April 15, 2015
Has the magic gone out
of Africa’s largest
By Kenneth Harrow
I enjoyed attending this year’s Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) in Burkina Faso. Ouaga is a laid-back city with decent places to eat and nice people on every corner. There is little of the stress found in other big cities with their hectic downtowns and glittering nightlife. Ouaga is spread out, very hot, and dusty—the Harmattan blows its desert winds mixed with the exhaust of innumerable mobylettes on the street, making breathing a challenge. When I was not watching movies, I walked and walked. Foolishly, I did not wear a face mask. I could feel the roughness in my lungs after a few days, but the sun was glorious, especially for one coming from the freezing wastelands of Michigan.
I spent most of my days and nights during the festival watching the films and also took in a good number of shorts and documentaries, films outside of the competition. At first I was terribly disappointed with the quality of what I saw at the festival, but the films gradually improved, and I began to alter my negative perceptions. Ironically, for a festival that gave itself the slogan “The Year of the Digital,” the program contained few examples of the new world that digital has brought to filmmaking. The Nigerian film Render to Caesar (Desmond Ovbiagele) was the only standout in this area.
Regardless of their quality, most of the films were throwbacks to older styles of filmmaking and, much as I hate to frame it this way, were clearly in the mold of la francophonie. The common traits of this cinema, that has emerged over the years, include an emphasis on custom or culture as something that could be called “traditional”: ritual, dance, formal rhetorical pronouncements, a celebration of hierarchical relations, of elders, of village life etc. There are pieces of this here and there, and they are set off by the presentation of and anxieties over modernism. These appear, at times, by evoking corruption in city life, in political figures, in the failure of figures of authority to maintain their integrity—a general decline in the sense of past values associated with patriarchy or of the primacy of family. At times, francophone films celebrated the rise of women or the strength of women in resisting male authority or male abuse; at times the women are victims. But the sense of a programmatic cinema prevails. In addition, the incompatibility of European modernism with fundamental African values is represented frequently, with the underlying values of “home” ultimately seen as prevailing, or if not, then as having been betrayed.
Ultimately, these are parts of a much larger picture in which many filmmakers generated visions of Africa, at times critical, at times in praise, but generally susceptible to some notion of “authentic.” Alongside this Africa there appeared an alienating Europe, at times framed in neocolonial terms, at times as a cold and coldhearted site of exile. What developed as auteurism in Africa dominated until the rise of Nollywood, whose influence was minimal here. As much as I appreciate the work of Andrée Davanture (the master editor at Atria), the days of Finye and Zan Boko have long since passed, and a number of the films I saw seemed stuck in the past: values important to be celebrated in the past; techniques of representation, of rhetorical delivery, and of the need to present a pedagogical lesson to the audience; and often the uneasy emphasis on an older nationalist models underlying the Europe-Africa binary that seems out of touch with all that a digital age implies, including especially the nature of transnational or global cultural “flows” that have given rise to greater forms of popular, often “genre” films. The worst in that respect was Dani Kouyate and Olivier Delahaye’s Soleils, a horribly cliché-ridden piece about a young woman out of touch with her past, guided by a griot who introduced her to her history, beginning with Hegel!
In the end there were two films that were excellent and deserving of the highest awards, but they didn’t receive anything of significance. Haiti Bride by Yao Ramesar was perhaps my favorite, although Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu has grown on me so much (after a second viewing) that I’d have to put it up there with Haiti Bride.
