click to buy 'Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema' at Amazon.comInternationally, African film has long been considered an “exotic dish that can only be ordered as a side order and not the main course” (Haile Gerima) (1). This tendency was particularly manifest in the 1990s, which in the process of making African film globally visible also exposed it further to the Western exoticising gaze. The more people tasted African film – it seemed – the more they treated it as a mere side order, and Western film audiences already seem to search elsewhere for their exoticism. However, although in danger of being reduced to a theoretical curiosity, African film did benefit from being in the spotlight during the ’90s by becoming the object of critical study for scholars whose works now emerge one after the other.

Both Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema (2000), edited by June Givanni, and Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers (2002), edited by Frank Ukadike, could be said to emanate from this “boom” of the mid-’90s. Givanni’s volume consists mainly of the proceedings of a 1995 conference at the British Film Institute in London, whereas Ukadike’s book contains his many interviews with filmmakers since his scholarly monograph Black African Cinema appeared in 1994. Together, these two books are important additions to previous work in the field such as Manthia Diawara’s essential African Cinema: Politics and Culture (1992), Imruh Bakari’s and Mbye Cham’s collectively edited African Experiences of Cinema (1996), and Gaston Kaboré’s edited volume Africa and the Centenary of Cinema (1995). At present, one can only applaud the fact that this accumulation of books comes close to constituting the critical mass required to keep the discipline autonomous and dynamic, especially if supplemented by the more extensive literature available in French by such writers as Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Ferid Boughedir, Pierre Haffner, André Gardies, and finally Olivier Barlet whose African Cinemas: Decolonising the Gaze appeared in English in 2000.

Some critics have insinuated that African film finds itself practically at a standstill, but both Givanni’s and Ukadike’s volumes show that this is far from the case. If African film currently faces evident obstacles, this should not be seen as a symptom of sickness, but rather as a sign of the industry’s maturation, occasioning shifts in both production practices and critical discourse. Both volumes thus regret the “inadequacy of contemporary critical methodologies for dealing with African cinema” (Ukadike, p. xix) and clearly wish to promote a stronger and more autonomous film criticism. If criticism can run free and unfettered, it would prove that the art form is sound. Consequently, questions occupy a central role in both volumes, whether in the form of the London-conference’s original series of questions or in the form of “questioning African filmmakers”, as Ukadike’s title reads.

Givanni’s volume provides a sober and wide-ranging insight into the current concerns of African film. The book maintains the original, rather dense conference structure with sections ordered around questions that are central to the definition and development of African film, such as iconography, genre, indigenisation, audience, technology, postmodernity, and the role of decolonisation. Each of these sections contains four to five contributions, including a small presentation, a main critical paper, and a couple of shorter responses to the main paper typically by filmmakers. The volume thus includes contributions from no less than 32 major critics and filmmakers, and this diversity of voices is both a strength and a weakness. The format provides a rich setting for collaboration and polemical exchange, but also obscures the book’s overall direction. The volume appears remarkably comprehensive, but this ambition forces the reader to jump between practical solutions, film distribution, and high theoretical debates about decolonisation. Although Imruh Bakari’s introduction does a commendable job at clarifying the issues, a reader not familiar with the ongoing debates will easily feel left behind. More seriously, the book’s scope often obfuscates the real stakes of the debates, and a more critical selection would have sharpened the book’s profile.

The ambitious inclusion of both critics and creators in the debates is one instance of an approach which is enticing and problematic. The discourses often clash monumentally, at times even destructively, most notably when acclaimed Burkinabe filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo simplistically snaps at modern film critics’ attempt at categorisation. These tensions, however, also demonstrate precisely how much is at risk at the brittle African film scene. Much of the academic discussion is ideologically and theoretically driven, but given that almost everybody ends up emphasising the necessity to address the question of audience in African film, it is surprising that only one contribution, John Badenhorst’s, discusses this concretely and that this well-researched and productive article about distribution and technology receives little attention.

