In Search of African Cinema

22 10 2009
johnny-mad-dog

'Johnny Mad Dog'

Here’s a little pub quiz question for you: which country has the second largest film industry in the world?

If you answered the US, China, India or France then YOU WRONG, as they used to say on Banzai!. You very wrong indeed. In terms of the number of films produced every year, it is the Nigerian industry that holds this accolade, its annual production of 2000-odd features surpassed only by the might of Bollywood.

And yet I’ve never seen a Nigerian film, and I’m willing to bet that you haven’t either. ‘Nollywood’ films are produced predominantly for the local market, where they go straight to DVD and outsell the Hollywood competition by ten-to-one.

The Africa that we outsiders normally see in the cinema is very different. In films like The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener and Shooting Dogs, Africa is a place where white foreigners venture at their peril; a place where they encounter the raw savagery of nature firsthand and uncover a dark, corrupt, hitherto-unknown side to themselves. Even in the best of these films, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the continent and its people are nothing more than an exotic backdrop to this process of self-discovery. 

So it’s refreshing when, just occasionally, a film about Africans themselves makes it onto screens around the world. One such film is Johnny Mad Dog, the story of a band of brutalised child soldiers, which is released in the UK this week. Set in an unnamed West African country, the film stars a group of real-life former child soldiers as the eponymous hero and his gang. Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s frantic, high-octane approach has left festival audiences shaken and has earned comparisons with Brazil’s City of God.

At the other end of the continent, films from South Africa have been punching above their weight recently too. This year’s District 9 was an alien adventure movie that, in theory, could have been made in New York or London or Sydney. But, as it happens, it was made in Johannesburg, with the Apartheid-era parallels in its story of an alien ghetto played up to maximum effect. Along with films like Bunny Chow (2006) and the Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005), District 9 testifies to the growing confidence of the South African industry and its ability to make movies for an international audience.

'District 9'

'District 9'

Elsewhere in Africa you might need to look a little harder to find evidence of much home-grown film-making. The sad truth is that in countries where hunger, war and poverty are an everyday part of life, cinema is very low on most people’s list of priorities.

Having said that, small-scale indigenous kinds of cinema do exist in Africa, often in some of the most unlikely places. Since the Sixties, it has been the Francophone countries that have largely led the way. Film-makers like Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene and Mali’s Souleyman Cissé trained in the Soviet Union before coming home and making films that, while funded by European backers, addressed specifically African issues. 

Sembene, often called ‘the father of African cinema’, never shied away from controversy; his films cover subjects including emigration, corruption, the rise of Islam, female circumcision, and inter-communal strife. This may all sound a little dry and preachy on paper, but Sembene’s films (or at least the ones I’ve seen) are rooted in small communities, and full of humour and compassion. Unfortunately, they’re also rather difficult to see. In the UK, only the director’s last film Moolaade (2004) is available on DVD (he died in 2007). His great works – La Noire de… (1966), Xala (1974), Guelwaar (1992) – can mostly be found only on imported VHS tapes, or not at all. Sembene’s place in the history of film is at least as important as that of Pasolini or Wenders or dozens of other box-set-padding auteurs, so hopefully this state of affairs won’t last for long.

Ousmane Sembene's 'Xala'

Ousmane Sembene's 'Xala'

Also only available on import is Hyènes (Hyenas), a 1992 film by Sembene’s compatriot Djibril Diop Mambéty. This is a real shame, firstly because Mambéty was self-trained and made only two features, and secondly because Hyènes is exactly the sort of accessible, dramatic piece that might convince more people that African cinema is worth a look. The film tells the story of the return to her impoverished hometown of a woman grown rich overseas. She offers to share her newfound wealth with the townsfolk on one condition: that they kill the man who wronged her many years before and who is now in line to be the next mayor. It feels like a Western and, in all truth, would be very good remade as a Western. Unfortunately Mambéty wouldn’t be in much of a position to benefit from this, as he’s been dead since 1998.

A film-maker who is very much alive, with works that can be more easily tracked down is Abderrahmane Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and raised in neighbouring Mali. His Bamako (2006) is a timely but perhaps overly didactic attempt to, quite literally, put the World Bank on trial for its activities in Africa. Sissako does this by way of a dramatised court session in a dusty Malian town. Interspersed with the ‘trial’ footage is the story of a singer who is preparing to escape to the capital and a rather odd mini-spaghetti-western starring Danny Glover. (Insert your own joke here about him being too old for this shit.)

Better, I think, is Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness (2002), a tale of borders and emigration set amidst the shifting sands of a coastal town on the edge of the Sahara. Through a series of interlinked tales, the director explores the relationship between Africa and the wider world. A westernised young man stays with his mother while waiting for some unspecified passport difficulties to be resolved; two men wait to escape to Europe while war ships patrol the coastal waters; a young boy learns a trade from an old, wise electrician; a young girl learns to sing and play the harp. Not much happens at all but, if you’re in the mood for something a little slow and reflective, it’s all rather beautiful.

Also worth a look, and available on DVD, are Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006), two recent films by the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

I’m well aware that I’ve done a lot of dropping of unfamiliar names here, and a lot of mentioning of films that are almost impossible to see. Unfortunately it’s difficult to write about African cinema without doing this. So much of it exists in an almost mythical state, known only by reputation or the memory of a distant, chanced-upon viewing. Hopefully, one day soon, someone will do for African cinema what Second Run has done for East European cinema by releasing a whole load of lost classics on DVD. Until then, there’s a lot of exploring still to do, and a lot of good stuff to be found.

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