Timbuktu represents Sissako at his height in creating a world of beauty and historical drama, evoking the poignant sense of loss attached to a nomadic Touareg couple, their tent perched precariously on the sandy hill, overlooking the river. In contrast, in the city of Timbuktu we come to the violent intrusion of Islamist invaders. The latter were never demonized, and yet were ultimately damned by their insensitivity to what would make life, and especially life in Africa, worthwhile. They crush the possibilities of love, and even the poignancy in the loss of love, along with the music and the incandescent, if not transcendental possibilities, that could be seen in the contours of the lives of those in Timbuktu. The invaders bear the blindness of an ideological movement, one that crushes an adulterous couple, shuts off the music, shuts down women in the public sphere, and tarnishes justice with guns. The echoes of Bamako are felt in the quiet indignation we experience during these scenes, as well as in the celebration of what makes life worth living. The extraordinary cinematography embraces the beauty of the Sahelian landscape within which it is set. Much of this evoked La vie sur terre and Heremakono—in short, some of the best cinema produced in the past twenty years. And it takes little to guess at the shortsightedness that might have guided the jury’s failure to recognize the film for its great qualities: Sissako’s refusal to demonize the “terrorists,” his refusal to condemn the Touareg, and his choice of the principal couple as Touaregs living in a tent, closest to the desert, thus incurring the disfavor of those who would paint this depiction as a French stereotype. Finally, he accepted Mauretanian support in making the film. We’ve seen these reproaches repeatedly on the web: he didn’t make the film about Mauretanian slavery or Touareg racism, but rather about Islamists with a human face. In his failure to win meaningful awards comes the visible failure of FESPACO to recognize the film that by any measure deserved the highest award.
Apart from Timbuktu, the second truly brilliant film was Haiti Bride by Yao Ramesar. Briefly, we see a couple whose families fled Haiti after the fall of Aristide. The couple returns to marry, but the earthquake of 2010 occurs on the same day. The male protagonist becomes a lost soul, his memory gone; his wife disappointed, quits the land. Three years later, as he has come under the sway of a local artist, they come back together and return again to Haiti to marry. The trace of the past leads us to follow them, recalling the trauma and its nachtrâglichkeit—the camerawork functioning as an act of recovering, remembering. The dialogue repeats itself, like trauma. Images echo those of Haitian style painting, now rendered almost surrealistic rather than primitivistic, akin to a long sequence of time running back. The film was the only truly avant-garde work of cinema in the festival—beautifully shot à la Haitienne, a daring, imaginative, and wonderful film. It received no awards, but never mind. We have the name of Yao Ramesar to retain.
There was a second tier of fairly good films, which did include the winning film Fièvres (Hicham Ayouch), along with C’est eux les chiens(Hicham Lasri). A notch below them and still good—but not excellent—was the Ethiopian film Price of Love (Hailay Hermon) and Dyana Gaye’s Des Etoiles. Somewhere around that range was L’Oeil du cyclone (Salif Traore) and Run (Philippe Lacôte). So I shouldn’t complain; that is eight films in the competition that went from good to excellent. The downhill went really far down: Sekou Traore’s Môrybayassa was almost as incoherently bad as the really bad Rapt à Bamako (Cheick Oumar Sissoko).
The films that weren’t trying to make political or cultural points and entered into the spirit of genre film did much better, though they were still limited in their achievements. A good enough genre cop film, a “digital” film in style, was the Nigerian Render to Caesar; and another genre film, closer to the sentimental dramatic family tale of incest and corruption, à la Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva, was Amog Lemra’s Entre le marteau et l’èclume, a Congolese film.
The Golden Etalon went to Fièvres, directed by the Algerian Hicham Ayouch. In the film, Benjamin is a child at war against the world. He has known violence and social alienation at home. One day his mother goes to prison and Benjamin soon learns he has a father. He goes to live with him in a cité in the Parisian suburbs. His father, who is something of a failure, still lives with his parents. Benjamin is the figure of an uncontrollable bad boy adolescent. He smokes, despite his grandfather’s efforts to have him stop, curses, is bald, insults his grandparents, making them seem helpless, and creates misery all around him. When the grandfather tries to stop him, he threatens to burn the Qur’an. Violence doesn’t stop him. His father seems helpless, broken himself. We learn that his father has already had a mentally disabled son in an asylum (perhaps explaining why he doesn’t want Benjamin in the hands of authorities). The film reworks our conventional framing of banlieue cinema, and merits recognition, especially for Benjamin’s strong performance—the artist as a young man, in Beur clothing.
