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Sarraounia, Burkina-Faso, France 1986.

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2017

This was the third feature by Med Hondo presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. I was slightly disappointed as it only had one screening and I was planning to chivvy friends and colleagues who missed that one to come along to a second. It is also a shame as this is a magnificent example of African cinema and one that adheres to the maxims of Franz Fanon, ‘a fighting film, a revolutionary film and a national film’. Though with the latter concept we are talking about a Pan-African art.

The film was introduced by the director Med Hondo. He explained how the story is taken from historical events in ‘African resistance’. The scenario is adapted from a book by Abdoulaye Mamani which chronicles how Sarraounia Mangou, a chief/priestess of the Azna subgroup of the Hausa, fought French colonial troops in 1899. [Wikipedia has pages on this]. The film sets this in the context of the French imperial drive to bring unity to the colonial possessions in West Africa. The majority of tribal leaders either submitted to the French army or co-operated with them.

In an interview in the Festival Catalogue Med Hondo explained:

“I wanted to illustrate historical facts to show that the African continent was not easily colonised and had a history of resistance to colonialism. There were a number of African women involved in the fight against colonialism. Queen Sarraounia in Niger, Jinga in Angola, Ranavalona in Madagascar, Beatrice of the Congo, to name a few. We never speak of the role of African women in history but they headed kingdoms and had an important status in matriarchal societies.”

Hondo also recounted the problems associated with the production. It took several years to raise the finance, about one million Francs, not a large sum for the period. Then permission to film in Niger was withdrawn. It was then that Burkina Faso came to the rescue with some funding and locations and extras. But the travails were not ended. When the film premiered it Paris it had a very limited release, possibly [but unprovable] political pressure. Fellow African filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé protested on behalf of the film, as did progressive European filmmakers like Constantin Costa-Gavras and Bertrand Tavernier. But the film did not receive the wide distribution of the audiences it deserved though it was honoured at Fespaco [Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou]. I think it only had a few screenings in Britain and when Channel Four aired the film [in a season of African films] it was cropped from widescreen to Aacademy ratio.

Unlike most of his other films this title has a linear narrative, is presented in broadly dramatic terms and has much less of a sardonic tone. This follows from its function as a celebration of a people’s story: whilst Sarraounia is the leading character in the film this is very much a drama about the conflict between Africans and colonising Europeans. The film does use editing not only to draw parallels and contrasts but to point up themes and contradictions in the situations.

In a sense the film offers a number of worlds that are participants in a fundamental cultural and military conflict. The leading characters are to a degree psychologically drawn but they also function as ‘types’ and this is the main focus on the large array of supporting characters. Quite a few listings [IMDB for one] do not include all of the actors playing African characters.

At the centre of the film is Queen Sarraounia (Aï Keïta), chief of the Azna tribe. We meet her first as a young girl when we follow her education in the indigenous culture by the older teacher, Dawa (Tagara Yacouba Traore). He instructs her in military matters, medicinal and herbal recipes and importantly in the characteristics needed by a Queen.

“don’t confine your beauty. No selfish man will ever control you” [English subtitles].

This is demonstrated when we encounter Sarraounia as an adult and Queen. An early scene shows her consort, a skilled general, Baka (Aboubacar Traore or Ben Idriss Traore) angry and leaving the city because of her insistence on autonomy. This is also a sequence where we witness her status among her people,. After a display of wrestling a singer [griot] offers the song,

“Sweet Sarraounia”.

At various stages of the film we see Sarraounia organising and leading the resistance to the colonial army. She is a skilled strategist and also an inspirational leader. Importantly her forces are increased when the estranged Baka returns with his warriors, And, against the grain of other rulers, Dan Zarki (Jean-François Ouedraogo) , a young prince, brings his Moslem men to fight with the Aznas. After the military defeat but a successful resistance she celebrates the diversity but common interests of the people.

Other scenes present the various leaders of other tribes. It is clear that there is a common antagonism to Sarraounia, described as a ‘witch’. But almost uniformly these tribal leaders are suborned by the French or in some cases act as active collaborators. A prime example if the Emir of Sokoto (Sekou Tall), who with his advisers advocates,

“let the Europeans crush the devil witch”.

And there are Tuareg slave-traders, benefitting from French actions whilst not overtly co-operative: and apparently an addition to the story presented in the original novel.

We also see the ordinary Africans including the members of the Aznas tribe who fight under Sarraounia. And we see the sufferings of other villages unable to resist the colonial firepower. This includes the Fulani tribe, traditional enemies of the Aznas. There is a violent scene where the French and their colonial troops massacre an entire village, even after the leaders pleaded for mercy.

The French invaders are central to the story. The leaders are a group of white officers led by Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo) and a large number of African troops, tirailleurs. The officer are full of racist disdain for the Africans. Voulet is an imperious leader, who increwasingly suffers from hubris as the expedition continues. An important element in the story is his increasing contempt and differences with his command, sited back in Timbuktu.

The ordinary soldiers are under direct supervision of an Arab aide. To a degree they are dominated by the colonial ideology, thus as one point they sing

“We are children of France”.

But their main motivation is material acquisition. So after battles or massacres they are allowed to loot and pillage, and captured women are available for rape. There is also an element of fear. Late in the film  one officer remarks,

“If they find out we are men like them …..!”

The film constantly cuts [usually in parallel edits] between the various forces. However, the prime focus of the story is between Sarraounia and her people and the French invaders. The film spends an amount of time in the development within the French army. Captain Voulet’s leadership leads to increasing and brutal violence: it also leads to increasing dissensions. Whilst the French are able to defeat Sarraounia and her army in pitched battle the guerrilla warfare that follows is harder for them to handle. And the dissensions within the army lead to a breakdown in the dominance that the French officers exercise over the African mercenaries. Finally, the French h army is destroyed by psychotic leadership and sectarianism. Vices usually assigned to the African enemy.

The film also contrasts the culture of the invaders with that of the indigenous people. So even when the French Officers dine in the open-air they ‘enjoy’ all the accoutrements of the affluent European mealtimes. There are some telling cuts between the cloth covered dining table of the Officers and the cooking pots and wood fires of the soldiery. Whilst the Officers obviously regard the Africans with contempt at the same time they also sexually exploit the African women. Their often inappropriate military behaviour and arrangements are exemplified when a storm strikes the camp and they struggle to maintain order amidst the chaos.

The contrast is the city and the people ruled by Sarraounia, a community composed of several tribes.. Here the Queen exhorts her people to respect each other’s cultures, beliefs and mores. Their cultures are exhibited the film through activities like the wrestling, through their clothing, precious objects and their rituals Fine production design by Jacques d’Ovidio and supporting craft people in costumes and props. Most importantly they are presented through the ‘griots’, the traditional story-tellers and singers. At key points they record and celebrate the deeds of the Queen and the people. In the final song of the film they praise ‘our signers’.

” What great deeds would survive without our songs.”

The film was shot on Fuji colour stock and in Techovision; the cinematography is excellent. The colour and widescreen give full range to the epic scope of the story. The battle scenes and massacres are violent but less so than the historical reality. Whilst the key characters are individualised in performances the film devotes as much attention to groupings: both the dominated tirailleurs and the indigenous people who fight with Sarraounia. And the editing and cross-cutting draw forth parallels and contrasts in a way that brings illuminations beyond the central story. The continuing relevance of the events and character is drawn out in the final contemporary shot that closes the film.

We enjoyed a good 35mm print from Havard Film Archive with English sub-titles. In fact, there is a mix of languages in the film. Med Hondo, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1988) explained.

“Language is a very big question, a contradictory and complex question. It’s a historical reality that, in various countries, because we were colonised, we speak French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and so on. Of course, language is not neutral. But also language is not be itself revolutionary. …

In Sarraounia, there are three African languages; each group speaks its own language. The Queen and the people speak Djoula, the Emir of Sokoto speaks Peuhl, and the Tuareg speaks Tamashek. They speak exactly the language that would have been spoken in that area at that time. Of course, there is also French. And pidgin French, petit nègre (little nigger). And when i was shooting, I said no, it’s not petit nègre, it’s petit blanc.”

Hondo also stressed how the production had a parallel coming together and variety that is presented in the film.

“I tried to involve people from many countries. First, to learn, because it was the first CinemaScope film from Africa south of the Sahara. Second, to show and educate people in the realities of the cinema. The writer of the book is from Niger; I worked with another Mauritanian, whom I’m training in filming; the editing woman [Marie-Thérèse Boiché) was from Cameroon; the set was built by people from Benin; the music was made by people from Burkina and Gabon (Pierre Akendengué, Abdoulaye Cissé and Issouf Compaore). “

James Leahy, in his Monthly Film Bulletin Review praised the film as

“a landmark in the history of African cinema … [and suggested] It would be nice to think it might become a landmark in world cinema.”

Hopefully The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project will quickly move on to a restoration and distribution of this film so it can achieve that objective,

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West Indies, France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979.

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2017

The film was adapted by Med Hondo from a stage play by Daniel Boukman written in 1972, ‘The Slavers’. Boukman is a Martinique writer, apparently little known outside the Caribbean as it would seem is his play. He is noted for using a carnivalesque form, full of irony and parody, and aiming at ‘distance’ in the sense theorised by Bertold Brecht. Boukman receives a credit for dialogue in the film so it would seem that the film relies extensively on the theatrical original. To what degree the film also follows the staging of the play is unclear but certainly it also relies on a carnival atmosphere and on ironic detachment. It is suggested, [in ‘Daniel Boukman : A Poetics of ‘Detour’] that Boukman’s narration resembles the function of the ‘griot’ in African cultures. And that too applies to the film. Hondo had already staged the play in 1972 with the theatrical company he had co-founded before commencing work in film.

The screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato was introduced by Med Hondo himself. He advised us that this print ‘used the final cut’, which suggests that the filming suffered from restraints by producers or by censors. Th. Mpoyi-Buatu [in an article in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, 1987] writes that it took seven years to raise all the funding, including individual contributions from Africans. He also gives

‘The film’s full title is this: West Indies or the Nigger Maroons of Freedom.”

Attributing g the main title to the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and explaining the term ‘maroon’ as

“a term used in Jamaica for slaves who ran away and founded their own independent villages and settlements in remote areas as far from the Europeans as possible.”

I did not note any reference to this sub-title at the screening but the film certainly refers to the phenomena cited by Mpoyi-Buatu.

The setting for this historical parable is a sailing ship, one that is of the type that carried the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. A colleague thought that Hondo had had this set created in the Gare d’Orsay where Orson Welles filmed much of his 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. 1978/9, the time of filming, was just before work started on converting the disused railway station  into what is now a prime art gallery, Musée d’Orsay.

“The ship’s different levels indicate rather well the strata of Caribbean society: the slaves, the people, in the old; the middle classes, the assimilated, on the lower bridge; the masters, the colonists, on the upper bridge.” (Th. Mpoyi-Buatu).

Like his earlier Soleil Ő this film relies on a form of montage, cutting between different sites and periods and with a tone that is both ironic and sardonic.  The film commences in the 1960s or early 1970s and on a Caribbean Island: not identified but clearly one of those colonised by the French [Guadalupe, Dominica, St Lucia, ….Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti are directly named in the commentary]. The narrative then moves back and forth to various stages in the development and exploitation of Africans kidnapped into slavery and transported to both the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Dates, names and places are indicated by titles onscreen. A narrative voice both provides information and comment. The chronology runs from 1640 with the arrival of the sugar cane crop on the Islands; the development of an enslaved labour force transported from Africa by the British, French, Dutch and Danish; the events following the Revolution of 1789; the subsequent uprisings, including the successful rebellion in Haiti; the re-imposition following the Napoleonic coup-d’etat; the gradual abolition of the trade and of slavery; and then the post second World War reverse movements up until the 1960s.

Whilst the cast act, speak, sing, dance and perform in various guises, they appear as ‘types’ rather in the style of early Soviet cinema. These song and dance sequences are vibrant and colourful, sometimes celebratory, sometimes dramatic. There are both crowd scenes and individual actors, though the latter are not psychologically individualised.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to a group of bourgeois Caribbean politicians and bureaucrats meeting in a large cabin below deck and this is intercut with footage of ordinary African slaves working on harvesting sugar cane. The bourgeois meeting is concerned to avoid economic problems by encouraging emigration from the Caribbean to metropolitan France: a reversal of the voyages of transportation that bought the Africans across the Atlantic. This is the basic premise of the film, an inversion of the original enslavement.

The upper bridge offers a succession of French colonial rulers and French settlers who lord over the central deck space. Here are the masses of the people, and here are presented the songs, dances, mimes and crowd actions. The dancers frequently used masks and the props vary but include both torches and at one point machetes. Below them,  in a stairwell, are a small group of radicals who constantly oppose the dominant politics above with lines of resistance. Their props include machetes and a candle; the extinguishing of the candle light is a sign of the triumph of the dominant values.

Intercut with the varied performances on the several decks are footage of the slaves transported across the oceans; and of ‘maroon’ settlements where some autonomy is possible., One particular ‘maroon’ is an old man seated by a tree; the tree has a particular resonance from African culture.

“The Ancestor, in West Indies, is the tribe’s legitimacy figure. He does not possess the secret of survival, but a least he demonstrates the positive existence of an opposition force.” (Th. Mpoye-Buatu).

This character uses ‘peasant Creole’, and the film also features ‘immigrant Creole’, ‘pidgin-English’ and French: the languages marking, along with other devices, the classes and strata presented in the film.

The time and spatial span of the film together with the intercutting between these settings makes for a more complex film than Soleil Ő. The film also enjoys higher production values, fruits of the long pre-production work . The staging, in the single and impressive set, is excellent. There is no credit for the choreography, and presumably this was also directed by Hondo.  François Catonné’s cinematography captures the vibrancy of the performance, both in the use of tracks and dollies and at certain points fluid long takes. The editing by Youcef Tobni is at times relatively fast but maintains a coherent if elliptical narrative line. The music offers composition by Georges Rabol and Frank Valmont whilst also using traditional and popular songs and music.

It is difficult to take in all the aspects of the film at one viewing: it is certainly a film that would/will repay further viewings, if and when possible. What it does do is draw together sets of social action of domination that, at a surface level, appear discrete but which are manifestations of the same underlying exploitation and oppression: the manner in which colonial relations have transformed into neo-colonial relations. Importantly the film is constructed to prompt viewers to reflect as they witness the drama unfold. Th. Mpoye-Buatu finally comments:

“So, then, the aesthetic intention is sustained by a critical process of a kind which neither mystifies that process, nor the spectacle presented, nor those to whom it is presented. It is for that reason that … West Indies is a film of ambition, both in its magnificent spirit and in its aesthetics: its corrosive quality only matched by the effectiveness of its strategy. The strategy itslef is simple: to know all the devices of slavery and to combat them by every means.”

The screening was a 35mm colour print running 110 minutes. this was the French version with English sub-titles from the Havard Film Archive.

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Soleil Ȏ / Oh, Sun, Mauritania 1970.

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2017

This key film and the filmmaker Med Hondo featured at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. The film has been restored as part of the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. As is their practice the new version has been restored from existing 35mm and 16mm prints and made available on a DCP in the original French and Arabic with English sub-tittles. The digital version is presumably to aid distribution though whilst I have seen a number of their restorations at Festivals they do not seem to reach ordinary exhibition in the British/Irish territory.

The filmmaker Med Hondo was also invited to the Festival and we also had the opportunity to see two of his other films. He received a warm reception and was visibly moved by this. He also retained and voiced the passionate political commitment which is apparent in his films.

Hondo’s film work is experimental, didactic and sardonic. His tone is exemplified by the opening of Les Bricot Negres in which a smiling black African man, in close-up, addresses the camera directly:

“So you have come to the cinema —But certainly we all love the cinema very much, don’t we? … the camera, the film, the projectors, the techniques, who invented all this? Not us certainly. —

So, to provide us with entertainment – and also to take from us a little dough – sorry, a little money – the “Toubabs” [Westerners] have built theatres for us, they installed their machines,, and we, curious as we are went to see the CI-NE-MA.” (Prologue printed in ‘Framework’ Spring 1978).

It is clear that Hondo’s film provide a directly oppositional cinema to that kindly provided by the benefactors from Europe and North America.

1970 was the release date of this film when it played at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Hondo, who wrote the story and directed the film, had commenced it in 1965 and completed it by 1967. But finding distribution was as difficult as it had been earlier to find funding. Hondo and his collaborators basically made the film on their own for about $30,000. Much of the money was raised buy Hondo who worked dubbing US films into French. Hondo later wrote of the production:

“it was purely by chance that we ended up being artists ‘of colour’ as the term usually used. In Paris together for basically the same reasons, Bachir, Touré, Robert [Liensol] and I found ourselves right in the middle of a country, a city, where we had to get by, for lack of better words, where we had to work: being an actor, a musician, a singer. And where we realized immediately the doors were closed […]. As a solution we thought of creating a theater group and, in the meantime, we all made Soleil Ȏ.” ( Med Hondo in 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is best conceived as agit-prop. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is expresses the experiences of black Africans in Paris and is predominately shot in actual locations. The film weaves of complex tapestry of characters, settings, scenes and actions and discussions. These are not presented in a linear fashion; the film constantly cuts between separate scenes, many of which we return to several times. The basic form of the film is montage in the sense developed by the Soviet pioneers. So not only does the film constantly cut between separate characters and settings bit it is full of discontinuities. Equally the sound follows the manifesto produced by Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Aleksandrov,; whilst dialogue scenes mainly used synchronisation the soundtrack frequently features dialogue, music and noise that appears asynchronous. This is especially so as the film moves towards its climax.

The film opens with ma pre-credit sequence of Africans playing and communing by a river followed by a cut and film of Africans in Paris. This sets up the contradiction between Africans own cultures and their experiences under colonial domination, be it at home in Africa or when they sits the ‘mother-country’.

After the credits there is an animated section. Then film set in Africa with a dramatised but symbolic treatment of the oppression of Africans by European cultural forms. Africans are shown dominated by European religion: they are accorded identities through baptism and naming with European names. This is followed by  a procession with wooden crosses. In a sardonic move the crosses are inverted and Africans become soldiers/servants in military service: a service that involves fighting amongst themselves. This is pure agit-prop and sets up the cultural dominance that the film portrays.

We then move to a large city, Paris where an African migrant arrives, The rest of the film is a series of dramatised sequences but shot in actual locations and, at times, using actual footage both of the white French natives and the visiting Africans. These separate sequences are constantly intercut and for most of the time a particular action or discussion is not completed, but returned to later in the film.

So we have an African seeking a place to live: mainly suffering racist rejection.. An African seeking work: and suffering racist responses that range from outright rejection to paternalistic employment. The latter is represented by a factory class for African recruits where the white teachers assume that these ‘foreign’ workers re naïve and possibly illiterate. There is a recurring discussion between an African man and a an employer where the latter appears at times sympathetic but take position that such exploitation is necessary.

Later in the film we examples of African workers being housed in Gerry-built buildings, in excessive numbers and the profits that exploiting landlord can make. There are also scenes where sexual exploitation is addressed. There is a sardonic episode where a visiting African President, clearly corrupted by the colonial situation, uses a white French prostitute.

