemas and film industries that are no less interesting. This year’s retrospective “Cinemalibero. FESPACO 1969-2019” marked 50 years of the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. FESPACO was established to promote African filmmakers and the screening of their films, and to support the represented nations’ cultural liberation from their former colonial oppressors. Of the eleven films in the program at Il Cinema Ritrovato, eight were shown from newly restored copies, but each film embodied a different perspective, a different cultural context, and a different artistic sensibility.

One aspect that many films in the program have in common is an urgency to define a national cinema. In De quelques événements sans signification (About Some Meaningless Events, 1974), Moroccan filmmaker Mostafa Derkaoui strives to uncover what young Moroccans are thinking in relation to a simple enough line of questioning: “What is your favorite film? Which Moroccan film have you seen?” The responses range from, “Politically engaged cinema has to take an interest in the problems of society!” to “Moroccan cinema doesn’t exist.” Equal parts documentary and fiction, the film gives insight into the emancipation of Marxist youth culture through its radical form of interrogation.

Questioned while hanging out in bars in the port of Casablanca, the film’s subjects, a mix of journalists, poets, actors, and artists, all come together to express their mutual dissent against the country’s authoritarian regime and its repressive policies concerning freedom of expression. Financed independently, the film is abrasively militant as well as educational in its resistance: “Organized political action is currently lost in dead ends. Culture can then play a determining role in the awakening of conscience.”1 Unsurprisingly, the film was immediately censored due to its “vulgarity”—it culminates in a worker stabbing and killing his boss in a bar, for he can no longer stand being exploited. It never had a release and was rarely seen before a 16mm negative was found in 2016 at the Filmoteca de Catalunya and restored.

Another stunning experience is Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins (1974) of the recently deceased Mauritanian-French filmmaker Med Hondo, who was one of the driving forces of African activist cinema. It begins with a breathtaking 21-minute monologue, in which a man explains the history of cinematic representation in Africa, directly addressing the camera, something like an over-acting performer from the commedia dell’arte. Vignettes about the living conditions of migrant workers in France, political oppression, and distribution of resources follow. With his dual pedagogical approach to cinema and history, Hondo formulates Africa’s destiny as a polemic: this is how the world works—what a sad place. A parallel comes to mind between Hondo’s analysis and Childish Gambino’s cartoonish 2018 music video for “This Is America”—here, the oppressive system of colonialism; there, blatant cultural racism in the United States, critiqued with sharp humor and witty cynicism. With its experimental structure, the film seeks to erode the dialectics of historical dominance and argues for a new form of cinematic language by killing the old systems of production.

Depicting the struggles of cultural invasion, Nigerien director Moustapha Alassane’s Le Retour d'un aventurier (Return of an Adventurer, 1966) uses the Western genre to make his point. An adventurer returns to his peers and carries precious objects of desire: guns, cowboy boots, and hats. Re-dressed as Western rogues of the desert, they collectively invade their traditional community and stir up trouble. Viewers witness these characters playing “grown-up” while appropriating a “Western” image as they set about gambling, starting bar brawls, stealing sheep and horses, and generally making their dominance felt. What initially looks like a youth rebellion against the old guard culminates in a reflection on cultural pessimism in Africa. Selfish heroes don’t make good role models.

Another, more outspoken, example of class struggle is the Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé’s Baara (1978). Balla Diarra, a porter transporting goods in his hand-pulled carriage to people’s houses in Bamako, meets his namesake, Balla Traoré, an engineer at a local weaving factory. He hires him as a worker and then organizes a trade union meeting to discuss the collective demand for higher salaries from Sissoko, the factory’s owner. He gets killed in cold blood soon after by Sissoko’s henchmen, but the old power structures have already started to crumble. The working class has become class-conscious and eventually the collective prevails over the corrupt system of old.

Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa’s Muna Moto (1975), from Cameroon, takes a different route to discuss a similar topic: young N’gando and N’dome fall in love and expect a child, but when the former cannot afford to pay the latter’s dowry, he asks his uncle for help. Husband to three wives (who have all been sterilized) already, he deceives his nephew by making an offer to N’dome’s parents and marries her himself. Outraged and in despair, N’gando kidnaps his own child during a festival in the village and finds himself confronted with a confusing system of values, past and present. This story was intended as an allegory for political suppression in Cameroon, a dilemma where the past is kept in check (through sterilization) while any future freedom is curbed (through the uncle’s marriage-interception). While substantially gagged by censorship of the time, the film still sparkles in its remaining subtleties as a fervent critique of the ruling class.

Gaston Kaboré tries something even more shrewd in Wend Kuuni (1982), a fable set in pre-colonial Burkina Faso about an orphaned and seemingly mute boy who is found exhausted in the desert and is adopted by a new family. The opening shot sees his mother fighting against remarriage by her tribe due to her spouse’s prolonged absence and planning her escape. Next we jump into the boy’s struggles and his being nursed to health. He assumes a role as a shepherd in his current family and the broader society of the village, as plots begin to intertwine along a non-linear timeline. Kaboré achieves something phenomenal here: by mixing traditional oral storytelling techniques with cinematic visual language, the experimental narrative structure gains depth and works its way ever faster towards its climax. We only reach the film’s inner catharsis through a series of shattering events that untangle the story’s chronological order.

A link between Muna Moto and Wend Kuuni is their reflection on past traditions, one by a couple seeking to break out from the dowry, the other of Wend Kuuni’s mother refusing to remarry, and encountering a strong resistance from the elder members of a patriarchal tribal culture. Pognere, his new step sister, puts it even more frankly: “If I was a boy we would be looking after the sheep together. What if you were born as a girl?”

A highlight in unconventional storytelling and underlining this anarchy is the diptych of Le Franc (1994) and La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil (1999) by Djibril Diop Mambéty. The hero in La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil is Sili, a crippled girl on crutches, who pledges to the viewer with her face superimposed over rolling sheets of Le Soleil on a newspaper press: “Grandmother, I am going to get a job selling the newspaper, because anything the boys can do, girls can do, too.” Her success sees her share her income with assorted other people in the street, yet nevertheless she finds herself up against a mob of hostile young boys who try to push her out of business. Determined, Sili carries on. Mambéty conceived of his story as “an ‘homage’ to the courage of the street children”; this playful but assertive critique of gender roles is a remarkable example of imagining a modern African society.

In Le Franc, the protagonist Marigo serves as the typical comical anti-hero, stumbling over his feet and cleaning his nose on the bed sheets. Spurned by the devaluation of the franc to try his luck, he buys himself a lottery ticke—and wins! The film’s soundtrack incorporates the diegetic driving sounds of a hand-made Kalimba, which accompanies him while he walks down towards the sea with the door in which he hid the winning ticket hoisted over his head. Le Franc is an allegory for African struggles to leave the continent’s colonial past behind and the pessimistic outlook that accompanied these struggles, yet Mambéty makes his tragic hero ooze hope. In times of adversity he keeps his dignity and rejects failure.


1. Interview with Mostafa Derkaoui and Léa Morin, Casablanca, June 2015, Filmoteca Catalunya


Marius Hrdy

Marius Hrdy is a cultural worker, film programmer and writer.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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