Perhaps naively, I assumed that my exposure to African cinema was fairly similar to most cinephiles or critics, but as it turns out my teaching's been close to unique and I thank Claire Andrade-Watkins for that. She taught me at Emerson College and made me aware of more African and Portuguese talent than I ever would have discovered on my own. On top of being a first-rate personal documentarian, she's a walking oral history of an entire continent's worth of films. She could tell you how every director lived and died, who they knew, the subtext behind every film and the years they were made. I knew a tiny amount about African cinema: I had seen Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki Bouki thanks to Martin Scorsese and the World Cinema Foundation restoring it (that's that other Criterion release on the way I was talking about), had heard of Ousmane Sembène, was aware of Abdellatif Kechiche after Secret of the Grain got its theatrical release in Boston (that other Criterion release I mentioned above). I was, however, most definitely a neophyte. Claire corrected that handily, though at times she spoke so fast, tossing off names with the candor of someone recalling which cousins made it to Christmas last year, that it was difficult to get it all straight. That seemingly scatterbrained recollection is of course so important in understanding the cinema itself. There is always too much going on to keep track of, and the cinema never hides a community for an individual. Every one and every film is important. This was a cinema that the powers that be did not want to exist. Claire's family mentality and her boundless positivity, even as she was the keeper of a legacy of discrimination and so much death, was a response to being told how frequently whites had tried to stifle the expression of her people; Africans in general, Cape Verdians specifically. For years the people she grew up with and came to know had been treated as one hated body, so her response was to treat everyone as part of a family. In this way, the films and the people who made them possible would endure long after the scars faded.
The only place to start is Sembène and his debut feature La Noire de... or Black Girl. I was told, and by now I can't remember if it was Claire or someone else who told me, that Sembène worked at a newsreel production house in Senegal and his station manager gave him the unused ends cut off of film reels to shoot his first few short films and La Noire De... It contains the hallmarks of the decades of African film that would follow. Shot for next to no money it flows beautifully, follows no established rules and it drips with an intense, sensuous fury that cinema had never experienced in so pure a form. Anger and despair characterized so much of living under colonialist rule (French in the case of Sembène's Senegal) and those emotions have been turned into creative fuel and produced some of the best films of all time. The importance of La Noire De... can't be understated. Breathless and Pather Panchali ushered in new eras of cinema for their countries that had groundswell effects on the rest of the world, but they were made in places of great cinematic history. Sub-Saharan Africa had never produced a filmmaker before Sembène, and yet he seemed to understand something about what motion pictures could articulate. Perhaps influenced by his first career as a novelist, he immediately knew how much to show, how much to imply, how to show the inner life of a protagonist robbed of a way to speak. The story is of an African woman who takes a job as a maid for a French family and slowly rebels against them and even today that's a potent metaphor. The film's point of view is still one worth exploring because the issue hasn't dulled. What's worse: most people have forgotten about it. Seeing it for the first time was like hearing The Clash's debut album; this was righteous anger that would never lose its edge or stop being a rallying call of an abused people who will not settle for being victimized.
As La Noire de...'s dialogue was in French it could be awarded the Prix Jean Vigo that year for best first film. This and other accolades allowed Sembène to raise a little more money to make hid next film. He chose to adapt his own novel, Mandabi, which became the first film to have its dialogue entirely in Wolof the language spoken by native Senegalese. Despite being in color and on a grander scale, Mandabi's craft leaves a little to be desired. The boom mic is occasionally visible and Sembène's framing is merely functional, but the important thing is that the story moves beyond ambitious into audacious, this time focusing not only on the deplorable behavior of the French but on the greed that infects Africans living in the shadow of European powers. A man tries to cash a money order sent by his son, a street sweeper in Paris, but has no identification that holds up at a French-owned bank so he turns instead to local interests. All the while fortune refuses to smile on him. If Black Girl is anger directed outward Mandabi points it inwardly and proves that no struggle is ever as simple as black and white.