There are signs of solidarity. At a garage regarding a vacancy the proletarian working there advised and assists the African. But later another sardonic episode shows the competing left groupings, basically sectarian, offering rhetoric rather than actual support for African fighting racism.

Actual solidarity occurs in a sequences where we see African socialising together. There are several set in a restaurant where the Africans eat, drink and socialise. There is also a singer there: note, not all the lyrics are translated. One is ‘Soleil Ȏ’, a song from slaves in the West |Indies, which provides the title of the film.

The film develops a crushing weight of racism, discrimination and oppression alongside the exploitation which is the norm in a capitalist society. As we watch the end of the film the protagonist runs through a series of settings, desolate waste land, railways, motorways and more desolation in a forest. Flames appear on the screen and images are superimposed on the frame, of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba. The protagonist grasps and armalite rifle. This is accompanied by increasingly strident screams, drums and percussive noises. The film ends with the onscreen title ‘To Be Continued’.

That continuation could be seen in the other titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Soleil Ȏ set up a radical discourse that continued in West Indies (1979) and Sarraounia (1986). The film shares a common influence from the ideas and writings of Franz Fanon found in other African directors, for example Ousmane Sembène. There is also the influence of Soviet montage, Neo-realism and European Cinéma vérité. All are combined in a distinctly radical cinematic expression.

Hondo later critically commented, in an article ‘The Cinema of Exile’ (in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, Automedia 1987).

The approach in Soleil Ȏ had been constructed from a very elaborate script, and improvisations had remained limited and always under constraint.”

He comments more generally,

“Were I to make a film in Mauritania tomorrow, my film language would not be the same.”

And developments can be seen in his later films screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato. So Soleil Ȏ is a film of a certain time and place. But it is also a key film in developing an African and African Diaspora cinema. The good work of the World Cinema Project is welcome: let us hope the film is widely seen and discussed.

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The Film Foundation World Cinema Project – 2017

Posted by keith1942 on July 9, 2017

Med Hondo introducing his film

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project is now an established event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Over a number of years we have enjoyed fine restorations of key films at this Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa: there are now eight features restored and available . So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor: he has done extensive work dubbing voices in films. Since 1967 he has been able to make nine films, seven features and two documentaries: like his fellow African film pioneer Ousmane Sembène his output has been limited by the commercial restraints in world cinema and especially in Africa.

The Foundation has produced a restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Oh Sun, Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th led by Queen Sarraounia in the Niger. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Techovision. Using African locations [but Burkino Faso not Niger], African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and African resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect.

The Foundation, as is its custom, has produced the restorations on DCPs. I assume this is to assist in circulation. However, to date, there seems to have been few cinematic screenings in Britain. I think only Soleil Ȏ has been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Academy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film, directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The latter film bears some comparison with films by Luis Bunuel, though without his visceral tone. Here a bourgeois family attempt to avoid the expropriations bought about by the 1959 revolution and retreat into their plantation. The results are as sardonic as many presented by Bunuel.

The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by ina.fr and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

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La Noire de… / Black Girl, Senegal 1966.

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2016

black-girl-1

This was Ousmane Sembène’s third film and his first of feature length. The couple of times that I was able to see the film it was on a rather worn 16mm print. Now the film has been restored under the auspices of The Film’s Foundation World Cinema Project. The restored film has been transferred onto a DCP and it was from this format that it was screened at the 2015 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This version is French with English subtitles. It is available in the UK from Aya Distribution, who specialise in African cinema.

The narrative follows the journey of Diouana (Thérèse Diop) with the French family for whom she works as a maid on a holiday trip back to France. Diouana’s journey is also one of consciousness as she experiences the casual and less-casual racism by the Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). We the audience accompany Diouana on her journeys; from the slums of Dakar to the family’s home on the Riviera and to her last tragic decision.

The film presents this narrative both in scenes of the film present and in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks are provided by Diouana, though her interior monologues that accompany these are not vocalised but presented by a narrative voice. We learn that initially Diouana was keen to work for a French family, both for the economic and the supposed social benefits. In the same spirit she was happy to accompany the family on their return visit to France supposing that she would enjoy aspects of this. In fact, she finds that her exploitation becomes notable and obvious there. And she is now divorced from her own society, family and friends.

Whilst the film presents this story from a subjective stance the film constantly provides ‘objective’ parallels: in the streets of Dakar and in the apartment of the family. Characters are delineated, including a rather unhelpful indigenous boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) in Dakar. The French Madame is both exploiter and exploited, the latter in terms of her colonialist husband (Robert Fontaine). Thus class as well as racism is central to the film, as is also the extra exploitation of women. Here, and in Sembène’s other films, one can see how he follows the thought of Franz Fanon, especially in terms of culture and language.

Sembène and his team use black and white 35mm film and familiar techniques, including parallel cutting and various matching and point-of-view shots. But the effective cutting visually and orally also produces a variant of montage which questions what we see and hear. The film shows the influence of both neo-realism and the nouvelle vague, but combined in a manner which was to develop distinctively in Sembène’s work. As in Sembène’s other films language is important. So whilst the film is in French the technique of ‘translating’ Diouana’s thoughts makes us aware of the language divide. Equally Sembène uses symbols to reinforce aspects of the story: a traditional African mask, a gift from Diouana that hangs on an apartment wall, plays a key part in the films climax and resolution.,

The plot of the film was taken from a newspaper story. Sembène initially tried to produce the film in his native Senegal. The neo-colonial situation, mirrored in the film, led to his pitch being rejected. So, as with many of the African film, this was produced with French support. That is a process that Sembène and other filmmakers have had to fight consistently through their careers.

Sembène had originally translated these actual events into a short story. And his writings provide an equally important part of his work. The situation of a young women, also initially dominated by the hegemony of colonial culture, is an important facet in one of his major novels, God’s Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, 1960).

Directed by Ousmane Sembène: Produced by André Zwoboda: Written by Ousmane Sembène: Cinematography Christian Lacoste: Edited by André Gaudier. Running time  65 minutes.

Screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds with a new documentary about Sembène on October 9th

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Miners shot down, South Africa 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2015

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This is a documentary about the killing of 34 striking miners at the Marikana mine by the South African Security Forces in 2012. It has been aired on the Al Jazeera Witness series:

An inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. Wednesdays and Sundays – Freeview 133 in the UK.

The film was written by  director Rehad Desai, and producer Anita Khanna for Uhuru Productions: it runs for 52 minutes. Rehad Desai was filming in the area in 2012 and has followed the events since. After the shootings the Farlan Commission of Enquiry was set up to look into the events. The film uses testimony to the Commission, interviews with survivors and the lawyers representing the families of those killed: but most tellingly police and news film footage which was released to the Enquiry.

The film follows events from the start of the strike to the massacre five days later. The black miners all worked for the Lonmin mining company, a British based international company. There were numerous complaints by miners, but the key demands that led to the strike were parity in wage rates with other mines and proper safety levels. The exploitation of black miners goes right back to the foundations of the British colony in the South of Africa. Cecil Rhodes began his career in the mining industry. Later the mining sector was a crucial economic factor in the Apartheid regime: with global corporations involved in the extraction of precious commodities, the Marikana mine included the extraction of platinum. It was the international sanctions and their effect on this sector that was a powerful pressure leading to the settlement by the regime with the African National Congress.

The striking miners who took action had largely been represented by the National Union of Mineworkers: described by activists as

“in the pockets of management”.

An alternative union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, was developing support. The Lonmin management was unwilling to enter any sort of negotiations. So the miners took what was described as ‘unofficial action ‘. Almost immediately there was violence directed at the striking miners, first by the mine security guards and then by security men from the official Union. In the first couple of days there were fatalities on both sides. The miners developed their own unofficial leaders: one in particular, ‘Mambush’ was distinguished by the green blanket that he wore. He is now dead.

Increasingly the South African police became a presence. I described them as ‘security forces’. Their leaders bear military titles, e.g. General Mbomo.  Moreover, when you see them on the film they look like an army: automatic weapons, flak jackets, armoured vehicles and helicopters. And the footage of the violence against the miners could as easily come from a battlefield as from a picket line. In fact, there is not a picket line in the usual sense. The miners picked out a gathering place under  local kopje. And the confrontations mainly took place as the miners attempted to go to the mine to try and get a response from the management.

We actually see and hear little of the management. Overall they seem to have attempted to ignore the demands and force the miners back to work. The Commission brought to light emails and telephone calls between the mine management and members of the NUMW and the government. One example concerns Cyril Ramphosa. As leader of the National Union of Mineworkers he was a key figure in the struggle against the Apartheid regime. Like a number of figures involved in the leadership of that struggle, since independence, he has acquired interests in the capitalist firms that dominate South Africa. He now has a personal fortune in the millions. As the Al Jazeera WebPages note.

“What emerges is collusion at the top, spiralling violence, police brutality and the country’s first post-apartheid massacre.”

The massacre took place on the final day. The police attempted to corral the miners, using armoured cars and razor wire. Then the shooting started. 17 miners were shot dead, many more were wounded. A little later a second burst of firing opened and 17 more miners died. The Al Jazeera opening warns that some of the images are ‘distressing’. This is the case. Whilst the actual killings are not clearly seen in the police footage, the dead bodies are. Mambush’s corpse had 14 bullet holes.

Just as the leaders tried to cover up the machinations during the strike, so the police tried to cover up the unjustified violence on that day. The film actually has footage of the National Police Commissioner telling the assembled police cohorts that over the four days they had demonstrated the ‘best of responsible policing.’

