While the title of this paper suggests a homogenising approach towards African film, I do not intend here to subscribe to that position. That approach needlessly suggests a cultural homogeneity that is often false or at least so porous as to leave the fabric of its reflection unwieldy.

I believe it is time for us to delineate certain patterns in African cinema characteristic not of nation states or colonial linguistic groupings but of more culturally definitive tendencies. For example, the South African academic/critic Keyan Tomaselli argues for orality as one of those specific influences characterising narrative patterns in Southern African cinema.

Western critics have for a long time now, approached African cinema from thematic perspectives at the expense of more formal approaches. There are many reasons for this, not least, the effect of the initial encounter of cinema and the African based on the proverbial didactic function of film encouraged by colonial authorities. Immediate post-independence African cinema is often seen to mimic the style of didactic filmmaking set up under colonialism. This type of filmmaking often emphasises content over artistic and cultural influences and styles.

This is in contrast to parallel developments in European cinema where auterism was linked more to the “how” than the “what”. A conscious application of the didactic functions of cinema was what was directly linked to African narrative. Sembene’s use of the term “griot” attests to that functionalism attached to African cinema.

I wish to approach African cinema from a cultural studies perspective, emphasising rather, the deconstructive criticism viewpoint. I see this as an interesting and worthwhile purpose because:

It makes one aware of the ways in which cultural experience is determined by hegemonious ideologies such as the Graeco-romano dramatic structures built into cinema language. Western cinema continues to have a clear hegemony in production and reception due to the structures that determine the way other “national” cinemas are created and received by audiences. The dominating position of the Hollywood film in world cinema is a good example of this Western hegemony. This perspective also gives us a historical context to the growth of cinema in Africa.

It affords one a self-reflexive approach to his or her own ‘self-deconstruction’ of African cinema viewpoints. Self-reflexivity here refers to an individual’s identification of aspects of and within a film that point directly to one’s own conception of Africa.

It offers useful tools for understanding other conventional approaches to African cinema like Marxism, semiotics, feminism and other cultural theories. These include concepts that continue to parade Africa as a homogeneous group, which it is not. Repeat: not.

In general, contemporary studies of African cinema have afforded a platform for debate on the “adequacy of current methodologies for dealing with what cinema has become in Africa”. (1) This is the ‘Herculean task’ that Nwachukwu Ukadike, the author of the seminal book Black African Cinema had warned of in 1995 when he wrote there is need “to dispel these outmoded and untenable myths which permeate the interpretation of African history, culture and now cinema, of how Africa is seen as a cinematographic desert, a filmic cul-de-sac”. (2)

In contrast to those views, I see African cinema developing ‘simultaneously’ as it reflects the conditions of production and distribution available to it. For instance, over the last two decades we have seen the regression of the ‘educational’ documentary, with the corresponding growth of the docu-drama, while also seeing the increasing role of donor funding towards the ‘purposeful’ production of films in the continent. The approach I present here is an attempt at explaining the simultaneity and functionalism found in African cinema texts.

What is African cinema?

For the past four decades or so African cinema has been construed by critics as a mode of film discourse that is understood historically but defined artistically: that is, a cinema concerned with information brought to light less by formal techniques than by an implicit world view.

African films are presented as being ‘African’ because they reflect African conditions, and critics have discussed the content of films as being the defining purpose of film production in the continent. For example, Xala by Sembene Ousmane is described as “a moral tale” of political consequence. (3) The rhetorical nature of the film is seen to be the defining quality. Rarely did we see the films’ formal techniques being considered important in delivering the rhetoric. (4)

There is always an implied ideological premise to African films. Often this particular perception is substantiated by an ‘idealism’ about Africa that is then reflected in the polemics of African filmmakers. This ideological view is based on an assumed attitude or overall view towards Africa by Westerners. Essentially the idealist rhetoric of African films is a reaction towards the patronising attitude about things African that have come out of its colonial history. To that extent even the combination of idealism and pedagogy found in the African film necessitates a re-questioning of aesthetics and praxis of African cinema narration.

Analysis of this cinema is important even if only to problematise some of the above assumptions of African cinema. Needless to say, in order to understand the African film, it is imperative to relate dynamics of culture to the period of its production. This means relating film to environmental social relations, historical pressures, and technological innovations as well as to beliefs, attitudes and conceptualisations of the African people.

