The label of “auteur cinema”, whether poetic or political, is often the cloak under which African cinema is “discovered” and appreciated. We know the canon: Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cissé, Med Hondo, Djibril Diop Mambety, Idrissa Ouédraogo, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Abderrahmane Sissako, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun… In the 1980s, South African cinema – first directed by white men, then gradually by Black Africans – started to get noticed internationally. Other former English-speaking countries, such as Ghana, followed suit. Something is wrong with this picture. Where are the women? In 1972, Sarah Maldoror (who died in the Spring 2020 in Paris, from coronavirus complications, at the age of 91) completed Sambizanga, one of the first major PanAfrican anticolonialist films. In 1975, Safi Faye, from Senegal, released her first feature film, Kaddu Beykat (Letter from my Village) – but still too few names of African or PanAfrican women making films appear in texts or curatorial projects. At the time of this writing, for example, you cannot find the names of Euzhan Palcy and Regina Fanta Nacro in the paragraph devoted to “Women Directors” in the Wikipedia “African Cinema” entry.1
The key element destabilising the West’s discourse on African cinema is not only its relative inability to account for the work of PanAfrican women, but the disruption caused in the world market by the existence of Nollywood, the film/video/television industry of Nigeria. The term “Nollywood” was coined in the early 1990s, to denote what is the second-largest film industry in the world after Bollywood (Hollywood occupying only the third place). Made possible by the advent of cheaper digital technology, this prolific output is often not taken seriously at a critical level. Even when it becomes a hit on the international circuit, a Nollywood film falls through the cracks – too commercial to be an auteur film, but not as polished as a Hollywood product, and, frankly, with socio/political/cultural tropes that are supposed to make it indecipherable by a Western audience, right?
A parallel history is being rewritten here, as Nollywood represents commercial cinema as Africans want it – a merging of accepted cinematic rules with the complex reality of the continent, seen through African, and not Western, eyes. A number of filmmakers, critics and curators active in the “cinephilic circles” of the West lead a double life. Since its founding in 2005, one of the most important filmcentric events held on the African continent, the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), has taken place in Nigeria. At its 15th edition, the judges included auteurs John Akomfrah (born in Ghana) and Charles Burnett; Guyana-born, London-based curator/writer June Givanni, who has curated film series for the BFI and a number of film festivals; as well as PAFF founder/director Ayuko Babu.
Questions of gender are posed differently within Nollywood, as, in the last decade, women have asserted themselves more and more as forces shaping the industry – not only as charismatic actresses that function as role models for young women and can get a project green-lit, but as producers or directors as well. The 2014 edition of PAFF showcased the remarkable B for Boy, Chika Anadu’s first (and so far only) feature.2
In 2016, it was a film directed by a woman, The Wedding Party by Kemi Adetiba, that became the highest-grossing Nollywood movie ever. Adetiba’s next project, King of Boys, enthusiastically received at PAFF, may break the mold even further in its cross-over marketing strategy, as it is now distributed by Netflix and available on Amazon Prime (see review below). O cinephiles, do not cringe. Adetiba may have perceived the future of the industry sooner than we did.
Daughters of the Diaspora
Questions of gender are also posed differently within a diasporic framework – and the Cannes award received by Mati Diop’s feature Atlantiques (2019) reshuffles the cards. Like Maldoror, Diop, of mixed race, was born in France. She is the daughter of the musician Wasis Diop, and the niece of the filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety, to whom she paid a homage in her experimental, poetic documentary Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns, 2013). The time of the diasporic daughters has come, and we can only be grateful to Ayuko Babu and PAFF for having systematically offered showcases to the “daughters” throughout the years. The 2020 edition was no exception, as its Opening Night film was Frances Anne Solomon’s third feature, HERO – Inspired By The Extraordinary Life & Times of Mr. Ulric Cross. Solomon clearly posits herself within a filiation of PanAfrican liberation struggle that encompasses her own family/personal history, and her protagonist’s seminal trajectory covering Trinidad and Tobago (the colony that reached independence in 1962), England (the colonial power), and the newly independent states of Sub-Saharan Africa. The grand-daughter of the Trinidad and Tobago independence politician Patrick Solomon, she remembers Ulric Cross as an avuncular figure who’d come to visit her family often. Born in England, she followed her diplomatic family in Canada, the United States, Europe and Venezuela, before attending a girls school in Trinidad and Tobago, moving to Canada when she was 18, then to England as a young woman to work for the BBC, and finally back to Canada where she founded Caribbean Tales Production Company in 2001, and the Caribbean Tales International Film Festival in 2006. The film is impregnated through and through with a diasporic sensitivity, and sheds light on a lesser-known part of black history: the interconnection of the anticolonial struggle in the Caribbean and the African movements of independence.
