by Jonathan Haynes
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 62-66
History has imposed the clash of the traditional and the modern as an inevitable theme of African cinema as of its literature.[open notes in new window] The classic form of this theme presents the journey of a young hero from village to city, a motif that never wears out because it keeps being repeated in social and psychological experience. In the modern, urban art forms of film and novel the village is looked back to, as the place left, in moods of nostalgia (Toureh, 134), guilt or anger. Often the story concerns expulsion or chosen exile: a conflict which may not be historical in itself precipitates the hero out of his or her village. The obvious, inevitable, inexhaustible way to figure this is as a collision of young love and a repressive social system: An example is LE WAZZOU POLYGAME of Oumarou Ganda (Niger, 1970), in which a young woman is sold into marriage to a rich polygamist by her parents. In the aftermath of the ensuing catastrophe, her lover takes a truck to Ghana as a labor migrant, and she goes to the city and becomes a bargirl.
In other cases the different consciousness of the young is precisely the issue: perhaps the best example of this is DJELI, by Fadika Kramo-Lanciné (Ivory Coast, 1981), in which a romance begun at the University of Abidjan encounters fierce opposition in the lovers' native village, where their unequal caste status (his father was her father's praise singer) makes their union unthinkable. The film conveys with unparalleled force what it is to have one's family ranged against one, with an abyss of consciousness and feeling between. One might say DJELI deals with returning to the village, not leaving it — the lovers are home during the school holidays — though where "home" really is now becomes one of the questions they have to grapple with.
In any case one might oversimplify suggestively by saying that for a generation or two the movement has been from the village to the city. Now a new generation of filmmakers, of whom Fadika Kranio-Lanciné is a forerunner, is exploring a return to the village, trying to get beyond the classic form of the conflict. For their generation the problem is not escape, but establishing a working relation with the village. Born roughly at the moment of Independence, their experience does not correspond to the colonial manichean binary opposition of Black and White, colonizer and colonized. The developmentalist binary of the first phase of nation-building, tradition/ modernity, while still very much present, has been complicated by issues such as the indigenization of the forms of state control, and all the forms of postcolonial "hybridity." In real life in contemporary Africa, as Jean-Francois Bayart says, people are constantly straddling the modern and the traditional, probably without a clear sense of their boundaries. Even the territorial binary of village and city has tended to break down, as is evidenced by such phenomena as the continued active involvement of city dwellers in the affairs of their ancestral villages, frequent retirements to the village after a working life in the city, diffusion of urban styles to the villages, or the "ruralization" of city slums (Bayart, 12, and see the literature he cites).
But our postmodern sophistication about binaries, constructed essentialisms, and the invention of tradition should not blind us to the extent to which such contradictions are still lived and felt. As Terence Ranger points out in his seminal essay "The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa," just because traditions can be shown to have been invented does not mean that they do not take on historical reality (212). The processes of modernization grind away, in spite of economic collapse, with the familiar alienations they entail. Global evolutions in media technologies increase the bombardment of Africa by images from outside, giving renewed urgency to the project of keeping an "authentic," "traditional" African culture in view as a point of reference. The fact that most African film production is funded at least partly with European money complicates the issue (Diawara, Ukadike, Okome and Haynes).
In what follows I will explore the contemporary state of the theme of returning to the village by looking at four films, all made about 1990, and all of them first features by directors who were in their 30s.
The two simplest examples, both from Burkina Faso, have exactly opposed positions. MA FILLE NE SERA PAS EXISÉ (MY DAUGHTER WILL NOT BE EXCISED), directed by Boureima Nikiema, begins with Dr. Abdou loading his family into their car in Ouagadougou for a weekend back in their village. Once there, they discover a problem more serious than his wife's having forgotten the malaria pills. Dr. Abdou's father, the customary chief of the village, insists that Abdou's daughter Nafi go through the traditional initiation, which includes circumcision and excision of the clitoris. Dr. Abdou's refusal to permit this scandalizes the village elders, affronts his father's prestige as customary chief, and endangers his own succession to that role.
