New Wave / Old Wave

African cinema has been around for forty years now. Most of the early films were either idealized portraits of a pre-colonial Africa, anti-colonial political tracts, or transitional stories about the move between the village and the city or Africa and Europe. By the 1970s, however, corrupt post-colonial bureaucracies had replaced colonial governments as objects of political attack and as a popular subjects for films. These films offered two choices: politics or nostalgia. But more recently, filmmakers have turned away from both village tales and political grievances to address the gap between urban Africa, the untouched villages, and undifferentiated poverty that one sees so often on screen.

All of these were presented in the Guggenheim Museum‚ “Lights on Africa” film program curated by Manon Slome and Mahen Bonetti, in connection with the “Africa: Art of a Continent” exhibition. The organizers of “Lights on Africa” did well to include two among the “milestones in the African film making industry”: Ousmane Sembene, one of the best known, oldest, and most prolific of African filmmakers (behind four of the programs thirty-two films), and Djibril Diop Mambety are in many ways Africa’s premier filmmakers. Sembene providing the blueprint for the carefully-crafted, comic post-colonial political protest film; Mambety inspiring younger African filmmakers by playing with the art of cinema, proving that film can be art without becoming politically complacent. Both are particularly interesting in their treatment of gender, Sembene offering many female heroes and Mambety playing with gender boundaries in a fashion that is, to say the least, rare in African film. Although both have been making films since the 1960s, Sembene represents African cinema as part of a tradition of political African arts, while Mambety’s approach suggests alternatives and offers promise for the future. One way to understand the differences between Sembene and Mambety is along cold war lines.

In the ’60s and ’70s, as capitalist and communist nations vied for newly independent allies, the cold war was waged in part through cultural training and funding. It is no coincidence that both directors are Senegalese: almost invisible in “Africa: Art of a Continent,” Senegalese artists emerge in force in the photography and film sections of the show. As the former capital of the French colonial empire, Senegal was among the wealthier of the newly independent African nations and received money for cultural education from both France and the Soviet Union. A comparatively large number of Senegalese were able to study the fine arts, including film-mostly in Paris, but some, Sembene most prominent among them, in Moscow.

Senegal’s close financial and cultural ties to France engendered, in addition to Soviet attention, political resentments and anti-French sentiment, a hybrid urban culture in which elements of various pre-colonial Senegalese cultures united with imported languages, technologies, and cultural habits. Lest anyone think such cultural melding implies a multi-cultural utopia, “Lights on Africa” opened by locating African history in relation to the West with an impressive and horrifying indictment of the ethics of colonialism: Sembene’s Campe de Thiaroye (1987), one of the only African films about World War II.The fight against Hitler is one of the few morally unambiguous stories available to Western history, and the revelation that gratuitous war crimes were committed by the Allies are less shocking than the fact that most of us don’t know about this event.

Campe de Thiaroye recounts the story of a regiment of African men who were rounded up and sent to Europe to fight for France. The war has just ended, and the soldiers are in a transit camp outside Dakar, waiting to be paid and sent home. When they discover that the French have no intention of paying them, they protest. The French respond by bringing in tanks and destroying all the soldiers in the camp.

Thiaroye is most interesting when paired with Sembene’s 1971 Emitai (not in the program), in which a group of women stand up to colonial army officers who are taking men away to fight in the war. The principles for which the soldiers are recruited in Emitai are represented only by a general’s picture tacked to a tree, which changes as France changes sides, a metaphor for how the soldiers in Thiaroye are wanted only as manpower, being kept in the dark about the war’s politics. Sembene is no utopian: in both films, true to colonial history, rebellion proves fatal. In comparison to the play, Thiaroye Terre Rouge (1981) by the Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop on which the film is based, Sembene seems almost to be letting the French off the hook. The program brings us immediately from the colonial past to the neo- or post-colonial present with Sembene’s most recent film, Guelwaar (1992).

Sembene’s films always offer clear political messages, and in Guelwaar two stand out (alongside his usual condemnation of bureaucratic heartlessness and incompetency): first, religious conflict is destructive and ridiculous (see Sembene’s 1977 Ceddo for a historical treatment of the issue), and second, accepting bribery (which is often disguised as charity) from individuals or foreign nations is destructive. The first of these drives the plot.

The film opens with the announcement of the death of Guelwaar, a proud and determined local political leader (“Guelwaar” is an honorary title that identifies him with noble caste) whose funeral sinks into indignity when the corpse fails to appear. By the time Guelwaar’s westernized son discovers that the hospital has accidentally given Guelwaar, a Catholic, to a Muslim family, the Muslims have buried Guelwaar and are determined to consider the subject closed. The Christians march to the Muslim cemetery to claim the body; the Muslims follow to protect their sacred space. The army, sent in by a worried regional official, add guns to the equation. After much tense threatening, the priest and the imam negotiate, and the imam disinters the corpse and hands it over to its family for Christian burial.

