Africa in Motion

By Mark Cousins

sparrow-youssef-chanine.jpgSparrow, 1972

Most film festivals in the world claim to look to the future. They premiere new movies, often have discovery sections, and organise industry panels on issues like digitisation or new funding streams. They thus justify their existence (and funding) by claiming to discover or incubate talent and path-find in matters of practice, craft or production.

Fair enough, though the formulae and claims are, for me, over familiar. Surely not all of the world’s estimated thousand film festivals can talent spot and path-find? Thankfully, a festival of African cinema in the UK almost requires, by definition, a more janus-faced approach. Africa’s cinematic heritage is unknown by all but the most specialist British audiences. It would make little sense, therefore, to present only new movies and emergent filmmakers without also looking backwards and screening key work from previous decades. Our ignorance of the great works of African cinema necessitates such curatorial two-way traffic.

Now in its second year, and perhaps the UK’s biggest festival of African film, Africa in Motion triumphantly justifies this approach. Each day is a mix of old and new movies. Past and present inform each other. The sense of where the continent’s filmmakers have been and where they are going to is exhilarating. The festival’s director, Lizelle Bisschoff, has clocked that smaller festivals, in which there’s only one screening at any one time, work better as narratives and social occasions because everyone’s going to the same film at the same time – the festival isn’t a maze of overlapping journeys – and so, despite being janus-faced, AiM feels confident, clear and decisive.

xala-ousmane-sembene-1.jpgXala, 1975

Bisschoff opened this year with the 1975 film Xala, in tribute to Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, who died in June, aged 84. It was right to do so because Xala is a time capsule of themes and styles of African cinema of that period. I’d seen it several times but never on a very big screen. Afterwards a friend and cinephile said “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.” People rightly saw in its social satire about a black government minister who takes a third wife but on his wedding night is impotent, some of the uncontainable psychic energy of Bunuel. The film is laced with the scorn of 70s Pasolini, especially in its ending where a troupe of disabled people confront the minister, make him strip and spit on him. Todd Haynes’ film Poison comes to mind, too.

Those who have problems with what they call “African” acting – by which I presume they mean the stop-start, declamatory and non-psychological performance style you get in some Sembene films, but by no means all of African cinema – might have had problems with Xala, but I love the fact that in it the actors do not create wells of loneliness a la Brandoesque western acting. Instead, the film is given its magisterial pace by the way the women walk in stately slow motion throughout. Alfred Hitchcock knew that Montgomery Clift’s walk in I Confess gave that film its rhythm. The female promenade in Xala gives it its. On the festival’s second day, Sembene’s debut feature, Black Girl, was introduced by David Murphy, who wrote the best book I’ve read on the director.

Bright and early on the Saturday – day three – the festival and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African studies convened a symposium, African Cinema: Art and/or Industry. The phenomenon of Nollywood and the South African government’s film agency’s regrettable parroting of script development and story structure norms which have sucked the blood out of, for example, German cinema in the 80s, means that this was a timely choice of topic. Professor Mbye Cham of Howard University outlined the history of African cinema’s attempts to reconcile theoretically the industry and art vectors of film and Beti Ellerson of Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, was particularly insightful about women and the gaze in African film. As usual in such discussions, there were times when the art/industry focus was seen as a tension between two divergent tendencies when, increasingly, the most productive approach seems to be to see film culture as a single Self containing divergent impulses. European film agencies like the UK Film Council and Scottish Screen, for example, are very relaxed about the imperative to make money and/or art, and policy across Europe seems less implacably double-headed than, say, a generation ago. In the era of DVD and the long tail, public sector agencies would do better to invest in master filmmakers like Sembene, or Djibril Diop Mambety, than a fly by night Nollywood production.

hyena-djibril-diop-mambety.jpgHyenas, 1992

As if to prove the point that great films come back from the dead whereas bad ones remain buried, Bisschoff screened the 1972 Angolan film Sambizanga, directed by Sarah Maldoror, on the Saturday afternoon. Maldoror worked on the far better known The Battle of Algiers, but her own movie, which looks like a Caravaggio painting come to life, analyses a corner of the Angolan liberation struggle, through the eyes of Maria Xavier, whose husband is tortured and killed by the secret police. I am ashamed to say that although I’d heard of the film, I’d never seen it and didn’t expect it to be a tonally diverse masterpiece. Like a Ken Loach film intercut with a Maya Deren film, it seemed to me to be a landmark, and I wish I’d included it in my book The Story of Film. Sambizanga introduced Bisschoff’s focus on women directors past and, in the coming days, present.

The following day saw a screening of God’s Gift, made by Gaston Kabore in 1982, the film I always bung at people who say that African cinema is hard to get into or that the acting is wooden, both of which are nonsense. Made at the beginning of Act Two of African cinema, that historic time when filmmakers turned away from the present decolonised moment and looked back to excavate ideas of pre-colonial Africa, the film presents a wholly moving vision of community and shared values. That night, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s scalding melodrama about corruption and the traumatic loss of the Sinai, The Sparrow, played and, following it, on the big screen, in a beautiful 35mm print, Djibril Diop Mambety’s Hyenas.

max-and-mona-teddy-mattera.jpgMax and Mona, 2004

I’ve long thought that Mambety’s Touki Bouki was his best film but seeing Hyenas in such a fine projection was overwhelming. It is still a work of vitriol and a despairing satire on consumerism in the manner of Pasolini at his most enraged (more than a touch of the gender rage of Xala), but this time it was the physical qualities of Mambety’s tableaux that struck me: The texture of the costumes, the unyielding face of the richest woman in the world who returns to the town of Colobane (where Mambety himself was born) to enact her revenge on the man who jilted her. Except Hyenas is not really about revenge. In high accusatory mode, it points the finger of blame at individual greed, at the clamour for consumer goods, at human beings’ genius at self deception, at the unstoppable way in which they can convince themselves that the suffering of others isn’t happening. As such it brings to mind things as diverse as the Stanford Prison Experiment to the war in Iraq, and brilliantly so. Hyenas on the big screen is one of the greatest movie experiences imaginable, I think. When Mambety, who’s in the film, takes of his glasses we see that his eyes are red - from drinking perhaps, or crying at the valley of tears in which he finds himself.

Day six started with screenings of new African documentaries; in the evening Teddy Mattera introduced his visually beautiful Max and Mona. Following that Rumbi Katedza’s short, wordless film Asylum, about a Sudanese asylum seeker in the UK who is experiencing intrusions, was impressive and Tunisian master Nouri Bouzid’s Making Of was the best film I’ve seen about the inductions of Islamic fundamentalism, and contained a real coup de cinema half way through.


The next films I caught were on the last day. Souleymane Cisse’s classic The Wind is a haunting student protest movie intercut with Jungian scenes. Like Hyenas, seeing it on the big screen revealed a directorial fascination with texture – especially skin. Cisse is African cinema’s greatest colourist; the film’s music has elements of sci-fi and electronically generated sounds that are reminiscent of Ritwik Ghatak films. Bisschoff’s closing film was Son of Man, Mark Dornford-May’s South African, vivid, musical, township retelling of the life of Jesus Christ.

I wish I could have seen more of Africa in Motion but I experienced enough to realise that the two-way curatorial policy works; that discovery is a matter of present and past; and that Mambety, Cisse and Kabore are even better than I thought. In Sarah Maldoror I have yet another director to rave about. As the festival ends I am exhilarated yet angry at the sequestration of these talents and the racism by omission that continues to see them underrated in Anglophone film culture.

Mark Cousins is a film writer, producer and director.