Researching Africa on film

by Françoise Pfaff

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 50, 57
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006


On November 15, 1884, representatives of most European nations gathered in Berlin to participate in a conference which was to establish the basis for the partition of Africa to protect and regulate the mercantile interests of Western colonialism. A century later, in spite of the fact that former African colonies have become independent nations and that most of the people there speak African rather than European languages, sub-Saharan Africa's official languages reflect the geographic and linguistic subdivisions inherited from the century-old Berlin conference. As a result, anyone interested in conducting serious investigation in the area of African history and cultures has to research primary and secondary sources essentially written in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The examination of material on African cinema is no exception. And, since 80% of indigenous sub-Saharan African films (South Africa excluded) have been made in Francophone regions, a substantial number of articles pertaining to African cinema are thus found in magazines written in French. The following is an overview of these publications.

Unir Cinéma, Revue du Cinéma Africain (B.P. 160, Saint Louis, Senegal) is, to my knowledge, the only periodical entirely devoted to African cinema to come out of Francophone Africa. Typewritten and duplicated through offset printing with poor photographic reproductions, Unir Cinéma, Revue du Cinéma Africain is written by a staff including both Senegalese and French reviewers and published six times a year by the Catholic Information Center of the diocese of Saint Louis. Obviously made with meagre financial means, this review adequately describes current African films by providing up to date filmographies of recent motion pictures as well as more detailed entries (including credits, filmmakers' biographies, film summaries and critiques) of the most significant cinematographic works by African filmmakers. It also contains reports on film festivals in which African films participate and thus allows the researcher to gauge the exposure and appreciation of African cinema on an international level. Furthermore, listings of places where African films have been or will be commercially exhibited attest to the scope of their circulation. Carefully prepared dossiers reveal moreover the status of African cinema by country and the efforts undertaken by local governments to promote the production and distribution of their films. Finally, Unir Cinma, Revue du Cinema Africain furnishes a bibliography of the latest articles on African cinema as well as the names of foreign magazines with a serious interest in the critique of African films. This Senegalese publication shows serious dedication in its efforts to gather data. However, one tends to regret its infrequent inclusion of informative interviews with African filmmakers and of detailed articles concerning the thematics, aesthetics and ethics of African cinema. Yet, in sum and in spite of such shortcomings, Unir Cinéma, Revue du Cinéma Africain should be considered a useful reference tool.

A number of journals and magazines published in France offer valuable material on African filmmaking. Since the emergence of cinema in Africa, the quarterly Présence Africaine (25 bis, rue des Ecoles, 75005 Paris), described as "a cultural review of the Negro world" and founded in the 1940s by the late Alioune Diop of Senegal, has through the years consistently presented festival reports and various more detailed articles by African film critics, among them Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, both a pioneer African filmmaker and film historian. More recently, Peuples Noire, Peuples Africains (3 rue de l'Asile Popincourt, 75011 Paris), edited by the well-known exiled Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti, has provided occasional coverage of African cinema. Published in French and Arabic, Cinemarabe: revue bimestrielle d'action cinematographique tricontinentale(8 bis rue Campagne Premiere, 75014 Paris) includes writings by such film critics as Ferid Boughedir, Tahar Cheria, Guy Hennebelle and others who conduct studies on Third World cinema with an emphasis on Arab as well as sub-Saharan African films. Also a bilingual magazine (French and Arabic), Adhoua (Cercle d'Etudes et de Recherches Cinématographiques, Boite 92, Résidence Le Foulon, 91120 Palaiseau, France), offers cultural and political assessments of current Arab and sub-Saharan African cinema.

Coverage of important film festivals such as the ones held in Carthage (Tunisia) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta), periodic interviews with African filmmakers particularly following a new release, and thematic and stylistic studies of African films are found in the two monthly magazines Cahiers du Cinéma (9, passage de la Boule Blanche, 75012 Paris) and Positif (Nouvelles Editions Opta, 1 Quai Conti, 75006 Paris). In addition, the comparatively new quarterly Film Exchange (50, avenue Marceau, 75008 Paris) includes from time to time very thorough socio-economic inquiries into the financing, production and distribution of African films as related to development issues in the Francophone areas of Africa. Also should be mentioned Les 2 Ecrans: revue mensuelle de cinéma et de television (27 bvd. Zirout, Algiers, Algeria). This monthly magazine, written in French and Arabic and published by the Algerian radio and television, addresses issues related to world film and television with a special focus on progressive Third World and African cinema.

