First World Film

By Mark Cousins

hyenas-djibril-diop-mambety.jpgHyenas, 1992

Remembering transformative times for African cinema

The 1960s are rightly considered a time of upheaval in world cinema, but not until the early 1970s did film history become as dramatic as political theatre. So striking were the events of the new decade that it seemed as if a playwright with a keen sense of irony and a penchant for ideas was behind the twists and turns of cinematic fortune. Take this striking concurrence, which no film history book I know mentions: In the single year of 1974, no less than four key figures in world cinema were in prison. Turkey’s Yilmaz Guney had been so since 1972; Georgia’s Sergei Parajanov began a four year sentence in the same year on charges of fraud, homosexuality and incitement to suicide; documentary director Carlos Alvarez had been incarcerated for more than a year by then; and the Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf had begun his formative four year imprisonment at the same time.

Each of these situations had discreet explanations, of course, but together they suggest that state anxiety about the disruptive power of film had become internationalised in the 1970s. Never before had such disparate countries felt so threatened by filmmakers that they tried to silence them under the law. Though Makhmalbaf was still to become a director he, like Guney, Parajanov and Alvarez, argued new ideas about the role of identity in politics. These ideas were unsettling the world of film in these crucial years, and questioning the relationship between entertainment and social change.

The seeds of this political upheaval were planted by the now famous meeting of 29 Asian and African countries in Bandung in Indonesia in 1955. The purpose of the Bandung Conference was to forge economic and cultural links between countries such as India, China, Japan, Egypt and Algeria. Eventually these, together with Yugoslavia, Indonesia and many African and Latin American states, formed the Non-aligned Movement. Crucial to their co-operation was that they were allied neither to the “first” capitalist world of North America, Europe and Australasia nor to the “second” Communist world of the USSR and the communist block. Bandung identified not just a third point on the political triangle, but a third point on the map of the politics of film style. Mehboob’s Mother India (1957) and Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958) were landmark attempts to articulate such a third possibility.

touki-bouki-djibril-diop-mambety.jpgTouki Bouki, 1973

This discrepant, third, non-aligned vision of cinema took root and grew throughout the 1960s. Its next theoretical boost came in 1969 when two Argentinean filmmakers wrote a manifesto which built on the writings of Mario Vargos Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and the radical film work of Brazilian and Cuban directors of the 60s, and called it ‘Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World.’ Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getano argued that the medium of film had so far been a commodity. Directors in the developing world should reject this history and start again, treating cinema as a weapon to fight oppression, a revolutionary tool. If early 70s cinema was a piece of theatre, this article was its inciting incident. Solanas and Getano’s cultural Marxism was not new, of course, but somewhat confusingly, a tripartite analysis rather different from Bandung’s emerged: First cinema was Industrial and commercial, lasting between from the earliest days of narrative film until around 1958. Second cinema was the modernist art movies of individual creative directors like Godard, Antonioni, Bergman and Fellini and had its heyday between 1959 and 1969. Third cinema was political modernism, opposed to both industrial and autobiographical art cinema. This new idea of Third Cinema was the stage on which the full cinematic ironies of the period would play.

African, South American and Middle Eastern cinema of the 70s would all be affected by this new idea of thirdness, but it is on Francophone West Africa that I wish to dwell. This is because of the possibilities afforded in the comparison between the film world of Dakar, Senegal at this period and that of another city in the desert whose achievements at this time have been as fetishised as Dakar’s have been ignored. Of all the ironies of early 70s cinema there is no greater one than this. Every aspect of the Los Angeles film world of the time has been poured over, every stone unturned, every seminal filmmaking dinner reported on, every drug fuelled party detailed, every aesthetic advance celebrated. Yet at exactly the same time that Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin and Bogdanovich were storming the citadel of Hollywood, in Dakar, thousands of miles away from the coke parties and swimming pools of Southern California, an equally vibrant film culture was blossoming. Striking films made by passionate and complex directors in this promontory city of 1.7 million people were released in such rapid succession that it was hard to keep up, yet the same film historians who have lionised the US Movie Brats have largely ignored their African contemporaries.

xala-ousmane-sembene.jpgXala, 1975

African cinema had long had characters as fascinating as, and rather more articulate than, Scorsese and the rest. At the first Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in 1966 Egyptian Youssef Chahine said “Freedom of Expression is not given, it is taken”, later adding, “I’m the first world, I’ve been here for 7,000 years.” The continent’s first black feature, Black Girl, was made by Ousmane Sembene, a former Citroen factory worker and novelist, in Dakar in 1966, three years before the first major American film directed by a black person. The story of a black housemaid in a white family who becomes depressed and commits suicide, it used an interior monologue in a different voice to that of the actress, the first of many experimental techniques used in African cinema in the following two decades.

