The New Negress Film Society

26 Nov

Last Friday, my wife and a couple of my students went to a New Negress Film Society event at the Made-In-New-York Media Center in Brooklyn, where we saw five short films and then participated in a conversation between the directors and artists and the audience about their work. The name “New Negress” alludes to Alain Locke’s seminal book The New Negro, published in 1925, that perhaps more than any other single book defined the Harlem Renaissance as it was happening. Locke’s purpose was to overturn the prejudicial paradigm assumed by politicians, social scientists, poets, and artists who understood the “negro” as an uneducated former slave or as a “social problem.” Against this assumption, Locke’s book instead reveals the rich culture of intellectual and artistic achievement. His dialectical argument draws attention to the historical forces that transform society, most especially the migration of black people from the rural south and Caribbean to cities where they could develop a community identity and support each other’s art. No longer was art and literature created with a white audience in mind, as if the purpose of art was merely to justify black’s humanity to the white hegemony. In the 1920s, in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and other cities, they were creating for each other, forging a dynamic artistic culture in order to create a new, vibrant, community whose understanding of its blackness was diverse and innovative.

New Negress Film SocietyThe New Negress Film Society creates a space where black women filmmakers can make movies for each other, rather than submit their artistic vision to the demands of a film industry dominated by the white, male gaze. As Nsenga Burton wrote in an article for, and as Spike Lee suggests in his satirical movie Bamboozled, the Hollywood industry limits the potential of black actors and artists in the film industry either to absurd caricatures of black identity such as Tyler Perry’s Medea or to historical dramatizations of “social problems” usually set in the past (because the past is not so threatening to our present), such as Ava DuVernay’s recent movie Selma. Although Jacqueline Bobo has chronicled the long history of achievement in her book Black Women Film and Video Artists, I think what the New Negress Film Society does that is new is create a space where such artists can form a community that nurtures an aesthetic that truly speaks to the diversity of black women and is liberated from the burden of having to explain the black experience — as if there were only one — to the white men who dominate the industry. You can read an interview with two of the members of the New Negress Film Society and watch some of their movies [here].

One of the films that we saw, “savage” by Kumi James, is about a white teacher trying to make a difference in an urban, mostly black high school. I think everyone in America is familiar with the way that Hollywood has told this story over and over again, in which the troubled teenagers are rescued by the inspiring teacher, such as Michelle Pfiefer’s role in Dangerous Minds. Such movies pretend to be about black communities, but in actuality they repeat stereotypes of urban life as a background for affirming the heroic role of the white protagonist. The formula for such movies almost always includes a pivotal scene where the teacher shows up at the student’s house and has a transformative heart-to-heart conversation with the family. Of course, whenever I discuss such films with my students, the ridiculousness of such cinematic fantasy is quickly and easily revealed whenever I ask my students, “how would you feel if your teacher suddenly showed up at your doorstep?” The students always respond  to my question along the lines of, “ew, gross, weird, creepy.” What is brilliant about James’s movie is how it flips the script, by exposing the somewhat creepy desire behind that Hollywood fantasy. In an important scene, James reverses the standard movie plot line and has the student show up at the teacher’s house, which of course unsettles the teacher. You can watch the entire movie [on Vimeo], and below is a “teaser”:

But in addition to reversing the Hollywood gaze, films by black women filmmakers also focus inward on the complexities of daily life. The Haitian-American filmmaker and educator Stefani Saintonage focuses on the experience of teenage girls in her film “Seventh Grade,” which won an award from Essence magazine. As she remarked during the Q&A, her movie is intentionally wishful thinking — imagining how she wished she had responded to questions about sexuality and social stigma experienced she experienced as a teenager. In a way, it seems to me that the film first holds up a mirror to that experience, and then imagines a realistic response to that experience in order to provide an empowering paradigm for audiences. You can watch the whole film below:

The Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo showed her cinematically luscious film “Bonkeshaker” about an African family searching for a faith-healer in the wilderness of Louisiana in order to release their daughter from spiritual possession. When they get lost in the wilderness and encounter a group of white men wearing camouflage and carrying guns, one expects a moment of racist conflict, but there is none, and instead the men just give the family directions. After the family finds the church in the middle of the wilderness, the daughter stubbornly resists the faith-healer, and they leave. What the family ultimately finds instead is unexpectedly beautiful. Here is a trailer:

I’d seen Bodomo’s work before at New York’s African Film Festival in 2014 when she showed her short film “Afronauts,” which she is currently developing into a feature-length drama. Here is the trailer for “Afronauts”:

Other filmmakers created experimental films that worked through the symbolism of black identity. Ja’Tovia Gary pursued her interest in what she calls “Afrosurrealism” to explore the complexities of human psychology and black female subjectivity in her poetic film “The Ecstatic Experience.” I wasn’t able to find a clip of that film on the internet, but below I’ve included a documentary film that she did on “Cakes Da Killa” — this film a straightforward documentary, quite different than the more surrealist work she showed us at the event:

Likewise, making full use of her talents as a sound-artist, Dyani Douze collaborated with Zimbabwean graphic designer Nontsikelelo Mutiti to make a poetic sound-image “Pain Revisited” that layers recorded speech and music over a collage of artistic and journalistic imagery to meditate on black identity.

One thing I appreciated is the formal diversity in terms of their style, aesthetics, and vision as well as the diversity of what identities and backgrounds they bring: California, Texas, Louisiana, Ghana, Zimbabwe, New Jersey, and of course, my new home borough of Brooklyn. It reminded me of what I love about Brooklyn as a space where artists and writers from such different backgrounds come together to share the love and inspire each other. I look forward to future exhibitions of their work.

The Spectre of Bond

15 Nov

Last night, a couple friends and I went to see the new James Bond movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig, which has been the number one movie at the box office the past two weekends. As some readers of my blog post know, back in 2009 I published an essay entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory” in the journal CineAction in which I argued that the changing economic and social character of globalization had spurred a new kind of Bond movie in Quantum of Solace (produced in 2008). Although some consider Quantum to be one of the worst Bond movies, I thought it was more sophisticated and interesting than all the previous ones in terms of how it allegorized the problems of geopolitics and responded to a changing world order. Out of curiosity, as I began to compose this blog post today, I did a quick google search to see if anyone had responded to my essay and noticed it has been cited and discussed by other writers [here], [here], and [here], and was even put on the syllabus of a sociology class on globalization at the Charles University in Prague. Cool. When the next Bond movie, Skyfall, came out in 2012, my friends and colleagues asked me if I thought it followed the new paradigm for global action thrillers that I had theorized in my essay, so I wrote a post for this blog. In that post, I suggested that in some ways the genre had to grapple with the shifting conditions of globalization, but that the new director Sam Mendes had not continued the direction of Quantum. Instead, he had created an entirely new Freudian Bond that was in a sense the nostalgic double of its former self (a “self” that was already the nostalgic double for the defunct British Empire, so we have now a double of a double.)

