Why Don’t We See More African Films?

June 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

In my childhood Timbuktu was an imaginary place, mythically far-flung, a bit like Samarkand, and the discovery that both were real came as a surprise. Abderrahmane Sissako’s film of that name has an almost mythic patina to it, a golden dustiness that rises from the colours of desert and buildings alike. Static shots of dunes and Berber tents lay out a pastoral world in contrast to the city itself, glimpsed in episodic scenes where the camera appears to have fetched up at random, capturing a succession of humiliations and violent acts endured by the inhabitants under jihadist rule, the occupying vestiges of recent Islamist conquest. The film begins (as it ends) with the speed of pursuit – a gazelle running for its life as bullets are fired in the air from a fast driven jeep – then gives way to a languid, quietly observational pace, reflecting the dazed, numbed expressions on the faces of onlookers, characters perpetually lost in shock. At times what we see resembles a beautiful frieze, but one depicting horrors.
The jihadists prowl around on the lookout for infractions of their arbitrary laws and the pleasure of finding someone to punish: a woman not wearing gloves, whose trade is selling fish; a man whose trousers are too long. In the dark, Kalashnikovs at the ready, they surround a building where people are making music. Among the relaxed musicians inside we see a woman lying on a sofa, the rapture of the music on her face as she sings. Next she is being whipped in broad daylight, her howls of pain defiantly transformed into song.
Football too is banned, even ownership of a ball. Out of this absurdity comes a scene of surreal comic resistance: youths play a match without one, virtuosically mimed and choreographed from midfield to goal-scoring jubilation. Elsewhere, two jihadists discuss the relative merits of Messi and Zidane; another furtively smokes a cigarette, also forbidden. The men with the guns are a motley group, from different countries, speaking different languages. Their tyranny displays motivations for which religious conviction seems largely a pretext: the desire to wield lethal power over others, fear, covetousness. So far, so basely human, though it isn’t easy to pin down the logic of an ideology built on the most sickening cruelties, and the punishment of women in particular. This is what makes the film so sad, so disturbing. Its moments of humour and its poetry only underline these effects rather than softening them. A sense of dread prevails throughout.
Malian music is internationally renowned. The soundtrack to Timbuktu draws on its range of ethnic sources, its blending of traditional and modern electronic instruments. In the tent of the Berber family who form the film’s narrative focus there’s an electric guitar, as well as mobile phones. A young black jihadist being videoed for propaganda can bring no enthusiasm to denouncing the rap he once loved. The music we hear has its space in a Timbuktu before the jihadists arrived, leaving us to imagine what life was like then. Was religion significant? Was there harmony between Arabs, Berbers and Black Africans? After seeing the film I listened to Talking Timbuktu, a CD made in the 90s by the late Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder. Toure sings in 11 local languages, among them Bambara, Tamasheck and Songhai, which can be heard in the film, as well as French and English.
The music is subtle, though there’s one strangely jarring moment: a young woman has been forced into marriage with a jihadist and we see her, already enslaved and raped, her sobbing accompanied by a mushy orchestral pathos. Background silence would have been best here.
Of course, Timbuktu is not perfect. The dignified Berber couple and their gazelle-like daughter overly resemble king, queen and beautiful princess out of a fairytale, but the magical and the fabulous belong in African cinema’s traditions. A female witchdoctor gets away with being imperious and mocking, ignoring the jihadists’rules and insulting them with relish.
This is a fine film, and made at some physical risk. It took me back to thinking about Sissako’s earlier Bamako (2006). Timbuktu and Bamako have similar structures, with a couple (in the latter a bar singer and her unemployed husband) and their child providing an intimate story against a wider set of political themes. Bamako takes place in a communal courtyard that’s alive with light and sensuous colour, as women work hard dyeing cloth, a traditional skill (their menfolk rather more idle; Sissako is ever alert to gender inequalities). In the midst of these everyday activities a trial is in progress, with the IMF and the World Bank being held to account for Africa’s impoverishment and indebtedness. It’s a very Brechtian scene, with powerful speeches (some delivered by actual political figures in Mali) and sung laments. Where Timbuktu is imbued with the muted tragedy of a population rendered impotent, Bamako vividly expresses anger at injustice.
Why don’t we see more African films? From the 80s I remember Med Hondo’s Sarraounia (1986), a historical drama about the 19th-century warrior queen who led an uprising against the French colonial army in West Africa, and one, perhaps two films by the more prolific Ousmane Sembene. Hondo and Sembene were seen as the founding figures of African cinema in the 1970s, and Hondo in particular had connections with the Third Cinema movement in Latin America. It rejected the existing models of both Hollywood and the European art film, aiming to create a cinema of decolonisation, a project influenced in part by the writings of Franz Fanon on colonialism. Among its proponents were the Argentine Fernando Solanas and the Brazilian Glauber Rocha.
This new Latin American cinema had enormous impact in Europe, including Britain. Both before and after Pinochet’s coup in 1973, it brought us the live politics of the region, along with exciting new cinematic forms, though with films often banned by the dictatorships in their country of origin. These days we can see regular releases from the thriving film cultures of Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Africa is a different story. In some countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa, home-grown commercial cinema has flourished, but there are comparatively few serious films that get to European film festivals and achieve distribution. The obvious reasons are financial. The French have a history of co-funding films in their Francophone former colonies: Sissako and the other directors I’ve mentioned have all had support from France, where their films have also been boosted by a responsive critical and distribution network. In recent decades France itself has produced a number of films exploring aspects of its colonial history.
French film culture has very different political roots from the British approach to the colonial experience, which has mainly resulted in commercial films from the white colonisers’ perspective. This is a great shame (and I mean the word in all its senses). The best that can be said is that television is sometimes bolder and more honest.
The programme for Film Africa, a week-long festival in London this coming autumn, is already on its website: http://www.filmafrica.org.uk/programme/. There are films from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique, as well as Nigeria and South Africa. There seems to be only one feature film with a UK production share; it’s Ghanaian.

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