The center of the film is a public debate held to resolve the conflict, in which Dr. Abdou employs posters and horrible medical photographs, and the authority of modernizing propaganda broadcast on the radio. He is supported by an old man who fought in the French Army, by the local schoolteachers and the midwives, and he calls in a trio of religious authorities — a Muslim imam, Protestant pastor, and Catholic curé — to attest that the holy books never enjoin female circumcision. Against this alliance of progressive forces are ranged the village elders, on the one hand, whose argument for the social benefits of initiation (if not of circumcision) is illustrated sympathetically by the camera in a long, digressive, non-diegetic sequence, and, on the other hand, the fetish priests, who claim that the ancestors still insist on excision, although the oracles have in fact said no such thing — since if there are no circumcisions, how will the fetish priests eat?
Finally an attempt to excise screaming Nafi by force is thwarted in the nick of time by the police, but not before the wicked fetish priest's only daughter has bled to death from her excision. Faced with this providential evidence, Dr. Abdou's father joins with the villagers in rejecting the practice of female circumcision.
Artistically crude and technically primitive, the film must nevertheless be effective propaganda. The very technical deficiencies which mark it as not of export quality point to its practical commitment to the village setting where, projected outdoors with portable equipment, it will change people's minds on a practical matter, part of the modernization of village life undertaken by the Burkinabé government, which must inevitably clash with traditional customs. The government of Burkina Faso is well known for having the most committed and successful film policy in Africa, producing both feature films of high aesthetic quality designed for export (by Idrissa Ouédraogo, Gaston Kaboré, Pierre Yameogo, and others), and a mass of (mostly documentary) films directly involved with the work of social transformation, like this one (which is listed as a "docu-fiction" in the Dictionnaire du cinéma africain, 53).
In contrast, the consciously beautiful cinematography of Drissa Touré's LAADA gives it its main claim on an international audience. If it is also a morality play about tradition and modernity (the title means "customary law"), the values have become reversed. It tells the story of three young men from a village. Two go to the city, where they become gangsters, while the third remains to farm and be initiated into the traditional culture. The film troops piously after a group of initiates as they are given lessons in the medicinal properties of plants, perform magical sacrifices, and watch a fetish priest munch burning charcoal. Our hero is also being taught to read, less successfully, by his younger brother.
Things are changing in the countryside. "Times are hard" are about the first words we hear spoken. And a radio broadcast on improving agricultural techniques accompanies some of the first establishing shots of the village. But, the film asserts, things have not fallen apart, the center is holding. The initiation is into a still viable world view, and the village council is still sovereign in deciding to reintegrate one of the returned prodigals while the other is found guilty of murder. But this assertion of integrity seems willed rather than realized. The film reverently deals with tradition rather than forming a living part of it, as for instance Souleymane Cissé's YEELEN seems to do. LAADA can't help being ethnographic towards its material, calling attention to traditional-ness rather than simply accepting it as the way things are done. It puts the villagers' culture on display in narrative and discursive forms like those developed by Western anthropology and related discourses.
These two tendencies — which we might call "political" and "culturalist," following Ferid Boughedir (52-55)have more sophisticated exemplars, Bassek Ba Kobhio's SANGO MALO (Cameroun), and the Malian Adama Drabo's TA DONA.
Malo is a young schoolteacher, just out of the teacher's college in Yaoundé, who comes to a small village in the rain forest. The village is dominated by a backward, traditional elite, complacent and corrupt in its power. The director of the school is a disciplinarian, whose mission is to force children into unnatural postures, physical and mental. The curriculum he teaches is left over from the colonial period and addresses no real need except his own for an occasion to dominate. The children's families are exploited by an arrogant shopkeeper, who charges what he likes because his is the only shop in town. The village chief sits on his porch in his tee-shirt, with a pretty young wife half or maybe a third his age, having his feet massaged. The village catechist declares that all of this is good.