The Farlan Commission has concluded its investigation, taking two years in the process. The final report has been presented to President Zuma, but has yet to see the light of day [it is promised in June]. Here in the UK the strike has faded from media consciousness. there has been little coverage of the Commission: as usual the exception being The Guardian. They had an article, based on interviews with survivors and their lawyers, which corroborates the view presented in the film. (Massacre at the mine Tuesday 19.05.15).

Both the film and The Guardian article suggest a problem in the New South Africa. Desai’s film sadly reflects on the day when Independence arrived and Nelson Mandela became president; a time of expectations. The Guardian points back to the alliance that provided the basis for that day – between the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Trade Union Movement.

This is a partial view and implicit [but not explicit] in the film is the recognition that whilst the new South Africa has bought political resolution to the oppression of the apartheid era the underlying exploitation continues. The developments since the end of Apartheid fit exactly into the analysis and warning provided by Franz Fanon in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness. Essentially the deal included not just the ANC and the Apartheid Regime but International Capital. The corporations that expropriated the surplus under Apartheid continue to expropriate under the new arrangements. The leading voice  on the side of the ANC in this settlement was Nelson Mandela: his stardom in the so-called International Community stems from this deal, which avoided a through-going expropriation by the South African majority. Marikana is an example that even now , two decades on, the methods used to enforce that expropriation still retain aspects of neo-colonialism. The film offers a timely and powerful reminder about the real South Africa today.

Al Jazeera has pages on the film and an interview with Desai.

PS I re-watched this film on the evening of the 5th on Al Jazeera. It has a couple of extra titles recording the Commission’s report which calls for further investigation of the police but lets the South African State off the hook. The film, as before,  ends with stills and information on the victims of this State violence. However, it was cut short last night as the e moved to a Wather Forecast! Whilst credit to Al Jazeera for screening such films, they deserve better treatment. There is always a ‘newsline’ across the bottom of the screen which is distracting.

 

 

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Concerning Violence with a Q & A.

Posted by keith1942 on December 16, 2014

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This was my second viewing of the film at the National Media Museum followed by a Q & A with three members from the Peace Department at Bradford University. I think there were about fifty members in the audience, some students from the Peace Department. There was half-an-hour after the screening for the discussion, which proved to be a little short for the occasion.

Revisiting the film enabled me to sort out some of my responses to it presentation of archive material and the use of the writings of Franz Fanon to provide a set of meanings to the struggles illustrated in the film footage. Apart from an introduction in 1.85:1 the archive material was all in its proper ratio of 1.37:1. This illustrated a respect for the archive material which seems increasingly rare in contemporary documentary. Göran Olsson, the director, previous film was The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975: he clearly has a particular interest in such political discourses. The BBFC rated the film 15 with the comment ‘strong images of real injury and dead bodies’. This is the case. One haunting image is of a mother and child, both of whom have lost a limb from colonial violence.

The introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak still seemed to me to place incorrect emphasis on the ideas in Fanon’s writing. She did emphasise the way that Fanon’s position on violence has been distorted. He does not advocate violence per se but argues that:

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.

And I did note that Spivak used the phrase ‘supposed post-colonial’, which is the way I think this concept should be treated. However Spivak also makes the comment re ‘rape’ that this type of violence against women is found both in colonial and anti-colonial movements. I’m am sure she could quote examples of both, but in the unqualified manner that she delivered it the phrase is both a misnomer and ignores Fanon’s treatment of anti-colonial violence. It struck me even more forcibly this time that the introduction is at odds with the treatment in the main body of the film: there are a number of sequences in vision and sound of women members of the liberation movements. This is a rather different treatment of the contradictions involved in gender. I also noted that the English commentary is spoken by an Afro-American, and the subtitles into English use US spelling. I rather suspect that the introduction is an ‘add-on’. There are various language versions of the film available and it seems that each version uses a different person to provide the commentary.

There are ‘nine scenes from the anti-imperialistic self-defence’.

  1. Decolonisation uses film of the MPLA in Angola.
  2. Indifference uses mainly an interview with an activist imprisoned in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe by the colonialist.
  3. Also uses footage from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, mainly of the white settlers.
  4. A World Cut in Two includes an interview with Robert Mugabe of ZANU, apparently in the interim between the settlement with the British Government and the inauguration of black majority rule. This interview was a point that was bought up several times in the Q & A. But Fanon was under no illusions about the pitfalls of notional independence: he writes

The apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence and the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression.

  1. Uses Swedish film footage from 1966 of a strike involving Lamco in Liberia The film exposes the brutal treatment of the union activist by the firm with the co-operation of the black ruling class and President Tubman. At one point, a family including a pregnant woman is dumped in the bush and even made to sign a receipt for the transportation.
  2. That Poverty of Spirit offers a portrait of the white settlers in Tanzania in the 1960S. Their ‘care’ of the colonised natives includes the building of a church – before any schools, hospitals or other basic necessities.
  3. The FIAT G96 is set among Frelimo in Mozambique in 1972. The title is explained when a guerrilla leader talks about how the colonial military use the plane against the liberation fighters. More interesting are sequences when women fighters talk directly to camera about their motivation and contribution to the struggle, ending with an armed woman who states ‘we are on the same level as men.’The women also sing a song which runs over footage of guerrillas in the jungle. Unfortunately this and another song are not translated.
  4. Defeat shows Portuguese colonial military suffering sets back against the liberation fighters in Guinea-Bissau. There is also footage of the leader Amilcar Cabral at a liberation event with both armed men and women.
  5. Raw Material addresses tine underlying social relations of exploitation, first by the capitalist expropriation of resources and then by the reduction of the colonial population to as market for colonial exports. As Fanon wrote, ‘Europe was a creation of the Third World`. There follows a

Conclusion which uses Fanon’s phrases on how the ant colonial struggle is about re-inserting the ‘human and humanity’ in replacing the colonial world. The last sentence of Concerning Violence makes the important point that:

To achieve this, the European peoples must first decide to wake up and shake themselves, use their brains, and stop playing the stupid game of the Sleeping Beauty.

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What struck me on this second viewing was how the visuals in the film not only illustrates but also suggestively extends the analysis of the film. I think this is deliberate. Certainly it seemed to me to raise issues of gender, class and transformation which are central to the project propagandised by Fanon. The craft with which the archive material has been edited together, along with the commentary and the judicious use of non-diegetic music is impressive. And one point need Fanon’s actual writings needs to be made: whilst he uses male nouns and pronouns extensively he also writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

I found the Q&A following the screening somewhat frustrating. This was partly because I had serious issues with the comments made about Fanon and his writings. But it was also due to the format. David Francis chaired the discussion, fairly effectively I thought. However the form was three questions from the audience followed by comments by the three panel members. David Francis managed to be concise in his comments and he struck me as having the fullest command of the writings of Fanon. Both Catherine Howard and Owen Greene talked at length and usually with a certain amount of padding. Howard was preoccupied with the issue of violence and I did not think she had really grasped Fanon’s line on its use. Greene did offer some support for the armed struggle but he did tend to pacifism. He also remarked that it was a considerable time since he had read Fanon. I have to say that I immediately commenced re-reading The Wretched of the Earth after the first screening: and continuing my reading was part of my preparation for this event.

In fact I was first out the block and I suggested that the film only offered a partial view of Fanon’s writings and also queried where the Introduction fitted into the film. On the latter point David Francis suggested that the documentary mode tended to such ad hoc structures. I have to say that I disagree with this. To take to important documentary filmmakers, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, their films are carefully structured and this is one of their merits. I thought once we had finished the Introduction Concerning Violence was a very carefully constructed film.

Other members made points or asked questions. One black student suggested that more African faces on the panel would be an improvement. My memory is that the actual questions tended to agree with the pacifist tone of the panel members. Apart from David Francis the panel members tended to restate their criticisms of Fanon. Greene suggested that changes in the world meant Fanon’s writings needed reviewing. Howard spoke at length about violence in post-colonial Africa. Francis did add that neo-colonial was a more accurate representation than ‘post-colonial’.

Towards the ending there were several longer contributions from audience members that raised critical points on the discussion. I returned to emphasise how Fanon’s discussion of violence has to be seen in the context of national liberation struggles: that he also writes extensively about culture: and that an important omission in the film is the question of the class contradictions within the anti-colonial movement and how that impacts on decolonization. The interviews in the film with Robert Mugabe, President Tubman and Thomas Sankara all provided relevant material for such comment.

A woman queried the idea of the post-colonial referencing in particular the case of Palestine. And a man made similar comments referencing the imperialist actions in Iraq. As the Panel members geared up for comment the ‘voice of god’, [actually the projectionist] bought proceedings to a close. The audience for the next screening were waiting at the door.

The cinema programme at the National Media Museum is now run by the Picture House Company. They appear to have a more efficient service. The programme looks less varied than before the changeover, but it is positive that they have continued with events like this screening and Q & A., We could have done with more time, and I think a brief introduction before the film would have be better. As it was we got adverts and trailers.

Regarding the film and the discussion, this was a rather academic exercise. I sympathised with the young black student, but I would have liked to see one panel member who was a committed proponent of the political line in The Wretched of the Earth.  Despite comments to the contrary, a cursory glance round the world scene – Palestine, Cuba, the anniversary recently of Bhopal … – show that Fanon’s work remains as relevant as ever. I had forgotten, not just how powerful are the politics of Fanon’s book, but with what commitment and elan he writes about the struggle of the oppressed peoples and nations. In paperback The Wretched of the Earth is a mere 250 pages. It sets out not just a path for national liberation but in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness provides an analysis that explains the type of problems that so occupied Catherine Howard. On National Culture provides the ideas that are central to the concept of Third Cinema. This is the essential political reading.

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Quotations from The Wretched of the Earth Translated by Constance Farmington, Penguin edition 1990.