Hence I shall first pursue this study through applying conventional theories of criticism to African Cinema, discussing the problematic of interpreting the relationship between text and the reader intending to show how these ‘conventional theories’ are insufficient, and inadequate to explain materialist aesthetics of reality. Culture, it must be said, is a discursive continuum. In order to express a given cultural concept, the specificity of technique, style and thematic nature must be taken into account.

This essentially takes us towards a general understanding of cultural perceptions, with reference to the African film. Later, I shall deal with issues of idealism and realism in African film productions. Finally I will attempt to delineate the history and politics of African cinema, and also discuss some of its generic tendencies within a global perspective.

Cultural difference in approaches to cinema

The cultural differences in approaches to cinema are important to my work here as I explain the wide cultural base and scope that African cinematic texts have available to them. This difference is both within the breadth of nation states and larger cultural communities across the continent. This function of culture in explaining perspective, I argue, has hitherto been inadequately explained because of the parsimonious frameworks of both a continentally based cinema and a nationally based cinema. Seen from a continentally homogenising perspective, the nation is reduced to a mere political consciousness, which then fails to explain attempts at national containment of film texts. For example, if a film is a conscious reflection of the national experience why are we forever relating ‘national’ films to continental specificities such as the colonial language groupings of Anglophone and Francophone?

This containment is part and parcel of discourses of authority predicated on colonialism. Hence, I contend that in films, the African nation, being principally focused on the modernist discourse, has hitherto functioned only to maintain the authority and legitimacy of Eurocentric approaches to cinema.

Even African film critics continue to look at cinema in Africa from a continental perspective or from a national one. The last major writings on film to have come out of the continent attest to that.

Manthia Diawarra’s major work, African Cinema – Politics and Culture, is essentially narrated from the perspective of the four linguo- cultural groupings. (5) I refer here to the four political/cultural groupings of Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone and Arabophone existing in African cinema studies today.

Also, thematic analyses in African Experiences of Cinema (edited by Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham) encompass important issues of freedom, apartheid, Anglophobia, and colonialism within a continental perspective. (6)

In the meantime, Nwachukwu Ukadike discusses African cinema that is contrasted to Western images of Africa. His book Black African Cinema has excellent information on many African films, and on decolonisation, aesthetics, and liberation. (7)

Sharon Russell’s book Guide to African Cinema has a generalised political, ethnographic and sociological perspective not really tackling the issues of iconography, sociology and politics in the construction and representation of cultural identity in the African film. (8)

In general, the above literature, though critical of certain pervading views of Africa, still remains within the conventional mode of filmic interpretation of post-colonial cinema, which is often a magnified view of a western ethos of a global village. This global village was brought about first by military and political conquest and now by communication and technological influence. The impact of this global thinking pervades the way in which even local cultures, reflecting global issues, are understood. (9)

The struggle to cope with this intrusion in their daily life has often created responses in local cultures that are often neglected in cultural studies. An example of that can be found in the discussion of the film Shaka Zulu (William Faure, 1987) by the South African, Themba Msimang.

Msimang uses terms like “casual discussions” to reference his analysis of Zulu audience reception of the film. Msimang supports his discussion with comments from audiences and “unverified” sources that however make absolute sense as an experiential reflection of Zulu reception of cinema. (10) The casual flippancy that Keyan Tomaselli then applies to dismiss the use of the term “casual discussion” reveals the arrogance of Western academia to methodologies of cultural introspection. (11)

There is an emerging school of thought that criticises this ‘reactive’ conditioning emphasised by cinema studies that are based on forever comparing African tendencies with what is happening in the West and pigeon-holing the views. This school includes academics such as Teshome Gabriel and Julianne Burton. It also includes Manthia Diawara who has shifted his position from a Pan-Africanist to a regionalist one, as well as like Tafataona Mahoso and others, whose views have not yet been encapsulated into popular theoretical positions. (12)

June Nash, for example, argues against Eurocentrics whose analyses, she argues, often fail to recognise local capacities in creatively responding to “developmental” intrusions. (13) She sees a need for changing that approach, arguing, “When we conceive of culture in this historical structural framework, it becomes a tool for analysing processes of change rather than an ideology for confirming the status quo”. (14) Kathleen Gough, likewise, argues for seeing the capacity within the “dominated” people to create generative bases for changing their local conditions. (15)

Tafataona Mahoso joins this school of thought in his analysis of the capacity for transforming meaning of traditional orality in African languages. (16) Taking as a point of departure the explication of some traditional Bantu sayings, Mahoso shows the dynamic, visionary and stimulating capacity of these sayings that encompass changing social relations. He says,

The third proverb [One can see the inside of the assembly by standing on someone else’s shoulders] presents the essence of ground, time-space, and discourse [all] at once.

