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An African Cinema Primer

As with my Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, I had to do an extensive amount of research prior to writing today’s post. That’s because, although I was previously familiar with some of the key works of African cinema (such as Touki Bouki, Brightness and the movies of the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene), it was necessary for me to watch many more in order to come up with something approaching a well-rounded overview. The following list of thirteen titles encompasses films spanning over fifty years and many diverse countries across the African continent, including Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Chad. To delve into these wonderful movies is to realize yet again how much richer world cinema is than what American film distributors and the media would lead you to believe. And, while I fully acknowledge it is problematic to yoke together such disparate titles (some of which have nothing in common other than that they happened to be produced in roughly the same part of the world), this was nonetheless a great excuse for me to write about films to which I otherwise might never have gotten around.

Cairo Station (Chahine, Egypt, 1958)

Youssef Chahine’s remarkable film, a hard-to-describe multi-genre hybrid, tells the story of a crippled newspaper seller working in the title location who becomes obsessed with a blonde bombshell (Hind Rostom, the “Marilyn Monroe of Egypt”) selling soft drinks nearby. The blonde, in turn, ignores the vendor in favor of a brutish, virile union organizer. This romantic triangle plays out against the backdrop of a series of grisly murders, while scenes of labor unrest offer a fascinating peak into the Cairo politics of the time. But this is probably most interesting today as a surprisingly erotic vehicle for the awesome star power of Rostom who is doused with water in one memorable scene and dances to what sounds like an Egyptian-flavored version of “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” in another.

The Nightingale’s Prayer (AKA The Curlew’s Cry) (Barakat, Egypt, 1959)

Unlike Cairo Station, an art film that was banned in in its native country, The Nightingale’s Prayer was a mainstream hit produced within Egypt’s Hollywood-like studio system. Yet this awesome tragedy is no less startling in its artistry and penetrating insights into human nature. Director Henry Barakat adapts a novel by Taha Hussein whose key ingredients are a family forced into exile, adultery, rape and multiple murders. Amna (Faten Hamama, the real-life wife of Omar Sharif), a maid from the country, hatches a revenge plot against the engineer who brought “dishonor” to her sister, resulting in her death. But, in a plot worthy of Mizoguchi (and with camera movements that rival the Japanese master to boot) this plan only leads to more tragedy. Egypt clearly had a thriving film industry in the mid-twentieth century and the dearth of titles available with English subtitles is cause for bitter regret.

Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal/France, 1966)

This auspicious debut by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene was also the first feature film made by a black African filmmaker. The title character is a young Senegalese woman who gets a job as a nanny for a white French family. She accompanies them back to France where she experiences a subtle, insidious racism that inspires feelings of dislocation and loneliness, before returning to Senegal with tragic results. This is beautifully austere, vital filmmaking whose impact is all the more disturbing at a swift and compressed 65 minutes.

Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant and occasionally surreal lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three feature films in the career of its great director Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with social criticism (in which both Senegalese and French characters are unspared) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike.

Alexandria, Why? (Chahine, Egypt, 1979)

Youssef Chahine created a scandal with this taboo-busting autobiographical epic that recreates, with impressive detail, his hometown of Alexandria during the outbreak of World War II. The story interweaves the lives of many characters, chief among them Yehi, a student and movie lover (and stand-in for the director) who nurses his first stirrings of creativity as an actor and director in local theatrical productions. But the personal story is always juxtaposed with a wider political and historical context, as Chahine uses stock footage of the war and depicts air raids, black market activity and interactions between Egyptian civilians and soldiers of the occupational British army, in this supreme masterpiece of world cinema.

The Gods Must Be Crazy (Uys, S. Africa/Botswana, 1980)

James Uys’ cross-cultural comedy became an unexpected international sensation after its 1980 release and it’s easy to see why; this good-natured, universally appealing story concerns a “bushman” living in the Kalahari desert who discovers an empty Coke bottle and believes it to be a gift/curse from the Gods. This event serves as the catalyst for a plot that sees the bushman come into contact with a bumbling scientist, a sexy missionary and a band of revolutionary political terrorists. Some critics have derided the premise as racist but they’re missing the point entirely – the very subject of Uys’ satire is first world perceptions of third world countries. If that isn’t funny enough, there is also a healthy amount of excellent silent movie-style slapstick, in which animals and machines are allowed to be as funny as the humans.