Born in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, Ulric Cross (1917-2013) eventually made it to London, where, during WWII he became the most decorated West Indian pilot of the RAF. After the war Cross studied law in London, then moved to Ghana, Cameroon and Tanzania, to help them establish a legal and judicial system in the unchartered hiatus created by the collapse of the colonial institutions. In London, he had met a white woman, Ann, with whom he developed a complex relationship marked by cultural and gender-based misunderstandings (she was really upset when he left her in London to move to Africa; later, when the situation required they leave for Tanzania, he couldn’t quite fathom the depth of her commitment to the hospital she had founded in Cameroon), long separations, fights, adjustments in mutual respect, travel across several continents and the unexpected birth of a child.
Solomon stitches archival footage with live action, where young Ulric is played by Nickolai Salcedo and young Ann by Pippa Nixon. At the beginning of the film, a shot of the 95 year-old Uric Cross lying down but speaking with the golden voice of a respected judge sets the tone: the memory of a long life, espousing the right causes (a personal fight against Third World poverty and lack of education, the allies against Germany, decolonisation) recounted at the first person. Cross was a pivotal witness of the slow process that led from the exhilaration of independence, when he was brushing shoulders with charismatic leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba, to the political and economic problems that are still plaguing contemporary Africa. Solomon pungently points at the responsibility of MI6 (the British Secret Service) in the assassination or death of some African leaders at the time – from the coup against Lumumba to the possible poisoning of Cross’s friend, the PanAfricanist intellectual George Padmore.
Her point of view slowly shifts. Ann Cross, now in her nineties as well, is interviewed by a young woman – her mixed-race daughter, born in Tanzania. However, as Nicola Cross, an independent filmmaker, did not participate in the film, it is an actress, Jessica B. Hill, who plays the role of Ulric and Ann Cross’s daughter, interviewing the real Ann – documentary meeting fiction. In this mise en abime, Hill becomes a stand-in for Solomon, a stand-in for the daughters, nieces or granddaughters of those who fought for PanAfrican liberation, culture and presence in the world. “My ancestors are sitting on my shoulders”, said Solomon in the Q&A following the film.
Apolline Traoré, whose work has been regularly shown at PAFF, is a case in point. Born in Ouagadougou, the daughter of a Burkinabé diplomat, she lived in many countries and moved to the US at 17. In a way her situation was later echoed by that of the daughter of an African politician shown applying to La FEMIS in Claire Simon’s documentary, Le Concours (The Graduation, 2016). She seduces the whole-white jury with her passionate desire to address, by making films, the socio-political issues discovered while accompanying her father. But then, when asked to mention at least one movie that has inspired her, she freezes, and is unable to come up with an answer. Disturbing, haunting, the scene evokes a remnant of colonial paternalism, as well as the ever-shifting position of women vis-à-vis cinephilia. The traditional male position is to secure a place within a filiation – this is how Serge Daney could passionately call himself a “ciné-fils” (cine-son), establishing a legacy of imaginary fathers. The pattern is more loosely reproduced by women (“no woman is completely cinephile”, wrote Cahiers du cinéma in their heyday), for whom real fathers cast a heavier shadow than imaginary ones, and the gravity of emotional experience more important than the reference to auteurs. La FEMIS is a tool to reproduce institutional cinephilia, and so the applicant was rejected. I don’t know if Traoré’s mind would have turned blank in front of an IDHEC panel (the former incarnation of La FEMIS), as, instead, she studied directing at Emerson College in Boston, away from the cultural weight of French colonialism. She moved back to Burkina Faso in 2005, and chose Idrissa Ouédraogo as a symbolic father and collaborator. Like Solomon, Traoré also speaks with her ancestors on her shoulders – and this involves reclaiming the lineage, the legacy and the vibrancy of a culture, fighting the invisibility in which the mainstream wants to confine it. It means loving the father and fulfilling his desire to “recuperate stories or lost cultural memories, or to tell stories that [aren’t] being told”3 – but moving beyond, leaving room for the daughters to take a stand against the father’s sexist prejudices.
