Today I gripe about Africa on the back of Kunle Afolayan’s impressive October 1. The little Pan African kid in me has been stirred. This piece is almost a spiritual follow up to my search for Ghana in Ghanaian cinema and I ask now for the Africa in African cinema. Indeed I should first ask for some African cinema seeing as exposure to filmmakers from other African countries, save Nigeria, is almost nil. We are so close yet so far. India, Israel, Hollywood etc. get more screen time here than work from our continent. On the point of Nigerian film, most of our exposure is to them is the B-movie exploitation fare. It wouldn’t be farfetched of me to assume the same if Ghana received cinema input from Uganda or Kenya or Senegal.
Indeed going by our own cinema-scape this is quite close the truth. My discussion African cinema will hinge on this supposition. Apologies if I overstep with my assumptions but an African spirit does not run through Ghanaian cinema and this is probably a microcosm of the African situation. Africa churns out tonnes of films. Nigeria has one of the most prolific film industries in the world. Unfortunately, the line between quantity and quintessence is crystal. I find us to be on the wrong side of this line. This means Africa has ostensibly been besmirching the essence of cinema. Cinema is one of the most complex art forms of our time – an evolved medium of storytelling and a conduit for expression, escapism and even ideological evangelism. The monochromatic pallet of early cinema mirrored that of text on paper or emphasised a surreal state basically inviting you into a new world and subjecting you to the perspective of its creator.
African culture has always understood the role of storytelling, with our rich tradition of music, song, art and oral culture featuring significantly in the socialisation of the average child (going by my Batswana/Ghanaian familiarity). We always told stories about ourselves filled with wisdom, poise and grace. My mind goes back to the early experiences with the Ananse parables or the two Inspector Bediako books I happened upon or even the Akokhan comic strip – stories I doubt the average millennial yung’un will encounter in the 2010s. This rich tradition of storytelling is conspicuously missing from the narrative of contemporary African cinema (again indulge the assumptions). The oral tradition is slowly fading away and this development wouldn’t present such a daunting proposition if the story telling spirit of whence permeated the vast medium of cinema. I would have said prose or poetry but we consume more film than written text.
As a cinephile, I feel African films (made by Africans for Africa) should aspire to more considering they are transmitted across the enduring medium of cinema. The human condition and experience have been explored like no other on celluloid over the course of history. The British have and tell their stories. The trailblazing Americans do same and so too any other serious cinema culture (Iran, France, Korea, Japan etc.) Africa is falling on this front. Skim through your TV stations and note the narrative of the African film’s being shown. Pretty much romancexploitaion fare and telenovela riffs. Kumawood is the closest to an authentic African experience but the craft leaves a lot to be desired. This leaves us in the patronizing position of our stories being told to us with foreign outlooks and occasionally with the contrived gratuitous presence of the white saviour archetype. Think Cry Freedom, Blood Diamonds, Hotel Rwanda. It remains to be seen what Cary Fukunaga does with Beasts of No Nation.
No Ghanaian felt challenged to tell a more authentic and empathetic story about the pathology of stowaways. Some happily hail Deadly Voyage as “brilliant” and leech onto an American production because Omanza Shaw and David Dontoh get peripheral turns that see them violently murdered (spoiler alert!). Do Sierra Leonean filmmakers have anything to say about the tragedy of child soldiers for the rest of us? If yes do share. How about something glorious for a change. I would like to see Azumah Nelson’s rise to the apex of boxing or a migrant that hustles to the UK and – whisper it – ends up a success story, not a prostitute or drug courier. I’m pretty sure there is a dignifying narrative to Darfur that trumps what we see in Black Hawk Down. We have control of our narrative. With the quality we can present that narrative from different perspectives. It doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. The good, bad and ugly of Africa can be projected with grace.
I recall Lumumba in Ghana. He said something about young kids not knowing anything about fellow African countries. Not even capital cities. Lumumba has said a lot of things but this stung me for some reason. Yes, I could rattle off the capital cities of most African countries but how much do I know about said cities? Definitely less than New York, Boston, London, Paris, Toronto. Hell, I know very little of our own Kumasi and that’s an hour away. Shameful. I dare say African filmmakers take very little interest in their settings (still assuming). If they did we would have richer stories with a certain level of agency brought on by a detailed setting. For the thousand and one Nigerian films that have come through, what can you tell me about Lagos or Abuja? The landmarks, culture, skyline, nuance. Zilch you say.
