Globalizing African Cinema?

Is it a mere fortuitous coincidence that the last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the re-emergence of the very same forces and ideologies of expansion, domination and control that burst onto the world scene in the last two decades of the nineteenth century? Are there parallels between the forces and ideologies of late nineteenth century capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, and late twentieth century forces and ideologies of globalization?

Berlin 1884 – Confab aspirant globalizers Britain, France, Belgium, and a recently unified Germany, and the partitioning of and scramble for Africa. This gathering marks a significant moment in the process of formal colonialism in Africa, in particular, and the systematic incorporation and subjugation of Africa into a world structure in formation dominated by European capital, systems and technology.

Berlin 1989 – The ‘People’s Revolution’. The fall of the wall and the dismantling of barriers of various forms in other places. This new space was hijacked in order to let loose the hitherto geographically circumscribed forces and ideologies of capital, technology and domination to roam easier around the world under a new moniker, globalization. Two moments, separated by a hundred years, in the same city, with worldwide implications. Is this a case of history repeating itself? What are the implications for Africans and African cultural industries and for cinema in particular?

Globalization has become the buzz word of the fin de siècle and is likely to continue to ooze from the lips, pens and keyboards of twenty first century humanity for quite sometime. Globalization raises a number of very important issues facing Africans today, and these challenges must be addressed consistently with imagination and conviction. I have no problems with a genuine egalitarian internationalism, predicated on respect for and acceptance of difference and diversity. But a predatory globalization, as conceived and promoted in dominant corporate and economic discourses, with their accent on a borderless, unfettered free market capitalism and their muffling of socio-cultural implications of dreary standardization, a narcissist super-power nationalism and erasure of local cultures and practices, presents problems and challenges which call for rigorous critical engagement and viable alternatives.

Globalization is presented as an innovation, a rising tide that will lift all boats. Thomas Friedman [The Lexus and the Olive Tree] describes it as a process that involves the inevitable “integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations, and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever before, and in a way that is also producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by this new system.” Mobile capital, mobile labor, mobile technology. Doug Henwood, American journalist on economic affairs and contributing editor of The Nation, on his part, sees globalization as “a euphemizing and imprecise substitute for imperialism.” Thus, it is not really a new thing. Rather, the changes are incremental instead of fundamental. This is an extremely important point that should be borne in mind in any discussion of globalization. For Africans, in particular, globalization is the empires’ new clothes. Little has changed of Africa’s position from colonial to globalization eras, and the implications for African cultural industries and cinema are compelling.

Although the dominant accent has been on the economic and technological face of globalization, it is, like imperialism, all-encompassing, with a political, social and cultural face. Unlike imperialism, with its identifiable targets/manifestations/personifications, globalization is amorphous and elusive. Its presence is pervasive, constantly in motion, and not tangible. Hence, the enormity of the task to engage and control it. Answers to questions like ‘Who do we shoot?’ and ‘Where and who do we picket and demonstrate against?’ may not readily come by in relation to globalization. They are there, however, as events in Davos and Seattle 1999 and similar antecedents in Europe and elsewhere may have demonstrated.

Is globalization per se a bad thing? Even though I have expressed a death wish for the term globalization, the idea of cross border/cultural connections and exchanges of various forms and scales is something good for humanity and recognized as such by Africans across broad time spans and geographic spaces. African systems of thought enshrine ideas of common local, regional and global humanity and the imperative of connections. We find examples in sayings like abantu ngabantu ngabantu (people are people only through other people), among the Nguni of Southern Africa, and nit nitay garab am (the human being is the cure of the human being), among the Wolof of Senegambia. Recent formulations such as Negritude, The African Personality and African Renaissance also privilege notions of globalization shaped in part by local, regional, and national African specificities and contributions to global systems. As such, I don’t think it is in the best interest of Africans, nor is it their desire or is it possible to retreat from the world and its technologies. Our contribution to and investment in global humanity is too precious to abandon.

So then, understood as egalitarian internationalism – what others call ‘the other globalization’ or ‘glocalization’ –, I believe Africans should claim and articulate globalization on their own terms, with all the complexities and potential contradictions involved. Global encounters predicated on exchange and not imposition, democracy and not dictatorship, trade and not export, difference and not homogenization, partnership and not competition. I think this is much more likely to sustain globalization in the long run than the current seemingly triumphant corporate-led economic globalization whose predatory practices and insatiable appetite for indiscriminate growth in a world of finite resources may not be all that sustainable. In fact, by many estimates, they may end up depleting resources and destroying environments as well as peoples and cultures. The latter is of particular significance for people who have been historically subjected to and have been struggling against imperial regimes and now have to contend with the leveling force of the technologically super-empowered cultural industries of the sole remaining super-power, the US, as well as the globalizing structures under its control.