Alongside the pacifist message about intraclass religious conflict and the antagonism of small differences, Guelwaar‘s characters embody issues of cultural independence. We learn from flashbacks that Guelwaar was fiercely independent, shouting to his wife that he would rather his daughter be a prostitute than a beggar and denouncing the nation’s mendacious mentality (during his speech, government officials look gravely at one another, suggesting that perhaps their decision to put an end to Guelwaar’s preaching is not unrelated to his unexplained death). His culturally alienated son illustrates the other side of this equation: at the beginning of the film, it seems that his clothes and education have made him French, as he claims not to understand Ouolof, but frustrations and absurdities pile until he loses his haughty attitude and fights along with the rest of his community. The film ends with a tribute to Guelwaar’s independent spirit, as the children in his funeral procession stop a truck full of donated rice (which the plot suggests is destined for the Muslims, rendering the gesture somewhat ambiguous) and dump it on the road to be crushed under the procession. The economy was on everyone’s mind in Senegal when this film was made (and still is), and Guelwaar is Sembene’s contribution to the debate.

Guelwaar argues that decolonization has been made contingent upon the maintenance of economic relations with France (and the World Bank and the IMF) on France’s terms, and that neocolonial political leaders now use foreign aid to buy their subjects’ political loyalty, much as the politicians themselves have presumably been bought off by the foreign donors whose aid they embezzle. As Guelwaar (presumably speaking for Sembene) has it, subordination is assured by a steady stream of aid that creates bonds of dependence. This ties into the film’s most subtle and perhaps, in light of contemporary debates over African politics, most important messages: that the fate of the dead must not overshadow the fate of the living.

In one of the film’s most comic moments the younger of the dead Muslim’s two wives declares that she can’t stand the boredom of mourning anymore and is going back to her family. The mourners waiting at Guelwaar’s funeral also grumble about getting back to their lives. And when the body is finally dug up, it smells: throughout the battles being waged on its behalf, it has been rotting. Two hundred years after the first battles of religious conversion were fought, in which the losers were sold into slavery for guns and liquor, Islam and Catholicism and neocolonial greed are still tearing people apart.

Drawing on many layers of politics and history, relying on cultural jokes which the foreign viewer, like the Westernized son, can’t quite get, using the language and beauty of his subjects both to appeal to a foreign audience and to tell a story that this audience can’t understand, Sembene continues, as he has done for years, simultaneously cater to and resist European demands in such a way as to hold his place as the most powerful African filmmaker. Two of Sembene’s shorts are also included in the festival, Borom Sarret (1963), Sembene’s first film, and Black Girl (1965), the only film he has shot in France.

Borom Sarret shows Sembene’s Marxist spirit at its finest: sparse and unambiguous, in this tale of a poor cart-driver who has a very bad day, characters are sympathetic in inverse proportion to how much money they have. A well-dressed man pays the driver extra to take him into the plateau, the wealthy section of downtown Dakar where horse-drawn carts are prohibited. When they reach the plateau, Western classical music starts up (suggesting that three years after independence this area has yet to be de-colonized), and the cool cosmopolitanism of the new bourgeoisie evokes prayers and terror from the driver. The cop who throws him out looks as tall and imposing as the towering buildings of downtown, and only when he gets back to the Medina (by the monument of independence) can the driver relax.

Though Sembene is known for depicting strong, politically driven women, none of his “feminist” films are included in the festival (see Xala [1974], Ceddo [1977]) and Black Girl is an odd example of his treatment of women. The tale of a Senegalese servant who returns to France with her employers only to discover that the French are dreadful and that she has no freedom or respect as an African servant in France, Black Girl is a moving portrait of isolation, on the one hand, and French bourgeois arrogance and cruelty on the other. But it also creates a sense, intensified by the dramatic ending, that the protagonist is responsible for her plight, that she is being punished for desiring frivolous beautiful objects and wanting to get out of Dakar. While Black Girl does offer insight into a particularly miserable plight, one would expect ‘Sembenean’ inquiry into the economic and cultural forces that drive young women into these situations. In this respect, for all its enduring and translatable power (the scenes of French bourgeois life could easily be American), on Sembene’s own terms Black Girl is one of his weaker films.

If Sembene’s films epitomize the social conscience and commitment of African cinema, Mambety’s reveal the playful and artistic spirit that makes cinema such a powerful art. The organizers did well to pair Mambety’s feature with the two Sembene shorts, but it is sad that they only included one of Mambety’s films. Fortunately, it is his most important. Touki Bouki (1973), a cult film, has inspired many young filmmakers. It also contains one of the few gay characters in African cinema, though his appearance is brief. Mambety both depicts and embodies a way of life, and Touki Bouki shows this life at its height, when money for the arts in Senegal seemed plentiful and Dakar seemed a growing cosmopolitan metropolis. It also shows that the spirit and style of the ’60s and ’70s crossed many borders, and not just for spiritual renewal.

The film opens peacefully with cows (recalling countless ethnographic films, especially from the ’50s and ’60s, that open with happy animals) and then assaults us with a slaughter house before slipping into a ’70s urban extravaganza of bell-bottoms, berets, and huge plastic sunglasses. A pair of cow’s horns on the front of a motor-scooter provide the transition from dying cows to living humans and introduce us to Mory and Anta, a young couple who personify hipness as they tear in, out, and around the city on their scooter, searching for money so that they can take a boat to Paris and escape the aimlessness of their renegade lives in Dakar.