Malo is an idealist, and a radical, and he sets out to transform the village, beginning with the school curriculum. Instead of an imported, irrelevant intellectual discipline, he takes his students out into the fields, to teach them to be useful citizens — which means intelligent farmers, unashamed to be doing manual work, and in touch with the creative potential of their own labor. Back in the classroom Malo introduces politics and (when he himself falls in love) sex education. His work bears fruit, and leads to confrontations. The kids riot against the shopkeeper. By the time the director has engineered his dismissal from his teaching post, Malo has established a farmers' cooperative, and he stays to direct it.
All this is didactic enough, the clear and intelligent expression of the current progressive agenda for Africa, a more fundamental politics than the agitation for multiparty democracy, which was shaking political superstructures across the continent at the time the film was being made.
Set against the film's political message is its sense for character. SANGO MALO is strongly reminiscent of the Czech films of the 1960s in its humor. We don't hate the village oligarchy. We wonder at what droll monsters human beings can turn themselves into, and laugh with as well as at them. A fine visual wit and sometimes-inspired acting keep comedy spilling out. The camera is as much at home in the village as Malo is. Like him, the visual style finds the village to be a perfectly satisfactory sphere of activity, without sentimentalizing or condescending to it, or hunting up folkloric instances of "culture" (of which the film offers us none). It is an adequate world on a human scale, with rich greens and oranges to revel in, a simple decent vernacular architecture to organize space, and sometimes carefully organized shots of the villagers leading their collective life, streaming into the school or collecting for a meeting. The lively music on the soundtrack, by the eminent musician and musicologist (and writer) Francis Bebey, is both "rooted" and modern.
Malo's own character does not escape scrutiny, and his story veers towards tragedy. The strength of character which makes him effective also makes him intolerant, with the intemperance of youth. He overreaches: he marries without paying a bride price or holding a celebration, because these customs don't fit with his ideas of love; but he sees his wife miserable, and his father-in-law destroyed as the result. And when he decides to chop down the sacred grove to farm it, because it's the only land in the village not privately owned, the other members of the cooperative — which he thinks of as "his" cooperative — desert him. Finally the village oligarchy has him arrested and the film leaves him in prison — a hero whose work remains but whose absence is not entirely unfortunate. As the director commented, it is as if Sekou Touré had disappeared in the 1960s instead of staying on to turn into a despot. The film's form, which is the most conservative thing about it, centered as it is on the will of the lone male protagonist, thus turns back reflectively on itself.
But the counterweight to the political agenda is political tact and a humanistic study of character. The film does not offer a defense of the villagers' culture. It's a mistake to chop down the sacred grove and make a marriage in a way that causes humiliation, but these are only tactical mistakes. The children are a source of cheerful anarchy, but like their peasant parents in the cooperative they remain a mass and do not articulate their own purposes. Dynamism, intelligence and will remain the preserve of Sango Malo and (as the ending promises) are his legacy.
In TA DONA, the director Adama Drabo has said, he is trying to find an equilibrium between traditional African culture and the modern world. The film's hero, Sidy, can manage both cultures at once. His modern side bears a strong resemblance to Sango Malo. A young idealistic reformer, he comes to a village not as a schoolteacher but as an agent of the Forestry and Waters Ministry, to fight desertification. He intervenes to protect villagers from the depredations of corrupt government officials, and tries to institute policies that are genuinely appropriate to village conditions. The title (FIRE!) refers to the traditional peasant practice of setting brush fires. The government has outlawed this practice, in a sudden edict imposed through draconian coercive measures, contemptuous of the peasantry. Sidy wants to explain the rationality of the measure to them.
But he is not just a sympathetic, practical and welcomed modernizer. He is also learning from the people, as an initiate in the secret Bambara Society. As such he is tested, morally and spiritually, before secrets are made available to him.
The film shares his double consciousness, including scenes of the supernatural. Lots of African filmmakers understand how easily cinematic trickery can reproduce magical events. The problem is to make them imaginatively convincing, and here Adama Drabo succeeds better than, say, Drissa Touré in LAADA. The question of belief is posed directly in a scene where the chief has summoned the whole village — with crying children, bleating sheep and squawking chickens — to sit in the sun facing a calabash mounted on a tripod, in a rain making ceremony. The afternoon drags on, and Sidy asks the friend next to him if he really believes this will work. If Sidy doesn't believe it will, he's told peremptorily, he should leave. Later, of course, the calabash is struck by lightning and rain falls. What has been convincing is the relation of magical event to the psychology of the massed villagers.
