Vertigo Café: 'Screen Griots' African Cinema in London

By Michael Chanan

The first thing to be said about ‘Screen Griots’ at the National Film Theatre in September 1995 is that it provided evidence not only that African cinema, despite the odds, exists, but also that by and large it is committed to a vision of cinema rooted in a social rather than an individual sense of existence and reality. As Ferid Boughedir reminded us, this is effectively the opposite of the ideology of the classic Western, with the individual hero who rides into town bringing justice and truth while the mob represents the threat of violence and disorder.

For the scholars and film-makers present, whatever the disagreements between them (and there were several), the struggle to make films in Africa today is bound up with the creation of a vision of a self-assertive continent, which refuses to accept the cultural domination of the West lying down. This means, among other things, that many of these film-makers are critical of their own governments, and are forced to engage in a double battle: not only to make their films but to create the space in which they can be seen; and inevitably the conference included discussion of problems such as Pan-African distribution (or its absence) and the relationship of cinema to TV in a period that has seen the arrival of the first satellite broadcasting and new operators. These include the South African broadcaster M-NET, which according to the company’s Head of Public Relations, John Badenhorst, already possesses a network that realises Cecil Rhodes’ dream of linking the continent ‘Cape to Cairo’.

Not everyone who was supposed to be there arrived – Sembene had trouble getting his passport in time, Tlatli had been sent to the UN Women’s Conference in China by her government – but with film-makers and writers like Gaston Kabore, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Cheikh Sissoko, Ferid Boughedir, Ngúgî Wa Thiong’o, the gathering was a notable one. What the conference did, however, was to bring them together with scholars and film-makers from the black diaspora in Britain and the US to consider the cultural place of African Cinema 100 years after Lumière and Edison. The subtext, in other words, was the identification which is felt between the creation of an African cinema over the last 30 years and independent black film-making in the imperial heartlands of Britain and the USA.

This identification by itself is of great significance. It gives African cinema today a different resonance from that of, say, the New Cinema of Latin America, which began to develop a decade or two earlier. In the late 60s, when youthful radicalism swept the globe, it was Latin America which provided the models of what the Argentinians Solanas and Getino called ‘third cinema’, a term that was taken up by scholars like Teshome Gabriel who considered the emerging African cinema in the same light. Not that the Argentineans had meant to restrict the term to their part of the world – after all, this was the decade of the Tricontinental movement, when Che Guevara fought in the Congo. Indeed, when black film-makers arose in Britain and North America in the 80s and debated the idea of a third cinema within the metropolis, they inherited the mantle of the student film-makers of London, Paris and San Francisco who are cited by Solanas and Getino as versions of oppositional film-making to compare with their own. But how long ago this all seems! Today, five years after the demise of Soviet Communism and the geopolitics of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the uncertain peace of the Balkans, it has also happened that Latin America has almost entirely disappeared from our film and TV screens and Africa has taken its place.

If at the same time – and as a result of the same global shifts – political language has suffered – which seems to be true here, there and everywhere – then this conference was notable for its clarity about how little has changed. If one speaker questioned the usefulness any longer of the term ‘third world’, and another, who confessed to belonging to the generation of the 60s, said he felt the game was up, there were others who disputed the terms ‘postmodern’ and ‘postcolonial’ as an invention of occidental intellectuals which might apply to their own experience of the world, but in terms of the lived reality in Africa, remained alien. There were useful arguments advanced on both sides of these questions, for a conference like this has a sense of dialogue built in. But this also means that some of the tensions which arose – as they have done at previous similar events – are due to a slippage between these different positions. (I speak of them as if they were two, but of course they come in various shades.)

The high point of the dialogue came in a moving presentation by Teshome Gabriel, recounting his return to Ethiopia for the first time after more than 30 years, a discourse on the meaning of the gift in African culture which he deftly employed to illuminate the path which African cinema treads; and the dignified defence by Clyde Taylor, on behalf of the calling of cultural criticism, to a passionate intervention by Haile Gerima. Delegates I spoke to regretted the polarisation, whichever opinion they inclined to; they also disagreed on the question of whether such an animal as African cinema can be defined at all. This reminded me of the debate in the 80s at conferences on Latin American cinema, about whether a New Latin American Cinema really existed, or was merely voluntaristic and utopian. On one thing everyone seemed agreed: the spirituality of the African vision. As Gabriel expressed it, ‘We believe in the idea of the gift. Capitalism only believes in exchange. As for Hollywood, there is no spirituality in it any more (and I don’t mean religion).’

Michael Chanan is head of film & video at the London College of Printing. A documentarist and writer, his most recent book is a history of the recording industry, Repeated Takes, published by Verso.