Traoré’s films focus on how exhilaratingly difficult it is to be a mother and a daughter in these times. The protagonist of her groundbreaking Moi Zaphira! (2013) – a Burkinabé version of la Magnani’s stage mother in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) – stops at nothing to ensure her daughter’s future as a fashion model, including tarting herself up to work as a prostitute (it does not work) and masquerading as a man to make money in the mines (it works!)4. Addressing intra-African diaspora, Frontières (Borders, 2017) builds a friendship between four women as they travel by bus from Dakar (Senegal) through Bamako (Mali), Cotonou (Benin), and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) on the way to Lagos (Nigeria) and face harassment, extortion and rape. Desrances, shown this year, is another take on the diasporic connection between the Caribbean and Africa. The enthusiasm of the decolonisation movement has yielded to the sombre representation of social and political crises. The title, which almost reproduces the French word errances (wanderings),5 alludes to the displacement of the titular character. Leaving Haiti after seeing his family murdered during a period of post-Aristide unrest, Francis Desrances has resettled in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), where he is happily married to Aissey and the father of a 12 year-old daughter, Haïla. Aissey is pregnant, and Francis hopes she will give birth to a boy, to carry the legacy of his family name, which annoys Haïla. Traoré entrusted the part of Desrances to Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian actor born in the slums of Petion-Ville, who worked as a model and dancer throughout Europe before entering the film and television industry in Los Angeles in 1998, while segueing to Ghana and Nigeria to make films there as well. In 2012, he was awarded Best Actor at PAFF for his role as Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution, the first (and only) successful slave rebellion that led to the founding of an independent state, in the French television film of the same title.6 Casting him as the protagonist is for Traoré a step further in the transnational representation of the black condition.
2010 post-election mayhem disturb the domestic bliss. As the country is in the throes of a civil war, the prisons are open and common law prisoners roam the capital city of Abidjan. There are road blocks, Desrances’s shop is looted, the family is attacked at gunpoint and forced to flee in their car, as Aissey is going into labour. They eventually make it to the hospital. Here Traoré, always experimenting with form and structure, inserts a narrative gap. We find Desrances wandering through the streets of Abidjan, unable to locate his wife and infant son, spending the night in make-shift refugee camps, pestering hospital staff, howling his pain. Haïla (first-time actress Naomi Nemlin, who received many accolades for her acting) looks for him, finds him, and tries to convince him to come back home with her. In their semi-surreal journey, they meet the gang of criminals that had originally attacked them, led by a charismatic and terrifying gangster (musician Mike Danon). Haïla saves her father’s life, proving herself a worthy heir to Desrances, while the latter has to face what is means, really, to have a daughter.
A Look at My Mother’s Kingdom
Traoré’s own Selmon company may become an important factor in the renewal of the Burkinabé film landscape (I am writing this while all film industries are facing an uncertain future). On the other hand, as an insider of the most prosperous African film industry, Nollywood, Kemi Adetiba has ideas of her own about making it work for her. She embodies a powerful legacy; her mother, Mayen Adetiba, worked a few years as an actress and then studied civil engineering at Columbia University (where she was the only black woman in the course), completed her studies at Cornell, and became a leading civil engineer in Nigeria. Young Adetiba started her career as a radio announcer, then a television presenter and finally studied at the New York Film Academy; after graduation, she made short films and a flurry of well-received music videos. Her first feature, the rom-com The Wedding Party (2016) debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is not only though her mother, but through her choice of actress that Adetiba is part of a seductive Nigerian female filiation. In the part of the mother of the bride, she cast an authentic African diva, Sola Sobowale, hefty, proud, powerful, commanding the screen with her regal bearing and her sarcastic gaze – and the chemistry between the two women nurtured a collaboration that produced King of Boys. Now in her fifties, Sobowale has had a rich, varied experience in the Nigerian entertainment industry, as a stage and film actor, screenwriter, producer and director. In the part of Alhaja Eniola Salami, she received the Best Actress Award at the AMAAs. While her femininity is apparent, she is, in an arresting linguistic reversal, the King (Oba in Yoruba) of Boys, a gangster/business kingpin running over an empire of yes-men and young thugs. The film is unabashedly a thriller, piling up plot twists and killings galore, without losing track of Eniola’s character development. It’s also a family movie – in both senses of the terms. Eniola has been raising two children, a resentful, drunken, useless son, Alhaji (Jide Kosoko), and an adopted daughter, the loving and hyper-competent Kemi (Adesua Etomi); her extended family, as in a classic mafia film, are the young men who work for her – the ones who call her Oba, but also Ma or Mama.
On the surface, Eniola is a successful businesswoman and philanthropist, running an upscale textile shop, filled with brocades; Adetiba, Sobowale and their designers have had a lot of fun unfolding glittering African fashion, ample flowing dresses tied up with more layers of sumptuous fabrics for the older ladies, or tight, body-hugging couture for the younger ones; glamorous headdresses; heavy colourful jewellery; long pink or crimson finger nails; sexy fake eyelashes; and impeccably coiffured hair.