Before I went to the theater last night, the questions I had about Mendes’s sequel to Skyfall, which is rumored to be the last of the Daniel Craig series, were (1) how he could resurrect the Bond ego-ideal after psychoanlyzing it (almost to death) in the previous movie, and (2) how he would situate Bond in the increasingly digitized internet world of global capitalism.

As have so many Bond movies produced after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Spectre obsessively contemplates the relevance of the sort of spy that was invented in the early years of the Cold War. Is the old double-O spy dead (or perhaps merely castrated)? The title and opening-scene metaphorically suggest how the movie is a meditation on death and on how the past haunts the present, as our new world appears to struggle to free itself from the tentacles of the old world. The key plot point is that the British intelligence MI6 is about to be made obsolete by a new computer spy program that networks the intelligence of different countries. What worries the double-O agents is how this inter-governmental computer program is sponsored by a private corporation. Meanwhile, Bond investigates the ghostly traces of a sinister underworld organization at the request of his previous boss M (Judy Dench), who speaks to him as if from the grave like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or in this case, mother. Something is rotten in the new world order. As it turns out (a minor spoiler alert, as nothing that happens in the movie is in any way surprising), the secret organization whose corporate logo appears to be half-ghost, half-octopus is secretly a part of the new intelligence network.

In this way, the mSPECTRE_Logoovie Spectre actually follows my argument about Quantum because in my essay I point out a fundamental difference between the old Bond and the new Daniel Craig version– the old Bond had to rescue the good global organization (e.g., NATO or the UN) from the evil global organization (e.g., SPECTRE or whoever), but in the new Bond both the good and the evil organizations are not so distinct from each other and are both part of the same complex network, which puts Bond in the awkward position of having to go “rogue” against his own government. Just as the super-villain of Spectre turns out to be Bond’s half-brother who has been monitoring Bond all these years, the evil organization turns out to be the Orwellian “big brother” (or evil twin) of our own governments. What is more, in this new movie, Spectre has been covertly orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world in order to frighten nations into adopting the new digital surveillance program that would override democracy and remove the human face of national security. (Presumably, that human face is Daniel Craig.)

As the reviews in The Atlantic and The New Yorker observe, Mendes seems to have made not so much a Bond movie, but a meta-Bond movie that deconstructs the genre by including as many allusions to the previous Bond films as possible. For sure, it has all the action, all the suspense, and all the sex that we expect — perhaps some of the most exciting action sequences ever in a Bond movie — but the action appears to be entirely performative and perfunctory, as if everyone is simply going through the motions. For instance, after a big fight-sequence is over, the hero and heroine look at each other and say, “what do we do now?” and then start undressing. Just as the sex happens always on cue but without much foreplay, events happen always on cue, but without much narrative that might explain why they are happening or what is motivating the characters. The style of the clothes, the cars, and the women is rarely the style of the twenty-first century and is instead an assemblage of styles from previous movies. It is as if the director Mendes is not making a movie about a secret organization called Spectre, but rather making a movie about how he as a director is haunted by the spectre of the Bond genre. Perhaps that is why Mendes, unlike any director before, makes Bond’s childhood (an Oedipal origin myth) such a key aspect of the plot. Mendes appears to be searching for the origin of his own movie. Hence, as Bond searches for the roots of Spectre, Mendes routes him through the symbols of Bond’s past. In the final scene, Bond revisits the site of MI6 that was blown up in the previous movie, and its ghostly ruins get blown up again in this movie. What could possibly be the point of blowing up something that was already blown up? Such is the repetition of an event that in Skyfall was the tragedy of British intelligence, but in Spectre appears merely as a redundancy or an echo.

In a sense, it occurs to me that the movie Spectre is an example of an amusing point made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (published in 2009 and later adapted to a ten-minute, illustrated YouTube video) about how we may know that what we are doing is nonsense — we may not believe in the mythologies of religion or capitalism or whatever that tell us how to live our lives, and we may have cynically demystified their truth — but we act as if we believe in it anyway because we have no choice. In other words, after Mendes psychoanalyzed Bond in Skyfall, the Bond ego-ideal became a character who acted out his role as an agent (including his role as a sexual predator) without actually believing in it. This may explain why all the characters appear so robotic, unmotivated, and sex-less, as several reviewers have noted. Likewise, the evil organization and its super-villain leader don’t seem to have much of a motivation either, in spite of the villain’s lengthy monologue about it, a monologue so villainously long and tedious that Bond requests that he shut up — a request that comes just in time, because if Bond hadn’t asked him to shut up, probably somebody in the theater’s audience would have.

Does that make Mendes’s film a cynical movie? Is it merely a postmodern simulacrum of a deconstructed cinematic form that no longer means anything? Not exactly. For Zizek, the cynical person who mocks the idealist is in fact the most naive because the cynic doesn’t realize the ways in which the symbolic order determines our reality not in a way that is natural but in a way that is entirely ideological. Thus, paradoxically, the idealist is actually more realistic than than the cynical realist precisely because the idealist understands how ideological our “reality” is. The cynic in Spectre is actually C, the head of the join-intelligence service who argues that democracy is dead and digital surveillance is the new world order whether the double-O agents like it or not. Since the audience obviously identifies with the double-O agents, one could read the film to be suggesting a problem with the symbolic logic of the capitalist world-order in which we live today. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida argues in his book The Specters of Marx (published in 1993), the death of communism revealed not the correctness of liberal capitalism, but rather exposed the fundamental untruths of capitalism’s mythology and its inherently self-contradictory form. In other words, once capitalism no longer had a nemesis, it was forced to examine itself for why the world continued to be such a damn mess. One could read the movie that way, but more likely, the obsessively deconstructive style of Spectre may simply indicate how a genre continues to function as a symbolic form even after that form has exhausted its content. The only semblance of a real human subjectivity that James Bond seems to possess in the movie Spectre is his desire to escape the symbolic logic of the Bond genre itself.

Globalization and the Ethiopian Sci-Fi Film

25 Oct

Last night, I went to the Cinema Village in New York with my wife and a friend to watch a new movie, Crumbs, which has been called “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic science fiction film” by OkayAfrica and IndieWire. The premise for the story is typical of the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi — a man and a woman trying to make meaning out of their lives after the entire planet and civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a world war. What they make meaning out of are the “crumbs” or detritus that remain after the war, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines and a basketball poster of Michael Jordan. As in other movies of this genre such as A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max, the “crumbs” of previous civilizations take on religious significance in the post-apocalyptic culture that emerges. The absurdly curatorial assessment of what we might consider to be trash serves as a satirical commentary on globalization today, as the valuation of such objects in the future draws ironic attention to what is absurd about the values of consumer capitalism today and its hegemonic dominance throughout the world. The satire of Crumbs is often hilarious and insightful. One might compare Crumbs to other surrealistic sci-fi movies that critique the forces of market-driven globalization such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. And one might compare the ideas expressed in the film to the critiques of globalization’s commodity fetish made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek. You can see the trailer here:

What makes the movie unique is not just that it takes place in Ethiopia but that the director used a contemporary Ethiopian landscape as a setting for a post-apocalyptic future. For example, the salt lake Beseka near the town of Metahara and the back of the defunct train station in Dire Dawa as well as some of Ethiopia’s popular tourist destinations such as the beautiful Wenchi Crater Lake. (I’ve included hyperlinks to webpages with pictures of these locations.) Hence, the juxtaposition of future and present is itself also an odd commentary on Ethiopia, which is currently one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but whose recent development is at the same time a striking contrast to its high poverty rate and the leftover detritus from previous political regimes and economic projects.