 

Posted in African Cinema, Documentary, Manifesto, Political cinema, Writers and theorists | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Discourse of tears.

Posted by keith1942 on January 30, 2014

A black township in 1976.

A black township in 1976.

I recently saw Mandela Long Walk to Freedom (Republic of South Africa, 2013). The film features the black townships during the Apartheid era, but mainly as a backdrop to the biopic of the famous leader. The political complexities of these black ghettos and of the wider struggle in which they played a leading role were missing from the film. However, the film falls into a long and varied series of treatments of these now iconic settings. The article below was written in 1995, the point at which history and the new Mandela film enter a new phase for Southern Africa. I have added this introduction and a final coda.

Movies and the black townships under Apartheid.

A discourse can be defined as a mode of speech, which has evolved to express the shared human activities of a community of people. Discourses are ideological, expressing the dominant or consensus values found in the community that uses them. This article will examine how differing filmic discourses responded to a particular political and social situation – township life under the Apartheid State in South Africa.

There have been a number of films that represent in some way the life of black people in these townships. Some were produced outside South Africa and gave an outsider’s comment; some came from within and expressed, as far as they were able, an indigenous voice. The historical events they represented were intrinsically related to the development of South African capitalism and the organisation of class divisions, largely along lines of racial classification. This included specialised jerry-built housing for black workers. Such housing dated back to the gold and diamond mine exploitation of the nineteenth century. Then, emerging capital used liquor both as a social opiate and an additional profit margin, a phenomenon to be repeated in the new townships of the twentieth century. (Onselen 1976)

In the late 1940s townships expanded under the contradictory pressures of demand for black labour and pressures for separation of the working class black majority population. This led to the erection of Apartheid from 1948. These concentrations of black people, poverty, social deprivation, crime and dissent have provided a dramatic environment for feature films. Some merely use Southern Africa as an exotic backdrop, a good example is Gold (1974). This British film features sabotage in a South African gold mine. The black characters provide material for displaying the liberal sentiments of the hero, Rod Slater (Roger Moore), and an act of self-sacrifice at the film’s climax. However we never see the actual life of the black miners, only a Zulu dance and a Christmas football match.

Other films do take a closer look at black characters. These include Hollywood and British movies, and films made in South Africa. Of the latter, a large number have never been seen in Britain, a few only on video or Satellite TV. However, those films available, with their disparate sources – movie moguls, white liberals, exploitation cinema and black activists – provide an interesting set of variations on this one theme.

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Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the beloved Country (1951)

One of the first films to depict the new black township life, Cry the Beloved Country was an adaptation of the novel by Alan Paton, a white liberal South African. Published in 1947, it tells the story of a black father who travels from the countryside to Johannesburg to search for his son. Paton’s book uses the search structure to draw both a picture of the appalling living conditions for black people and the mixed responses of whites. Some are concerned and anxious for improvement, others fearful and demanding even greater separation.

The film presents us with two fathers and sons: Stephen Kumalo, the black minister, and his son Absalom who lives in a shanty town and drifts into crime, and James Jarvis, white farmer and his son Arthur, a young engineer who lives with his family in the white suburbs. Arthur (unlike his father) argues for improvements in the treatment of black people, supporting such activities as youth clubs. In the book Arthur appears only as a victim of a shooting by black housebreakers, and in the memories of him among his family and friends. It is Absalom who shoots Arthur, and the moral of the book is in the responses of the two fathers to this crime. At the novel’s end, back in rural Ixopo, each father cares for his grandson, reminder of the lost son, but also a harbinger for the future. James Jarvis, having undergone a conversion in attitude, supports the work of the church and the agriculture of the black village. This is a message of black and white harmony and co-operation, but also of white paternalism.

The 1951 film was co-produced by Zoltan Korda with Alan Paton, who also wrote the screenplay. While the main narrative and much of the dialogue are transferred directly from the book, there are significant changes. Whereas the book first presents the story of Stephen and his search, with the white family’s story following in part two, the film has integrated then into one chronological story. So while the book presents Kumalo’s discovery of his son’s crime as the end of his search, in the film the murder scene is followed directly by the breaking of the news to the white parents. Thus theirs is the first, significant, grief. This is a privileging of white characters, which is dominant in films set amongst black people. The film does still include long sequences devoted solely to black life and action. And Stephen Kumalo’s trauma is given a certain force by receiving almost the entire sparse musical accompaniment in the film.

In this, and other ways, the film draws attention to the lack of autonomy in black lives. However, it unthinkingly reinforces this lack in the privileging of a white discourse. A key scene is where Stephen, angry and grief stricken, vents his feelings about his son’s crime. It is the white Father Vincent (Geoffrey Keen) who calms him and reminds him of the efficacy of prayer, rather than the black Theophilus Msimangu (Sidney Poitier). Stephen’s brother John also lives in Johannesburg, a successful carpenter. In the book he is a black politician, discredited because of his opportunism. This political portrait is missing in the film. However, he is still discredited, after shaking his hand Msimangu asks, “where can I wash my hands?” This is part of the film’s representation with a range of good and bad black characters. But there are really no bad white characters, apart from expressions of prejudice.

Cry Freedom

Cry Freedom

The Wilby Conspiracy (1974), Cry Freedom (1987)

In the intervening decades several films made in the UK and Hollywood have featured black townships. In 1974 United Artists distributed The Wilby Conspiracy, directed by Ralph Nelson from a novel by Peter Driscoll. Like his film Soldier Blue (1969), this is a morality play, dramatising the oppression of black people. In a classic scenario we have a white mining engineer, Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), literally tied to black activist Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier again). They journey through the underworld of black townships pursued by Major Horn of State Security (Nicol Williamson). The positive ending hinges on two scenes. One showing the conversion in attitude by Keogh, who expresses his support for the black activist by shooting Major Horn in the final confrontation. However this confrontation only occurs because black villagers, led by Shack, have downed Horn’s helicopter. The latter scene is an example of black action rarely seen in liberal films. The fact that it is villagers rather than township people may be an oblique comment on the way these institutions are seen to disempower black residents.

Something of the same unease with black township life is seen in Cry Freedom (1987). the film version of Donald Woods’ account of his friendship with black consciousness leader, Steve Biko. Our visits to the black townships are always in the company of one of the white characters. At the start of the film a raid illustrates the massive police violence against black people. Later Steve Biko takes Woods to see the actual townships. A black activist tells him, “before you arrived, many generations ago we had our own culture. We had many, many villages – small, everyone known to everyone.” The implicit critique of the townships is emphasised in the third example. As Woods carries his book about Biko to freedom he recalls the Soweto school student uprising and resultant massacre.* This powerful and brutal scene shows the carnage wreaked by the white state security. The film ends with Woods and family flying to freedom in the west whilst a roll call of names shows the black activists dead or imprisoned. Whatever its liberal motivation, the film reinforces ideas of whites rescuing black people, rather incongruous in a film supposedly dedicated to the life of a black consciousness leader, who emphasised autonomy and self-action.

The same problematic can be seen in subsequent mainstream forays into South Africa. A Dry White Season, (1989) despite a black director (Euzhan Palcy), is centrally from the white perspective. The discourse in these films reflects certain ideological and political strands in western thought. It is also a manifestation of traits and motifs that are typical of Hollywood. All the films have recognisable melodramatic traits; they follow predictable patterns of story and continuity; and they are built round easily identified `star’ actors and actresses. Thus there is a marriage between intellectual and cinematic discourses that are imposed on the experiences of black people fictionalised for the purposes of the film story.

Racist parallels can be seen operating between such western liberal products and the mainstream, white-dominated cinema in South Africa. Its products go back to the days of silent film. As a market mainly dominated by Hollywood, few of these films have been seen in the west. In his book, Keyan Tomaselli (1989) describes and discusses these films. He notes a cycle of “back to the homelands” films, which “usually begin with the hero, a well-dressed urbanite carrying a suitcase on his way ‘home’… Once ‘back’ from the city, the ex-migrant workers progressively discard their Western urban ways and Ire-adapt’ to tribal life, wearing skins and beads.” One can see here both racist attitudes about the `natural savagery’ of black people, and a suppressed desire for them to go back, back being elsewhere, anywhere else. These attitudes cross over with the western liberal films, which tend to privilege rural life, as more moral and less corrupting.

Friends (1994)

Several independent films offer something different. The most recent, Friends, is from Film on Four. It comes up to date with the freeing of Nelson Mandela from jail and the new elections. The story tells of the friendship of three women, a white liberal, a white Afrikaans and a black woman. It moves from their graduation from university in 1985 up to the recent free elections in 1994. The central position of women characters is a refreshing change. Cry Freedom, for example, downplays the role of Wendy Woods in recognising the significance of ‘black consciousness’. (Farrar 1987) Friends also grapples with the question of the division amongst whites between English-speaking and Afrikaans. In most western films the Afrikaners are racist villains, the only liberals are English-speaking. This film concentrates on the white liberal who embraces violent action in the anti-apartheid struggle and much of the film is about the agonies of the conscience-smitten whites. However, as the movie nears the present the black presence grows. At the end the three women re-unite in a black township, a symbol of the centre of the new South Africa, and a rare positive image for these townships.

Sarafina

Sarafina

Sarafina (1982), Cry the Beloved Country (1995)

An indigenous cinema subsidised by the State has developed in South Africa since the sixties. This enabled the mainstream film to survive, but also supported films aimed directly at black audiences.