What is going on inside the assembly is so important that one who arrives after the others have completely encircled the area should ask to stand on a taller person in order to witness the process of discourse going on inside the assembly, inside the community. It is this inside of the assembly that we want our cinema to reveal…the filmmaker must first locate and recognise the assembly, the locus of transformative energy. Once the filmmaker has found his or her centre of the assembly, it becomes easy to recognise the obstacles that obscure his or her view and to confront them. (17)

Like Diawara, he shows how this cultural capacity mediates social change. (18)

These analyses question the colonial-nationalist project which has always given the elite and the state uncontested authority and legitimacy at the expense of other ‘effective identities’. By ‘effective identity’ I mean the locating and nominating of non-territorial, non state-centric, non-elitist values as the focus of the highest ‘loyalty’ and expression in film. These critics see in Africa the capacity to create other psychological bases beyond those of nationhood that mediate African experiences and worldview. Contemporary African filmmakers continue to show the need for representing the local, the specific and the community within a ‘localised global’ view. A good example of this localised-global view is the film Quartier Mozart (1992) by Jean-Pierre Bekolo of Cameroon.

The film narrates the story of how a geographical and cultural space defined by economic poverty produces a cultural violence in the form of male chauvinism. Two women introduce us into its narrative by insisting that the only means of achieving subjectivity is to magically transform themselves into men. (19)

In many ways the film articulates issues of identity within local, national and global contexts. It argues for a fundamental understanding of the processes and contradictions of being and belonging to a country and the world at the same time. Even its style offers a mozaic of identities that can only be understood as approximations of otherness.

These ‘approximations’ are often found in ‘living’ African environments. For example, the term ‘Mswahili’ in Swahili identifies all Africans who are Black and those adhering to ‘cultural’ tastes of the ‘Swahili’. But it can also readily be applied to a foreigner who has also been able to live, act and believe in the social and ideological processes and beliefs of the group. That way the term affords ‘effective identity’. Films like Halfaouine (1990, Ferid Boughedir, Tunisia) and Maangamizi: The Ancient One (2000, Martin Mhando and Ron Mulvihill, Tanzania) best describe that ethic.

By locating the changing values as the focus of the highest ‘loyalty’ and expression in a given film, one is better placed to understand the nature of representation in African films. In many cases, when African cinema is seen from a Eurocentric perspective it forfeits on the dynamics of ‘effective identities’ premised by the evolving Afro-centric perspectives.

Notions of realism and generic tendencies in African cinema

It is often said that in African cinema, pedagogic narratives are foregrounded. This is an important issue in our analysis of African films since it shows how relations between cinema politics and cinematic narration are maintained. The didactic ‘technique’ employed in the African film that positions the viewer in a receptive mode actually corresponds to the type of films produced during the colonial era. These colonial films, Brian Goldfarb argues, were films that were “designed as lessons to be learned easily by an indigenous viewer assumed to be developmentally [and cinematically] immature, illiterate, and in dire need of instruction”. (20) This ideological position that many African filmmakers have taken over from the colonialist (as teachers) often undermines their very conceptual positions: the iconography, grammar and metaphors of colonial ‘education’ already unwittingly taint their perspective.

Instead of seeing themselves as ‘conduits’ of change, filmmakers under the ‘instructional (or didactic) cinema mode’ represent a transfer of pedagogical authority that invariably finds resistance from age based educational processes (traditional to many African cultures) and current liberationist thinking. This authoritative position made Brian Goldfarb argue that,

If in Africa a pedagogical tradition of cinema is in part artifactual of overt colonial disciplinary practices (practices by which the cinema “taught” language and values), then this same tradition has become an important means of intervention in the current dismantling and re-configuration of colonialist cultural forms. (21)

The first attribute of this relationship is the ‘documentary film’ position. This position makes us responsive to the narrative as ‘reality’ and ‘history’, offers the filmmaker a position of power as teacher and informed storyteller. This authoritative locus has been used to good effect by African filmmakers tackling African subjects including Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) and Ingrid Sinclair’s Flame (1996).

