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Film Text and Context:
Reweaving Africa’s Social Fabric
Through Its Contemporary Cinema

by Mbye Cham, Howard University

Many African filmmakers consider themselves modern day equivalents of the traditional African artist such as the griot and the oral storyteller where art is valued both for its intrinsic properties and beauty as well as for its functional role in matters of civic society and state. Compared to most of their Western counterparts who tend to wield little influence and pressure on the power process, many contemporary African filmmakers participate actively in the affairs of society at all levels and are more overtly committed to the challenges of social and political reconstruction and renewal. They are part of the intellectual elite with a sharp awareness of the internal dynamics of their society and the larger world with which it interacts, but they are also the most severe critics and challengers of this elite as well as the socio-political status quo. The patently populist and civic character of the work of many African filmmakers derives from their active advocacy of such social ideals as individual and collective freedom, genuine democracy, equity, accountability, change and sustainable development based on more secure and productive African cultural foundations.

For many African filmmakers, political independence from colonial rule did not change the lot of ordinary people. To the traditional power formations already in place in Africa before the advent of Arabs and Europeans, colonialism and Arab-Islamic forces added new configurations, sometimes displacing the African ones outright, other times absorbing aspects of these into the new European or Arabic forms of domination. Arab and European forms of power and influence came in the guise of religion, military force, technology, cultural ideas and practices, language, education, ideologies and political and economic beliefs and institutions. What one finds in much of Africa today is the continued hegemony of many of these structures, institutions, beliefs, practices and preferences which have their origins in non-African cultures, and which were put in place primarily to promote the interest of non-Africans. The undemocratic and even brutal methods that were formerly employed to establish, maintain and administer such structures before political independence have been fine-tuned, updated and deployed by the post-independence state to perpetuate and intensify their hegemony.

Therefore, in the eyes of many filmmakers, political independence has meant a further decline in the quality of life for the majority, in the form of World Bank-mandated structural adjustment and privatization programs which benefit only a minority, increased economic polarization and hardship, socio-cultural dislocations, further alienation from an unresponsive and opaque state power and a general sense of betrayal and disillusionment. This has translated into a strong, albeit repressed, undercurrent of discontent, open conflicts, armed insurgencies and, more significantly, a growing mandate for fundamental and durable change through reliance on organized mass mobilization. African filmmakers and artists have marshaled the resources and power of imagination to construct symbolic worlds that mimic, comment on and at the same time interrogate, subvert and posit alternatives to the status quo.

Recent productions, many of which are available through the Library of African Cinema, capture these orientations. They reveal a trend toward greater diversity and plurality of stories, styles, techniques, themes and ideologies, many of which draw inspiration and reflect influences from ideas ranging from Negritude to PanAfricanism to the recent articulations of an African Renaissance emanating from a new South Africa. Some filmmakers are attracted or pushed toward stories presumed to be universal either in content, reference, inference or implication, while others opt for the local and the particular. In a way, these are not mutually exclusive, for few things are universal that are not anchored in some historical or cultural specificity. Cheick Oumar Sissoko's Guimba, for example, is about tyranny, the abuse of power and privilege and the resistance to such excesses, something that marks the experiences of many societies around the world including Mali. Gaston Kaboré's Buud Yam, focuses on love, duty, obligation, struggle, pain and attachment to family and community, features that are universal. However, it is only through the specificities of their narrative modes, inscriptions of their culture's gestures, languages, costumes, music etc. that any such universal features emerge. So obvious is this fact that it becomes unproductive most of the time to speak in terms of universal this or universal that.

Many African filmmakers are increasingly showing interest in subjects relatively undeveloped in the past. The muffled allusions to romance, sexuality and desire characteristic of quite a sizeable segment of earlier African Cinema have become more pronounced and developed in a number of recent productions to the point of even constituting the narrative vehicle of some. Interpersonal relations, romance, bold assertions of sexual and other identities and the cultural, religious and other impediments and sanctions against these form the subjects of films like Raymond Rajaonarivelo's magic realist tale Quand les étoiles rencontrent la mer, Dakan, by Mohamad Camara of Guinea, one of the first filmic engagements of Black African gay sexuality and Mossane by Senegalese Safi Faye. The myriad exigencies of a problematic modernity and the formidable challenges of a restless young population now in the tentacles of 'devaluation' ['devalisation'], poverty, MTV and a poorly digested African American hip-hop culture, constitute the focus of films such as Udju Azul di Yonta by Flora Gomes of Guinea-Bissau, Quartier Mozart by Cameroon's Jean–Pierre Bekolo and Everyone's Child by Zimbabwean writer/filmmaker, Tsitsi Dangarembga, to name just these.

Recent productions also feature a number of works that in some ways continue and build on the trends and orientations which were the hallmarks of the 70s and 80s productions. The socio-political commentary, the interrogations of cultural practices and customs, especially their exploitation and abuse for individual profit and the calls for a return to African ideals of unity and community resurface in some of the new films. Moussa Sene Absa's fin de siècle staple) may well prove to be a productive new source of inspiration and validation for a new generation of South African as well as African filmmakers. Meanwhile, the ground for such renewal in South Africa, in particular, is at the moment littered with the debris of apartheid and the formidable challenges of inevitable seismic change, captured cinematically in Brian Tilley's three-part series, In a Time of Violence, Les Blair's Jump the Gun and the many recent sit-com, soap opera and drama series on South African Television (SABC) and M-NET, some of which are represented in Prime Time South Africa.

These productions capture various aspects of the process of change now underway in South Africa and across the continent, particularly the ways in which traditional notions of individual and community are in a more pronounced state of flux and redefinition. It is significant to stress that these filmmakers are aware of the limitations of the immediate political impact of their work in Africa. In this ideology of art the role of the artist is not to make the revolution but to prepare its way through clarification, analysis and exposure, to provide people with a vision and a belief that a revolution is necessary, possible and desirable.

Mbye Cham, a native of Gambia, is an Associate Professor of African Studies at Howard University and, with Imruh Bakari, editor of African Experiences of Cinema, British Film Institute, 1996.

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