"Ezra", "The Kadogo Brothers", "Tartina City", "Sleepwalking Land": Political Commitment in the African Way By Nenad Dukic
by Nenad Dukic
Among the 16 films shown in the competition of feature films, four, in my opinion, deserve attention. Unlike other movies that are either on the verge of amateurism or were made predominantly for educational purposes, these four films possess values in all the elements of filmmaking: from the production and the development of the screenplay, to very good acting and the film language which is at an enviable level.
The films at issue are Ezra by Newton I. Aduaka (Nigeria/France), The Kadogo Brothers by Joseph Muganga (Ivory Coast), Tartina City by Issa Serge Coelo (Chad) and Sleepwalking Land by Theresa Prata (Portugal).
All four films, apart from having the mentioned cinematic and production qualities also possess a pronounced political commitment: they deal with some of the most complex and still present problems of contemporary African society. Obviously, if an African filmmaker wants to make a film with a serious approach to present-day African phenomena and if, consequently, he wants to be authentic, it is almost impossible for him to avoid this type of political commitment.
State crime coupled with corruption; a developed system of repression against the individual, especially the individual presumed to be capable of endangering the present totalitarian regime — this is an unavoidable topic when speaking of the situation in certain African countries in the 1970s and 1980s (Cameroon, Gabon), while it is characteristic of some states today as well (Chad). It is precisely the film from Chad, Tartina City, that deals with this topic in an unexpectedly bold manner. True, at the end of the film, it is made clear that the new authorities would put an end to extreme human rights violations, which is, probably, a kind of preventive ‘alibi’ that could protect the film from a possible ban.
The organized torture of people as a method of staying in power, as well as violence, as a drug for the sick minds of individuals — this is something that is, unfortunately, characteristic of certain other civilizations and nations as well. The African model does not differ very much from other models. It only confirms that such repressive methods have the nature of a universal evil everywhere.
Nevertheless, the dominant sub-topic in all the four mentioned films, but in some other movies shown in the competition as well, was the issue of the abuse of children. This is one of the traumatic and painful issues of contemporary Africa, especially the one concerning the abuse of children in wartime conflicts which have been shaking the continent from the 1950s to the present day. In inter-ethnic or politically motivated wartime conflicts, practically all the regimes or paramilitary formations recruited children whom they often took directly from their classrooms. This is the underlying motif of the films Ezra and The Kadogo Brothers.
The opening scenes of both films are almost identical: rampant soldiers belonging to a paramilitary unit burst into a local school and brutally take children between the ages of 7 and 13. The movie Ezra follows in an exciting and moving manner the fate of one such boy: a boy trained to kill from his early childhood. It is only later that he realizes what had happened to him and how he had been manipulated. The present-day story of the film takes place in a courtroom where jurors are trying to reconstruct what had actually happened to Ezra and boys like him and with the use of flashbacks the director shows, in a dramaturgically skillful manner, how relative the truth is.
In The Kadogo Brothers, the opening scene, where children are taken from their school (i.e. the violent interruption of their normal growing up), served as a starting point for a possible story about what happens to these children once the war is over, i.e., when they most often fail to fit into the rules of civilian life. Both movies underline, in different ways, the two main aspects of the monstrous idea of forcibly recruiting children:
1. African warlords did not take young men who were quite certain physically better prepared and more capable of fighting; they deliberately took children because they could ‘educate’ them to a far greater extent and turn them into obedient monsters capable of committing all kinds of atrocities with no questions asked.
2. Once the wars end, those already formed children-killers are left to themselves and the street, without any possibility of starting a new life. This, of course, represents a new problem for a country that has just emerged from a war: the one-time children-warriors now become young men-hooligans.
Ezra is set formally in such a manner that the reconstruction the fate of a boy can be one of the possible ways to face the truth and, consequently, to start the process of reconciliation in the society which the war has divided into antagonistically opposed sides.
Unlike Ezra and The Kadogo Brothers, in Sleepwalking Land the author does not deal with the war itself and its manifestations but, rather, an entire complex of problems forms the background for a poeticized story about the fate of an abandoned boy. Regardless of the chosen approach, the bottom line is that these countless individual fates are, unfortunately, becoming an increasingly present part of everyday life in Africa. According to the films shown at this year’s festival, it is clear that African authors have the increasing need to make films that suggest facing the truth and reexamining the recent past. When they do so in cooperation with foreign (European) partners (Ezra, Sleepwalking Land), this significantly contributes to the quality of the production. When the authors rely exclusively on domestic potentials (The Kadogo Brothers, Tartina City), these films possess certain weaknesses as well, primarily at the level of the screenplay and the film’s visual dimension.