Yet, if you go to the basement of her house, you can see, within ten minutes of the film, Eniola killing a man with a hammer during her own Owambe-style birthday party, one of these lavish events the Nigerian upper-class likes to throw, to entertain, seduce and network. Mixing business, gangsterism, racketeering and politics, Eniola is up for election, secures votes among the sellers in the open-air market through unorthodox methods, traffics her influence, and buys politicians. Divided to the core – it is clear that she once had to fight very hard in a patriarchal society to get to where she is,7 that she is a loving mother, hurt by her son’s behaviour – Eniola’s psyche and lifestyle reflect the duality of modern Nigerian society: high rises, posh buildings and lavishly decorated mansions coexist with pockets of poverty, shanty-towns of corrugated metal, and pre-industrial modes of subsistence.
The foundations of her kingdom are with the Area Boys (Agberos in Yoruba), gangs of unemployed young men from the slums who live from crime and drug trade in the streets of Lagos. One of them, bleached-hair Makanaki (the Yoruba rapper Reminisce) decides to rebel and stop giving Eniola her cut in a particularly gruesome robbery. Hell hath no fury, and, from her gilded throne (this is not a metaphor: she really has one!), the lady is mighty pissed. Adetiba smartly montages scenes from a traditional Yoruba ritual with a white-robed Christian ceremonial,8 as the two antagonists, before entering a bloody feud, want to secure the blessings of their respective divinities. One of the joys in watching King of Boys is to decipher the interaction between the different strands of Nigerian society, as, for example, four languages are spoken, the main characters shifting from Yoruba to English, and Igbo or Hausa being used as well.9 As Makanaki goes for “the crown” and insults Eniola as a “declawed lion”, violence escalates and the corpses pile up. Corrupt politicians and honest officials fight each other through the formidable body of Eniola who, attacked in what she held the most precious (her children), ends up almost burning to death in jail. Defeated? Not so fast. A tongue-and-cheek coda in Brooklyn, New York, shows us that a king of boys will always remain so, as long as there is a badass diva, and as long there are boys.
The School for Wives
Daughters are born, women are made, mothers are trained. In Africa female education has been shaped by colonialism, and is now a battlefield for conflicting ideologies. In April 2014, in the village of Chibok, a predominantly Christian area in Borno State (North Eastern Nigeria), the Islamist group Boko Aram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. The case drew international attention, and has inspired a few books, documentaries and movies. Robert Peter has worked as an actor, cinematographer, editor and director between Nigeria and the US (where he now resides) since 1998, and, to direct a dramatic version of the young women’s ordeal, he rallied some of the best talents of what is affectionately called Kannywood, the Hausa-language cinema of Northern Nigeria (so called because it’s located in the city of Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city). The coining of the term “Kannywood” actually precedes that of Nollywood by a few years, and 30% of Nigerian films are made in Hausa – against 55% in Yoruba.
In Hausa, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”, and the militants are particularly keen in eradicating it when women are concerned: “You don’t need all of this. You just have to stay at home and learn how to be a good mother,” says the leader to a captive. Makeroom is shot as an action film, showing sympathy for the victimisation of the girls and the terror they experienced – inventing a love story along the way between one of them and a captured youth. The women are veiled, but, apart from a few allusions, Peters keeps their sexual treatment off-screen, no doubt in an effort not to be prurient. The real victims were forced to convert to Islam, married to Boko Haram soldiers or sold into slavery in the neighbouring states. What was not widely reported, though, is what happened to the few girls who managed to escape. In the Q&A after the screening, Peters acknowledged that it was the treatment received by the young women returning to Chibok that had moved him to make the film. The heroine’s distraught father, who had pleaded and cried for the return of his daughter, upon seeing the baby she is carrying, refuses to have anything to do with her, even threatens to kill her. His wife is unable to do anything. The kidnapped young men, who had helped the girls escape, are lynched by the villagers. Your daughter has come back to you, indeed, but you did not receive her. Make room for her (hence the title).