But we might consider the film an example of globalization in another way — not in terms of what the film is about, but in terms of how it got produced, distributed, and marketed. Although the actors and setting are Ethiopian, and although it is marketed as “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic sci-fi film,” the writer, director, and producer, Miguel Llanso, is from Spain, and so are most of the crew. The movie is technically a co-production of three countries: Ethiopia, Spain, and Finland, though I’m not sure what Finland’s role was. It is perhaps worth thinking carefully about why this movie is being advertised as an Ethiopian film especially considering that none of the hundreds of movies made in the past decade by Ethiopian production companies have been featured at New York art-house cinemas such as Cinema Village — the sort of posh theater that would invite directors from around the world to answer questions from the audience. And indeed, after watching the film last night, I was able to ask Llanso exactly the question of how his film relates to the Ethiopian cinema. Llanso has lived in Ethiopia since 2008 and is somewhat knowledgeable about the place and its cinema culture and is admirably self-conscious and thoughtful about his own relation to its people, whom he clearly respects.

As readers of my blog well know, the question of an Ethiopian cinema has been on my mind for some time now, due to my work for Sandscribe Communications and my teaching of film theory to students in Addis Ababa, and also due to the fact that Ethiopia’s film industry has grown so rapidly over the past decade. One could argue that such international collaborations and co-productions will encourage the local industry, or one could argue the opposite that foreign filmmakers and investors have an unfair competitive advantage over local producers. I’m not sure how I would respond to either of those two views, as I’m still trying to figure that out and suspect that each specific situation is unique. What struck me about Llonso’s answer to my question — which was similar to something he has said previously in a published interview [here] — is that he very clearly asserted that the style and theme of his film was completely different from anything being done by Ethiopian filmmakers in Ethiopia. Moreover, he suggested that Ethiopia’s film industry was so dominated by commercial interests that its movies have tended to be formulaic soap-opera-like melodramas or romantic comedies lacking artistic value.

Llonso’s comments are somewhat problematic since they beg a lot of questions. One might argue that movie industries in all countries are dominated by commercial interests that produce movies that lack artistic value — “art house” cinema is generally the exception, not the rule, of the movie industry. Moreover, his dismissive statement about Ethiopia’s film industry begs the question of what artistic value is, since the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi is not necessarily more artistic than a romantic comedy. After all, Shakespeare wrote formulaic romantic comedies, and most sci-fi movies are quite commercial.  Moreover, as professor Aboneh Ashigrie of Addis Ababa University has recently written, many of Ethiopia’s directors actually use the genre of romantic comedy and melodrama to address serious social issues such as changing gender roles, the widening gap between rich and poor, HIV-AIDS, and even the effects of globalization on local cultures. Some of these movies reflect intelligently on the goals of environmentalists, feminists, and other progressive social movements.

So, it is curious that a film being marketed as Ethiopia’s first sci-fi film is being made by a Spanish director who quite explicitly says that his film is nothing like the films being made by Ethiopian directors and producers. This might provoke one to re-think what Llonso is doing when he makes a movie about the world’s post-apocalyptic future that features so much of Ethiopia’s present. What about Ethiopia today is any more or less apocalyptic than his home country Spain or, indeed, my own home in Brooklyn, New York? After all, Llonso’s production budget was obviously too small for him to design futuristic movie sets, so he was in some ways appropriating Ethiopia’s geography that is more available to him for his own artistic ends.

This appropriation got especially problematic, for instance, when his mostly European crew accidentally stumbled into regions of Ethiopia where there is some ethnic conflict. One of his film sites was near the town of Metahara in Ethiopia’s Fantalle district. In that district, for the past half century or more, the local Karayu tribe has been persecuted, kicked off their land, and denied access to water because the Ethiopian government has given the valuable land to multinational corporations. You can read more about this situation [here], but one can easily imagine that the economic and environmental conditions within which the Karayu struggle to survive are tough. Perhaps Llonso and his crew were unaware of this, and perhaps they were also unaware that they could have worked with a Karayu film-maker or with local Karayu environmentalist organizations that work in that area such as Labata Fantalle so as not to accidentally upset the people whose backyards they were filming in.

I don’t mean for my critique to be taken as a simple criticism, because I think Llonso’s film is brilliant, and my critique is intended to draw attention to the changing dynamic context of film production, distribution, and marketing in today’s global economy. As Llonso is himself very well aware, everyone operates within that dynamic context whether they want to or not, and my intent in this blog is to shed light on that context rather than to criticize Llonso’s film.

In many ways, we might imagine him participating in a new movement called “Afrofuturism” in which black and white artists creatively work toward a future that they build out of the detritus and “crumbs” of the present. One example of this is the very successful Kenyan short sci-fi film “Pumzi” which also presents an African hero in a post-apocalyptic world. The theme of “Pumzi” is clearly environmentalist, and its hero a strikingly beautiful woman. You can watch the entire 21-minute film on YouTube [here]. Below is the trailer:

The global “Afrofuturist” movement is in some ways a response to what many African intellectuals have called “Afropessimism.” Afropessimism is the tendency of American and European media to represent Africa as a place of war, famine, and corruption. Instead, we might see Africa as a vibrant place where artists work hard to create something positive out of the “crumbs” of an inherently self-destructive global capitalism. In the context of such conversations about Afropessimism and Afrofuturism, one might raise the question of why Llonso opted for a “diminutive hero” (quoting one review), a somewhat crippled man, rather than a more traditional heroic figure. On the one hand, if we consider the ways in which European and American media have repeatedly represented Africa as a “crippled” space, we might challenge Llonso’s choice, but on the other hand, since Afrofuturism is a movement highly conscious of the politics of disability and technology, we might see this as a smartly “futurist” choice.