The supernatural scenes are only the extreme instance of the film's myriad-mindedness. There is a staggering breadth of material in this movie, as if Drabo were trying to define the parameters of the Malian imagination, getting everything into one film. He can cut from a cabal of corrupt government officials sitting on heavy European furniture, dividing up heaps of ill-gotten lucre, to a line of peasant farmers tilling a field with hoes, in a collective rhythm, urged on by drummers and young women who walk down the line with calabashes of water — both scenes grasped with an insider's instinct. This aesthetic accomplishment is the best and imminent argument that it is indeed possible to manage both cultures at once.
But the film is not perfect, and does not always manage to contain its centrifugal force. It tells many stories at once. While the plot connections and transitions are carefully planned, and both script and direction show a knack for quick, revelatory social comedy, the film is dizzying and may he hard to follow on first viewing.
Another and finally dominant strand of the plot concerns Sidy's relationship with Koro, daughter of a corrupt government Deputy. One would expect a classic conflict between the girl's father and her reforming young lover, but the father is distracted by an Anti-Corruption Brigade, which hauls him into their Dantesque offices for questioning and — as the film ends — arrests him. Meanwhile the girl's mother is sick with a mysterious illness. Her husband's Europeanized friends want to have her sent to Europe for tests, but it is Sidy who will save her by reaching the end of his spiritual quest for the seventh canarie — the final healing property of a certain herb. His quest takes him to an ancient Dogon woman, who gives him the recipe but dies before she has told him the dosage. Back in the city, the dosage is worked out by modern medical science, in an exemplary instance of the successful management and cooperation of Mali's two cultures, traditional secret wisdom being made available for universal rational use.
The film's weaknesses show around this part of the story, and not merely because it descends into allegory. The bourgeoise Koro is never questioned as the natural object of desire, in spite of the corrupt source of her money. And Sidy is obviously going to marry her and be assimilated into her class. The ending makes it clear he will replace her father as redeemed symbol of the new Malian ruling class. But this is too easy. The film has scenes which take the measure of the corruption, arrogance and incompetence of the government of Moussa Traoré. But it pretends the government could clean itself up through an anti-corruption campaign. And it assumes that Sidy's goodness can in itself solve the problems not only of political reform but also of the relation of the peasantry with the ruling elite, and of maintaining an equilibrium between two cultures while living more or less wholly in one.
Aesthetically the problem becomes manifested towards the end of the film when Koro and a girlfriend of hers drive in Koro's expensive car to find Sidy at the house of the old wise woman. Sidy may be on a spiritual quest, but the women are there as part of a love story, and in the mode of a camping vacation. This situation gives rise to light domestic comedy, whose thinness vitiates the seriousness with which we take Sidy's quest. If he is not just on vacation, it does seem like this is a passing episode in his life rather than the defining moment; an initiation, but not into the life he will really lead. Sidy returns to the village, and — to be excessively cynical — extracts from it what he needs to guarantee his entry into the ruling class.
Politically the problem is that class analysis becomes obscured by bourgeois moral voluntarism, which tends to be the specter haunting culturalist ideologies — the assumption that everything can be solved by will or imagination alone, and/or solved on the isolated level of culture. Symbolic healings and unifying of the national imagination are necessary, and an altogether appropriate task for artists. But if they are premature or not solidly grounded in an analysis of the total national situation they will seem mythological, in the sense of artificial, something which is in fact hard to live by.
Bassek Ba Khobio's film is more coherent, practical, focused in its intelligence, without Adama Drabo's wide-ranging exuberance. Its ambition is not a symbolic resolution of polarized abstractions, but a concrete model for action, even if it partially begs the cultural issue. Social being determines consciousness, as the wise man said. Certainly the history of socialism in Africa is full of examples of policies which failed because they ignored the culture of the people they were intended to serve. Still the cultural values which really matter most, the film asserts undogmatically, don't concern the occult or marriage customs, but rather one's relation to work — with whether or not the relation between work and culture is dynamic, freeing the creativity of the labor of the peasant masses and overturning any cultural and political superstructure which doesn't serve its interests.