Often I have wondered how we all have been ‘globalised’ by cinema. One film that confirms the power of cinema language, the wandering embraces with which classical cinema holds its spectators is The Gods Must be Crazy. This film uses the documentary format to position the audience in such a way as to offer an unmitigated racial perspective. There are two discourses at play here. First there is the discourse of the civilised in which only they, the civilised (who is “they”?) speak: they are able to communicate amongst themselves as well as being able to translate between the various contending groups. As one commentator writes in the movies internet website, “The film is about “us” (Westerners) how we think we live in paradise!”(22)

The discourse of the ‘bushman’, on the other hand, is that of those who do not speak but are spoken about. In this there is a perverted sense of authority. The director of the film avails not only the “civilised’s” discursive power and authority of the genre but the authority of knowledge as well. The fictionality of the story may seem artificial to the critical audience but to the common audience, the socialised and contrived audience, this film simply cements both racist and colonial knowledge. Therefore there is a methodological purpose to the use of the ‘documentary’ style. The director uses the form and techniques of documentary to induce responses from audiences.

Likewise, to understand Ingrid Sinclair’s Flame (1996, Zimbabwe) one needs also to deconstruct the discursive authority of the documentary genre as it is received by audiences in the Southern African region. The complacency of the audiences in their comprehension of the documented information reflects the familiarity it has with the documentary genre. This familiarity is used to its full advantage by the filmmaker.

In a flashback, Flame tells the story of two girls Florence (Flame) and Nyasha (Liberty) who through a combination of factors decide to leave their village to join the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe. The film shows their time in the guerrilla training camps where life was hard, what with the meagre food provisions that the camps received. The film portrays the harsh conditions specifically those endured by women, including not being given any military training as well as being used as ‘comfort women’ by the guerrilla commanders.

This makes Flame resolve harder to fight for liberation and she quickly advances in the ranks to become a respected company commander. The war is won but on returning to her village Flame rejoins the subservient position of women in the village. Finally she resolves to go to the city, Harare, to find her friend Liberty and to try a new life. As the country celebrates “Heroes Day” the two women and other ex-combatants realise that the elite and Urban Zimbabweans do not hold them in any respect and it looks like their sacrifice was in vain.

As the film opens we hear the voice of the narrator, Nyasha, from whose perspective we are supposed to see the film. It tells us:

This story, the story of two friends, is only one of many. It all started a long time ago. In 1880 white settlers came to our country which lies between the two great rivers, Limpopo and Zambezi. As they took more land our people launched a war of resistance, the first Chimurenga. The settlers won, and they called the country Rhodesia. The African people struggled against the colonisers, and by the 1960s, the second Chimurenga, the war of liberation, had begun. And in 1980, the war was won. The new country was called Zimbabwe.

The voice of Nyasha with its high-school-history-class feel suspends our expectations of a fictionalised narrative and we immediately accept the way in which we are invited to watch the film. This perspective becomes a cause for discomfort as we realise later how this viewpoint is subverted by the inflected intentions of the filmmaker. For example, one may ask whom this didactically positioned voice-over is intended to teach? Katrina Thompson argues that,

Nyasha’s didactic voice over, in which she summarises Zimbabwe’s 100- year history in less than a minute, suggests that Zimbabweans are not the primary intended audience of the film. Zimbabweans already know that their country is located between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers and are painfully aware of their colonial history. If Nyasha were speaking her own summary of Zimbabwean history for fellow Zimbabweans, it seems more likely that she would say, “we struggled” than “the African people struggled”. Nor would she say, “The new country was called Zimbabwe” a signalling device whose purpose is to make outsiders aware of the film’s locale. (23)

Both Sinclair and Uys use the documentary style to position the spectator within the receiving mode in order to ascertain conventional interpretations and expectations about the subject. This factor is very instructive of the way audiences have continued to receive films from and about Africa. The realism that is invested in African narratives is characteristic of the positional relations that exist between Africa and Europe/America. Often the stories and themes in many African films work towards discussing issues of colonialism and its aftermath. This is an example of the post-colonial cinema that has evolved in the continent.

The effect of globalisation on African cinema: Distribution and Reception

When Tommy Lott advanced his “no theory theory” on the concept and definition of Black cinema he argued that the theory remains a theory only up to the time when the meanings it advances “are no longer applicable”. He was aware of the complexity of theorising on an ongoing activity based on an essentialised notion. (24)

The ‘theory’ that one immediately identifies when studying the continued state of affairs in film distribution in Africa is that of dependence: the continuing dependence of local cinema on its global construction and maintenance. This position and condition of its development needs no elucidation as Western societies are sold to new technologies with a rapidity even those cultures find nauseating (technologies that never reach even the length of the American continent before they are obsolete). Within this perspective, conditions that lead to divergent applications of these technologies (a real transfer of technology) are considered laughable and are often denigrated. The denigration is based on concerns that have to do with the centrality of ‘quality’ and sophistication that denote power relations.