For his third feature, a French production, writer/filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, who spends his life between Kabul and Paris (after being in exile from his native Afghanistan for 17 years), adapted the semi-autobiographical novel by Tutsi author Scholastique Mukasonga, Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile)10 into the film of the same title. Though they come from different countries, Rahimi and Mukasonga have a few things in common. They both emigrated to France to avoid war and persecution – Rahimi in the early ‘80s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Mukasonga in 1992 before 37 members of her family were killed during the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. They both received prestigious awards from the French literary community.11 Perched on top of a mountain, not far, it is said, from the legendary sources of the Nile river, Notre-Dame du Nil is a religious institution where nuns raise Rwandan middle-class girls as good catholic women. Members of the two most important ethnic groups of the country, the Hutu and the Tutsi, cohabitate. Both local rulers and colonial administrator had stirred up the tension between the two groups, with policies alternatively favouring one at the detriment of the other. The Hutu started the Rwandan revolution in 1959 and killed a number of Tutsi. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), made of half-million Tutsi refugees, launched the Rwandan Civil War… The genocide started in April 1994, as the Hutu massacred between 500,000 to one million people, about 70% of the country’s Tutsi population…
Back in 1973, under the benevolent gaze of an African Notre Dame (her face is painted brown), standing over a rock in her white-and-blue saintly costume, the girls seem protected by the violence that is gradually brewing outside. Rahimi stages the contradictions of colonialism with finesse. While sometimes rebellious against the nuns, the girls, destined to become the female elite of their country, are seduced by European lifestyle and fashion. They put posters of French movie stars (Brigitte Bardot) or singers (Johnny Halliday) in the dorm. They talk about boys or have “best friend crushes”. Veronica wants to make movies in Europe. Rich girl Frida brings foie gras back from one of her trips, to the curiosity or disgust of her schoolmates. An elderly, aristocratic settler, Monsieur de Fontenaille (Pascal Greggory), projects ambiguous colonial fantasies onto the young Tutsi Veronica (Clariella Bizimana), in whom he sees the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen. Veronica and her friend Virginia seek more knowledge about this repressed African past from a mysterious local witch.
Rahmini paints an affectionate and sensitive picture of the girl’s imaginary, where a sense of the sacred coexists with pillow fights (shades of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite/Zero for Conduct…), girlish dreams, and the physical joy of being a teenager. Step by step, their lively, feminine, sheltered world turns into a nightmare. Frida boasts about her ambassador fiancé, but the discovery of her pregnancy ends in tragedy. Meanwhile, one Hutu girl, Gloriosa (Albina Kirenga), openly hostile to Virginia, takes the weaker Modesta (who is half-Tutsi, half Hutu) under her wing, to “redo the nose of the Virgin Mary”, which looks too much like a Tutsi nose to her. As the expedition ends in mishap, she finds it easier to blame it on a supposed rape attempt by “Tutsi thugs”. Repeated, the lie triggers a mechanism of unstoppable violence. Twenty years later, the Tutsi genocide took place over 100 days, from April to July 1994. This happened a long time ago, and other massacres have since taken place in an ethnically-torn continent (echoed in films like Desrances and Makeroom). Yet the silent gaze of Our Lady of the Nile revives our sadness for the daughters who, like Scholastique Mukasonga, found nobody to come back to.
Pan African Film and Arts Festival
11-23 February, 2020
Festival website: https://www.paff.org/
- Until the media attention generated by her death, Sarah Maldoror was not even mentioned in that paragraph. I also gratefully acknowledge that I borrowed this title from Alile Sharon Larkin’s 1979 film, Your Children Come Back to You, one of the highlights of the L.A. Rebellion movement. Larkin articulates the dilemma of a single mother on welfare between keeping her daughter and ensuring the continuity of the mother-daughter bond and cultural tradition within the community, or letting her be raised by her wealthier sister-in-law. ↩
- See Bérénice Reynaud, “How Not to Drown At Sea – The 33rd Sundance Film Festival and the 22nd Pan African Film and Arts Festival”, Senses of Cinema, No. 70, March 2014. ↩
- Zeinabu Irene Davis, quoted in Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak and Jacqueline Naiuma Stewart (eds), L.A. Rebellion – Creating a New Black Cinema, University of California Press, Oakland, 2015, p. 322. ↩
- See note 3. “How Not to Drown At Sea” ↩
- French is the official language in both Haiti and Ivory Coast. In Haiti, it coexists with Haitian Creole, in Ivory Coast with Dioula and other African languages. ↩
- See “Unlikely Heroes – The 31st Sundance Film Festival and the 20th PanAfrican Film and Arts Festival”, Senses of Cinema, No. 62, March 2012. ↩
- Eniola’s younger self is performed by Nigerian actress/photographer Toni Tones. ↩
- Eniola belongs probably to the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Pentecostal megachurch founded in Lagos. ↩
- Another of the “boys”, Odogwu, is played by the rapper Illbliss, a member of the Igbo people, one of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria, after the Hausa and the Yoruba. ↩
- Notre-Dame du Nil, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2012, Prix Renaudot. English translation by Mélanie Mauthier, Our Lady of the Nile, Archipelago Books, New York, 2014. ↩
- Rahimi’s first novel in French, Syngué Sabour (2008), was awarded the Prix Goncourt. ↩