Yeelen (AKA Brightness) (Cisse, Mali, 1987)

Perhaps my favorite African movie ever is Yeelen, a hypnotic, deliberately paced art film that has all of the deceptive simplicity, power and beauty of a primeval myth. Niankoro is a boy living in rural West Africa who must undergo various rites of passage in order to become a man, which culminates in challenging his evil sorcerer father in a duel to the death. Western critics are fond of invoking Oedipus Rex when reviewing writer/director Souleymane Cissé’s masterpiece but all of this film’s potent and elaborate symbolism is apparently based on local folklore without being influenced by outside sources.

Yaaba (Ouedraogo, Burkina Faso, 1989)

A little boy living in a small town in West Africa makes friends with an old woman whom the rest of the townspeople believe to be a witch. When the boy’s cousin becomes sick, he claims that only the old woman’s medicine can save her. This is a simple, touching story about intergenerational friendship that also effortlessly paints a fascinating societal portrait of African village life. The sentence “She has her reasons” is uttered twice in the film by two different characters, a touching, Renoir-esque reminder of the importance of tolerance in any society. I could watch this beautiful movie seven more times.

The Silences of the Palace (Tlatli, Tunisia, 1994)

Alia is a female nightclub singer in the newly independent Tunisia of the 1960s. She revisits the imperial palace where she had grown up in the previous decade as the daughter of a servant when the country was under French colonial rule. The objects within the palace (a lute, the shards of a broken mirror, etc.) bring back a flood or memories for the time when Alia, as an adolescent, first became aware of class and gender politics. This tough feminist film, from first time director Moufida Tlatli, is of equal interest as an emotionally involving character study and as a lament for the silence of female suffering in a patriarchal Arab Muslim culture.

Faraw! (AKA Mother of the Dunes) (Ascofare, 1998, Mali)

The only narrative film of Malian poet Abdoulaye Ascofare chronicles the trials and tribulations of the strong, resilient matriarch of a struggling rural family who must provide for a mentally handicapped husband, disobedient sons and a daughter who has dropped out of school. The mother goes to great lengths to avoid having the latter become exploited by “foreigners” in this powerful allegory of self-reliance, a key theme of many African movies. Ascofare poignantly dedicated Faraw! to his own mother, the inspiration for the main character, who died while the film was still shooting.

Moolaade (Sembene, Senegal/Burkina Faso, 2004)

Collé is a Muslim woman living in a traditional village in Burkina Faso who incurs the wrath of her neighbors when she dares provide shelter to young girls trying to avoid “female circumcision.” Ousmane Sembene’s last film, and arguably his very best, transforms a frankly horrifying subject into a story that, without pulling punches, manages to be warm-hearted, humorous and inspiring – qualities that owe a lot to the performance of Fatoumata Coulibaly, who unforgettably plays Collé as a force of nature. The film’s final symbolic image, of an antenna on the roof of an ancient building, succinctly evokes the clash between modernity and tradition central to Sembene’s entire filmography and provides a fitting epitaph to his career.

Bamako (Sissako, Mali, 2006)

Abderrahmane Sissako’s provocative and angry satire combines documentary and narrative techniques into an overall essay-like form that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The “plot,” such as it is, details the city of Bamako (the capital of Mali) putting the World Bank and IMF on trial, which allows the writer/director to regale the audience with all manner of disturbing and eye-opening facts about third world debt. Interspersed with these scenes is the melodramatic story of the disintegration of a marriage between a female singer and her unemployed husband, a couple of spirited musical numbers and even a parody of the western genre featuring a cameo by executive producer Danny Glover. This fascinating and trenchant commentary on globalization is a must-see for adventurous viewers.

A Screaming Man (Haroun, Chad, 2010)

Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), a veteran employee of a posh hotel in civil war-torn Chad, finds his life turned upside down when the hotel’s new Chinese owners demote him from pool attendant to gate keeper and give his former post to his son, Abdel (Dioucounda Koma), instead. This begins as a story of social humiliation, a la The Last Laugh, before turning into a Claire Denis-style commentary on European colonialism in Africa — but one that is all the more impacting because it is coming from an insider’s perspective. “Our problem is we put our destiny in God’s hands,” one character wryly observes early on, which seems to spur Adam into making a rash decision involving Abdel that turns the whole scenario into one of shattering moral complexity. This third feature from the prodigiously talented Mahamat-Saleh Haroun deservedly won the Jury Prize at Cannes and marks the writer/director as someone to watch in the future.

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

8 responses to “An African Cinema Primer

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