This is despite recognising that a message is essentially reflective of the medium used. As the old McLuhanesque dictum goes the medium is the message. It would be better if critics would take to understanding the nature of the process of the valorisation of product rather than denigrating them.

There are a number of activities throughout Africa that aim at solving the problem of the distribution of the cinema and video product. The experience of African film and video distribution patterns therefore forms the basis of our discussion of the sociology of nations internationalisation of product, indigenization as well as of globalisation. With that come issues of piracy, copyright, policy promulgation and marketing.

Film and video are key media in the promotion and appreciation of cultures. But African films and videos are hard to come by not only overseas but also in their place of production. Who sees the cinema/video product in Africa? How do they get to be seen? What kinds of distribution circuits exist in the many countries of the continent? This debate continues Ferid Boughedir’s discussion of prospects of the African cinema product as he says, “in the light of the demands that independence and economic development have made on them”. (25)

The continued reliance of African film producers on the festival circuit, for example, essentially forces the filmmakers to accept and depend on the terms of their films’ canonisation to create other works thus holding them hostage to that label. As Idrissa Ouegraogo once said, sometimes one finds African films that have won awards in Europe being totally incomprehensible to African audiences for which they were initially supposedly intended!

What I see as a possible arena of contention and re-theorising lies in the versatility of cultures to appropriate processes of knowledge distribution. In my view the constant technological changes happening within ‘post-modern’ cultures must be seen as of limited function within other cultures. Arguably, there is still no dialogue on the epistemologies of knowledges between cultures and even acknowledgements that there are parallel epistemologies of knowledge as there are cultural systems. It is this theory of divergent functions of technological development that I find more attractive and conducive to the study of what is happening in African film distribution today. The reason for this lies in the theory’s reliance on social imagination for its elucidation: a conceptualisation of emerging patterns for the future.

Hence one notes with glee the profusion of cheap short and feature-length video production activities in many African countries (Nigeria and Ghana being best representative). Streets are littered with fourth generation VHS tapes with total disregard to notions of image quality. Not much is known of this activity since it requires serious research for primary data collection and studies which is hard to be funded by international research institutions since they don’t fall within definable areas of expertise of those institutions.

What I am advocating here is seeing in the film and video distribution practices that continue to grow as loci of sociological and ontological questionings. Is the experience of media within cultures dependent on the exposure to western media concepts? Isn’t exposure itself merely a limited rather than limiting experience? How far are ‘appropriations’ related to the inventing of media sociality? How does community media express itself outside the boundaries of expectations and definitions of authoritative media? We thus return to McLuhan’s dictum – the medium is the message. As many critics and radical filmmakers have constantly questioned, can classical cinema reflect interests or centrism of anti-establishment and anti-Eurocentric discourse?

The message that comes out of ‘appropriated distribution’ is subtle and is concerned with the position of control and power. The discourse of the practice of distribution, as it has been projected in many other cultural situations, is resistance and survival. Distribution of visual material in the Africa will grow in all its complexity as it continues to express the discourse of survival.

The auteur and other conditions of film production in Africa

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam say the following with regard to “Third Worldist” film makers whom they see as offering a “mediated solidarity” between the global film goer and the culture of the people they aspire to represent. (26)

.These filmmakers are haunted by the spectre of cultural colonialism, of being too servile toward the dominant model. They express their creative personalities, but as part of a larger collective project . Working consciously with issues long elaborated in filmic and extra filmic texts, the filmmaker almost necessarily becomes reflexive, dialoging with the received body of belief and method, directly or indirectly discussing cinema itself within the films. Each work becomes a methodological sample of possible strategies, at once “about” a subject and “about” itself. (27)

Shohat and Stam define self-reflexivity as “films that in some way foreground the filmmaker, the film’s production, its textual procedures, its intertext or reception”. (28) This is the situation I often find myself in as a filmmaker first, an African filmmaker second, a diasporic speaker thirdly and finally as an academic. In my films including Yombayomba (1985), Mama Tumaini (1986) and Maangamizi (2000) I foreground the cinematic influences that I represent within an ideological context. In Yombayomba, for example, I represent the experience of socialism in Tanzania. I approach the subject from a socialist realist angle where the proverbial aspirational probable is made possible.