What options and strategies are available for people, Africans and African filmmakers and artists in the face of a seemingly triumphant globalization shot through with a large dose of Americanisms? Capitulation? Engagement? Rejection? At what costs and benefits? These are questions which do not yield simple answers. It seems to me, on the whole, that responses, thus far, favor critical and selective engagement. Few are those opting for total uncritical capitulation, rejection and disengagement, the vigor of the discourse in favor of the latter two, notwithstanding. The reasons for such choices immerse us into the complexities and diversities of African encounters and experiences with the myriad forces of globalization. I can offer only a sketch here.

The surrender of African sovereignty to global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF is one of the prominent themes in African political and economic affairs of the last two decades. This surrender – some call it constructive engagement – in the form of institution of economic structural adjustment programs, has given new life to the fundamental tenets of economic globalization – privatization, elimination of subsidies, deregulation, opening the economy to free trade, free circulation of goods and services of all kinds, competition, downsizing, etc. Weak and dependent economies, opportunism, greed and just plain helplessness, in some cases, have pushed many African governments to acquiesce in various ways to the dictates of such global institutions, placing them even more at the mercy of economic globalization. The resulting social, political, economic and cultural havoc and dislocations of such practices in Africa are too well known by now. Less apparent, though, may be the impact of such on African culture industries, particularly, cinema.

In many structurally-adjusting African countries, coercive neo-liberal economics have not only exacerbated an already difficult situation for African filmmakers, but have also unloaded bigger burdens on African filmmaking. Tax codes, budget cuts and the steady reduction and drying up of both external and internal funding sources for production and distribution continue to shackle filmmakers. Privatization has provoked the gradual disappearance of movie theaters from many an urban landscape with perhaps few exceptions, for example, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Zimbabwe and a few places in North Africa. Divestiture of government interests in movie theater ownership and management in many structurally adjusting African countries has occasioned the sale of movie houses to private entrepreneurs, many of who decide to close these down and convert them into warehouses for imported commodities such as rice, sugar, flour, cement and second hand clothing from the West. Such moves have put added pressure on the distribution and exhibition of African films on African soil, so that African films continue to be strangers in their own territories. The requisite lifting of all measures vaguely reminiscent of protectionism has also rendered the African cinematic landscape more vulnerable to dumping of second rate foreign products.

Will African cinematic content and Africans styles of storytelling be the next victims of globalization? The debate is already in full steam, and many people see danger as well as opportunities. The dependence of African cinematic production, distribution and exhibition on European funding, especially, is, by now well known. With the steady tide of consolidation and reduction of funding sources from the northwest, some of which are now more vocal about and insistent on the imperative and, even, the inevitability of globalization — read Westernization, commercialization, etc. –, pressures to standardize and conform to “global cinematic norms” — read American/Hollywood – are on the rise. So also strategies to negotiate and resist. Granted, this is not unique to African filmmakers, as gestures of independent filmmakers from Europe, Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world reveal, but I would argue that the burden is heavier on African filmmakers.

Faced with such manifestations of the forces of globalization, Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache, for example, poses the following question to his fellow African filmmakers regarding their relationship to Western monies: “… are we losing a sense of our own reality, are we compromising cinematic content for ‘northern’ funding?” In other words, are we giving in uncritically and without resistance to globalization? What do we make of the role of Western funders in shaping and influencing African cinematic content and style in an era of globalization? In recent times, we have been hearing more and more African filmmakers reiterate the imperative for new directions for a more viable, commercially and otherwise, cinema. Others cry out, “Be universal, or be more universal! Be Y2K compliant! Make films that are entertaining and less political! Get out of the bush, the savannah and the Sahel!” One notices a trend in the last two decades whereby some African filmmakers are more and more relocating to Europe and other places outside the continent for many reasons. This, along with the different subject matter, stories as well as styles, languages, actors and locations of some recent African films is usually pointed out as indications of moves away from local, rural, national, traditional to more cosmopolitan, universal, global and modern narratives. These are held up as the recipe for commercial success and broader appeal of African cinema. In other words, fall in line with normal global entertainment, be Y2K compliant and all else will be okay.