The second place winner, Fadhma n’Soumer (Belkacem Hadjadj) was almost unbearably pontificating: an Algerian costume history of 1850s, depicting the Algerian resistance to the French in Kabylia.
The third place winner was L’oeil du cyclone. The gender politics in the film were intriguing and new, though its other political content less so. The central character of the film is Hitler Mussolini, a crazed “terrorist” prisoner. A lawyer is sought to defend him. The political drama that unfolds—complete with “terrorists,” child soldiers, a corrupt regime—culminates with a ridiculous final intertext absurdly claiming that no efforts are being made to reintegrate child soldiers back into society. Maybe Traore should go watch Ezra. However, the gender politics were amazing. The “woman-man” lawyer who defends Hitler Mussolini presents a new possibility for rereading gender orientation, in terms of male representation and the lawyer’s image and powerful invasion of male space. The lawyer’s counterpart is a transgender red haired inmate, a castrated “man-woman” who violently and flamboyantly troubles the heterosexual norm. I am using the term homme-femme here to evoke the Senegalese figure of the goor-jigeen, the male entertainers who dressed as women in St. Louis, and who evoked the laughter, pleasure, or unease of the population before the image of those not comfortably identifiable as man or woman.
In this film, the figure of the woman lawyer is masculinized, in appearance and action, and so i’ve inverted the term to femme-homme, woman-man. This plays off against the strong masculinist image of the “terrorist” warrior. The uber-masculine “terrorist” Hitler Mussolini can only fall back on yesterday’s version of sexuality as he learns his lawyer has never been conquered by a man: “you mean you are a virgin?” As is the case, over and over in the majority of films in the festival, we see here a version of patriarchy that is falling, with nothing left to sustain heterosexual difference without the father’s name. Here the figure of the father is definitively undermined when it is discovered he is buying diamonds from the very rebels who raped his wife and chased the family away from their village (thus causing the daughter to grows up to be a femme-homme, a strong lawyer). Eventually this avocat femme-homme tames the savage child-soldier Hitler Mussolini and civilizes him.
There are flashbacks both for her and him: the traumas in the past return with the trial in the present. As the principal lawyer in the case of the terrorist, she uncovers her father’s betrayal of her family and the society. Immensely wealthy, he has changed from being a victim to a collaborator with both diamond smuggling terrorists and corrupt government offices, along with the business elite. The leader of the corrupt government ultimately falls, the judge and lawyer redeem justice and prevail. The film wins third prize. Really? It has its worthy aspects, but third prize? Over Timbuktu? No way! A joke.
I liked the Ethiopian Price of Love (Haile Hermon), but found the ending a disappointment, where instead of rebelling against the church abba, the taximan suffers at the hand of fate and fails to complete his love for the prostitute. The shots in Addis were striking; the working through of the central character, a reformed dissolute young man, was effective, and the love story very affecting. Power in the hands of evil men; the church father to counter it… Well, the men struggle, from one film to another, without every seeming to establish a male figure who remains admirable and strong.
I particularly liked fat Gladys in Run. The plot verged on the surreal with her amazing portrayal of the fat circus lady who can outeat anyone else. But she is Anglophone, and the confrontation with Cote D’Ivoire’s xenophobia made for a strong issue that generally worked well.
Morybayassa was basically a split narrative, with the first part, very much like Viva Riva, about the evil pimp (the same actor played the bald gangster in Viva Riva) and the desperate prostitute who meets Mr. Right, a U.N. specialist. The film shifts to France, where the prostitute turns into a mother seeking to win back her daughter. Mostly unconvincing in its plot, the film offered a somewhat more interesting portrayal of French racial politics, with the high school kids and the white stepparents who adopt the prostitute’s abandoned daughter in Africa, taking her back to Europe where she can never fit in. Essentializing tropes of Africanness, of blood ties, doom the film.
Render to Caesar brought up New Nollywood, a gangster film, with Lagos as its backdrop, and a plot straining to make the police procedural work in the climate of massive corruption. And it mostly did work, standing out from every other film as something in line with the new efforts at digital filmmaking in Africa.