There is more to say about this film, as it is the type of film that provokes conversations. One could read it is a European film, rather than an Ethiopian one, but one might also consider it in the context of the rapidly changing world and the new African artistic movements. One recent documentary, Afripedia, has attempted to capture this wealth of culture and creativity in six different countries in the new Africa. Check it out, here’s the trailer for Afripedia’s “Ghana”:


The Question of an Ethiopian Cinema

25 Dec

I just returned from a week-long trip to Ethiopia where I was — among other things — investigating the question of an Ethiopian Cinema. What I mean by “Ethiopian Cinema” is a film industry that is not only vibrant but also one that has a self-conscious identity and a unique “film language.” If you’ve been following my blog, you might recall that earlier this year I asked a similar question about an “African film language” and a “Third (World) Cinema” when I was studying African cinema. You might also recall that exactly a year ago I visited Ethiopia with some colleagues and with my wife to begin exploring this question, about which I blogged in a series of six posts composed during the trip [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], and [6].

The timing of my trip this year almost couldn’t have been better. Over the past decade, the number of films produced in Ethiopia and by Ethiopians has increased from about five per year to about a hundred per year. This is in part due to the new digital technologies and in part due to the nation’s overall economic growth. Consequently, this year Addis Ababa University (AAU) created its first masters degree program in film within the School of Fine Arts and Design (inexplicably doing this before creating an undergraduate program in film; incidentally, everyone I talked to in Ethiopia thought AAU’s creating a masters program before an undergraduate program was strange.) Also this year the Ministry of Culture and Tourism began hosting workshops with film professionals as it continues to work on its draft of the nation’s first comprehensive film policy.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, also this year the national television station ETV changed its name to the Ethiopian Broadcasting Company (EBC) and has begun to show locally and internationally produced films. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Diaspora community has also been busy, with the creation of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS) in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2008, to distribute Ethiopian media entertainment. Earlier this year, an oppositional network representing the Oromo ethnic group and language, the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was created in Minneapolis, Minnesota (though unfortunately so far it only broadcasts news and political opinions); meanwhile, some young Oromos living in Diaspora have independently begun to make movies in their language.

Interview with Berhanu Shibiru_3

my interview with film director Berhanu in my hotel room at the Bole Ambassador

My trip actually had four separate goals, so my time was a bit hectic, and I wasn’t able to accomplish all of the things that I wanted to accomplish or spend time with even half the people I would have liked to have seen. In addition to my research question, I also needed to do some preparation for a possible study-abroad program for which students from Wagner College will — I hope — travel with me to Ethiopia for a couple of weeks next summer. Where they will stay, what they will do, and the formalities of the international relationships between institutions are all tricky details. Also, I will be teaching a class on “African Cinema” at Wagner College in the spring, and in collaboration with Sandscribe Communications in Ethiopia, will make this course available via the internet as a workshop to students in Ethiopia. Copies of all of the movies that I will teach the textbook are now at Sandscribe’s office in Addis. To advertise this workshop, I gave a rather lengthy presentation at the Bole campus of Rift Valley University in which I attempted to relate the question of an Ethiopian cinema to the history of African cinema. Lastly, I did a little work for Sandscribe so that it can grow.

Interview Tesfaye Mamo 1

my interview with movie maker Tesfaye

Hence, to achieve all these goals, my six days in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa were essentially a series of meetings and interviews at various places around the city that I did with the help of Sandscribe’s manager Tesfaye and his capable wife Metsihet, who video-recorded some of our activity. I had formal meetings with faculty at Rift Valley University and informal meetings with friends at Slow Food International and the Gudina Tumsa Foundation.  I conducted interviews with a professor at Addis Ababa and with six film-makers, representing three different generations of film-making in the country. I also met with two individuals from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism who are working on a governmental film policy. Lastly, of course, was my own presentation, the audience for which included several people active in the film-making community. I had a really good time full of engaging conversations even though, it must be said, a lot of my time was spent in taxis stuck in traffic, since Ethiopia is building a new metro-rail that cuts right across the city and, for the time-being, creates a lot of congestion. Such is the big city.


me with Sandscribe Communications manager Tesfaye and Rift Valley University professors Merga and Teshome

To be quite honest, I’m overwhelmed with all that there is to think about and still learn. Debates about tax policy and infrastructure continue. Observations about the ways Ethiopia’s film industry is so unique present interesting questions — questions such as why Ethiopia’s market is so driven by theaters rather than by the DVD or internet markets and why so many of the films are romantic comedies rather than other genres. One question that I repeatedly raised is whether “Ethiopian cinema” is really only an “Addis Ababa cinema” that doesn’t truly express the entire country or even connect with audiences outside the capital city. Different ethnic groups within Ethiopia certainly experience “Ethiopian cinema” differently.


with former students Hiwote, Fiker, and Yimeka and film-maker Paolos at the delicious Efoy pizza parlor in Addis

But to return to the question with which I began, is there such a thing as a distinctly Ethiopian film language? And how might this relate to that ever-problematic and ineffable something that some might call an “African film language” — what scholar Manthia Diawara explores in his 2010 book African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics, which will be the textbook for my class in the spring. The term “film language” can mean a lot of things, and at the core of its meaning is something of a paradox. On the one hand, film language has a universal grammar of images and sounds and how they are sequenced to create meaning and evoke emotion; the elements of this film language are pretty much the same no matter who the film-maker is (e.g., various kinds of shots, editing techniques, lighting, etc.) On the other hand, it is sometimes said that individual directors have a distinct style or that different national industries have recognizably different film languages (for example, Hollywood versus Paris.) More substantial than mere stylistic difference, and also more technical than the mere reflection of a national culture, the “film language” involves something that is sometimes called “looking relations” — how the camera positions the audience in relation to characters and objects. Such looking relations are intimately bound up with both politics and culture. For instance, feminist scholars have analyzed how much cinema objectifies women from a male perspective, and postcolonial scholars have analyzed how American and Hollywood cinema dehumanizes African people by gazing upon Africa from a condescending colonialist viewpoint that seems to reaffirm an implied feeling of white male privilege. Hence, in some ways, an “African film language” was a way of making films in opposition to the racist, sexist, and imperialist “looking relations” that persisted (and still persist) in so much of American and European movies. What is problematic about such oppositional cinema is that it is defined negatively “against” a more dominant cinema rather than simply being sui generis, of itself, or of its own culture. One way a film might define itself more positively and more nationally is through characters and looking relations that hold up a mirror to the whole country — rich and poor, male and female, etc. — that reflects critically on the multiplicity of relations out of which a culture is formed.

Considering this question historically, for Ethiopia, I noticed a difference between the earlier generation of filmmakers and the new generation. The earlier Ethiopian generations during the Haile Selassie and Derg regimes were trained and experienced film in a remarkably international context — studying at film schools in Paris, Berlin, London, Kiev, and Moscow with a cohort of individuals from countries such as Cuba and Argentina as well as other African countries. Those film-makers participated in the pan-African film festivals such as FESPACO and film movements such as “Third Cinema.” But the new generation that came of age under Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles after the 1991 revolution trained more locally, either self-taught or learned at small film academies in Addis with one-year programs. Their films tend to borrow (somewhat unconsciously according to some individuals I met) from the conventions of Hollywood and Bollywood movies and Latin-American soap operas, and they are somewhat disconnected from the rest of African cinema.