1. Ferid Boughedir organizes his overview of Sub-Saharan African cinema around this theme, though he prefers to name the opposition "old and new" rather than "tradition and modernity." A. Gardies calls it "a banal theme…[with] a long literary and cinematic lineage" (73; my translation). In applying to cinematic production Fanon's famous outline of the three stages through which the colonized intellectual passes (from Wretched of the Earth, 222-23), Tshome Gabriel locates this theme in the second phase, "The Remembrance Phase," 32. See also Ukadike, 8-9,12, and 84.
As always, there is a grave danger in generalizing about "Africa." This theme is much less prominent in Nigerian cinema, for instance, for reasons that include the familiar contrast between the British colonial policy of indirect rule and the French colonial policy of assimilation, and the very different methods and cultures of film production in Nigeria and francophone Africa.
2. Pierre Haffner argues for a strong connection between African cinema and Africa's cities, noting among other things that the cineastes are themselves almost all the children of the cities, and that most of their films are set there rather than in the "bush" (101). He ends his essay (published in 1987) with a hint of a new turning towards the historical/ traditional/ village scene (105).
3. This is indeed an oversimplification: the difficulties of reintegration into village life of a Westernized or modernized traveler have been a theme from the beginning of African cinema: the short LE RETOUR D'UN AVENTURIER (1966) by Mustapha Alassane, and Ganda's first film CABASCABO (1968), are early examples from Niger. Still, there does seem to have been a noticeable shift in the respective weight given the themes of leaving and returning to the village.
4. There is by now a massive literature on this subject; the first important text is Edward Saïd's Orientalism. Ukadike sees that African films presenting the traditional way of life can be read as either reinforcing or subverting the Western ethnographic model (254). Elsewhere he suggests that African audiences are not interested in seeing scenes of daily life, that the pounding of millet and so on appeals to foreigners but merely alienates Africans (263). This is probably a bit simplistic, but the point is well taken.
5. California Newsreel distributes these films on video in the U.S. Contact them at 149 Ninth Street, San Francisco CA 94103. Phone 415/621-6196. For universities that order nine or more titles, there is a special 50% discount price of $99 per tape.
6. The criticism of Malo is more apparent, or more continuous, in the novel version (Sango Malo: Le maitre du canton), written by the filmmaker, which was published in Paris on the same day in February 1991 that the film premiered at the FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou.
7. At a press conference at FESPACO, February 1991.
8. Interview with Haynes, Ouagadougou, February 1991.
9. On the integral structure of "corruption" in the African state, see Bayart. In the event, Traoré's government was overthrown by a popular revolt very soon after the film was made.
Bassek Ba Kobhio. Sango Malo: Le maître du canton. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1991.
Bayart, Jean-François. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. London and New York: Longman, 1993.
Boughedir, Ferid. "Les grandes tendances du cinéma en Afrique noire." CinémAction 26(1983): 48-57.
Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1992.
Dictionnaire du cinéma africain, vol. 1. L'Association des Trois Mondes. Paris: Karthala, 1991.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Gabriel, Teshome H. "Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films." In Questions of Third Cinema, ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen. London: British Film Institute, 1989: 30-52.
Gardies, André. "Les discours de l'espace: KOUDOU, de Babacar Samb Makharam." In André Gardies and Pierre Haffner, Regards sur le cinéma negro-africain. Brussels: OCIC, 1987:72-91.
Haffner, Pierre. "Le developement urbain et le cinema: Essai sur les origines du cinema negroafricain." In André Gardies and Pierre Haffner, Regards sur le cinéma negro-africain. Brussels: OCIC, 1987: 93-105.
Okome, Onookome and Jonathan Haynes. Cinema and Social Change in West Africa. Jos: Nigerian Film Corporation, 1996 (forthcoming).
Ranger, Terence. "The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa." In The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983:21162.
Toureh, Fantah. "Nature et decors." In CinémAction 26(1983): 131-35.
Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. Black African Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.