Entre le marteau et l’enclume was a decent genre film, from the Congo, where the descent into corruption and vice ends up with the stepfather raping his stepdaughter and giving her HIV-AIDS. It was a “B-movie,” never pretending to be more, and doing a good job in creating melodrama and “real-life” Congo characters.
This was so many miles from the pretentiousness of Soleils, a film that just had to give us the truth—again and again—about all the historical burdens Europe inflicted on Africa, tediously, tendentiously, and pompously. It was sad to find the griot once more turned into the teacher, censé savoir. But in a sense it encapsulated a kind of subtextual motif that seemed to undergird the festival itself, and that was encapsulated in the role of the French (L’Institut Français).
The three films I missed, Cellule 512, Printemps Tunis, and Four Corners, were well received by my friends.
In sum, I felt this festival was a throwback to yesterday; and that the judges who awarded the Etalons were out of touch with where African film has been going. It was a bit sad to see that while North African cinema was generally good, or passable, many of the sub-Saharan Francophone films were looking backward, not forward. If Timbuktu saved the day, in that regard, the judges never noticed it. If the genre films I mentioned did not really merit the Etalon awards, they were still more in touch with the possibilities of film today than the failed films that were struggling to make the point that rape is a bad thing, that corruption should end, that nepotism is evil, that one’s heritage is what young people need to know and appreciate, etc. What was really good about C’est eux les chiens, was precisely its refusal to preach; and if the winning film, Fièvres, seemed to want to celebrate the artist as marginal outsider (again!), it still did a credible job of it.
Ultimately my negative judgment must fall not so much on the judges as on those who curated the festival. The magic has gone out of the bright word FESPACO, which once stood for the exhilarating lights of Finye, Muna Moto, Saraounia, Pièces d’identité, and with its embrace of a certain ineffable beauty, En attendant le bonheur. Among the dozens of shorts were many that could only be called amateurish, with a few bright gems. Among those off competition were some conventional documentaries, like Coupé (Aneké Ossita), Miners Shot Down (Desai Rehad)—which was quite well done, actually, and the super conventional Victorieux ou morts (Mario Delatour).
Every projection began with the ads and thanks, presented in gigantic letters, to the Institut Français that seemed to be the only significant sponsor. The projection of Soleils was under the stars in the large amphitheater at the Institut Français, which was packed to the gills. I found it sad to remember back to the wonderful figure of Sotigui Kouyate, the griot in Keita, and the magnificent griot, again, in Les Noms n’habitent nulle part. He was, indeed, the father of Dani Kouyaté whose effort to pay tribute to him failed to avoid the pitfalls of autheticité tropes and originary politics. Framed within the vision of a French Africa, a Francophone Africa, it presented everything I would want to deny as representing African cinema. I remembered positively Andrée Davanture and Sotigui Kouyate, but I felt trapped by the clichés of the film.
The worn-out carpet of the festival came across in the films presented. The experience of Ouaga, its marché, and its street life was still great. But maybe the day of FESPACO is passing, and Durban, Zanzibar, the African International Film Festival, the Abuja Film Festival, and with them the Africa Movie Academy Awards are now going to take the baton.
The digital has moved its home.
Kenneth Harrow is Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University. He is the author of Thresholds of Change in African Literature (Heinemann, 1994), Less Than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 2002), and Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Indiana U P, 2007). His latest work, Trash! A Study of African Cinema Viewed from Below, was be published by Indiana University Press in 2013. He has edited numerous collections on such topics as Islam and African literature (including Faces of Islam in African Literature,1991), African cinema (including African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings, 1999), and women in African literature and cinema. He has published more than 50 articles and a dozen chapters. He has organized numerous conferences dealing with African literature and cinema. He served as President of the African Literature Association, and was honored with their first Distinguished Member Award. He has also been honored with the Distinguished Faculty Award at Michigan State University. In 2011 he was awarded the Distinguished Africanist Award at the Toyina Falola Annual Conference, University of Texas.