If Sembène was the spark that ignited independent African film, Djibril Diop Mambéty poured gasoline all over it. I've lately been obsessing over the differences between Godard and Truffaut and I think the most important is that for that first decade of their careers Godard spoke the language of cinema, Truffaut was more interested in human behavoir. At best Cinema was Truffaut's second language; his genre hopping never formed a coherent statement. As fun as his stabs at sci-fi, farce or Hitchcockian thriller are they don't feel unified. Godard's language intensified until there was nothing left but words and colors. Truffaut used the cinema to understand his life and his relationship to the world and history. Godard used his life to understand cinema. He was on the inside peeking out at reality. Which is to say that if Sembène was Senegal's Truffaut, then Mambéty was its Godard. The following quote could almost read like a rebuke to Sembène's more earthy approach to drama: "One has to choose between engaging in stylistic research or the mere recording of facts. I feel that a filmmaker must go beyond the recording of facts. Moreover, I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema. It will be a difficult task because our viewing audience is used to a specific film language, but a choice has to be made: either one is very popular and one talks to people in a simple and plain manner, or else one searches for an African film language that would exclude chattering and focus more on how to make use of visuals and sounds."
Mambéty's first work was a documentary called Contras' City, which is a fabulous first statement but it isn't until he turned to fiction with Badou Boy that the Godard connection becomes clear. Over a song that mixes afro-beat with British-born psych music, a sound that can only be called cinematic, we see the crew getting ready to make the film we're watching. Djibril makes it clear that whatever the film is about, he's the rockstar auteur behind it. Right from these few seconds it's plain to see that Djibril would never settle for anything less than revolutionary syntax. He used editing as a weapon, deliberately exaggerating details to sell the wretched life of his characters. He also used colour in a way that escaped most of his peers. It's impossible to watch one of his films and not know who's behind the camera. He was Tarantino before the world was ready for him. Badou Boy is powerful even without considering that Djibril was the first person in an entire continent to attempt some of the techniques he employs. One shot begins entirely out of focus before racking in. His lead character jump on the back of a horse like Errol Flynn and races a bus while the sound of whooping and screaming plays on the soundtrack; a tiny send-up of Stagecoach. Africa's first cinematic joke. There are sight gags and choreography that owes something to door-slamming farce. The narrator talks a lot but hardly ever directly comments on the action. The film is all style and attitude.
When he next directed a feature, the earth-shaking Touki Bouki, these ideas and experiments become perfectly articulate. Every gesture and action in Touki Bouki does not wait for your consideration, it skips right to your unconsciousness and never leaves. Starting with a mugging-by-bullhorn and ending in the heroes' fevered imaginations, the film is not only a dissection of the particular hopes of a generation, but also a director putting his foot down and saying there was nothing that Western and European cinema could do that Africans could not do better. One of the first films restored by the World Cinema Foundation, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Bonnie & Clyde for both its mesmerizing command of form, but also its depiction of a beautiful outlaw couple. By now Djibril and Sembène were arthouse heavyweights, having become been to the Director's Fortnight several times and the film festivals in Venice, Moscow and Locarno, and the time was right for more voices to emerge like Nigerian Oumarou Ganda who was 'discovered' in one of Jean Rouch's documentaries, Michael Raeburn who was born in Egypt and studied in Rhodesia and Nana Mahomo from South Africa. The secret was out.
History was made at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975 when the first African film was awarded the Palme D'Or. Made in Algeria by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, Chronicle of the Years of Fire was a look at the Algerian War of Independence, one of the first films about the conflict made by a native. The first African film to ever compete in the festival was Winds of the Aures, also by Lakhdar-Hamina, in 1966. Chronicle opens stunningly: a man publicly swears off his homeland, his work, his family and god and swears to go to France and leave it all behind. The credits then appear over hazy footage of the man walking the harsh deserted landscape in the scorching heat like Omar Sharif making his way to Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Indeed the filmmaking most commonly resembles epic makers like David Lean or Victor Fleming (there's even an homage to the famous crane shot in Gone With The Wind just before the final act), with occasional flashes of the kind of gritty stability and confidence that William Friedkin and Sidney Lumet trafficked in. A scene of a wheat harvest could hardly be any prettier and puts one back in Friedkin's Iraq for the opening of The Exorcist. Pans and tracking shots are used to emphasize points both large and small; despite its enormous scale and cast of thousands this is tightly focused filmmaking. The sheer size of Chronicle is impressive, but more so is its ability to find moments both harrowing and touching amidst great landscapes teeming with people in similar circumstances to our heroes. This is one person in thousands undergoing hardship, but Lakhdar-Hamina finds essential humanity to reduce the scope to one powerless man making a life-changing decision.
