I've decided to copy below part of the text of a paper I wrote a year and a half ago. It was not a stellar paper and thus my decision to cut out the first ten pages here, but problematic and hastily written as it was, I thought there might still be some useful insights in it, particularly in my discussion of Osuofia in London that were appropriate for posting to a blog. Any feedback on how I can revise improve will be appreciated.
So, I start in media res:
In his introduction to Nigerian Video Films, Jonathan Haynes notes that thus far most of the analysis of video films has been done not from the perspective of African cinema but from the theoretical paradigm of popular culture. “[A]t present African film criticism and the Nigerian videos are not well suited to one another; the videos are not what is wanted by the criticism, and the criticism lacks many of the tools necessary to make sense of the videos” (Haynes, 2000, 13). Part of the reason for this, Haynes posits, is because both the celluloid films and the film criticism arises out of a field, “which normally entails the ideologies and mentalities of the modern-elite sector,” whereas the video films arise spontaneously out of popular theatre and popular immersion in foreign genre films, which require far less “technical and aesthetic” education (14). However, although he uses the theory of popular culture in his own work, he admits that the popular culture/high art divide is problematic and should be interrogated.
I will position my own work in this questioning space, looking for a theoretical position which, rather than posing the high art/political celluloid film against the popular art/apolitical video film in a high/low culture divide, will allow me to examine the films together in a continuum of equally valid artistic expression. Particularly relevant is Kenneth Harrow’s call for a revolutionary revision of theoretical perspectives on African cinema in his recently published, Postcolonial African Cinema. He notes that in the past previous film critics of African cinema, including himself, relied heavily on the political dichotomies provided by theories of third cinema. In revisiting those perspectives, Harrow maintains, he is not turning away from the political but instead realizing the limitations of nationalist and modernist positions which merely reproduced the structures that colonialism left behind (Harrow, 2007, 23). Third cinema theorist, Teshome Gabriel theorized three stages of cinema in the third world, the least advanced phase of cinema being that of “unqualified assimilation,” in which “
Similarly, the conceit of “talking back” or “writing back” or “shooting back” at the former colonizer, so often invoked in discourse about African literature and film, plays an essential role in overcoming the assimilation of colonialism and harmful stereotypes, but does not move beyond structures that self-consciously presume a Western audience. Harrow argues that “The anxieties that current and past African film criticism must attempt to negotiate have to be read through the continuing insistence that the films respond to the false images generated by Hollywood, to the false history generated by the west” (xii). Once we can move beyond the anxieties about authenticity, we can “move on to the sites of power that have determined who disposes of the means of controlling the production of the image, of the ‘real’ truth….. ‘Who speaks’ becomes ‘who can produce the speech,’ ‘who can disseminate the discourse,’ ‘who can control its production’” (xiii).
With a few exceptions, the concept of African Cinema, then, refers to the films Africans produce, rather than those they watch - on TV, in the cinema or in video parlors. It has come to represent an art cinema, produced by filmmakers and analyzed by critics intent on pushing forward the boundaries of film form and representation. To this point, it has managed to exist outside the demands of the marketplace and a popular audience (Larkin, 2001, par 1)
Larkin’s purpose here is to introduce Nollywood to an American film festival audience, yet Harrow’s questions of authenticity also give more space to other African celluloid directors who have not made films that fit into a third cinema paradigm. Younger Francophone African filmmakers are typically more interested in questions of audience and have questioned the ideals of FEPACI both in their didactic “third cinema” aesthetics, as well as an over reliance on French funding and approval.