The advantage of Ukadike’s book is certainly that it approaches filmmakers as filmmakers and leaves it up to each one of them when to discuss practical filmmaking and when to theorise. In the less polemic situation of the interview, Ouedraogo, for instance, immediately turns more concillatory and emphasises that “criticism is important”. Behind the ambition of “surveying the evolution of African cinema, the ambiguities of ethnographic films, and the politics and problems of seeing Africa through African lenses” (Ukadike, p. xviii), Ukadike has a clear agenda that directs his questions. He divides the 20 interviews into three parts, thereby somewhat schematically imposing a dialectic structure on the history of African film production. The first part contains the conversations with what is now routinely referred to as “the pioneers”, that is, the filmmakers who first used and defined the medium in Africa, typically in the ideological context of the national liberation from colonial powers. Whereas Souleyman Cissé, Med Hondo, Safi Faye, and Chief Eddie Ugbomah are included, Ousmane Sembène – indisputably the “pioneer” par excellence – did not grant Ukadike an interview. Yet this turns out to be to the volume’s advantage. Numerous interviews with Sembène are already available and his absence only accentuates the shadows he casts on everybody else – including the interviewer Ukadike himself. The second part contains interviews with the “second generation” of filmmakers whose focus is considered less ideological, or rather, whose ideology is less narrowly defined than that of the “pioneers”. Arguably a synthesis emerges from the third part, certainly the most compelling and enlightening in the collection, where old and new voices discuss the emerging generation of filmmakers.

Although running the risk of repetition given the filmmakers’ overlapping concerns, Ukadike’s conversations are all immediately accessible and contain frequent surprises, especially those with the youngest filmmakers whose less ideological stances often disrupt the interviewer’s assumed impartiality. Thus Ukadike is clearly at odds with the position of the Cameroonian “second-generation” filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo whose astounding analyses challenge Ousmane Sembène’s venerated position in African film. Simply combine this remarkable interview with that of the “pioneer” Haile Gerima, equally idiosyncratic, and one would have a dazzling introduction to African film. Although Ukadike’s introduction makes no mention of French scholarship in the field, most notably Olivier Barlet’s book that includes important original interview material, his interviews are essential in a scholarly field where the views of the filmmakers themselves continue to direct the critical discourse.

Filmmakers as Specialists of Memory

click to buy 'Questioning African Cinema' at Amazon.comDespite their commitment to questions, the two books do little to call the traditional emphasis on the African filmmaker into question. Since its emergence in the 1960’s, African film has been treated almost exclusively as cinéma d’auteur, typically as a result of the earliest films’ understandably didactic quality: “about 90 percent of African films are author films because each filmmaker wants to present himself as someone who must convey a message to the people” (Ngangura Mweze in Ukadike, p. 135). Sembène even claims that “cinema is an evening class for the people” (2). Thus linking the product with its creator would seem to be the best way of guaranteeing the ideological authenticity of the message, but at present this possibility seems to have been undermined by the realities of African filmmaking. In a situation where most of the funding for the author-films comes from the European Union, the filmmaker occupies a peculiar position, or as Med Hondo expresses it: “The African filmmaker is somehow an orphan because he is marginalised both outside and inside Africa” (Ukadike, p. 67). Although this position can allow the filmmaker to challenge received opinions, the stress on the filmmaker cannot simply be explained by conventional theories of cinematic authorship, but must today be conceived of as a strategic positioning meant to “maintain visibility and secure funding for future work” (as Martin Stollery has argued (3)).

It is, however, important to recognise that “the genius of African cinema [is that] its founding examples have come from the most conscientious artists” (Clyde Taylor in Givanni, p. 140). Yet, this definition of genius should not get caught up in a now artificial dichotomy between its artistic ambitions and a more commercialised mass appreciation. There is a dire need for African film to preserve memory by countering imported images, and memory must be shared for it to have its ideological impact. V. Y. Mudimbe has famously argued that the West has submitted the world to its memory, and it is in this context that filmmakers have an important role to play as “specialists of memory”, especially as the African oral tradition already is a system of images. Filmmakers must therefore, as Bassek Ba Kobhio puts it, “go deep into their collective mind to try to retie the broken thread of our history and our memory” (Givanni, p. 187).

The central article in Givanni’s volume, Sylvia Wynter’s “Africa, the West and the Analogy of Culture”, deals precisely with this issue of memory. Wynter attempts to generate an archaeology of Africa’s place within the Western philosophical tradition, and it is within this tremendously ambitious project that filmmakers are seen to “provide us with a cognitive advantage” (Wynter in Givanni, p. 59). If Africa has been submitted to a single memory, the best way to fight the resulting stereotypes would be to invert the lenses: “if no other medium was to be more effective than that of the cinema in ensuring the continued submission to single memory of the people whom the West has subordinated in the course of its rise to world hegemony, no other medium is so potentially equipped to effect our common human emancipation from this memory” (Wynter in Givanni, p. 29). In other words, if cinema is the best means of submission, it is also the best means of emancipation. Wynter’s project, therefore, endeavours to carve out a precise role for African cinema in terms of deconstructing the present Western-dominated memory.