The paradox I want to emphasize here is that the more “national” cinema of the 1980s was forged out of the cauldron of an international education, Marxist thought, and Pan-African solidarities. In other words, a “national” film language was created out of an “international” consciousness. In contrast, today’s attempt by Ethiopian film makers at a “universal” film language is being created out of local contexts.


me and Karl Marx after meeting with Professor Aboneh at the outdoor cafe across the street from Addis Ababa University

Admittedly, my observation is somewhat casual, simplistic, and incomplete. I pose this problematic dichotomy between “old” and “new” generations in hopes that the wrongness of my conceptualization might provoke a response so that I might continue to learn.

The Assurance of Belle, the Insurance of the Zong, and the Speculation of Cinema

12 Jun

Last night I had a delightful evening with my wife in one of the best places on earth, the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where we snacked on delicious Haitian-style hors d’oeuvres and sangria at the La Caye Restaurant and Bar before going to see the new movie Belle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, as it’s commonly called. If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should. The film, directed by Amma Asante,  is a period-piece drama that critics (e.g., [here]) have compared to the many adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, except that unlike the usual period-piece fare, the heroine of this film, Dido Elizabeth Belle, is biracial, and also unlike the usual period-piece fare, woven into the romance plot is the court-room drama concerning the infamous massacre of 132 human beings on the slave ship Zong. The film is important for its foregrounding of very important historical events that are somewhat unknown to the general public, as Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real person (as the famous scholar of African-American literature Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written about [here]), and the infamous Zong case was an event so horrible that it challenged one of the most important foundations of the transatlantic slave trade — a foundation that few think of when they think of slavery — insurance. I am hoping to do more research on the historical details behind this film, but since this movie is also a work of fiction and a speculative interpretation of history that aims to explore the complex emotions of its characters, I agree with critics such as Sheryl Estrada and Dodal Stewart who note that the movie is also worth seeing for its imaginative and narrative qualities, for its relevance to conversations about the ambiguities of racial identity in our world today, and for how young women of color see their potential illustrated in cinema.

The movie usefully connects with a considerable body of literature. As the director has discussed in an interview with NPR [here] and as an article in the Guardian [here] discusses at length, the movie was inspired by the portrait of the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray and resonates for historians with a recently published biography of Belle’s guardian, Lord Mansfield, who was the judge deciding over two important legal decisions about slavery, the Somerset and Zong cases. What the director of the film and critics neglect to mention are the many other recent literary works about the Zong case, including a book of poems by M. NourbeSe Philip entitled Zong! (published in 2011), a novel by Fred D’Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts (published in 2000), and an influential work of cultural theory by Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (published in 2005). What the director and film critics also neglect to mention is how much this film connects with what is now being taught in college seminars on eighteenth-century American and British literature, notably the now canonical autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who was a former slave and successful businessman and who also happens to be the individual who first brought the Zong case to public view, and the novel A Woman of Colour, a Jane-Austen-like story about a biracial heroine originally published in 1807 (four years before Jane Austen’s first novel) and only just recently rediscovered and published in 2007 in a well-researched edition that uses the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle as the cover art.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

It actually strikes me as somewhat humorous that the critics are suggesting that the movie resembles a Jane Austen novel, considering that we might just as easily suggest the reverse, that Jane Austen novels resemble the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the fictional character in A Woman of Colour (both of which, after all, did happen before Austen wrote.) In fact, one criticism I have of the movie is that it presents Belle as an anomaly, when in fact there were many wealthy black men and women in the cities of England at this time (e.g., Equiano, mentioned above, who was directly involved in the same Zong case that Belle began to involve herself in. Might we imagine that Equiano and Belle met each other? How would a conversation between two black characters change the movie’s story which so thoroughly, and so problematically, isolates Belle, the lone black character amidst an otherwise all white cast?)

I also think many of the critics (even Henry Louis Gates) who focus entirely on the simple historical fact of black presence are missing what is truly interesting about Belle — and also what is interesting about the movie that received far more attention last year, 12 Years a Slave — and that is the ways the movies reveal the troubling and complex legalities of property, debt, and insurance. In fact, in many ways, although the mainstream media critics wrongly asserted the groundbreaking uniqueness of 12 Years a Slave (as I discussed at length in this blog a few months ago [here]), which for the most part was pretty much the same story that people have been telling about slavery since the 1850s when the book was published, that movie was somewhat unique for showcasing how slaves were part of a network of debt relations. The best scene in 12 Years a Slave is, unfortunately, a scene that is not given enough explanation and context, and that is the scene when the slave’s life is protected from violence simply because he is the property that secures a bank loan.

In many ways, Belle is a more unique and interesting film not just in the way it presents a more complicated portrait of race relations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the racially and morally black and white movie 12 Years a Slave, but also in the way that it focuses more intently on the peculiar legal history of the insurance industry that underpinned the slave trade. The Zong case was a case of basic insurance fraud, as the owners of the slave ship claimed they had to throw the bodies overboard to protect the ship and so demanded compensation from the insurance underwriters; the underwriters argued that the ship’s captain did not need to kill the slaves and that he did so deliberately in order to collect the insurance money. Significantly, what was not a legal option for the court to decide at that time but nevertheless was repeatedly commented upon during the trial was the morality of treating human beings as little more than insurable cargo. Without insurance, such far-flung capitalist enterprises such as the slave trade would lack the financial backing to be so prosperous and also so entangled in every aspect of the modern economy. As Ian Baucom’s work of scholarship on the Zong case that I mention above points out, the slave trade may today be illegal, but many of the legal structures governing the economic system that emerged from it remain. This presents us viewers with a more complicated picture, which is why I think the movie Belle deserves far more attention than it seems to me it has received.

What is also very compelling about the movie is the growth of the characters, Belle becoming a self-assured, ethical person the more she engages herself in the court case about the Zong’s insurance claim and the more she becomes self-conscious of the confusing and unjust ambiguity of her social position. In fact, almost all of the characters (except one) appear to grow and mature under the film-maker’s speculative interpretation of history. In contrast to the almost pornographic brutality of abuse and incessant degradation in 12 Years a Slave, what is great about Belle is that it presents a positive image of a black woman in the eighteenth century, one who is self-assured, moral, and full of potential. In my criticism of 12 Years a Slave, I complained that neither white nor black audiences could identify with any of the characters, but in contrast, the moral and cultural ambiguities for all the characters in Belle are still with us today.