Response of “Cineastes”
Malian director Adama Drabo tells Melissa Thackway that he is glad he “picked the trade up on shoots” rather than going to film school: “I am very happy today to be able to express myself freely, rather than to have a master, a guiding line… A lot of filmmakers before me were tempted to make images for Europe, to satisfy
“is that the African audience often considers African films less amusing and too cultural. This situation is probably due to the fact that we filmmakers can be influenced by who finances our films. Everybody knows that our films are financed in
Although he considers himself a political filmmaker, he is critical of filmmakers who place a didactic message over the emotional impact of the story (138). In another essay, Mweze questions the assumption that “entertainment cinema is necessarily incompatible with
The outspoken Cameroonian filmmaker Jeanne-Pierre Bekolo makes his critique of African cinema in a film commissioned by the British Film Institute to celebrate 100 years of filmmaking. Aristotle’s Plot (1996) is a hybrid art/action film ostensibly about African filmmaking in which Bekolo combines elements of the Western and the gangster film with the self-reflexivity of European art cinema and subverts any expectations of what African cinema should be. Here the kinfolk of the African Rambo Mweze is talking about come to life when young cinema-goers name themselves after their favourite action heroes: Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Schwarzenegger, and eventually become the gangsters they so admire. In the film, the leader of the gang, Cinema, so named because he had seen 10,000 (implied non-African) films, battles E.T., or Cineaste, the political African filmmaker who turns up his nose at such “shit.” Cineaste, who had returned from foreign training abroad, gets the police to shut down the movie house named Cinema Africa where Cinema and his wanna-be-gangster friends watch imported action films, just as FEPACI has attempted to have the government regulate distributors who import foreign films. But not long after the takeover when Cinema Africa begins to show African films, Cinema’s gang of action heroes, Bruce Lee, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, etc attack the projectionist and the lone audience member, an African American” who is watching the films to learn about his “roots,” (a dig at Haile Gerima and his film Sankofa) and cart off the films to start their own movie house. To their dismay, after they’ve built a new cinema out of scraps and called it, “New Africa,” they find that instead of the latest Bruce Lee, they’ve stolen reels of African films. Cinema walks out of the theatre where the only sound that can be heard are the bleating of goats and clucking of chickens, saying “It’s an African film. You go out. Have a piss, have a meal, go back and they are doing the same thing that they were doing when you left.”
However, despite their mutual animosity, throughout the film Cinema and Cineaste move closer to each other. Cinema is forced to watch African films and Cineaste is transformed into a Rambo-like character on a motorcycle, who fulfills the desires of the gangsters for “African action films” when he engages them in a shoot-out. When all the characters succeed in killing each other, Bekolo explains in the loquacious voice over narration, through which he has been musing about the nature of African cinema over the course of the film, that he is abandoning “Aristotle’s Plot.” As the acknowledged auteur of the film, he tells the audience that he is bringing Cinema, Cineaste, and the other gangsters back to life. Rising from where they had fallen in the gun fight, they resume the battle, this time kung fu style. At the end of the film, Cinema and Cineaste ride quarrelling off into the sunset together, indicating that the African cineaste and the African audience, while still disagreeing about aesthetics and entertainment, are finally communicating.
Bekolo’s model for the relationship between the audience and the filmmaker, also works to situate the relationship between the critic and the filmmaker. In the film there is also is a rather dim-witted policeman who has been commissioned by the Police Chief to discover the reason that someone can die in one film and come to life in another. Throughout the film, he plagues not only Cinema and Cineaste, but also a filmmaker in a bar, played by Bekolo, with questions that indicate he has not watched very many films. The policeman is a reoccurring motif in Bekolo’s films, and Harrow indicates that they become “the figures of an obsessive patriarchy” which are “rendered [into] the ridiculous, impotent form” (Harrow, 2007, 143) The image of the policeman handcuffed to Cinema and Cineaste that occurs at the beginning of the film reappears near the end, indicating that the audience and filmmaker are both unwillingly bound to the structures of the state. But when the policeman tries to shoot Cinema a crowd beats him down, and Cinema and Cineaste escape the policeman’s authority on Cineaste’s motorcycle. Despite Bekolo’s question in the voiceover: “why does the African filmmaker always have to be political?,” his satirical portrayal of the figures of authority takes on a political relevance that resonates in the criticism of Nigerian video film.
The Political Critique of the Mirror
While video films are often criticized for dwelling too often on the negative or embarrassing aspects of society, a closer look reveals that many of them actually play the role of what that most political of African critics, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, mentions as a crucial aspect of art, that of a mirror which “reflects whatever is before it—beauty spots, warts, and all” (1998, 21). Odia Ofeimun recognizes this aspect of filmmaking in his hymn to the video film phenomenon: “I dare say the video films are actually giving back to us a mirror image of the way we are, the ways in which we behave and mis-behave: uncouth, slapdash, raucous, and hostage to badly-managed and rather manager-less towns and cities….” (Ofeimun, 2005, 53). And while Ofeimun admits that the films are “often repetitious and not always obedient to the laws of professional decorum or excellence,” he maintains that
there is so much energy and creativity that older motion picture industries have something to learn from. From boardroom struggles to political power play, military adventurism and godfatherism in politics, ritual murder, drug abuse and the rehabilitation of drug abusers, witchcraft and churchcraft, high living and low life, prostitution and AIDS, the home-videos … are turning out the Nigerian story in a no-holds-barred fashion which leaves no room for anybody to hide. In this they recall the sass of junk journalism, and, in a sense, what was called guerrilla journalism under the military” (53).