Finally, to be noted for their varied attention to African cinema are respectively Jeune Afrique (which dedicated its April 1984 Jeune Afrique Plus issue to a general survey of African film), Afrique-Asie,. Jeune Cinema, Ecran 84 and Cinema 84 (as well as their issues of previous years), Film Action, La Revue du Cinéma-Image et Son, Cinématographe, Le Nouvel Observateur, Les Nouvelles littéraires, and Les Lettres Françaises.


Africa on Film and Videotape 1960-1981: A Compendium of Reviews, written, compiled and edited by David S. Wiley (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1982), $35.00.

Africa on film is an extremely diverse topic, which encompasses various areas of filmmaking and describes different historical periods. The topic includes films made by non-Africans as well as films made by Africans over a time span of some eighty years. These two kinds of motion pictures follow patterns which differ widely in perspective, purpose, ideology, and meaning. To date there has been no comprehensive study of them. To help remedy this lack of information concerning films made about Africa, David S. Wiley undertook the monumental task of reviewing films made over twenty-one years. He compiled the results in his book Africa on Film and videotape 1960-1981: A Compendium of Reviews. Africa on Film and Videotape, a voluminous 550-page book, is assuredly a credit to its author and the African Studies Center of Michigan State University. Although filmographies had already been included in various articles and books concerning films about Africa, no such book of film reviews had previously been published in the United States,

Wiley's work presents films about Africa which are related to a wide variety of topics: religion, education, economy, refugees, colonialism, apartheid, health, law, nationalism, nutrition, politics, population, women's studies, etc. These films cover all of the African continent and associated islands including Madagascar. Africa on Film and Videotape has resulted from the combined efforts of a multitude of very knowledgeable African Studies experts who selected, screened and reviewed thousands of films. These are compiled in an alphabetical listing of over 1,500 titles; out of those about 750 have been reviewed and are also classified according to topical headings in the index. The book includes a rating for each film, suggests uses for them, as well as lists sources of additional reviews, when available. It should be noted that multiple reviewers were sought, African as well as non-African, to insure a certain level of objectivity. The evaluation process used examines the technical, structural and substantive characteristics of most films. And, in the editor's own words,

"...The reviews in this volume are not and were not intended to be abstract, individualistic, and artistically-oriented criticism of the aesthetics of African film and video."

The period considered by David S. Wiley, which goes from 1960 to 1981, is of great significance because it corresponds to an era when the film portrayal of Africa started to be redefined after decades of deliberate disfigurement. Before 1960, Western cinema filmed primarily its own vision of the Dark Continent with lush landscapes, brainless or savage natives and wild animals. This cinema mirrored the dominant ideology of the era. Africa was under European tutelage and was generally looked at in terms of an escapist, paternalistic, and superficial image. Such an ideological view became reinforced by the news media and popular literature. Western cinema neglected or misrepresented the originality of African life and mores. Instead it stressed the exotic and the continent's isolated strangeness. Overall, those films about Africa, made in Africa by non-Africans, were basically aimed at a non-African audience and as such, with few-exceptions, condoned Western colonialism. This was particularly true for jungle melodramas such as TRADER HORN (USA, 1930), SANDERS OF THE RIVER (Great Britain, 1935), KING SOLOMON'S MINES (Great Britain, 1937), MOGAMBO (USA, 1953) or SAFARI (USA, 1955), which used Africa as a background to the valiant deeds of European explorers winning over the African wilderness. Other features like PAYSANS NOIRS (BLACK PEASANTS, France, 1947) or MAGMA (France, 1955) did little more than praise the merits of white settlers and administrators whose task was to "civilize" and "uplift" the Africans. Likewise, most of the Western documentaries made about Africa prior to the 1960s had the same condescending attitude. Moreover, they treated neutrally Western colonialism's exploitative methods in the regions where these films were made. This can be observed in THE MILITARY DRILL OF THE KIKUYU TRIBES AND OTHER CEREMONIES (USA, 1914), LA CROISIERE NOIRE (France, 1924) or DAYBREAK IN UDI (Great Britain, 1949).

In the 1960s, Africa's image on film changed because of worldwide political and social changes. At that time many African countries were gaining their independence. Cinema slowly began to reflect new patterns of world ideologies, now associated with the new political assertiveness of Blacks, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, "jungle melodramas" like HATARI (USA, 1961), ZULU (Great Britain, 1964), or THE GENTLEMAN FROM COCODY (France, 1966) decreased. Also, some Western filmmakers sought to record the various transformations occurring in the newly emerged African nations. These filmmakers also became increasingly interested in the richness of African cultures previously shunned by Europe. These postcolonial documentaries were usually less biased and more culturally accurate than the ones made before. Concurrently, throughout Africa (and the African diaspora), the 1960s generated a new self-awareness which manifested itself through indigenous cultural expression. A new breed of creators, African-born filmmakers, emerged to present an image of Africa from an African viewpoint through fiction film. These included BLACK GIRL (Senegal, 1966), LE VENT DES AURES (Algeria, 1965), BAARA (Mali, 1977), TOULA (Niger, 1973), NJANGAAN (Senegal, 1975) or MONEY POWER (Nigeria, 1981). Also, many African documentaries addressed all facets of African life. Never before, except for Egyptian filmmakers and a few others, had African filmmakers so enriched the realm of filmmaking.