In Mama Tumaini the symbolic layering afforded by the subject and the production of the film is fore-grounded. The meeting of two cultures, two women, in a film made by two men of differing cultures was ample ground to reflect on the process and product of the African film. With Maangamizi I interrogate conventional spatio-temporal techniques of cinema. The film has no time or space since the present and past reside together. The standpoint of ‘personal desire’ which is central to the sociality of conventional film is also called into question. At the same time ‘codes’ of ethnic, social and racial self-recognition along with historical traces and cultural metonyms are emphasised. These are the culturally definitive tendencies I referred to at the beginning of my talk. The production methods employed also suggest the indeterminacy of time and space. The specific production ‘combinatoire ethics’ are themselves transformed into a filmic parole.

For me, Maangamizi is an intriguing film that dips into a part of the human psyche that conventional movies rarely attack — the underpinnings of the human soul and its breadth that stretches out to reach the Homo Sapien collective. Samehe, a patient at a Tanzanian psychiatric hospital, is a middle-aged woman who has not spoken for more than 20 years. Her silence, which is brought on by the sickening horrors that her father committed against her and her mother years ago, aches to be broken. So, Samehe looks to Maangamizi, ‘the Grandmother of all grandmothers’ who often inhabits her dreams, for help in recovering her voice, and in finding peace with her father and mother. This is done through the medium of Asira. Asira is an African-American doctor who travels to Tanzania to work in the same hospital where Samehe resides. There, Asira becomes involved in Samehe’s case. Their ensuing relationship leads Asira to delve into her haunting Mississippi past and, furthermore, elevates both of them to a higher understanding of themselves and the world.

In Maangamizi I confront time and space both conceptually and practically. I draw upon tradition and para-modern phenomena of religion to conflate both time and space. The Aristotelian narrative poetics of body, space and time are equally adhered to and subverted. For example, while the narrative seems to have the classical beginning, middle and end, although not in that chronology, the whole film and subject are a ritualist play. The film, just like the idea of ‘roots’, is a necessary ritual to be performed by Africans in the continent and those outside the continent.

Like Gerima’s Sankofa, Maangamizi’s trans-generational conflict derives ‘recuperational’ aptitude through meta-cinematic devices of ritual. The film’s ending sequence (the trip to the Kilimanjaro) is necessary in order to enable the completion of the ‘roots’ journey as ritual. At the end, the ‘living dead’ perform the ‘forgiveness’ ritual in a manner to suggest the continuity of space, time and body. The sea, the three ‘dead- and-alive’ women and cinema, form a mythological link that expresses the aspirational nature of the relations between Africans and African Americans.

The ritual, (including the modern ‘roots’ ritual) which has traditionally been used as a transformational tool, is here used to express the transformational role of cinema. In narrating the story of the two sisters, we use the ritual, which subsides under oral culture, to compare cinema with the aspirational concepts of traditional narrative. This could be also compared to the device of the griot often used by Sembene to denote the cinema’s capacity to record, embody and explain history. Some African films have attempted to do this sometimes with laughable results. I refer here to films like Toubab Bi (Moussa Toure, Mali, 1986) or Colormasks (Sao Gamba, Kenya, 1986) which parade cultural artefacts like market wares to be sampled and discarded with disdain.

As with Mama Tumaini the film Maangamizi is directed and produced by two people. Working with Ron Mulvihill was a conscious move on my part to enable the cross cultural experience to come through. To Queennae Mulvihill, the African American writer of the film, and myself, the direct confrontation between Africans and African Americans in the film, and on the set, became an empowering experience, a ritual of no mean substance.


I do sincerely hope that the discussion of African cinema I have undertaken here has not evoked fear and loathing of deconstructive criticism. I hope the angle I have taken will improve the ability to think critically since, as Lois Tyson argues, we recognise how our critical experience is determined by ideologies “built into our language”. (29) She says, for example,

According to Derrida, Language is not the reliable tool of communication we believe it to be, but rather a fluid, ambiguous domain of complex experience in which ideologies program us without our being aware of them. (30)

What I propose as an approach to African cinema is that we need to make an attempt at looking at the ambiguities that are inscribed in the language of cinema as it relates to Africa. This is even where it seems evident and clear. Even when someone calls a film ‘an African film’ that itself should raise our critical antennas.