Ofeimun makes an important link between the video films and the earlier goals of third cinema to become a “cinema of the masses” (61). And while critics often accuse filmmakers of continuing the structures of cultural imperialism in which they mindlessly reproduce foreign films they’ve seen, I argue that filmmakers often borrow aesthetic structures from foreign films and layer them on top of subversive folk tale genres that mock the powerful elite of the nation. Kingsley Ogoro’s Osuofia in London, for example, was controversial among expatriated Nigerian audiences for being “unpatriotic to
a pilot. According to the film, the bushmen had never before encountered any part of “civilization,” and the coke bottle wreaks havoc on their “simple” lives. The South African comedy reinforced the ideologies of apartheid: the place of the African was in the bush, where he would be happiest. The bushmen are the good Africans, while the freedom fighters who kidnap the kindly white schoolteachers are stupid villains.
The structure of Osuofia in London loosely follows that of the God’s Must be
Crazy, and, as such, an uncritical viewer might think that the filmmakers Kingsley Ogoro and Nkem Owoh accept the racist assumptions about the inferiority of the “African bush” and the superiority of the cosmopolitan center of
The most striking moment in the film is a scene in which the British-Nigerian lawyer grows so frustrated with Osuofia that he rushes into the bathroom, and stares straight into the mirror/camera, carrying out a monologue that seems to come straight out of one of Frantz Fanon’s case studies of the alienated colonized subject in Black Skin, White Masks. Although ostensibly talking to himself, he actually looks straight at his audience and speaks in a thick Nigerian accent: “I hate these semi-
illiterate—foreign clients. They get me so annoyed and give me problems and wahalla, oh!” There is a cut to a medium shot of Okafor standing in front of the bathroom sinks, doubled in the mirror, as he says, “When I get annoyed, I start to loose my British accent, eh? My cultivated English accent. I start to talk like my father, and I don’t like it. Oh…” Cut back to the closeup on his face, staring into the camera, he now seems to address the Nigerian audience of the film, who by this time is sure to be in gales of laughter: “You’re laughing at me. You think I have a problem? You think I have a coconut problem?” The camera moves away as he moves back out of this realm of psychological revelation, “Ok,Calm down. Ok, Ok Deep breath, stiff upper lip.” Washing his hands and face, he puts back on the “mask” and says, British accent regained, “God save the Queen. Ben Okafor, solicitor. Excellent. How can I help you?”
This brilliant monologue, in between Osuofia’s sightseeing antics in
This film is just one among many of the comedian Nkem Owoh’s films that layers urban dreams and urban legends onto the trickster tale to farcically illuminate the hypocrisies and tensions of Nigerian society. Although video filmmakers are often seen the antithesis of African cinema as embodied by the “Father of African cinema” Sembene Ousmane, the satirical social commentary these films often provide, reminds me of the mockery Ousmane makes of the impotent El Hadj in Xala. If looked at closely, therefore, the dichotomy between the political “high art” of African cinema and the low popular art of the video film breaks down. A new theory of African cinema should be one that reads these new narratives alongside the old. Together, they will provide a more precise understanding of how filmmakers use what they have at hand, whether funding from the French, Bollywood song and dances, or racist South African comedies, to create art that both questions and entertains.
Bekolo, Jeanne-Pierre, dir. Aristotle’s Plot.
Ogoro, Kingsley. Osuofia in
Sembene, Ousmane, dir. La Noire de…. (1966)
________________, dir. Xala (1975).
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 Salman Rushdie riffed on the title of the George Lukas film The Empire Strikes back to coin the clever phrase, “the Empire writes back to the Centre” to refer to postcolonial writing, which was then adopted as the title of Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s seminal collection of postcolonial literary criticism The Empire Writes Back. Since then, the phrase has been riffed on in other works, such as Melissa Thackway’s study of Francophone African film, Africa Shoots Back, (2004) which cleverly references Rushdie and Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen, as well as playing with the metaphor of the camera as gun and an instrument capable of violence. (It is also likely an indirect reference to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Barrel of the Pen.) However, the limitations of these formulations are obvious. It posits the creative work of postcolonial societies as always in active dialogue with the former colonizer, rather than moving on, as many popular writers and video filmmakers have done, to address contemporary concerns to which the colonizer is no longer central.
 Aristotle’s Plot was commissioned by the British Film Institute, alongside films made by Godard, Scorsese, Bertolucci and others to celebrate a century of film. However, in the voice over narration in Aristotle’s Plot, Bekolo questions their motives: “Why me? Was it Christian charity or political correctness?” and satirizes Western expectations of slow rural African films by beginning the narrative voiceover, “It all started in the African bush, when I was with my grandfather chewing kola nut. I heard the drums telling me I had a phone call from