Despite Wynter’s heavy theoretical apparatus, which includes no less than 15 pages of references for a 35-page article, her position contains few surprises. The central premises stem from the work of Foucault and Mudimbe, and filmmakers since Sembène have already explicitly defined cinema as a battle over memory. Kwah Ansah, for instance, expresses the concern very simply in his conversation with Ukadike: “I felt the only way to repair the damage done to the black race through the film medium is to use the same medium to combat those stereotypes” (Ukadike, p. 5). Wynter is justified in leading the discussion towards the elements of consciousness, that is, towards memory, ideology, and cultural meaning. If, however, the task of the African filmmaker is not only to decolonise the mind, but to present a distinctive African contribution to the human experience, the emphasis on consciousness should not be made at the expense of form and aesthetics.

Asking the Right Questions

Like most previous works, both Givanni’s and Ukadike’s books neglect the formal and aesthetic aspects of film production in favour of the politics of memory, which proves problematic as this quickly collapses into discussions of the material conditions for film production and distribution. Ukadike’s series of questions falls back into repeating the filmmakers’ constant obstacles in reaching an audience and although these obstacles should not be denied, one often wishes that these remarkable filmmakers would be allowed simply to talk about their art. However noble it may appear to ask questions, this procedure may in other words also be an alarming way of preserving the status quo: Questioning African filmmakers may simply lead to a reiteration of traditional material concerns that could impede a critical formulation of aesthetic categories and a definition of the artistic contributions of the continent’s filmmakers. One therefore feels a certain relief when Jean-Pierre Bekolo provokes his interviewer by exclaiming: “I hate talking about the problems of distribution and about politics. In the African circle, we never talk about aesthetics, and that is what made me enter this business of filmmaking” (Ukadike, p. 221).

Cheick Oumar Sissoko

This also leaves an important role for the critic. Malian filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko tells the story of a journalist who asked him: “What stage is African cinema at now?” When Sissoko started to reply, the journalist interjected “for thirty years you have said the same thing”, to which Sissoko replied “that’s because in thirty years you haven’t changed your way of asking questions and you ask the same questions; when you change the way you ask questions it will help us to reply differently” (Ukadike, p. 188). The critic needs not just to ask questions, but to ask new kinds of questions, independently of any ideological veneration of the established filmmakers.

Previously filmmakers have looked at criticism with suspicion, partly as a result of the difficult funding situation; about half of all African feature films are first works as even successful directors work many years to gather funds for their next film: “in this situation, criticism, however positive and well-meaning, can only be regarded as harmful. What the filmmaker seeks is not interpretation but the kind of advocacy which will enable the film to be sold” (Roy Armes in Givanni, p. 134-5). Ukadike’s interviews, however, may indicate that this old animosity has come to an end. The filmmakers generally solicit the critics’ analytic efforts because, as Med Hondo puts it: “we have to find new words to describe the situation of African cinema”. Haile Gerima similarly warns of the “mental genocide” that will occur if the “scratch-my-back-and I’ll-scratch-your-back” critics dominate (Givanni, p. 130), and King Ampaw complains of the general critical complacency: “I wanted to meet people who would say the film is not good, but I never met one, whether in Europe or in Ghana” (Ukadike, p. 205).

If critics continue to ask filmmakers questions about the current state of African film, they will continue to hear the same disheartening stories of funding and distribution problems. In other words, they run the risk of merely perpetuating the clichéd image of Africa as a place of catastrophic material conditions. It would be propitious for everyone if critics were less conscious about defining “African film practices” and engaged more with the artistic effects of individual works emerging from that continent. As Bekolo fittingly points out: “when critics meet Spielberg, they don’t ask about American cinema”. Only through an autonomous aesthetic endeavour and critical probing will film be ideologically important as a reservoir for memory. It is therefore with regret, but also with optimism, that Chief Eddie Ugbomah can conclude: “Some day Africans must deliver. We must redefine an African image that is not Tarzanistic. We have not delivered. African cinema owes the world an answer” (Ukadike, p. 98).


  1. Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers, Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002, p. 271. Further page references in text.
  2. Symbolic Narratives/African Cinema, June Givanni, British Film Institute, London, 2000, p. 185. Further page references in text.
  3. African Cinema: Decolonising the Gaze, by Olivier Barlet”, review by Martin Stollery, Scope, May 2003, accessed March 8 2004.

About The Author

Niels Buch-Jepsen is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, USA. He has previously published articles on literary theory, in particular on subjectivity and the modernist author.

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