“The van der Merwes… are the first family of South Africa’s made-for-blacks film industry, having cranked out more than 200 between them since Tonie’s first productions in the early Seventies. In fact, it is not difficult to make 100 of these films in seven years. Preparation is minimal. Scripts are the barest synopses, left to the actors’ improvisational skills. Shooting time varies from two to ten days, editing never more than two. Much of the footage is pinched from earlier features… “The blacks aren’t fussy,” says Gary van der Merwe. “Most of our audiences are rural. Some of these people have seen a motor car before, let alone a movie. They’ll take anything you give them.” Their work – like that of the entire local film industry that produces knock-off black-exploitation films – is bankrolled by the South African government through a byzantine system of subsidies. (Powell, Fisher)

This and the black audiences have created white, multi-millionaire film producers. The first black film producer (`coloured’ in Apartheid-speak) was Anant Singh: In 1984 he teamed up with young white director, Darrell Roodt, to make a film that treated directly the oppression of black people in the countryside, Place of Weeping. Singh and Roodt have continued with a series of critical films, most famously Sarafina, a film adaptation of a stage musical. It was written by black African activist Mbongeni Ngema and originally performed outside South Africa in New York.

The film is set in Soweto during the school student rebellions of the mid-1980s. In the film the musical numbers sit uneasily with a film drama, which provides a view of the township experience through the eyes of school students. There is also a mismatch between the personal story of Sarafina (Leleti Khumalo) and the more collective sequences depicting the suppression, imprisonment and torture of the rebellious school students. There are still many powerful and moving sequences in the film. At its centre is Sarafina’s admiration for Nelson Mandela and her politically conscious teacher, Mary Masombuka (Whoopi Goldberg) who practises resistance but who says “don’t ask me to kill”. Sarafina is imprisoned after a school rebellion and an execution of a black policeman.

The film ends as Sarafina is released from prison and visits her mother Angelina (Miriam Makeba), a domestic servant with an affluent white family. She tells her mother, who she had previously criticised as subservient, “I was a stupid child…”. Later she throws away a gun she has been hiding into a marshy lake, a familiar motif from films where the hero/heroine forsakes violence for peace. The final sequence sees her performing `Freedom is coming’ as she imagines the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Made after Mandela’s release from prison in 1992, the film emphasises a non-violent response to apartheid violence of that period. Exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation process.

This discourse re-appears in Singh and Roodt’s more recent project. Their 1995 film Cry the Beloved Country, is the first film to emerge from the new South Africa. In going back to the fifty year old classic they consciously aimed to dramatise a message of reconciliation between black and white (see Miramax Press Pack, 1995). So, for example, the scenes of anger in the earlier version, such as Stephen’s outburst over his son, are missing. The film, shot in colour and modern wide screen, has a similar narrative to the 1951 version. The white father, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), is seen early in the film at the railway station as Stephen Kumalo, the black father, leaves for Johannesburg. Jarvis is meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson who are visiting his farm. It is there that the news of Arthur Jarvis’ death is broken to the father and to the audience. This is part of the film’s emphasising of the black/white contradictions, with less time devoted to the search of Kumalo for his son. As in the 1951 version this gives greater prominence to the white discourse, especially as the depiction of white prejudice is even more muted than in the book.

The black discourse is strengthened by the use of a voice-over by Stephen Kumalo, as he comments on South Africa and white racism. In the book and 1951 film the message is placed in an article written by Arthur Jarvis and read by his father after his death, the instrument of James Jarvis’ conversion. In this remake we hear little of Arthur’s thoughts, what matters are two scenes where James encounters black people – first at the boys club organised by Arthur in a township and later in a personal encounter with Stephen.

This leads to the final reconciliation, sealed by the plan to rebuild the rural church and symbolised by the arrival of the rains, for which the black subsistence farmers have been waiting. As in the earlier version the story provides space for black township life. At the end a powerful sequence shows the execution of Absalom intercut with his father’s prayers on a hill overlooking Ixopo, and the birth of his son, Stephen’s grandson. Against this must be set the film’s repetition of a range of black characters, from saintly Stephen to his manipulative, populist brother, with no corresponding variation in the white characters. James Jarvis is converted from prejudice to sympathy, with an only faint demur from a family friend. The nearest to a depiction of the real racist violence is in the prison and court where, interestingly, the guilty characters all appear to be Afrikaners. The centre of the film is exemplified by the role of Leleti Khumalo who plays Katie, Absalom’s common law wife. Her sole function appears to be producing the grandson of Stephen, a far cry from her powerful presence in the earlier Sarafina. There is a replication of the discourse of the novel; racism is to be overcome by black acceptance and white sympathy and good works. A rather feeble rejoinder to the systematic racism and violence detailed in films like Sarafina, and rooted in the structures of South African society through institutions like the black townships.

Mapantsula

Mapantsula

Mapantsula (1988)

One set of oppositional films (in the 1970s) were cinematic versions of the dramas associated with Athol Fugard. Other oppositional filmmakers, connected with movements such as the ANC and PAC also made independent films. These tended to be documentaries, a mode suitable to films that were openly propagandistic. They also stem from the penchant for documentary in the ex-British colonies, as opposed to feature filmmaking in the ex-French colonies. One of the most famous is Last Grave at Dimbaza (1974), a powerful indictment of apartheid, ending on a shot of the most recent grave of a black child in a resettlement camp. But the film suffered from the usual problems of distribution for independents and from the unthinking racist censorship of the times. “In the face of the evidence presented in the film, the BBC’s decision to show a mere twenty seven minutes of it, (originally running for 54 mins), `balanced’ by a film of the same length compiled from seven South African propaganda documentaries, bespeaks a discouraging political naivety…”. (Glaesner 1975)

However, changing political conditions and changes within the South African film industry in the 1980s created other spaces for black filmmakers. The exploitation cinema provided one pair of filmmakers with opportunity. Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane’s Mapantsula, released abroad in 1988, appeared to the censors as an example of the gangster genre. “To meet the restrictions of the Internal Security Act, the filmmakers simply deleted every political reference before passing it on for approval”. (Goldman 1989) Within that the film developed a powerful story of black militancy and consciousness.

Panic (Mogotlane) is a small-time crook in Soweto. He is picked up by the police during a funeral procession which becomes a demonstration. In prison he is clearly demarcated from the black activists also arrested, who regard him with scorn. During his imprisonment a police interrogator, Stander (Marcel Van Heerden) attempts to to make Panic incriminate a black political activist Buma (Peter Sephuma). Whilst the interrogation proceeds the audience are privy (as Stander is not) to Panic’s memories of how he became caught up in the funeral. This includes his relations with his girlfriend Pat (Thembi Mtshali), who works as a maid to a white family, notable for their petty racism. His relationship with Buma, a black activist, who tries to help Pat when she is sacked. And with Ma Mobise (Dolly Rathebe) his next-door neighbour whose son has disappeared in an earlier police roundup.

These memories unfold in parallel to the interrogation, in a complex flashback structure, which owes much to the montage theories of Eisenstein, revealing to the audience

not just parallel events but parallel political ideas. The ending echoes a scene from Eisenstein’s own film Strike. Here the film cuts between police video of the funeral and Panic’s own memories; the contrast is between the white police version, visually accurate but totally uncomprehending, and Panic’s version, personal but powerfully political. It not only indicts the apartheid system, but engages with the political consciousness of black people. There is no running back to the countryside in Mapantsula, it is a call to resist and struggle.

The finished film recognised as a powerfully political tract was banned, only available on video and then with an age restriction of 16 years. It apparently was widely viewed on video in the townships in halls, churches and community clubs.

Conclusion

In the new South Africa the ANC leads a coalition of parties directly based on the black majority. However, they operate within a negotiated settlement that retains much of the structure of apartheid South Africa. Some integration has taken place, but there are new forms of segregation, with white-only suburbs still surrounding the now open city of Johannesburg. The economic structure remains capitalistic and dominated by the same companies that did so profitably out of apartheid. The new series on BBC, Rhodes, details how this imperialist organised a monopoly of South African diamond mining, using exploited black labour, an exploitation that led directly to the black townships. The conditions of that monopoly exist in almost the same form today. Paton’s foreword actually named Ernest Oppenheimer, mining magnate, as ” one… able to arrest the deterioration described in this book.” Films like Darren Roodt’s Cry The Beloved Country reproduce that liberal discourse of fifty years earlier. The more radical black cinema represented by Mapantsula or the earlier documentaries have yet to find a space alongside this. The most recent example dates from 1994; (i.e. under the old system) the C4 co-produced Soweto. This was a documentary providing a visual history of the townships.

The competing discourses manifested in the different films are dependent on the economic power that fuels them. The developing situation in South Africa does not seem to offer much promise for the more radical discourse. The changes in filmmaking and film-going promise to extend the dominance of mainstream capitalist cinema, i.e. Hollywood.** Roodt’s most recent production features Ice Cube as a returning African-American tackling the drugs problem; a recognisable Hollywood product with a South African location. It suggests the townships will become (once again) exotic locations for stories concerned solely with entertainment.

In 1995 South Africa held an International Film and Television Conference to discuss its future. One proposal was for `Maxi Movies’, screening facilities in the black townships which, however, would use video rather than celluloid, to save capital costs (Moving Pictures International November 1995). The purchasing power of the black majority is still very small; they can only afford a poor imitation of the western multiplex. The production features in the report were of upmarket, partly western funded features, with Hollywood stars, e.g. James Earl Jones and Ice Cube. It would seem to offer little opportunity for a pure indigenous cinema or openly political cinema.

Postscript:

In terms of the categories set out by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino Gold is clearly an example of the mainstream, dominant cinema. Cry Freedom would seem to fall between the mainstream and an auteur cinema. A film like the second version of Cry the Beloved Country represents a national cinema. But all remain ‘trapped within the fortress’. We have to look to a film like Mapantsula for a genuine oppositional film.