Chronicle of the Years of Fire is chiefly about the fate of a tribe of Algerians looking first for a water source and a way out from under France's thumb but more importantly a place they feel they belong. The search for a 'home' is probably the most used theme in African cinema. Identity was strongly developed but colonial powers and in-fighting made living peacefully or land ownership seem impossible. This is what Claire's film, Some Kinda Funny Porto Rican? was about. The Cape Verdian diaspora trying to find a place to live and be together in the US and not always having luck. The point was that home was wherever they were together, not that anyone ever realizes this in time. Chronicle of the Years of Fire is about the tragedy of being a second too late, of a man dying before his family can say goodbye, of believing that the French will finally treat Algerians like human beings, of giving up hope before crossing the next hill. Lakhdar-Hamina is tireless in his depiction of what belief can do to the spirit. Belief in god, belief in a place that can be home, belief that water can be found, belief that anyone has answers to a better life and can lead you to them.
Chronicles has largely been forgotten as part of history, though its influence is certainly felt in modern films like La Sources Des Femmes by Radu Mihaileanu and Where Do We Go Now? by Nadine Labaki. As of this writing you can watch a badly cropped VHS-rip on youtube but I don't think it ever made its way to DVD. It's mostly referred to as an Arabic movie, rather than African, and many don't seem to recognize it as part of the national cinema. Cannes' inclusion of African films (to say nothing of its only awarding the Palme to North Africans) has been accused of tokenism, which at worst, threatens to undermine the artistry of the directors chosen for inclusion over the years. I personally won't dignify claims that Mahamat Saleh Haroun doesn't deserve to be in competition with outrage.
If its success lead to the founding or discovery of many country's worth of filmmaking talent then its importance cannot be overstated. After all it wasn't until the 1980s that many countries found themsleves with the means to make movies of any kind. It's humbling to consider that the history of film in some countries is often the work of a single director, as is the case in Botswana and Liberia. To my knowledge not a single indigenous film has ever been made in Malawi. Within the last year the African Film Academy set up a program called Film in a Box, which traveled to four cities and taught anyone who showed up how to write, direct and edit films. The resultant work may well have been the first completed motion pictures in Malawian history.
Some countries, like Sudan, have a history that has gone almost entirely unrecognized. The country's most famous and respected artist, Gadalla Gubara, filmed life in his country for years and went blind doing it without stopping. Yet his work is rarely ever spoken of or seen. He trained as a camera technician while serving in the British Army Signal Corp and helped film war-time propaganda for the English. He later made documentary film of life in Sudan which was sent around the country to educate his people. He was sent to the University of Southern California by the Ministry of Information and when he returned was placed in charge of the country's only film unit. His documentaries became national treasures and he directed both his and Sudan's first feature film, Tajouj, in 1979 (Good luck finding it). Imagine if your country was full of people who could still recall the first feature film ever made and shown in your hometown. Indeed before the 1980s there appear to have been no major films made in Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Mali, Nigeria or Ghana.