Is this a film about Africa, is this Africa specific or general, we should ask? Is there a comparative, ironic or even sarcastic streak intended? Is there a context around the identity? Even then the context itself can be questioned from a range of other signifiers and signified. In this age of deconstruction, language offers us a myriad of visions of concepts related to difference, temporality, improvisation, etc. As Lois Tyson again contends, “How we see and understand ourselves and the world is thus governed by the language with which we are taught to see them”. (31)

To paraphrase Walter Lippman, it is true that we are told about the world before we see it. We imagine things before we experience them, and those imaginations govern the whole process of perception. Deconstruction therefore refers to this multiple position that is influenced by ideologies, history, needs, fears, desires, etc. Since African cinema is a language we need therefore to be aware of the implicit associations, contradictions and ideologies within it as well as the implications and contradictions of the ideologies that form its language.


  1. Ukadike, N. F., “New Discourse of African Cinema,” Iris No. 18, Spring 1995, p. 3
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ashbury, Roy et al, Teaching African Cinema, London, BFI, 1999, p. 80
  4. Roy Armes is probably one of those whose representation of Africa is of this view.
  5. Diawara, M., “The Iconography of West African Cinema”, Screen Griots – African and the History of Cinematic Ideas Conference, London, NFT, September 1995.
  6. Cham, M and Imruh Bakari, African Experiences of Cinema, London, BFI, 1996
  7. Ukadike, N.F., Black African Cinema, Los Angeles/Berkeley/London, University of California Press, 1994.
  8. Russell, S., Guide to African Cinema, London, Greenwood Press, 1998
  9. In his book The Media Are American, Jeremy Tunstall shows how the media is increasingly influenced by American culture and how that influence is read in the texts.
  10. Tomaselli, K. “The Reception of Reception Theory in South Africa”, Critical Arts 7 (1-2), 1993 available at http://www.und.ac.za/und/ccms/articles/recept.htm, accessed 1 May, 2000, last updated 2 September, 1999
  11. Ibid
  12. Diawara, Manthia, “The Iconography Of West African Films”, Paper given at the Screen Griots Conference, London, September 1995
  13. Nash, June, We eat the Mines and the Mines Eat US – Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian tin Mines, New York, Colombia University Press, 1979.
  14. Nash, J. op. cit. p. 311 quoted in Milnar, op. cit. p. 79
  15. Gough, Kathleen, “New proposals for Anthropologists”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 9, cited by Milnar, op. cit. p. 79
  16. Mahoso, T., “Audiences and the Critical Appreciation of cinema in Africa”, Paper given at the Screen Griots Conference, London, September 1995
  17. Mahoso, T. Ibid.
  18. Diawara, M. “Popular Culture and Oral Traditions in African film”, in African Experiences of Cinema, edited by Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham, BFI Publishing, London, 1996 pp. 209-219
  19. Availlable at http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~aamkpa/quartier.html Accessed on 14/7/2000
  20. Goldfarb, B. “A Pedagogical Cinema: Development Theory, Colonialism, and Post-liberation African Film”, in Iris No. 18, Spring, 1995, p. 14
  21. Goldfarb, B. A., “Pedagogical Cinema: Development Theory, Colonialism and Post-Liberation African Film”, in Iris, No. 18, Spring, 1995, pp.7-24.
  22. Available at http://us.imdb.com/Title?0080801 Accessed on 14/7/2000
  23. Thompson, Katrina, “Ingrid Sinclair’s Flame: A Zimbabwean film?”, unpublished paper given at the Midwest Conference on Film and Literature, March 1999
  24. See “A No-Theory Theory Of Contemporary Black Cinema”, by Tommy Lott in Cinemas of the Black Diaspora, edited by Michael T, Martin, Wayne State University Press, 1995. pp. 40-56
  25. Boughedir, F. Cinema Afrique, Cinema Arabe, (Video) 1986
  26. Shohat/Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, London, Routledge, 1994, p. 279
  27. Shohat/Stam, ibid
  28. Shohat/Stam, ibid, p.279
  29. Tyson, Lois, Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide, New York/London, Garland Publishing Inc, 1999, p. 241
  30. Ibid (Tyson) pp. 241-242
  31. Tyson, L., ibid.

About The Author

Martin Mhando is a lecturer in Media Studies at Murdoch University.

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