Foremost amongst the experimenters was Djibril Diop Mambety who, like founding father Sembene, was born in Dakar – in 1945 – and raised by a strict father who taught him to look beyond materialism. At the age of 28 he released Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1973), an African A Bout de Souffle or Easy Rider, about two ironic young drop outs who swank around and swindle money in order to go to Paris. The man, Mouri, works in a slaughterhouse but drives a motorbike with oxen horns on his handle-bars. Anta, his partner, is a political worker. Mystical scenes of their ritual love-making are intercut with the blood sacrifice of a goat and open mockery of locals, village life and colonialism. In a key scene of ironic defiance, Mouri strips and rides naked in a car, fist held high, making a mock political speech to a cavalcade of black Citroens, the vehicle of choice of the colonialists.

African cinema historian Manthia Diawara wrote that Touki Bouki “tears up the screen with fantasies of African modernity never before seen in film or literature”. Its assertion of youthfulness and cinematic irreverence was a door opener for new African filmmakers. Its title means “journey of the hyenas” in Mambety’s local language Wolof and throughout his career he would use hyenas to symbolise the viciousness of human beings, in one instance pulling out a stuffed one to illustrate his point. It would be twenty years before a made his next feature, itself called Hyenas (1993), by which time the vision of this innovative director had darkened considerably.

ceddo-ousmane-sembene.jpgCeddo, 1977

This combination of Senegalese father figure and radical son was augmented further by Safi Faye, Africa’s first important female director, when she made Peasant Letter/Kaddu Beykat in 1974. The first black African film to train its focus on the cultural details of village life, it documented the impact on farmers of the fall in the market value of their peanut crop, using a letter about a day in the life of villagers as its narrational device. At one point the letter writer says “I have often wondered why we live and die without any pleasure.” European anthropologists like Jean Rouch had long made documentary films about Africa; Faye’s went further than any of these.

In the same year as Peasant Letter, Sembene released his follow up to Black Girl, Xala (Senegal, 1974); it was almost as caustic as, and had been influenced by, Touki Bouki. Sembene’s subject this time was the temporary sexual impotence of a black business man in an unnamed African country who so co-operates with the colonisers that he even washes his limousine with mineral water. Where Xala was funny and popular, Sembene’s next film Ceddo (Senegal, 1976) used a simple style to tell a symbolic and controversial tale about the impact of Islam in Africa. Featuring horrific slave branding scenes, it argued that the future of Africa relies on its refusal of the imposition of any monotheistic religion. Its ending, in which a princess slays a Muslin Imam, was considered scandalous, and the film was banned in its own country for eight years.

In these four films alone we begin to see a key element in the evolution of cinematic creativity: a filmmaking community. Whilst Sembene casts at least as long a paternal shadow as, say, Francis Coppola; where Mambety’s innovation and rebelliousness make him some kind of amalgam of Martin Scorsese and Dennis Hopper; and where Safi Faye as a woman has no parallel in Los Angeles, this community has remained uninteresting to Western critics and audiences. I have seen their films and read what I can about these directors but cannot offer a detailed account of their influences on each other because the research on this has not been done or is not available. Why is this? One answer certainly involves the fact that to enter the world of Los Angeles in 1973 poses fewer intellectual challenges for a Western critic than to write and think about Dakar. To do the latter, after all, one needs to understand Senegalese writer Leopold Sedar Senghor’s idea of negritude, a theory of opposition to French cultural imposition. In contrast the revolutionary fervour of the US white boy movie brats is simpler to grasp.

A more disturbing explanation for the invisibility of Dakar is that Western commentators and audiences identify with the psychodrama of LA c 1973 and don’t with Dakar at the same time. If this is true, then a spade needs to be called a spade: the undervaluation of Senegalese cinema is self-obsessed and racist.

Mark Cousins writes and broadcasts widely on all aspects of cinema. He is currently writing a history of film.