It was in the 80s that the African film community begins to find its feet and starts producing great works with something like regularity. In 1982 Gaston Kaboré, a director from Burkina Faso, releases Wend Kuuni or God's Gift, about a mute orphan and the way he effects the lives of the people who take him in. Kaboré belonged to the wave of filmmakers who opened up his mise-en-scene and begin filming communities as characters rather than focusing on individuals, resembling the work of Jean Renoir or even early Terrence Malick. Wend Kuuni is a film that does not judge or, despite its title, deify its characters but instead seeks to put their hardships in context. I haven't seen quite enough African cinema to be certain, but I do know that for me Wend Kuuni is the earliest film that displays organically and uniquely African storytelling, which is to say, stories exclusively about Africans and not outside interests. Much of the filmmaking grammar from here to the 2000s is beholden to no one's influence and in some cases seems sui generis. Djibril's films spoke with verve and immediacy, but they did feel indebted to European, specifically French, cinema even if only in opposition to them. Wend Kuuni feels like a movie made by someone raised only on an African mode of storytelling. David Edelstein once described Renoir's direction as 'non-judgemental', and that to me is the most important characteristic of African cinema in the 80s and 90s. Whatever damage the outside world can do has been done and Kaboré's characters are trying to live and let live. Their dreams and conflicts are modest. What feels most refreshing dramatically is that characters only punish themselves; no outside government or force is responsible for the ill-starred destinies of the heroes. Wend Kuuni focuses on a village and a way of life that is self-contained and self-sufficient, which means that yes they cause their own problems but they are in thrall to no one. Not only does the film only converse with African narratives but it only shows the lives of independent African people. There isn't even a token agent of law enforcement - the action here is strictly rural and domestic transferring from family to family and community to community, stripped of the urban environments of Djibril and Sembène.
Of course one could probably read the slightly oedipal father-son relationships that come to dominate African films (specifically, as we'll see, in Yeelen and Tilaï) as a statement about colonialist powers, and I think the texts support that, but it's just as powerful to watch the films as evidence of a society artistically freeing itself of its most painful memories. What stronger message is there then to not mention the global superpower who set the agenda for so long in your country? Now, clearly, this was not everyone's choice, but those who did were being unfathomably bold in telling stories the rest of the world might not be able to understand. But these were the stories and traditions that had endured, and they would prove not just captivating, but inherently cinematic. Unsurprisingly the photography in films around this period has a particular kind of charm, showing off the land as the almost majestically unsoiled feature that has supported people through the best and worst parts of their history. The relaxed pans across landscapes and hills and fields allow you to gain perspective on the lives of characters as much as any piece of dialogue. Those are the windows into the culture that the scripts stop granting you and frankly you don't need anything more. The stories are gripping enough without a primer on life in another country.
This is nowhere more proudly showcased than Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen or Brightness. As I've mentioned, African cinema has some of the most audacious and attention grabbing opening moments in history and Yeelen takes the cake. In an expressionistic montage we see a man cause a chicken and a great monolothic stone to catch fire through some kind of spell, only to realize we're seeing it as told in a vision to the man's son. It's breath-taking and like the rest of the film shows an unprecedented command of detail and rhythm. You could carbon-date the effect to something like Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice from the year before but Cissé's film doesn't sink under the weight of its own portent as that does. It breathes and moves with the joy of discovering new forms and playing with them. Yeelen tells the story of a young man named Nianankoro whose father wants to hunt and kill him because he has left his village and taken the secrets of a form of sorcery with him. His father, Soma, sees it as betrayal and after getting approval from a high council, seeks his son out for a fight to the death.
Yeelen is a film that succeeds on macro and micro levels. It's loaded with heavenly little details, like a scene of Nianankoro's mother bathing in a river, aware that the two men in her life are destined to kill each other. The water takes a strange white colour against the eerie blue of the night sky. Later when Soma visits the council of elders, they greet each other by singing and their speech has a beautiful timbre that makes their conversation sound like arresting multi-part contrapuntal harmonies. And then there are simply stunning shots of Nianankoro fleeing across the desert. Those little successes make it so I could have waited hours for father and son to meet. The film has but one bum note: a needless special effect shot of a levitating object that slightly overreaches and spoils the mood. Beyond that, Yeelen is the kind of movie I could watch every day and never tire of its gifts.
Continuing both the theme of hostile patriarchy and moving at the same pleasing rhythm is Idrissa Ouedraogo's Tilaï or The Law, another film set in Burkina Faso. Tilaï follows a man called Saga who returns to his home town after a few years away and discovers that his father has taken his intended as a second wife. The woman he loved, Nogma, is now his stepmother. He will not re-enter his village and builds a hut just outside its limits as a form of protest. It isn't long until Nogma and Saga pick up their affair and major complications arise. As in Yeelen the drama feels like something out of myth or legend and matters far less than how Ouedraogo captures the way his characters express sadness in their faces or walk for miles alone. Saga, Nogma and others travel great distances to meet their fates and in these treks allow us to see the way the land shapes their lives (aided by a transcendent score by legendary jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim). As they walk apart from the judgment they face in the pockets of civilization waiting at the edges of the open plains, we see who they truly are.
