Malian-French director Daouda Coulibaly begins his short film, Il Était une fois l’indépendance (A History of Independence, 2009), with a wedding celebration. A newlywed couple dances, guests clap, and a tethered goat awaits slaughter. Instead of the boisterous sounds of revelry, however, we hear the declarations of several independence era African political leaders.
As the muted wedding festivities continue, an off-camera narrator describes the early 1960s as an era “full of promise.” Indeed, the independence of seventeen African countries in 1960 is often considered the watershed moment following decades-long anti-colonial struggle. This moment gave rise to a sense of unity forged out of a shared, colonial past, and hope for a previously unimagined future. As Richard Wright observed, “There was something extra-political, extra-social, almost extra-human about [the moment]; it smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces…” (Wright  2008:439).
A History of Independence, however, set in post-colonial Mali, is not a triumphant return to the past, but a morality tale. The film, modeled after a traditional African story, follows the newlywed couple as they move away from the city and make their home in a cave. The husband, Nama, prays continuously and is divinely rewarded with three wishes. He declines the offer, saying that all of his needs – peace and health – are already met. However, Siré, his wife, wishes to be beautiful. Once granted her wish, Siré abandons her husband for the city. Meanwhile, Coulibaly juxtaposes a haunting soundtrack of independence-era rhetoric over the tale of Nama and Siré. In a particularly chilling scene, Siré enters an urban nightclub full of revelers. Having lost her beauty, the crowd disperses, frightened by her grotesque appearance as she moves through the room. A voice over of independence rhetoric rails against the depraved morality of “la classe anti-peuple” (i.e., the bourgeoisie, or socioeconomic classes enriching themselves to the detriment of “the masses”). In the end, Siré begs forgiveness and rejoins her husband in the cave as though her beauty, like the promise of independence itself, was but a fleeting and superficial charm.
Though African independence continues to be commemorated as a moment of self-determination, of proud claims to equality, the meaning of that independence has come under intense scrutiny – especially given the radical disconnect between formally independent nationhood and a relationship of inequality that marks Africa’s place in an interdependent global order. Reflecting this ambiguity, the New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) commemorated 50 years of “Independent Africa” this past summer of 2010, by raising a number of questions about the significance of independence in Africa: What was possible at independence? Did nationalist movements ever offer true emancipation? Did African nations ever have a chance at “real” independence – economic, political and social? If they did, what went wrong?
As one of a small number of NYAFF films produced shortly after independence, The Return of an Adventurer (1966) captures the excitement and instability of what independence meant in the 1960’s. The main character, Jimi, returns to Niger from the United States and distributes cowboy outfits and pistols to his expectant friends. As soon as they don these gifts, Jimi and his friends turn into outlaws. Their behavior, right out of a cowboy Western script, is both absurd and destructive: a scene of “cowboys” on horseback racing alongside giraffes gives way to a table-turning bar fight.
When confronted by their elders (including a village chief wearing an imported hat with elaborate Chinese tassles), Jimi and the gang brandish their pistols and even rob a donkey from one gang member’s father, displaying an utter disregard for traditional authority. After their reckless behavior incites a fatal duel, Jimi stands accused of betraying his friends. In defense, he claims that his friends misused the gifts he gave them.
From colonialism through development aid today, “the gift” of material progress provokes conflict between Africa and the West. Jimi’s friends awaited his gifts with a great deal of anticipation. Yet as soon as he distributes them, the gifts shape the characters’ behavior and the course of the film itself, often with disastrous effects. Similarly, independence brought access to new consumer products, to Western notions of “progress,” yet left the consequences of this change unresolved.
By situating the film’s narrative within the cowboy Western script, director Moustapha Alassane cleverly parodies the fascination with all things Western in a decolonized Africa. Meanwhile, Jimi, the returning migrant is portrayed as a kind of double agent – a changed man and an agent of dubious change. The film thus associates the uncertainties of independence with migration itself. The migrant, who introduces Western style and technology, bears responsibility and blame for Africa’s troubles.
L’Absence (The Absence, 2009) explores the fraught relationship between migration and independence from a contemporary perspective. The protagonist, Adama, returns from France to visit family and ends up searching for his younger sister-turned-prostitute in the fractured underworld of urban Dakar. Unlike in The Return of an Adventurer, there is no camaraderie here: Adama’s sleuthing leads him through a series of haphazard encounters with dwarfs, drunks, and blind men that are characterized by suspicion and manipulation.
Almost every relationship, familial and otherwise, is strained. When Adama visits his former university professor for dinner, for example, he is berated for forsaking Senegal. A successful engineer in France, Adama is told sarcastically to make “a few nanoseconds for your own country,” and asked, “do you think only of your belly?” Whereas Jimi is accused of betrayal for returning to his homeland with the trappings of Western society, Adama is simply berated for not returning at all. What, then, is the migrant being blamed for?
A tragic vignette from Musa Dieng Kala’s documentary Has God Forsaken Africa? (2007) relating the true story of two Guinean boys who froze to death in the wheel well of a jet bound for Brussels, turns this question around: Who is responsible for making Africa a place where youth want nothing more than to leave? Kala, the narrator, reads aloud from a letter addressed to European leaders found on the body of one of the boys: “Never forget that we blame you.” This connection, between the history of European imperialism and the daily frustrations of young men whose greatest wish is to reach Europe, questions whether African independence even mattered. What does independence mean, after all, if it simply reproduces the vast inequalities that were established during colonial rule?