The contemporary output of the South African film industry remains small and only a limited amount can be seen in the UK market. The new Mandela Long Walk to Freedom follows the conventions of the Hollywood biopic and is full of the reformism of the earlier ‘liberal films’. There has been one notable and fairly critical film, Tsotsi (2005), that benefited from winning the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 2005 Hollywood Oscars. The film uses a combination of English and township dialect, hence the subtitles. It is adapted from a novel by Athol Fugard, which was set at the end of the 1950s. The film updates the novel to the post-Apartheid South Africa. Crucially it also changes the ending. The basic plot focuses on the title character, David (nicknamed Tsotsi), a petty thief. By accident he steals the baby of a black middle-class couple. Whilst the film ends on a note of ambiguity it does suggest, through the return of the child to the black couple, a note of class conciliation. The title translated as ‘thug’ in English recalls Mapantsula. And the sequences in the township are powerful and revelatory. However, the resolution lacks the political punch of the earlier film.  I certainly felt to me that this weakened the more radical note of the book.

In fact, in many ways the most radical film to emerge from post-Apartheid South Africa seems to me to be the science fiction film, District 9 (2009). The film depicts townships filled, not with black people, but oppressed aliens. It is as if the surrealists had taken the situation and transformed it into one of their subversive morality tales. Alongside the macabre violence of the film is a strong strand of desire, both among the aliens and the key white South African character. And like all good horror films there is also a potent ‘return of the repressed’. The way that the film plays with generic conventions, both science fiction and protest melodrama, makes it a powerful and critical voice.

Notes:

*

  1. The effect of Hollywood mores can be seen by comparing the funeral depicted in Cry Freedom and the news footage of the actual event, shown in Biko (C4 1989). A similar comparison can be made of the school student rebellion in Cry Freedom and photographs of the actual event in Soweto (C4 1994). In both cases the commercial film images are smarter and glossier.

**

  1. The latest report on the South African film and television industry appeared in Screen

International on October 11 1996 and showed `local’ film production with 1 % of box-office (as against 92% for Hollywood).

Bibliography

Max Farrar (1988) `Biko on the big screen’ in Where and When, January 14-28 1988

Verina Glaesner (1975) Review of `Last Grave at Dimbaza’ Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1975.

Steven Goldman (1989) `Panic and Protest’, Guardian January 14 Charles Van Onselen (1976) Landlords and Rotgut’ in History Workshop, Issue 2

Alan Paton (1948) Cry the Beloved Country London: Jonathan Cape Powell, Ivor and Fisher, William (1989) `White Mischief’ Independent Magazine 27 May

Keyan Tomaselli (1989) The Cinema of Apartheid, London: Routledge.

This article originally appeared in itp Film Reader I 1996. Reproduced with kind agreement of the Editor.

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The Silences of the Palace / Saimt el qusur

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2012

 

I want to discuss this Tunisian film with some comparisons with a Senegalese film. Moufida Tlatli’s film appeared 20 years after Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. The changed context is clearly responsible for many of the differences. Silences is a French / Tunisian co-production and has circulated in the European and North American art cinema circuits. Tlatli herself studied at the IDHEC, the Paris film school. In her interview [see Sight & Sound, March 1995], whilst the film is obviously seen a part of Arab cinema there is also a concern with the western audience. The last is a funding factor. From critical responses it would appear that many people have perceived it not as a Third Cinema film but as a feminist text.

Ella Shoat writes; “Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace … break away from the earlier meta-narrative of anti-colonial national liberation. Rather than a unified, homogeneous entity, these films highlight the multiplicity of voices with the complex boundaries of the nation-state.” [In Givanni, 2000]

She goes on to draw critical comparisons with The Battle of Algiers. The exploration of feminist readings of the film is a fertile area, but other readings would equally address the national and class dimensions found in the film.

The film open with the main character, Alia, beset by professional and personal problems. She is living with, but not married to, a member of the nationalist elite, Lotfi: she is also pregnant. Her memories take us back to the 1950s, when Tunisia is still under French colonial rule, though this is exercised partly through the traditional ruling family of the Bey. The central narrative charts Alia’s exploration of her early life and the rediscovery of her mother’s. She was raised by her single mother, Khedija, in the Palace of the Beys. Khedija is a prime example of the double oppression of the Palace serving women, economic exploitation, in her case she was bought as a slave: and sexual oppression. It is clear in the film that Khedija co-operates, at least in the early stages, in her sexual exploitation. Alia herself is divided, as Lotfi points out, partly attracted and partly repelled by the world of the Beys: she thinks her father was Sidi Ali, head of the ruling family. The film evocatively uses sound and silence to chart the changing positions and relationships within the Palace. Likewise, mirrors provide visual metaphors for the two worlds, opposite but totally interlocked.

mother and daughter

These enclosed worlds are only faintly invaded by the turbulent events outside [a growing nationalist movement], but these contacts provide poetic comment. Lotfi’s, a nationalist and activist, hides out in the Palace where he provides a contact for Alia with powerful repercussions. It is his influence that causes her to launch into a banned nationalist song at an engagement function. Alia’s nationalist song provides a musical accompaniment to Khedija’s tragic end, resulting from an amateur abortion. The metaphor is clear? The liberation that should free her destroys her?

Khedija’s fate in the film stems from two contradictory impulses. Firstly her co-operation in her own exploitation, which would appear fuelled partly by the favours it produces, but also partly by the status she supposes it awards her. But the increasing likelihood of her daughter sharing this fate makes her conscious of the negative side of her situation. Desperate because of her new pregnancy, [possibly due to the rape by Si Béchir, brother of Sidi Ali] she resorts to traditional remedies. In one sense her estrangement from the liberation movement is her downfall. Walled up in the Palace, and in traditional mores, she has access to no other options.

Alia, in post-independent Tunisia, suffers from the same imprisonment. Her singing at the wedding reception which opens the film is a reprise of her position in the Palace. She is subject to the same condescension as then. And the insults that stem from her unmarried status replicate her mother’s experience. Notably, Lotfi appears not to suffer the same problem. And, finally, she is about to repeat the tragic experience of her mother in having an abortion. The sense of liberation at the end of the film is Alia’s decision to take a stand and change things.

The central thrust of the narrative posits the continuing problematic for women. Oppression under colonialism, oppression under independence. However, such a position leaves unanswered questions about the actual independence situation. Silences concentrates on the world of the women. The viewer’s portrait of the world of the Beys is the subjective view provided by Alia. We know even less about the nationalist world represented by Lotfi. Intriguingly, the reception that opens the film appears a mirror image of that which closes it. If Alia’s position appears to have little changed, neither has the world in which she moves. The parallel movement by the camera towards the viewing of Alia’s singing by both Sidi Ali and Lotfi at the engagement party are a part of this. Yet the film is clear about the class divide that exists between the Bey family and their servants. Just as vicariously we become aware of the gap between the colonialists and the nationalist Tunisians. To adequately read Alia’s position under independence we need a statement of the class alignments. This is only suggested by the parallel condescension by the two sets of guests for whom Alia’s sings and, by, for example, the fact that Lotfi has to wait outside in the car to take Alea home. In Xala Sembène also deals with gender politics. And in these, as in the class depiction’s, the film explores both worlds. So we, as viewers have a strong sense of the world of male and female: of bourgeois and proletarian. Sembène’s narrative is Brechtian in its invitation to the viewer to both understand and evaluate the conflict of these worlds. It is an ‘epic’ and symbolic cinema. Silences of the Palace is much more subjective film, and closer in its psychological portrayal to art cinema [auteur’s cinema].

This is apparent not only in the form and narrative of the film but also in its style. Whilst the characters and some of the mores the film are unfamiliar to a western viewer, the form is accessible. The film’s reliance on close-up, directed lighting and constructed mise en scène is most similar to art cinema conventions. The differences from these conventions, the editing and the soundtrack, both work to re-inforce the subjectivity of the narration and the linearity of the narrative.

Silences of the Palace does provide a critique of both post-independence Tunisia and gender discrimination. It certainly goes beyond the ‘content to recall’ category posited by Fanon. But it does share attributes with the first category posited by Solanas and Getino, auteur cinema and with the second or national cinema. I would suggest this is not to do with the film’s feminism, which makes point also made by Sembène [for example] in Xala. It is that this film is less clearly demarcated from the conventions of western art cinema, most especially in the subjectivity of its stance.

Some sense of this divide can be found in the interview taken from Sight & Sound. Most revealing is the comment by Laura Mulvey in the introduction to the Tlatli interview,

“The polarisations of gender, which had formerly co-existed with a world divided by class, have once more risen to the surface.” [Though Mulvey’s stance in the interview is not neutral, she awards herself a final comment after Tlatli].

This would appear to suggest an expectation that class is not relevant in the neo-colonial society. Whereas, as Sembène clearly shows, neo-colonialism restructures class divides, it does not rise above them. Silences of the Palace would appear to adhere to the western feminists’ aphorism, ‘the personal is political’. Xala illustrates the converse, the political is personal. And this is Lotfi’s failure in the film, the political has not become personal.

father and daughter

 

SUMMARY.

There is no doubt that both Xala and Silences of the Palace are challenging films. They confront dominant ideologies and their manifestations, and at the same time [to different degrees] they work against the conventions of the dominant cinemas.  So, how do they fit into the systematic and worked out model offered by Teshombe Gabriel in his study of Third Cinema [Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films in Questions of Third Cinema edited by Jim Pines and Paul Willemen, 1989].

Gabriel’s model is complex and multifaceted. It really requires a hologram so that the different ways of regarding Third Cinema are clear. He posits several interlocking sets of concepts, including:

Film / text                     Production                    Audience

Assimilationist.          Remembrance.              Combative. 