Unfortunately, Ouedraogo turned into a much more conventional filmmaker. Compare the timeless quality of Tilaï to the sturdy but far more dated approach he employed in 1997's Kini and Adams, which played in competition in Cannes. The more interesting film is immediately evident. The worst thing you can say about Kini and Adams, a Zimbabwe-set dramedy, is that it's unremarkable. It's an ordinary piece of filmmaking that holds up against any major American film that year (it's often hilarious and it's even in English) but between displaying none of the strengths of his early work and featuring a bitter misogynist subtext it's not a great entry into the national cinema or even Ouedraogo's canon. It hardly feels like the work of its director, let alone someone intimately familiar with provincial life in Zimbabwe.
The flipside of the narrative coin, those films that looked openly at the wounds opened by European oppression, is best represented by Flora Gomes of Guinea-Bissau. His debut, Mortu Nega or Those Whom Death Refused, missed being the first film made in Guinea-Bissau by one year, though it's certainly the best remembered. Though ostensibly about a handful of soldiers fighting the Guinea-Bissau war of Independence, a ten year struggle by the natives to force the Portuguese out of the country, it is also about the importance of cultural preservation. If it has a stylistic kinship to Yeelen and Tilaï, it also implicitly stands as an act of defense for the development of that style. Mortu Nega is about the future of Africa and that there can be none without the philosophies and stories that its people hold dear. I think it's safe to add filmmaking to the list of indigenous artistic expression that strengthens regional, national and continental identity. After all, what more accurate way to represent its people?
An example of a counterpoint can be found in the cinema of Haile Gerima. Born in Ethiopia, he moved to the United States, studied film at UCLA and became a member of the LA Rebellion film movement which also counted Charles Burnett and Julie Dash among its members. Though he returned to Africa to make movies the film he's best known for, Sankofa, is characterized by an LA-bred slickness; everything a little too perfect and musical for its own good. The suffering it depicts feels at a remove from the aesthetics, which at times recall an exceptionally well-directed music video (which is not neccesarily a bad thing - its points are never less than entirely clear). The story is important and the narrative - that of someone being sent back in time to endure the worst of slavery - is recycled often because it's an incredibly powerful idea. There remains, however, a distance between the language Gerima uses, feeling much more the work of the African American artists of the 90s than the African filmmakers of the 80s. There are fewer rough edges and an inessential tightness that calls too much attention to itself, not unlike like the predictable story beats in Kini and Adams.
The development and reception of African cinema continues to evolve into the 2000s, but first it's worth breaking for a bizarre footnote. With the distribution of betacam and other pro-sumer video equipment, a group of filmmakers in Nigeria began making and distributing cheap, incredibly raw genre films at a rapid clip. With the advent of digital and the availability of cheap DVD production at the turn of the century the production speed increased. This industry, often referred to as Nollywood, is driven by totally insane little films directed by people raised on a steady diet of Hollywood romance, Rambo and The Road Warrior. There are flourishes you won't believe. For instance seek out the trailer for a film called Paint My Life, a sort of Tyler Perry-esque melodrama about the mentally unstable daughter of a politician wreaking havoc on every man she meets. A minute into advertising this truly odd film, filled with savage beatings, murder, seductions and much screaming from its female lead, the title then appears in the same font used in all seven Harry Potter movies! There is no predicting what these movies and the guys with the cameras will do next. They not only outpace hack units like The Asylum and Roger Corman's New Horizons Pictures (in fact the Nigerian film industry has the second highest productivity rate in the world, above the US and just under India) but also brim with anarchic creative spirit that both want for. For further proof I suggest looking up Baby Police. It might change your life.