Is what some see as heavy handed tactics of western funders and seeming complicity of some African filmmakers leading African cinema toward a kind of compulsory homogenization that will result in what one may call an “afrimage”, an African clone of an American shaped “globimage” or the so-called “eurimage”? What becomes of the African difference in such constructs? Parallels in what is called “world music” may be instructive here.

Marie Daulne of the Black female group Zap Mama, argues that “world music” is merely a label, a conspiracy, to devalue ‘authentic’ African musical styles which are ‘compelled’ to succumb to a dubious global modernity – read western styles and sounds — to enable it to cross over to European audiences. For her, not only does this downgrade the African difference, but it also works to further marginalize and ghettoize African music. Daulne refuses to bend to the expectations of “world music” and continues a practice rooted in Africana specifics but is also open to the range of experiences and technologies that history has made available to her and her fellow musicians. Enracinement et ouverture, rootedness and openness. I believe many, if not most, African filmmakers share such perspectives.

What do these trends portend for local, regional specificities, forms and values in cultural production? Are we witnessing the progressive meltdown of the local in the face of a narcissist super power American nationalism masking as the global norm? Are we seeing a Euro-Americanization of cultures around the world, a new more powerful, nimble and insidious form of expansion, domination and control? It may seem so in many domains, but in the area of cultural practice, I think the issue is more complex as it touches at the heart of an enduring creative tension between the local and the global. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive entities, just like conceptions of tradition and modernity as polar opposites erase the dynamism inherent in these, while also fixing Africa in a static, traditional mode and the West in a dynamic, modern mode.

The pressures on African cultural producers, filmmakers, in particular, to jump on the bandwagon of a normative global film culture and to check their local cultures at the door are, indeed, enormous and seemingly insurmountable. However, I see in recent films such as Lumumba by Raoul Peck, La Genèse by Cheikh Oumar Cissoko, Mossane by Safi Faye, Pièces d’Identités by Ngangura Mweze, Mamlambo by Palesa Lelatkla-Nkosi, La Fumée Dans Les Yeux by Francois Woukoache, Le Damier by Balufu Kanyinda, Les Silences du Palais by Moufida Tlatli, On the Edge and Rage by Newton Aduaka, and many others too numerous to list here, instances of creative and productive deployment of individual and local specificities and cultures to navigate the world. I also see in these works the magic that can result from a skillful and critical use of new technologies to narrate African experiences in different ways. Rather than surrender to an overbearing global norm and an attempt to live up to Euro-American and commercial expectations which could well turn out to be a dead end, I see purposeful and imaginative appropriation of the full range of resources and experiences of Africans, past and present, in their encounters with each other and with others from around the world.

Like the Senegalese writer and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, I insist on the right and imperative of Africans to assume the world from their own diverse positions, to creatively and productively claim and appropriate on their own terms those elements and products of humanity – regardless of origin – deemed vital and useful for their own projects. Acts of claiming and appropriation proceed from positions of various specificities – cultural, geographical, historical, individual, gender, class, race, sexual, etc., and it is from the imprints of the specific that any significant moves to the global can be made. Africans are historical beings, diverse, dynamic and always in motion. So also are our cultures.

Leopold Senghor, at one point in time, spoke of the grand notion of a civilisation de l’universel, a civilization of the universal. He also imagined a great global banquet, a global smorgasbord at which all cultures from around the world would answer, present with offerings specific to each for mutual nourishment of humanity at large. Granted some may see this as utopian in a contemporary world of predatory, zero sum, winner-take-all capitalist globalization, but Senghor’s metaphor for a global humanism founded on local, national and regional specificities, a celebration of diversity, parity and exchange, may have a thing or two to instruct us about the resilience, the generative and staying power of the local.

About the Director

Mbye B. Cham

Dr. Cham has received numerous awards from Howard University including the Howard University Fund for Academic Excellence Travel Award. He has also served as a jury member for prestigious review panels and awards both within and outside Howard University. These include the Paul Robeson Film Awards, Prized Pieces Film and Video Competition, and the Annual ROSEBUD Awards and Competition. Dr. Cham has also presided on the jury on Short Film Competition of the 16th FESPACO (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 1999) and the Feature Films and Video Futures Jury (Southern African Film Festival (Harare, Zimbabwe, 1998) and served as consultant to UNESCO and the World Bank.