To conclude, I want to further complicate and challenge how all the critics have talking about the movie Belle. As you are reading my blog and perhaps wondering about the funny title of this post, I hope you are noticing the puns I am making comparing financial metaphors with narrative metaphors (e.g., growth, potential, speculation, insurance, assurance, etc.). What is wonderful about this movie is the way it allegorizes the ambiguous double-bind of the law through character of Belle. Just as the law governing insurance and the lives of human cargo are contradictory, so are the rules governing Dido’s position in the household. The story plots the contradictory rules governing both Dido’s life and the insurance claim beautifully. As Belle confronts the legal conundrum, she increasingly abandons the “marriage market” and stays true to her principles, as well as, financially, her principle — that is to say, her inheritance that empowers her. The speculation of cinema, like financial speculation, trades on assurances that the audience’s hopes for human potential and freedom can be realized. (And if it bothers you that my deliberately playful mixture of metaphors ironically juxtaposes the noble story of Belle’s assurance with the more dismal story of financial speculation, then good, because I think that it should, as that subtext is the real strength of the movie.) I am hoping to explore this theme further in a more detailed literary analysis, so I welcome any comments, advice, or suggestions for further reading.

Something of a post-script, for there is another detail to consider. Could the movie have given its audience more information about the Zong massacre and shown just how brutal it was? I half suspect that the movie may simply have lacked the budget to film this, or maybe the director wasn’t sure (or assured) how to do it  in a way that was both artistic and respectful of human tragedy. I don’t know, but I will simple end here with an 1840 painting of the massacre (that you can see up close and in person at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.)

J. M. W. Turner’s painting of the Zong massacre, painted 1840

Languages, Globalization, and African Film Language: Bamako by Sissako

13 Apr

I begin this blog post with a set of coincidences from the past few weeks. In the African Cinema class that I am auditing, we have raised the question of whether one can define an “African film language” (counter to the Hollywood and European-auteur film languages, and possibly related to or possibly distinct from “Third Cinema“) while watching a movie that directly confronts the problem of globalization, structural adjustment, and international debt: Bamako (2006) by the internationally acclaimed director Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali. At the same time, in the post-colonial literature class that I am teaching, we just finished studying the well-known debate between two of the most famous African authors Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya). In his classic essay Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi argues that African authors ought to enrich their own indigenous languages such as Kikuyu, Igbo, or Wolof by writing novels and poetry in those languages if they are to truly overcome the psychologically debilitating effects of the legacy of colonization and neo-colonialism. Achebe counters in his essay “The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” by arguing for the viability of using the language of the colonizer (English, French, Portuguese, etc.) as a political and artistic tool for liberation. For class that day, I invited one of our senior English majors, Katie Hamilton, to talk to my class about her honor’s thesis about the question of language in three African novels about child soldiers in Africa: Sozaboy, Beasts of No Nation, and Allah Is Not Obliged. Katie analyzed how the authors employ deconstructed “rotten English” as a signifying tool against colonialism in a way that questions the possibility of language and literary form to fully represent or redeem the child soldier’s traumatic memory. Meanwhile, unrelated entirely to any of this scholarly inquiry, at a meeting open to the public, some of my colleagues raised the issue of language requirements, language instruction, and something sometimes ambiguously and problematically entitled  “intercultural competency.” I teach in Staten Island, where according to the Modern Language Association’s “language map” only 70% of Staten Island’s population speaks English as their primary language. As for the rest, 10% of the Staten Island population speaks Spanish, 3% speak Russian, 3% Italian, a little over 1% speak Arabic, and about half a percent speak  “African languages.” Other languages include Chinese, Korean, Urdu, and Tagalog, among many others. This is where we are, certainly. And so, the coincidence of these overlapping conversations about language, art, teaching, and globalization presents a bit of a conundrum for me as I find myself struggling to manage the various points of view and complex ideas as I sit down now to do my “homework assignment” for my African Cinema class and meditate philosophically about the question of language in the global context presented by the films I have been watching. To make things more difficult, I find myself writing for multiple audiences: my professor of African Cinema, my colleagues where I teach, my colleagues around the world, the students in my classes on post-colonial literature, introduction to film, and advanced literary theory, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, my close friends who work energetically on behalf of the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Dhaba, me, Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto in Ethiopia

Dhaba, Steve T., Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto

And here now, before I meditate on the question of language and how the film Bamako has something interesting to say about that question, I should admit a certain personal orientation, which is my connection with the Oromo community both here in the United States and in Ethiopia, as it is the language and ethnicity that I happen to have married into. At the end of my class last week, while my students were debating whether Achebe or Ngugi was right, one of my students turned to me and asked, “but what do you think, professor? Whose side are you on?” I told him that as an academic and educator, it is not my role to take a side but rather to expose students to voices and perspectives typically excluded from the mainstream conversation and to amplify those voices — and in this case, ironically, a range of voices and perspectives not yet included in the conversation about language instruction and international education at my own institution. But then I felt this principled statement about my professional role might be a cop-out, so after the students pressed me further, I said, “O.K., I will admit why this is important to me personally and why it’s difficult for me to take a clear stand.” My wife’s ethnic community claims a history of oppression at the hands of the dominant Tigray and Amhara ethnic groups. Although the history and politics of cultural diversity and mixing are quite complex and multifaceted (see here), it is a fact that for much of the twentieth century the Ethiopian government banned the Oromo language from print and radio media as part of their official cultural policy called “Amharization” — the purpose of which was to politically unify Ethiopia under the language of its dominant ethnicity. For my American readers, it is important that we recognize the role of the United States government in this state policy which, from the perspective of many (not all) of my Oromo friends, would be be considered a policy of cultural genocide that would repress not only the Oromo language but also over 80 other ethnic languages in the region as well. Although the Oromo language spoken by over 30 million people has proven itself quite resistant to this policy, there are 28 languages in Ethiopia alone — and roughly 3,000 languages worldwide — in danger of extinction according to the United Nations. The American role in this policy in the form of funding and weapons has been documented by one of the most respected historians of Ethiopia, Harold Marcus (a historian respected by all the political and ethnic groups, it is important to mention) in his book The Politics of Empire: Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974. This policy was reversed after the revolution in 1991, and I am proud to be a friend and a partner to Dhaba Wayessa, one of the first individuals to publish a novel and produce a play on the national stage in the Oromo language in his home country. I have listened to him and Oromos older than him recount stories of going to school and being punished by their teachers for speaking Oromo on the playground rather than the national Amharic language. Their story directly parallels the stories of colonial language instruction recounted by Ngugi in Decolonizing the Mind as well as by the famous Martinican philosopher, psychoanalyst, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in his classic study of the psychology of race, culture, and language in France and the French colonies, Black Skin, White Masks.

