Interview with Jean-Marie Teno

Directing both documentary and fiction, Jean-Marie Teno frequently shoots his films himself, often in the reflexive and provocative style of the first person narrative. Born in 1954, in Famleng, Cameroon, Teno studied communication at the University of Valenciennes and graduated in 1984 with a degree in filmmaking. Rooted in post-colonial experience, Teno’s cinematic essays interrogate societal issues facing contemporary Africa. He tackles topics such as censorship, emigration, human rights, polygamy, women’s status, and the impact of globalization on the developing world. The pervasive nature of corruption within society and a resistance to injustice are persistent themes in much of his work. With his latest film, The Colonial Misunderstanding (2004), Teno presents a sharp critique of the role nineteenth-century German missionaries played in the colonial conquest of Africa.

This interview was conducted with Jean-Marie Teno amid the excitement of the eleventh edition of the African Film Festival by Horst Rutsch in New York on 23 April 2005.

Horst Rutsch: Let us start with the title of your film, The Colonial Misunderstanding [1]. To me, the core idea, or more specifically, the core sentiment of the film, is stated there: that one should fight injustice in order to make charity unnecessary.

Jean-Marie Teno: Yes.

HR: First of all, what made you want to make this film? What made you choose to do this subject, involving German missionary history?

JMT: Why I made this film was really something of a long process. I’ve been making films questioning the situation in Cameroon, questioning the relationship between Africa and Europe, questioning the vision that people had of Africa. It was always very difficult for me to address colonialism while living in Europe. Because whenever you address colonialism as an African, people start saying, “Oh, that’s a very difficult subject. You don’t want to talk about it.” So I asked how I could really address this issue and have people sit and be able to listen to what I have to say. My idea was really to talk about people that Europeans could identify with, and hence the missionaries. Almost every family in Europe has a missionary in their family. So when I was in Germany in the year 2000 showing my previous film A Trip to the Country [2], I went to the Wuppertal mission. [3] The film started there and I showed my film in front of many missionaries and former missionaries who were living in Germany. I was very impressed by their attitude towards history and their critical attitude towards what happened in Africa and what their predecessors did there. That really encouraged me to go and look into the archives and use the missionaries as a thread to try to tell this story from an African perspective.

HR: So the film essentially started in 2000?

JMT: The idea of the film started at that moment, yes.

HR: How much research was involved?

JMT: It was a long period of research because I had to make many trips to the archives, look in them, and read many books dealing with the topic. I watched some films but there were not many. There were some films made by the missionaries. It was a long and extended period of archival study. Also, I was after certain images that I couldn’t find.

HR: Of what significance was the choice of Germany? One aspect of it is that Germany’s colonial history is shorter than others’ so it’s more “manageable,” in a sense. It’s also something that didn’t continue into the present day; this is a contrast to, say, French and English colonial histories.

JMT: Why Germany? Since Germany had one of the shortest colonial histories, Germans are perhaps more open to talking about it. It was just a small period in their history. Also, the things that happened in Germany are just so deep and so heavy. But they are talking about it. So this may be one of the reasons why talking about the colonial history is not such a big deal. Also, since the war, the events of 1935, and the Holocaust [4], Germans have been looking at their history and there are many discussions about it. There is a big sense of historical consciousness in Germany. So, many historians went back and said, “Well, we should go and see what happened during the colonial period because things happened that no one really wants to talk about.” People also found similarities between the colonial language and the language that led to the Holocaust.

So again, why Germany? Due to these historical facts, Germans are really very special in Europe. Really, theirs is the only country that can commemorate the 100th year of a genocide that they committed in Africa. Last year [in 2004], there were exhibitions everywhere, there were conferences, and there was even one theme evening on television dealing with this issue. So people really talked about it in Germany. And that helped me a lot. Living in France, it’s so difficult to even talk about colonialism. People always seem to say, “Oh, these things are the past. We have to look ahead and not look at what happened because that’s very painful both for you and for us. It’s too depressing.”

About the Director

Horst Rutsch

Horst Rutsch is a writer and editor for the UN Chronicle. He has written essays on several topics including violence – against women, and against people in general – , education and educational systems, and about certain policy or changes going on within different regions of Africa. He is also a published author of the book A more secure world: our shared responsibility in 2005.