A Realistic Perspective on African Film By Télesphore MBA Bizo

in 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Télesphore Mba Bizo

The International Film Festival Rotterdam, IFFR, is one of the world largest venues for independent auteur cinema. Africa has managed to make its way through this 37th jamboree. Here now follow the quantitative and qualitative analyses of the continent’s exposure in Rotterdam, from an African perspective.

Africa is portrayed as the child continent. This happens to be confirmed by the programming at IFFR. Only 7 films out of 177 are home-made; Africa Unite and Marrakech Inshallah could even be dropped out, as both were directed by American-born producers (Stephanie Black and Steffen Fisker Pierce, respectively). None shall blame this near-absence of African content on IFFR’s team, for quality auteur cinema by young filmmakers is their standard. This serious blow against cinema in the Black continent could be a positive issue if used to teach both individual and collective lessons, for a number of reasons. First, businesspeople fail to invest in cinematographic productions, as profit-making is closely linked to luck and the whims of the audience. Second, governments keep a low profile when it comes to sponsoring film production and distribution. Priority is always given to economical and political concerns. Third, cinematographic culture has yet to make its ways in people’s minds, and bridge the gap: Movies are conspicuously the privatized possession of the upper- and middle-class, and seeing films in a cinema remains a luxury for many. Economic crises, epidemics, devaluations and starvation, just to name a few, have lowered people’s purchase power to simple expression. Fourth, the continent has been hard-hit by the bankruptcies of cinemas. Fifth, American and Nigerian commercial or popular cinema’s unfair rivalry is another deadly blast. In the end, all the stereotypes on Africa find themselves consolidated. Yet, the future of some of these cinemas is brighter.

Few Films Screened, But Major Steps Made

As concerns quality, Africa made an impact. At press time, Africa Unite was ranked among the 20 best films according to the KNP audience award on IFFR’s website. The film achieves pan-African awareness. Set in Ethiopia, it ridicules the on-going instability in neighbouring Kenya. Stephanie Black’s documentary paved the way for the promotion of what Africa cherishes the most: Art and Culture. Nûba of Gold and Light (Nûba d’or et de lumière) embarks on the same task of revisiting the tradition, offering a profound view of the genesis of Andalusian authentic sounds and rhythms in Morocco. Due consideration is given to genuine art as characters narrate the ins-and-outs of this distinct music. Even Burned Hearts is an art-oriented fiction. Dancing and singing are repeated over and over in these films. This helps convey the message of the tragedy that is ruining the life of the promising young Moroccan architect who is just back from France and is unable to adapt to the new context. The Yellow House (La maison jaune) relocates the place of death in the continent. The dead are of part of daily life. The deceased deserve respect. Images on the quietness and peace in rural areas help prepare people’s minds not to fear death.

Music, Both Diegetic and Non-diegetic, is Assigned a Critical Function

Communicating the drama that people experience is the challenge that music must meet here. This is effective in various products, as Africa’s voice has been clearly audible. In this regard, there is total commitment in the types of music chosen. This is enough reason to advocate the use of straight-forward messages, as in a Bob Marley song used in from Africa Unite: ” Get up, stand up/ Stand up for your rights”. Here the meaning easily gets across; it could even be regarded as cheap propaganda. It could as well be relevant ideology as one enjoys lyrics such as: “demain nous habiterons dans la paix” (tomorrow we shall live in peace) or “nous coulerons des jours heureux” (we shall live a happy life) from Nûba of Gold and Light.

Directors could not have done otherwise. The function of music is to facilitate the understanding of various plots. Africa is actually the continent of widepread illiteracy, where rhythm is said to naturally flow into people’s veins. Not everyone is capable of reading and writing. Decoding the message in a given film is not always child’s play, as generation-to-generation transmission of culture is deep-rooted in this oral tradition. Furthermore, the audience for quality films, in the Western understanding, is a rather tiny section of scholars and festivalgoers who are good at unraveling the intricacies obscuring the comprehension of plots. A typical African shall hardly fight to watch a film that bores for the sake of looking for figurative meanings and significance.

Impact-Making Films

Two heart-breaking productions were screened in Rotterdam. Marrakech Inshallah and Zimbabwe typically portrayed the plague of underprivileged women and children in Africa. The first film narrates the bitterness of life in Marrakech, as the young Aziz roams the streets in search for food. Street fighting, early smoking and stealing then become his means for survival. The second one is a story about the ordeal of a young Zimbabwean lady who leaves her country owing to hardship. But South Africa, her paradise, turns out to be a second monster, as rape and the echoes of segregation spoil her stay abroad. She is dragged in two separate directions by evils she cannot escape.

The public showed special interest in these films. In the end, Africa’s contributions at IFFR showcased useful cinema. Even if they did not live up to expectations, and more abstract and thought-provoking films were showered with praise, African movies went the extra mile to criticize the traumas that have been jeopardizing development at home. Besides, the target audience shall surely agree with the way it is depicted in these various directors’ mirrors.

South Africa Crowning It All

The rainbow nation promised to raise the bar high as the Commandments Project was presented to the press on January 28, 2008. Ten promising filmmakers have been short-listed to produce five short films and five features for 2010, the year this country will host the Football World Cup. The dedication of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, and the Binger Filmlab to the success of this project heralds better days ahead for African cinema, as all the directors are already at work. There is good news in the pipeline.