Light on plot, Touki Bouki derives its power from its composition, the fantastical beauty of its images, and the expressiveness of its actors. Unintimidated by the demands of classic cinema, Mambety uses little dialogue (none at all for the first eight minutes) and moves his camera around a lot; bouncing, walking, and riding alongside or in front of Anta and Mory. As the couple ride through the city, we are offered a series of shots of daily life in markets and on the streets of Dakar, people running errands and hanging out (a goat is slaughtered and a man is attacked, in extended, gruesome detail). The fantasy of France is indicated by Parisian music, which blares as Mory and Anta leave the city and drive past baobabs and skinny white cows on their way home. As they drive in and out of the city, they pass a pale-skinned, hairy, scantily-clad man in a baobab tree known as the toubab du baobab (white man of the baobab), a phrase that epitomizes the kind of play Mambety loves and the micro-processes of his imagination. The man seems to be a quirk of Mambety’s imagination, but in the end le toubab du baobab steals Mory’s scooter.

More striking than this racial play is the film’s depictions of gender. As with everything else in the film, gender is performed and displayed but never probed or explained. In the age of elaborate wigs and platform heels, Anta, the female lead, at first looks like a boy, and is only revealed to be a woman when she takes off her shirt (and starts to cry). When the couple stop by the luxury estate of the film’s most unlikely caricature, a fat, sensuous rich man who lies around in a silk robe surrounded by attractive young men, we discover that Mory is certain enough of his masculinity to see through Anta’s clothes. The rich man offers Mory money in exchange for favors, and Mory plays along long enough before attacking to steal the man’s money and, more importantly, his clothes. They return home and, in a scene that lies somewhere between dream-sequence and surreal reality, their formerly hostile friends and family at home, inspired by the couple’s sudden wealth, deliver lengthy hypocritical praises.

In short, Mambety offers a view of an urban Africa rarely seen elsewhere. Critics have praised Mambety for going beyond the realism of Sembene, the master against whom many African filmmakers are judged. Mambety’s visual metaphors offer moments of social critique as powerful as anything in one of Sembene’s films, but the viewer has to find them. He spurns Sembene’s didacticism because he is less tied to conventional narrative and classic cinema. While Sembene sees film as a way to communicate his political parables to wider audiences, something he couldn’t do as a novelist (his previous career), Mambety shows he is an auteur in the true nouvelle vague sense of the term. Though his next film after Touki Bouki, Hyenas (1992), has a more conventional narrative structure, it maintains the eerie power of the former (and adds another level of gender critique), and with his most recent film, Le Franc (1994), Mambety once again weaves his story between the unreal reality of dreams and the surreality of waking life.

While this blurred relation to reality is common in much African cinema (and fiction), Mambety’s is perhaps the most extreme, for it is never explained —in terms of conjuring, witchcraft, or the power of memory and the past; it just happens. Sembene has no use for such tricks in getting across his political messages, but Mambety’s films demand more work from their viewers and must be explored. Sembene’s films epitomize the power of film as a political tool that can reach audiences across cultures and languages, using his films to thematicize the problems facing Africa and suggest ways in which people must change.

Mambety waves the opposing flag of art for art’s sake, refusing to accept the burden of representation that accompanies the label “African filmmaker.” He makes his fantasies and trusts his viewers to figure out how to take them. That his films have often been called European, cold, and intellectual, both in praise and in attack, indicates the narrow parameters in which filmmakers from Africa are expected to work. A new generation of filmmakers in Senegal, inspired greatly by Mambety, are taking to film as art, and while this will never, and should never, replace the social realist commitment of filmmakers like Sembene, both are essential to complicating and challenging the notion of a monolithic African cinema.

About the Director

Elizabeth Mermin

Elizabeth Mermin is a London-based independent filmmaker from New York specializing in documentary features. Her goal is that each of her films be radically different form the last.  She has a BA summa cum laude from Harvard in literature and a Masters in cultural anthropology from New York University, where she was a National Science Foundation fellow. She spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Dakar, Senegal, studying the film industry and the independent press, and was a Critical Studies Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. She’s published articles on African, African-American, and documentary film in several academic journals and film/arts magazines. She has also preseented her films to classes at colleges and universities, including Harvard, Cambridge, and Cornell; and taught workshops at Filmbase in Dublin, Film London’s Microschool, and the Pacific New Media Center. In 2011 Mermin wrote the cover-story for the Indian magazine The Caravan, about the American terrorist behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Her most recent documentary, Amazing Azerbalijan!, took an irreverent look at human rights and European values in the context of Eurovision 2012, hosted in Baku. Mermin’s other feature documentaries include, HorsesTeam Qatar, Shot in Bombay, Office Tigers, and The Beauty Academy of Kabul. Her first film, On Hostile Ground (2001), co-directed with Jenny Raskin, was released theatrically in 2001 in New York, and broadcast on the Sundancec Channel.