Entre La Coupe et l’élection (Between the Cup and the Election, 2008) offers another perspective on the subject of African independence: not as an official transfer of power, but instead as the symbolic recognition of membership in a world community. Its focus is the story of Zaire’s participation in the World Cup soccer tournament in 1974, the first time a team from sub Saharan Africa reached the finals. In 2006, two teenage Congolese film students, Monique Mbeka Phoba and Guy Kabeya Muya, set out to track down the surviving members of The Leopards, the 1974 Zairian national soccer team that won the African Cup of Nations before competing in the World Cup. In the documentary, former players look back with nostalgia on 1974 Zaire, before going on to tell the story of the team’s downfall: a string of humiliating defeats for both the players and the nation, ending in the team’s dismantling by then-President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Still, to the young filmmakers who were born after the 1974 World Cup, the story of this team provides an opening in Congolese history. Unlike the former Leopards, the filmmakers remain optimistic about the future of the Congo and Congolese democracy. In fact, it was the country’s 2006 general elections, the first since 1960, that inspired the filmmakers to “immortalize” (in their own words) the Leopards as part of Congo’s past in an uncertain present. Identifying the Leopards’ rise and fall in 1974 as a pivotal point in Congolese national history, Between the Cup and the Election persistently offers that moment as evidence of the bright future ahead. Simultaneously, Phoba and Muya move away from the often-told story about Congo in terms of a troubled past and an impossible future.
Significantly, the makers of Between the Cup and the Election choose to focus on the 1974 World Cup, and not Congo’s ambiguous “independence,” which occurred fourteen years earlier and was quickly followed by a sordid coup d’état planned by outgoing Belgian colonizers, backed by the United States, and facilitated by the United Nations. Unlike the Congo’s early independence and Mobutu’s rise to power, the 1974 World Cup was not rigged by outside agendas or sham military coups. The competition’s global composition, just like the World Cup this past summer in South Africa, allows it to serve as a reference point for African countries’ participation in a world society.
Of course, this faith in the redeeming quality of sport has its pitfalls, too. Cheik Doukouré’s fictional film Le Ballon d’Or (The Golden Ball, 1992), for example, is inspired by the story of the Malian soccer player Salif Keïta, the first winner of the Ballon d’or Africain. In the film, a young Bandian fantasizes about being a famous soccer player and embarks on a journey that is widely known across Africa: a youngster leaves home to pursue dreams of a better life in the city and, eventually, another country. But on the way, Bandian finds himself in a variety of dangerous situations, from indentured servitude to a semi-exploitative relationship with his agent, the wealthy and devious Bechir.
Bandian overcomes every misadventure through wit and good luck and, in the end he reaches his final destination, Paris. Nonetheless, the fairytale-like format of the film serves to make the exploitative conditions that Bandian encounters all the more disturbing. On the one hand, soccer projects a more hopeful perspective of Africa’s place in the world, promoting the idea of its membership in a world society. On the other hand, Bandian’s travails resonate with the experience of the Guinean boys and underscore Africans’ exploitation in the international economy.
A recent New York Times article noted the “conspicuous” lack of any collective celebration of fifty years of African independence on the continent (Nossiter 2010). The NYAFF suggests that the real question is how independence might once again become meaningful for Africa. By inviting us to re-think what “independence” means for Africa, these films draw our attention to the very political, social, and economic – i.e., human – processes that have impeded true African independence over the last 50 years.
Information on the distribution of the films mentioned in this article (Thank you to the staff at New York African Film Festival for this information.)
Il Était une fois l’indépendance (A History of Independence)
Daouda Coulibaly, 2009, 21min.
12, Boulevard Jean Labro
13016 Marseille, France
Tel: +336 17 98 11 02
Le Retour d’un aventurier (Return of an Adventurer)
Moustapha Alassane, 1966, 34min.
L’Absence (The Absence)
Mama Keïta, 2009, 81min.
Kinterfin – Mama Keïta
27 Rue Emile Reynaud
93100 Montreuil, France
Tel: 00 336 08 85 37 82
Has God Forsaken Africa?
Musa Dieng Kala, 2007, 52min.
Entre La Coupe et L’Election (Between the Cup & the Election)
Monique Mbeka Phoba and Guy Kabeya Muya, 2008, 56min.
Monique Mbeka Phoba
27, Rue Saint-Gery – 1000 Bruxelles (Belgique)
Tel: +32 2 502 79 51
Le Ballon D’Or (The Golden Ball)
Cheik Doukoure, 1992, 90min.
Les Films Des’Alliance
2 Rue Bearn
92210 Saint Cloud
Tel: +331 46 02 14 38
Fax: +331 47 71 86 31
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Ferguson, James. Global shadows : Africa in the neoliberal world order. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006.
Hart, Keith. “The Memory Bank » Blog Archive » The political economy of urbanization in contemporary Africa.” The Memory Bank, February 28, 2009. http://thememorybank.co.uk/2009/02/28/the-political-economy-of-urbanizationin-
“Nigeria surpasses Hollywood as world’s second largest film producer – UN.” UN News Centre, May 5, 2009. http://www.un.org/apps//news/story.asp?NewsID=30707&Cr=nigeria&Cr1=.
Nossiter, Adam. “African States Weigh 50 Bittersweet Years of Independence.” The New York Times, June 4, 2010, sec. World / Africa. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/world/africa/05africa.html?scp=1&sq=couli
Wright, Richard. Black power : three books from exile Black power The color curtain, and White man, listen! Richard Wright. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.