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For Better or Worse

For better or worse, much of what many Westerners know about the world has been learned by watching movies. In some cases, those movies about exotic locales have been written, directed and/or produced by non-natives.

In Africa, there are many homegrown filmmakers who offer original voices and great insights into the distinct cultures of their homelands. They are not only actively contributing to the collective consciousness of African cinema, but they are also pushing its boundaries.

The delights of pure African cinema often go unnoticed in the rest of the world. In an age where independent films and global cinema are so readily available, it is well worth taking a look at the past and present of the African continent’s cinema history.

Finding a Voice

As in all cultures with a history of filmmaking, African cinema has had its ups and downs. The early years represent a search for voice, identity and maybe most importantly, truth.

The colonial era in Africa was represented purely by filmmakers from the West. Tarzan and The African Queen showed Africa as if it had no culture or history. King Solomon’s Mines, an adventure film with wild animals and cannibals, did little to shine a light on the realities of Africa at the time. In the French colonies, anti-colonial films were forbidden. However, a few were still produced by daring filmmakers like Chris Marker and Alan Resnais. One of their films, Les statues meurent aussi, explored the robbery of African art by European nations, which was rampant at the time.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was an emergence of cinema with a real African voice, and one that dared to speak out against injustices. Writer turned filmmaker, Sembene, a native of Senegal, won huge international recognition for his film Black Girl, which showed the difficulties an African woman faced while working as a maid in France. Another filmmaker, Med Hondo, made an even more controversial film about the struggles of being a person of color in France.

The 1980’s exposed African film to Western audiences even more, though many critics say that by this point, African filmmakers were trying too hard to adapt to Western tastes. The modern era of African filmmaking has marked a return by filmmakers to explore the truth of their culture and heritage.

Modern Era

It is most often blockbuster films, or at least films with marquee names that are instantly recognized by even the non movie-going crowd, that capture a Western audience’s attention. In recent years, there have been a number of African-themed films that have fit that bill; The Last King of Scotland (UK), starring Forrest Whitaker, details the 1970’s horror-regime of dictator Idi Amin; and Blood Diamond (USA) brought attention to the value of diamonds and their relationship to the financing of wars in Africa.

While these are notable films, there are a number of worthy films made by Africans that did not receive nearly as much of an international spotlight. Director Moussa Sene Absa’s Tableau Feraille is a daring exploration of culture, politics and gender in the context of contemporary urban Senegal. It follows a young politician’s meteoric rise and drastic fall. Quartier Mozart, directed by noted Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo, is a fantastic spoof of a working-class neighborhood in Cameroon. It mixes live-action footage and animation and takes place in a 48 hour time period. The popular musical, Carmen in Khayelitsha, is a passionate love story set in South Africa. All words are spoken and sung in isiXhosa, a clicking language.

Africa takes its films and filmmakers so seriously, that there is even an award ceremony there that is equivalent to the Oscars in the United States.

Africa’s Oscars

It certainly doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the Oscars. Its ceremony is not held in a building nearly as lavish as the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. And most of the filmmakers being awarded there are not household names. But Africa’s FESPACO Festival, an acronym that roughly translates to Pan-African Film and Television Festival, is considered by many to be the African Oscars.

The 2009 edition opened with ten foot tall dancing puppets and an additional army of dancers dressed as American cowboys. While festival organizers do try to bring some glamour to the proceedings, which are much more like a film festival than an award show, budgetary restrictions have hampered many of the screenings. Screenings of the films take place in old and worn down theaters. Many filmmakers complain that their films are barely visible on the ratty screens. However, the quality of the filmmaking continues to improve, and this year’s stand out film was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Teza is a historical drama by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima. It took him fifteen years to make the film, set in the times of Ethiopia’s dictator, Mengitsu Haile Mariam. Gaston Kobore, a filmmaker who presided over the jury, declared the film “a masterpiece at levels of creativity.” FESPACO awarded Gerima with the festival’s top prize, the Golden Stallion Award. The film is currently in need of a worldwide distribution deal. In the near future, hopefully it will be experienced and enjoyed by all.

African Independents

In major cities in the West, it seems as if there is an independent theater screening foreign films on every corner. Netflix, the DVD-by-mail service is available to anyone in the United States, and similar services are available in Canada and Europe. Independent and foreign films are readily available on cable and satellite television as well.

The opportunity to experience the world through films has never been greater, and the delights of African movies are not to be missed. See an African movie today and open your eyes to the world forever.