Each of these three dramatic shorts from Tanzania, Nigeria and Ethiopia offers a critical look at the relationship between fathers and their children in contemporary Africa. Surrender shows the traditional face of paternal tyranny, a father controlling his son's life. In contrast, A Barber's Wisdom satirizes a modern father who compromises his children in his relentless pursuit of money. In The Father, the patriarch in question is ultimately the military dictatorship which terrorized Ethiopia in the '70s and '80s. The critique of fathers in these three films is reminiscent of the blistering indictment of patriarchy in post-independence Africa at the center of Ousmane Sembene's newest film, Faat Kine.
Surrender Director: Celine Gilbert Tanzania, 2000, 26 minutes In Swahili with English subtitles
Amri, the son of a merchant, and Moshua, a poor fisherman, are inseparable friends. Although they are clearly in their 20s, they spend their days at play on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar. Amri's father is distressed that his son is so reluctant to assume his adult responsibilities as a father and businessman. He arranges a marriage to a friend's daughter, Zaitun, and is outraged when Amri announces that he finds her boring and unattractive. He bars Amri from their house and warns Moshua not to speak to him. Isolated, Amri surrenders to the demands of paternal authority, marries and produces the grandson his father wants. But in the last shot, we see him walking with Moshua beside the turquoise water.
In the West, Amri and Moshua's close relationship would be immediately interpreted as homosexual. Although Amri's father clearly regards his son's relationship with Moshua as unhealthy, in this context there is no suggestion that it is anything but an excessive prolongation of childhood. Sex and marriage are not expected to result from romantic desire or psychological urges but from participation as an adult in the larger community.
The film's tone and rhythm are determined by the formalities which dictate every aspect of daily life, including Amri's relationship with his father. The film is punctuated by the daily ritual of prayers, a central structuring feature of Islamic life. Only his friendship with Moshua seems to exist spontaneously outside these constrictions. In the end, society's expectations are the "father" to which Amri must surrender.
The Father Director: Ermias Woldeamlak Ethiopia, 2000, 26 minutes In Amharic with English subtitles
The Father is set during one of the darkest periods of Ethiopian history - the terror following the 1974 deposing of Haile Selassie launched by the new military regime, the derg. Alazar is an apolitical painter looking forward to marrying Rahel, his model and girlfriend. His best friend, Yonas, a political radical, takes refuge in Alazar's house, causing them both to be captured and tortured by the military. Rahel bribes the major in charge with money and by submitting to his sexual advances. Alazar is allowed to escape the firing squad -- but only if he will shoot Yonas.
Seven years pass, and Alazar has made an uneasy peace with the regime and with himself. He is chosen to paint a portrait of the national leader, showing "that he is the only man who can lead the country." But an unexpected reunion with Yonas' sister, Tingist, stirs old memories; he begins to suspect that his wife was raped as part of the price for sparing him and that the real father of his seven-year-old daughter may be the torturer who forced him to shoot his friend. Enraged, he defaces the painting of the leader with the same slogan Yonas used years before: "Death to the Military Dictatorship." When we see Alazar for the last time, he is fleeing the country in disguise. The Father is an impassioned political thriller which argues that past injustices will inevitably return to haunt the present and that one must never accommodate oneself to political oppression.
A Barber's Wisdom Director: Amaka Igwe Nigeria, 2000, 26 minutes In English
A Barber's Wisdom is a short farce showing what Nigerian filmmakers can do when not restricted by commercial concerns; the cinematographer is the director of our other new Nigerian release, Thunderbolt. In contrast to Surrender, the father here is ridiculed not for being too traditional but for not being traditional enough, for failing his responsibility to protect his family and uphold morality. Amadou is a barber whose business is so slow his formidable wife, Stella, has had to become the primary breadwinner by selling grilled fish. After a visit to the city, Amadou decides to modernize his shop to attract the hip younger generation. Apart from rap music, the principal new attractions are his two daughters, provocatively dressed like Lil' Kim and Jennifer Lopez. Stella is outraged that he is in a sense pimping his own daughters but Amadou will do anything to make money. He only sees the light after one of them tells him that she has become pregnant. When we last see him, he is burning the city clothes and the women are again in traditional dress.
Unlike Zanzibar in Surrender, the society depicted in A Barber's Wisdom is rushing headlong toward modernity; references to a global television culture abound, and the pursuit of profit has encroached on every other value. The film's humor stems from the contrast between Amadou's presumptions of patriarchal authority and his craven exploitation of his own family. Behind this, one feels, is a more general indictment of Nigerian society, its often corrupt leaders and its "anything goes" economy.