Whilst the film text, Xala, can be placed under combative in an unqualified manner, the positions of Production and Audience are more contradictory. Xala was produced in a period when Senegalese cinema was unusually productive. This was due to the introduction by the state of the Société de Cinéma. However, whilst his providing funding, it did not develop production resources and the increase in films was short-lived. This meant, that as was the norm, Xala was dependent on production support from the French Aid, the Ministère Coopération. Equally, as Senegal had not taken control of exhibition and distribution, the film relied on foreign control to circulate to an audience. Ad additional barrier was the censorship imposed on the film by the State: a later film Ceddo was banned. Sembène himself has been involved in rural screening so some of these films, which seem to include discussions with the audience. But in the early 1990s he was still meeting young people who had not heard of Xala until then.

Silences of the Palace is one of those films dependent on western finance and the western system. It is clear that even now, Africa has not been able to develop a self-sufficient cinematic apparatus, and Tlatli relied on the same Paris-based film school, as did the pioneer African filmmakers in the 1950s. The production itself was reliant on the French Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Culture, Canal and Channel 4. Canal, in particular, is increasing dominant in that sector of the art cinema market where ‘Third World’ films circulate. Like Channel 4, through Canal-plus, it is a major consumer of such films for its television channel. The increasing range of Film Festivals provides a circulation for such films. The varied awards a marketing device for such as Canal. It can be argued that films in this situation, whilst critical in the way that western independent films often are, lacks the direct and combative stance found in directors such as Sembène.

Unlike the situation in Cuba [for example] the African arena appears to rely heavily on the individual artist. Senegal cinema’s own development would appear to be disproportionately influenced by individuals. The question need to be put as to wherewith the combative phase has been achieved in the arena s of production and audience. Certainly despite the work of FEPACI and the collective work at the Festivals, African cinema still appears in the west as a cinema of auteurs.

The Silences of the Palace Les Silences du palais Saimt el qusur 1994.

Direction, screenplay and editing by Moufida Tlatli, who earlier had worked as an editor. Adaptation and dialogue Nouri Bouzid. Director of Photography Youssef Ben Youssef. Music Anouar Brahem. 127 minutes, in colour, with English subtitles.

Cast: Ali – Ghalia Lacroix and Hend Sabri as her younger self. Khedija – Ahmel Hedhill. Lotfi – Sami Bouajila. Sidi Ali – Kamel Fazaa, Si Béchir – Hichem Rostom.

Posted in African Cinema, Arab Cinemas | 2 Comments »

Xala

Posted by keith1942 on March 1, 2010

Throwing out the detritus of colonialism!

XALA / IMPOTENCE

From a novel by Ousmane Sembène: screenplay and direction by Ousmane Sembène: Cinematography Georges Caristan: Editing Florence Eymon: Sound El Hadji M’Bow: Production Manager Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Produced by Société Nationale de Cinématographie, Films Domirev.

116 minutes; 35mm; colour.           

Characters (cast in brackets).

El Hadji Abdoukader Beye (Thierno Leye)

            An importer-exporter, recently elected to the Senegalese Chamber Of Commerce.

Adja or Awa, his first wife, (Seun Samb).

The embodiment of African traditions. She has a house for her and her children.

Oumi, the second wife, (Younousse Seye).

Younger, more westernised. She also has a house and servants for her and her children.

N’Gone, the third wife, (Dieynaba Dieng).

            A young, nubile wife. She has a new house for her and her mother.

Rama, Adja’s daughter, (Miriam Niang).

            A young and militant University student.

Gorgui, the Old Beggar, (Douta Seck).

            A peasant cheated in the past by El Hadji.

Ahmed, a client of El Hadji, (Moustapha Touré).

Thieli, a pickpocket.

Seigne, a villager in the city to buy goods.

Sevigne-Madu, a village marabout, Mohammedan religious man.

Dupont-Durand, a European businessman or economic advisor.

Ousmane Sembène died in 2007. He was an established writer as well as a filmmaker: and just as he has fought to make films in African languages and cultural forms, so in his writing he aimed at an African expression. The experience of European colonialism and racism fed into his politics, which had a Marxist understanding of classes and the state, and an awareness, like Franz Fanon, of the particularities of racism. These are central to his 1974 film, Xala. The film centres on the problems of a trader and member of the Chamber of Commerce, El Hadji. Taking a third and much younger wife, [as allowed under Islamic law] El Hadji’s pleasures are frustrated by impotence, apparently the result of a curse. The film follows his increasingly desperate efforts to reverse the curse, which also undermines his social and business position.

He, and the Chamber of Commerce, are both depicted as subservient to foreign capital. Thus the continual framing of Dupont-Durand [the representative of the neo-colonial economic power] in the frame behind the president. [The hand behind the throne]. Xala in the film refers not only to El Hadji’s lack of potency in the sexual arena, but also to the lack of potency of his class in the economic field. They buy, sell, cheat and swindle, but they cannot exploit on the level of the neo-colonialists.

The narrative is complex, with a number of apparently minor characters who are key in the development of the action and the film’s comments upon this and the characters. Whilst the film appears to be quite slow, with frequent long-shots, as the narrative develops there are increasing number of very short scenes, which are very important. The style appears familiar, but often [as in the exchange between Rama and her father] it is slightly idiosyncratic and deliberately emphasises the seemingly inconsequential.

In a number of scenes, as in the pre-credit sequence, or as when El Hadji appears to have flashbacks about his sexual humiliation, the dialogue is non-simultaneous, i.e. from elsewhere in the narrative.

The sub-titles do not distinguish between French and Wolof, and the latter is used frequently in the film. In the scene between El Hadji and Rama and at the final Chamber meeting the dialogue refers to this. Elsewhere it can be distinguished if one listens carefully to the soundtrack.

Also, there are as number of commentative songs on the sound track, these are not translated in the subtitles.

In Xala, the contrast between El Hadji’s three wives is important.  Françoise Pfaff interviewed Sembène in 1984; and he commented,

“He [El Hadji] married his first wife before he became somebody. Having improved his economic and social status, he takes a second wife [Oumi], who, so to speak, parallels the second historical stage of his life. His third wife [N’Gone], who is his daughter’s age but without her mentality, is only there for self-satisfaction.”

His daughter, Rama, on the other hand, is

“aggressive and assertive as N’Gone is passive and submissive. She is as articulate in her speech pattern as N’Gone is silent. As an unmarried student with intellectual potential and as a young militant for Africanization. Rama often defies her father by speaking Wolof, knowing that he prefers to use French. … Sembène visually stresses her independence of mind as well as her freedom as a character by presenting her alone in many more shots than the other female characters.”

The women are central to the problem of the narrative, and to the various symbols that add meanings. A key signifier is the map of Africa, seen behind Rama as she defies her father, he himself fronting a map of Africa broken up and partitioned by colonial boundaries. These portrayals of women are expressive of the ant-colonial stance found in Franz Fanon. These films do actually position women within the revolution, and they also raise the contradictory position of women.

Xala displays several formal and stylistic trends that are common in Sembène’s work. Foremost, he privileges African linguistic and stylistic traditions. Hence the use or non-use of Wolof is central to the development of the narrative. Whilst El Hadji is neither redeemed nor converted by the end of the film, his attempt to speak in Wolof at the Chamber of Commerce is both highly poetic and metaphoric. Similarly African or European clothes and accessories provide a continuing commentary on the characters.

It is clearly a factor of the circumstances that Sembène uses the production approach pioneered by Neorealism. He also favours the use of non-professionals to a degree in the film and also actual locations. Many sequences share the same rough and impromptu feel found in Neorealism. However, there is also a powerful overall formal control. Sembène uses variations on the ideas of Sergei Eisenstein on montage and film rhetoric. The mental flashbacks by El Hadji of a sexual humiliation are clearly montage editing. But Sembène is more inclined to use montage in the wider sense, both visually and aurally. The elliptical development of the narrative is thus modelled on Eisenstein’s wider categories of montage. The editing together of scenes, especially the short scenes as with a robbery, produces a constant clash of characters and ideas. Sembène reinforces this by using the type of rhetoric favoured by Eisenstein: clothing and objects both represent characters traits and functions and comment upon these. Thus the ubiquitous briefcases in the Chamber of Commerce are a shorthand symbol for the corrupt bourgeoisie. Among the counter-Africanist symbols is the map that frames Rama in her dispute with her father.

Sembène offered some explanation of the songs in an interview:

“Ghali: There are many songs in the film’s soundtrack which have not been sub-titled.  What do they say?

Sembène: It’s a sort of popular song that I wrote myself in Wolof In one sense, it calls to revolt, to the struggle against injustice, against the powers-that-be, against the leaders of today who, if we do not get rid of them, will tomorrow be trees which are going to overrun the place and have to be cut down.  The songs are tied in with the deeds and gestures that 1 have written.  They did not come from folklore.  I had thought at the start to have them translated, but in the end I gave up the idea because it is unnecessary for a European public.

It is the allegory of a kind of lizard, a lizard who is a bad leader.  When he walks in front and you behind, he kills you while saying you want to murder him.  When you walk as tall as he does, he kills you while saying: “You want to be my equal.” When you walk in front of him he kills you while saying: “You want to profit from my good luck.” The song says we have to think very seriously indeed about these leaders who resemble this animal and get rid of them.  It ends something like this: “Glory to the people, to the people’s rule, to the people’s government, which will not be government by a single individual!”

(Interview published in 1976. It was translated by John H. Downing and appears in Film & Politics in the Third World, edited J Downing, Autonomedia, 1987.)

The film has been screened on Channel Four in the past: and issued on a VHS video. It was then cropped to 1.37:1 ration. This means visual material on the left and right of the screen is missing. This is noticeable in some scenes, as in the family quarrel at Adja’s house.

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