Just as the old guard began slowing down their productivity or passing away (Djibril in 1998, Sembène in 2007) a new school of filmmakers emerges all over Africa. These directors traffic in their own version of what AO Scott calls neo-neo realism: a patient staring down of lone men and women trapped by uncontrollable events, often with political underpinnings. Long takes that slowly unravel the exteriors of their harried protagonists were the preferred method of filming. If you turn this style up to 11 you get what some critics call Slow Cinema. Lav Diaz from the Philippines, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne from Belgium, Lisandro Alonso from Argentina, Nuri Bilge Ceylan from Turkey, Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan, Cristian Mungiu from Romania, Sergei Dvortsevoy from Kazakhstan, Kelly Reichardt from the US, Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul from Thailand and dozens, if not hundreds, of others rose to the forefront of world cinema in the mid 2000s. The movement proved such a ground swell that in the first decade of the 21st century, Mungiu, The Dardenne Brothers and Joe all took home the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Two-time winner Michael Haneke could be said to be on the borderline of this approach, but that's a controversial notion I won't fully commit to. The African directors who took part in this movement, Abdellatif Kechiche from Tunisia, Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania, and Mahamat Saleh Haroun from Chad, bring our story up to today.
Each director has distinct handwriting, but they undoubtedly were influenced by the global move toward objectivity; a reaction to the formulaic narratives and uniform craft that had seized control of cinema in the mid-to-late 90s (Sissako even nestles a fake western starring Danny Glover and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman in one of his films as a rebuke to dominant cinematic convention). The best moments in their films are about careful, sometimes painful observation. My favourite moments in Sissako involve watching a woman teach her daughter how to sing traditional songs, or seeing how life goes on while a monumental trial takes place in a small village in Bamako. In Kechiche, the most active with his camera, my favourite moment involves watching Hafsia Herzi belly-dancing while all around her, in and out of her sight, people have extreme physical and emotional reactions to a changing culture. In Haroun, it's a conflicted man watching his son being arrested by the military for enforced service and being unable to do anything about it. The hallmarks of classic African cinema are present (a knee-deep approach to culture and custom, splendid use of the landscape, fractured parent-child relationships, old world vs. oppressors, the depiction of community instead of merely the individual, urban vs. rural environment) but it's filtered through a new set of aesthetic principles that puts them in touch with a global community of filmmakers, all evolving and finding new paths simultaneously. Just as, say, Pablo Larraín evolved by reverting to VHS and tackling a true story, so too has Kechiche by making a historical epic and most recently a sexually charged coming-of-age story. That film, Blue is the Warmest Colour, became the second African film to win the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, beating among other films, Gris-Gris, the latest by Haroun. If nothing else gives me hope for the continued success and exposure of African cinema, it's that victory. When these films premiere in the US and Europe in the next year, it might just propel people to seek out more films from a history that too little is known about.
Or who knows, maybe it'll be the continued success of a young director who makes sci-fi epics named Neill Blomkamp. Born in South Africa and thus far the director of the massively successful District 9 and Elysium, Blomkamp couches his big budget actioners in deeply angry political subtext (shades of Mortu Nega and Chronicles of the Years of Fire) and, if you look carefully, a touch of Sub-Saharan grammar. From his earliest short films, including test reels for an aborted adaption of the video game Halo through to Elysium, you see a lackadaisical approach to carnage and mayhem that at best recalls the touchstones of Burkinabé cinema. Look first at the fact that his frame is constantly bustling with activity, evidence that a community will continue living no matter what the action of the film depicts, a theme visible as early as La Noire De.... His appropriating old genre grammar, and indeed even dabbling in found-footage and fourth-wall breaking puts me in mind of the young Djibril Diop Mambéty and those opening shots of Badou Boy. Then there are the mismatched heroes, the confident foil to the bumbling dreamer, a dynamic first found in Touki Bouki and seen again in the likes of Kini and Adams. Indeed as Sharlto Copley's hero in District 9 finds himself in worse and worse trouble I can't have been the only one imagining the poor sap in Mandabi losing hope fast. Or could I? Maybe you should all go watch some early African cinema and tell me if you think I've gone crazy. If nothing else, you'll see some great films.