From what I’ve written so far, it might seem that I am committed to the perspective of Ngugi and my Oromo nationalist friends, and so my students thought for a minute until I continued on to explain that I was actually quite conflicted on the matter. After all, Achebe was writing his response to Ngugi after years of brutal civil war in Nigeria, in part due to ethnic tension, and in part due to a more complex set of socio-economic forces. Fanon was more interested in moving forward than in going back to a mythic linguistically pure past. An important argument for a national language and political unity of the former colonies is a strategic nationalism to protect themselves against the debilitating divisiveness of ethnic conflict as well as against the political power of Europe and the United States. To put it another way, a far greater danger to indigenous languages than the language of the colonizer might be the language of international finance and free market economics. It is obvious which language the banks speak, and it is not a language taught in any department of foreign languages. It is the language of current account balances, foreign direct investment, profit margins, interest rates, and debt.

The language of global finance — something the scholar of literature Amitava Kumar has called into question in an ironically titled book “World Bank Literature” —  is the subject of the film Bamako, and last month I had the lucky opportunity to hear one of its producers, the famous actor Danny Glover, have a conversation about the movie with his friend, the even more famous scholar and activist Angela Davis at NYU. It is also, incidentally, the subject of another film that I watched this month: Hyenas (1992) by the avant-garde director Djibril Diop Mambety (Senegal) about an impoverished town that is willing to cannibalize itself (like a pack of hyenas) in order to find relief from its debts.

You can see the trailer for Bamako below, which features one of the most awesome vocal performances of all time by Christy Azuma, here:

Beyond the subject of globalization, I think this movie has a lot to offer anyone thinking seriously about language instruction and administrative concerns about intercultural competency, diversity, etc. The premise and formal structure of the movie is brilliant and unlike anything I have ever seen before. The director Sissako imagines a trial in which the plaintiff is “African society” and the defendants are the “international financial institutions.” The trial is held inside an African compound, the home of Chaka and Mele. Mele is the beautiful nightclub singer, and her husband Chaka is unemployed and cares for their sick daughter Ina at night. While he cares for his daughter, Chaka studies Hebrew in hopes that if Israel ever opens an embassy in Mali, he will be a prime candidate to work as a guard there — a notion that prompts his friend to break into a fit of laughter. Also in the compound are women who tie-dye cloth. Throughout the film, as the trial takes places, the speeches of lawyers and witnesses are juxtaposed with the ordinary life of the town and its people: a sick man cared for by his daughter, women going about their business, unemployed men chatting outside the compound walls, little children playing with the official documents, and the tragic drama unfolding between Chaka and Mele. The language of the trial is French, though some of the witnesses do not speak French so there is a court translator who can speak Bambara. In contrast to the concerns of African novelists about the language of their art, film directors have more easily mixed colonial and various indigenous languages. However, juxtaposed to the language of the trial is the language of ordinary life, which is life itself, constantly asserting itself against the lofty speeches.

It is possible to read this film as nothing more than wish-fulfillment, an indictment of the global financial institutions that protestors around the world have been calling for since the mid-1990s, the sort of trial we might wish would happen but that has never happened and will never happen. However, the artistic structure of the film, with its surrealistic mixing of private and public spaces, is more complex than that. For most of the film, we only hear part of speeches as the film cuts in and out of the trial and cuts to and from scenes of daily life inside the compound or to scenes of the men outside who sometimes turn off the speakers, muttering to themselves, “this trial is becoming annoying; when is it going to end.” There is the scene when Chaka is being interviewed and suggests that the journalist not waste his time, as nobody will listen anyway. In his book African Film (2010), Manthia Diawara has compared the structural devices of Bamako to Jean-Luc Goadard’s classic Tout va bien in which a cross-section of the building allows the audience to see the “superstructure” and “base” of society at the same time, but Sissako’s film does more than that by delighting in the uncontrollable events and cutting between random shots, including the incessant squeaky shoes of a child that one can hear beneath the speeches of the lawyers. Here the illegible and unintelligible are juxtaposed with the grim statistics of globalization. As Kenneth Harrow has argued in Trash: African Cinema from Below (2013), what asserts itself in Bamako against language is the reality of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.”

A significant moment is when the griot (African town poet and storyteller) named Zegue Bamba begins singing his lament, addressing the judges and lawyers with his traditional fly whisk. This is the only moment in the film when the words are not translated, and yet it doesn’t matter, for we feel his lament. Indeed, so does everyone else in the town, for the entire movie seems to be arrested by his voice. The movie itself seems to stop, and suddenly, because of the griot’s untranslated voice, the movie becomes another movie entirely. While he sings, the camera shows us the faces of the judge, the audience, the women working, and the men sitting outside who all stop and listen intently, clearly moved. Later in the film, one of the lawyers (who is played by real life politician Aissata Tall Sall) does translate some of the griot’s words for us, when she suggests that his voice is an embodiment of the people: “Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?”

This notion of embodiment and the complex performances of a language that is not fully translatable is important for a recent 2009 essay by Gayatri Spivak called “Rethinking Comparativism.”  Spivak is famous not only as the translator of one of the most important and controversial works of 20th-century French philosophy (Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology) and one of the most important works of contemporary Bengali literature (Mahasweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps), but she also as one of the most often-cited theorists for post-colonial theory. In that essay, she begins with the problem of translation in recognition that certain aspects of language and culture are untranslatable — what she calls an “irreducibility of the idiom.” Considering this, she argues for the importance of comparative literature as a discipline uniquely suited for thinking about the problem of language and the global situation dramatized in a film such as BamakoShe continues to argue that academic institutions ought to play a role in “undoing the historical injustice toward languages associated with peoples who were not successfully competitive within capitalism.” In other words, she implies that American academic institutions have in the past been complicit with the cultural genocide of the world’s diverse languages by promoting the languages of empire (e.g., English, Spanish, French, and even Arabic and Chinese) at the expense of other languages in part because of the institutionalized nation-centered notion of language that does not always even account for the linguistic variation within the imperial languages (e.g., the Basque literary movement within France and the linguistic impact of Arabic on Spanish.) She does not make this argument simply out of despair over the thousands of languages and cultures that might be forever lost to history, but for the important role these languages and their idioms play in our thinking differently about the world in which we live and in the imperfect and troubled history of political and cultural relations. Hence, the goal of language instruction is not simply to learn how to translate or “get by” in another language, but to discover the untranslatable difference and to reconsider the history of one’s relation to others, a ghostly history that may be repressed by simplistic notions of “national languages” that are wrongly imagined to exist outside of historical time and are somehow magically independent of each other.