Consider New York and how well it has been sold to the world decades via multiple perspectives. Martin Scorsese sells us the crime-ridden hellish portrait of New York in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver influenced by his connection with Little Italy. Woody Allen hoists us on the carriage of Manhattan affluence and quirky privilege because of his background and then Spike Lee comes with at us with blunt racial awareness and rhetoric from Brooklyn. One city, multiple perspectives that provoke curiosity worldwide. What do Kayaye migrants think of Accra? I do not know. How does the Caucasian woman married to an indigene deal with a culture shift in Lagos? I wouldn’t know. What does organized crime look like in Togo? Beats me. We can’t have nice interesting things they say.
A serious re-imaging of African cinema is required to keep us from being largely consumers of more ambitious efforts from other parts of the world but so many obstacles remain. It is sometimes horrid what is passed off as the best of African cinema on a national and slightly better on the international level. Virtually no quality control in play here. There are also very few African filmmakers pulling their weight. Not enough consumers or thriving cinema-going culture on a national basis. African filmmakers are not funded and hence next to zero penetration and distribution. Some go on to say African cinema is denied a platform on the international landscape which is true but in the spirit of Pan Africanism (all of Africa as one), we do not need handouts and recommendations from the west. Africa is enough for Africa. We can hoist our own works. We can criticize our own works. We can support our own works. We will always be second best if we look to 5 stars or two thumbs up from the west.
We just need to put in place the platforms which foster the expression and craft of the African filmmaker. The Pan-African Film Festival exists and was created with this in mind. I don’t know how effective they are though. I do know they are based in the US, not Africa so there’s that. The irony. I admit funding plays a pivotal part in cinema but true essence and invention still finds its way through the most extreme of low budgets. There have been quality productions and genuine masterpieces served on the low budget platter. Chris Nolan’s first film (Following) cost 6,000 dollars but navigates constraints to produce an intelligent Noir. He couldn’t facilitate fancy cinematography so he opts for a monochromatic pallet. A further tweak to the narrative timeline also elevates his 1998 debut feature.
The digitization of the filmmaking process has made production considerably less expensive and ensured a medium that catered to the wealthy is more democratized. Still, on funding and further distribution, an ideal scenario sees African filmmakers getting solid screen time and revenue across the continent, from Pretoria to Rabat. As I said, Africa is enough for Africa. We are large enough to support our own work no? The international box office was almost a non-factor in North America two decades ago. America fuelled its own productions for the longest time with cinema and video sales. I feel we could do same. This process must start somewhere and most likely by a pioneering few. It would be swell if strong African content like Guelwaar, Moolade, Teza and the more recent October 1 made serious rounds on the continent as a start. These are little known films but potential monoliths depending on posterity’s ability to fashion out a building block. At this point, I feel like the Ousmane Sembene’s of this world laboured in vain. The driving force of the accomplished cinema cultures is the ability to build on strides. Invention is the order of the day.
Going back to the film that birthed this post, October 1, I was extremely thrilled an African tells such an earnest story amidst impressive world-building. October 1 narrows in on the month preceding Nigerian independence and offers a nuanced canvas of change as the backdrop to a noir narrative. No one but a Nigerian could have done justice to such a story. I could very much connect with October 1 because of the historical trajectory of our two countries and an innate spirit of Pan Africanism. The mainstream cinema landscape is saturated by Hollywood and western content for good and bad reasons. It doesn’t have to be so for another 20 years. We can and should look to have our say.
Maybe we should take a cue from East Asian cinema and the strides made in the last couple of decades or so. There is an uncompromising wave in there that has garnered respect and even imitation from elsewhere. The upper echelons aren’t driven by money and pandering but quality and cultural worth. It is the only way the underdogs like ourselves will make it reckon. The pan African efforts can start by trooping to a screening of October 1. Give it some support.