For these reasons, the complete title of Wiley's book, Africa on Film and Videotape 1960-1981: A Compendium of Reviews, bears a promise and an appeal. However, the work only concentrates on Western-made documentaries about Africa and minimizes describing documentaries made by African filmmakers. Beyond that, Wiley deliberately does not consider many fictional films about the African continent, either by non-African or African directors. In the introduction, Wiley states that he and his collaborators ",.. chose not to review fictional, feature films unless they were made for or primarily disseminated in schools and colleges." This work, he said, was primarily intended for educators. So it should mainly emphasize "thoughtful films" made about Africa. In that way, these films would correct the biases which still prevail about Africa in many segments of the American society. Such a pedagogic purpose Wiley clearly affirms:

"This compendium of reviews of films and videotape concerning Africa has been created in the African Media Center (AMC) at Michigan State University (MSU) in order to identify audiovisual media which accurately present the diversity and complexities of the African continent in school, college and community."

Thus, it selects "good" films about Africa. For that reason, Africa on Film and Videotape is not a completely objective reference book which could be useful to all people interested in African affairs or film. Rather, it is a well-meaning, qualitative guide. It selects a group of films it assumes "accurately" presents the "diversity and complexities of Africa" for audiovisual material for classroom use. Such a selection could be justified at the elementary and perhaps high school levels. It seems much less relevant for college material. College students could benefit from contrasting presentations of both "good" and "bad" films about Africa and thereby benefit from an enriching comparative study of film language and ideological frameworks. With its infrequent reference to fictional films about Africa, especially those by African filmmakers, Africa on Film and Videotape does not adequately document the wealth of African films made since the 1960s. It refers only to the fictional films of Ousmane Sembene and a very small number of others by filmmakers such as Moustapha Alassane, Haile Gerima, Med Hondo, Sebastien Kamba and Mahama Johnson Traoré.

I also deplore the absence of African documentaries, such as the recent works by the Senegalese anthropologist filmmaker Safi Faye and others. The book ends up presenting a large number of documentaries about Africa made from a Western point of view. Researchers on African cinema will still have to resort to foreign sources such as the books by Guy Hennebelle (Les Cinémas Africains en 1972 or Cineastes d'Afrique Noire) or Paulin Souinanou Vieyra (Le Cinéma Africain des Origines à 1973) and other numerous articles devoted to this topic. Some of these articles are incorporated in a bibliography in Appendix A of Africa on Film and Videotape.

To the book's credit, its film descriptions and critiques are precise and well-written. They stress the strengths and weaknesses of the films discussed (cf. CROSSROAD/SOUTH AFRICA, p. 89, I CAN HEAR ZIMBABWE CALLING, p. 176, or I'LL SING, NOT CRY, p. 179). Nevertheless, the reviews are uneven in depth and length (e.g., long treatments of HELLO FROM SWAZILAND, p. 167 or THE PRICE OF A UNION, p. 291-292 as compared to the brief statements about HARVEST: 3000 YEARS, p. 164-165). At times, the reviewer relied on the accuracy of outside information concerning a film's content, such as SOLEIL O, when the film was in the U.S. and therefore available for screening. In that film at no time does the protagonist "end up as a street cleaner" as hastily reported (p. 324) through a quotation. In like, manner, the critique of Sarah Maldoror's SAMBIZANGA stipulating (p. 312) that it is "one of the few films made by an African woman..." is erroneous since Sarah Maldoror, born in France of West Indian and French ancestry, is not an African woman. Beyond that, too many misspellings, typos and omissions are there. Readers can easily correct typos, but omissions can indeed lead to confusion or necessitate further research. Thus, in one review of Sembene's film TAUW, p. 345, the title was omitted.

Although Africa on Film and Videotape 1960-1981: A Compendium of Reviews has a few shortcomings such as limited scope, errors and incomplete listings, its usefulness is undeniable. This readily available source of information for educators in search of film and videotape will enhance teaching. The book gives good information about film distributors, film rental and film purchase. For these reasons and the thoughtful and fair reviews it contains, David S. Wiley's work should prove a valuable addition to both academic and public libraries.