The flip side of Bamako is the movie Daratt (2006) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad) and filmed in a mixture of Arabic and French about a young boy Atim whose grandfather has asked him to seek vengeance upon a man named Nassara who killed his father. The historical context for the film is after a civil war and the government’s decision to grant amnesty to all war criminals who committed atrocious acts of political violence. Atim searches for and finds Nassara who has repented his past life and is now a baker who gives bread to the poor. Without revealing his identity, Atim begins to work for Nassara and learns the trade of the baker. There is almost no dialogue in the film as Nassara can only speak through an electronic device since someone tried to cut his throat. Rather the film speaks to the audience through long moments of silence and what in film studies is called “film grammar” (the camera shots and editing). Nassara and Atim come to know each other not through words but through their shared labor. Eventually, Nassara begins to love Atim as a son and proposes to adopt him. However, Atim has no answer to Nassara’s questions “do you love me?… where is your father?” These questions are too painful, and the question Atim’s silence provoke the audience to wonder about throughout the movie is whether Atim will take vengeance or forgive the man who killed his father in a moment of “truth and reconciliation.” I will not spoil the ending in my blog, as I hope everyone will go see it. Here is the trailer:

The point about language that I think emerges in this film is the flip side of Bamako — the terrible silence of history and the unspeakable memory that the characters can not find voice for. But not all silences are from trauma and pain. Other silences are from joy. My favorite moment in the film is when Atim begins to bake bread by himself, and in this scene the cinematography beautifully reveals an entirely different sort of language, the language of manual labor and economic production and the psychologically transformative pride Atim takes in his work.

Film offers us a unique medium for thinking about language since it is essentially a medium (as Kenneth Harrow argues in his analysis of Bamako) of something the philospher Jacques Ranciere calls the “sentence-image” in which language and image combine in ways that are not fully commensurate — e.g., the image may contradict what the characters are saying, or there may be a gap in meaning between the words and the image. This gap in meaning opens up a space for commentary, play, aesthetic transformation, and the insistence of  un-representable reality and untranslatable idioms.

In Bamako, one formal device that comments on the globalization of film language and the history of cultural relation between the West and Africa is the brilliant film-within-a-film, in which Sissako interpolates a terribly cartoonish sphaghetti western set in Africa entitled “Death in Timbuktu” starring Danny Glover and an international host of other film personalities. The conceit for this film-within-a-film is that one of the families that lives in the compound where the trial is being held is about to watch a movie on Mali’s national television station. The movie cuts back and forth between the film itself and the family watching it, but the film-within-a-film mirrors the movie as a whole as the film language of the spaghetti western is juxtaposed with ordinary life in an African town. In “Death in Timbuktu” the American-style-gangsters accidentally shoot a woman, and her baby is crying. It is a terrible, awful scene that parodies the western genre, but then the cowboy-gangster starts joking and laughing with his compadres, and suddenly we cut to the audience watching the film, and a small boy is laughing along with the psychopathic cowboy-gangsters. The movie thus makes a satirical point about the impression American and European film has on African viewers, but also the film-within-a-film serves as an allegory for the larger structure of the film, as the “western” institutions of global finance cause havoc in African towns. You can watch the film-within-a-film here:

This is an instance of film language self-consciously commenting upon itself as well as upon the medium of film’s relationship to culture. Here we have an African parody that alludes to an earlier African parody “Le retour de l’aventurier” (1966) of an Italian appropriation of an iconically American film genre. We might call this an “African film language” — not because the movie asserts a nostalgic sense of original and authentic African-ness or one of Africa’s ethnic languages, but precisely because it reveals the poetics of relation of African film to the global film industry that parallels the troubled relation of African languages to European languages. This poetics of relation is not only troubled; it is also creative and productive of new cultural formations that can’t be reduced to the simplistic paradigms of national languages instrumentalized by a college curriculum. It is to the credit of language departments today that, in spite of the impetus place upon them, they resist such instrumentalization through programs of civic engagement and through pedagogical models that foreground the complex cultural history within which language subsists. However, considering Spivak’s call to thinking about the thousands of other languages in the context of globalization and her suggestion about the important role of comparative literature to redress the political conditions of language and literature, I wonder how we can think through the profoundly deep problematics of language, literature, film, and culture — “problematics” (in the philosophical sense of that word) that for me are not merely academic and artistic questions, but political and personal questions.

The Question of “Third (World) Cinema” and the Crisis of Representation: the Films of Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouedraogo

17 Mar

As I mentioned in my last blog post about Ousmane Sembene’s 1977 film Ceddo, this semester I am studying “African Cinema.” In this blog post, I turn from Sembene to two later important Francophone African film makers, Souleymane Cissé (from Mali) and Idrissa Ouedraogo (from Burkina Faso). The two directors have noticeably different styles and political perspectives. Cissé‘s three most famous films are Baara (1980, translated as “Work”) about the labor movement in his country of Mali, Finye (1983, translated as “Wind”) about a clash between the student movement and the dictatorial government in the capital city of Bamako, and Yeelen (1987, translated as “The Light”) that draws from the literary tradition of Bambara epic poetry to depict a mythic struggle between father and son. Ouedraogo’s two most successful films are Yaaba (1989, translated as “Grandmother”) about a young boy’s relationship to an outcast woman considered by the village to be a witch, and Tilai (1990, translated as “The Law”) about the conflict between a father and son who both love the same woman. Since Yeelen and Tilai have a similar plot (conflict between father and son), and since both are set in a historically indeterminate pre-modern time, and since both also won the Grand Jury prize at the prestigious Cannes film festival, I want to focus on those two films comparatively in order to indicate just how widely different two African film styles can be and also to address some theoretical questions about “third (world) cinema” that have been raised by many scholars since the 1980s (e.g., Teshome Gabriel’s Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation.)

Let’s start with Yeelen, whose story has been compared to the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex (here) and to the movie Star Wars (here and also see this YouTube mash-up), and whose cinematography has been compared to the gorgeously cinematic Western Once upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone (here.)

Despite such comparisons to western literature and film, Yeelen begins explicitly with allusions to African literary tradition, and hence very clearly announces itself as a self-consciously African film. The story is about Niankoro’s quest to fulfill his destiny, become a man, and retrieve his birthright. He is pursued by his jealous father, Soma. Both Niankoro and Soma possess magic powers not unlike those of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar, but the distinctly African poetic tradition is translated into film through expertly edited montage sequences that create a sense of magic and epic scope as you can see from the opening scenes here:

In addition to the archetypal conflict between father and son, there are also archetypal themes of water and fire, as the main character Niankoro’s mother prays to the god of water and procreative life and his father prays to the god of fire to help him take revenge on his son. The epic scope contains within it an implicit national vision as Niankoro has embarked on a long personal journey across a dramatic landscape where he encounters and gradually forms problematic but meaningful relationships with the other ethnic groups of Mali. Cissé‘s camera technique is expert, using various camera shots and imagery to relate individuals to the landscape and to each other in contrast to Sembene’s films that rely heavily on dialogue to carry the story.

There is a lot going on in this film that one can talk about, but I want to focus on the question of the film’s relationship to modernity, Afrocentricity, and the so-called “third-world” struggle for self-definition against European colonialism and American-style global capitalism. Because the movie adapts a traditional epic story, one might be tempted to read this film as merely an Afrocentric return to its traditions (in contrast to Cissé‘s earlier film Finye where traditions are presented more humorously and in contrast to most of Sembene’s films where African cultural traditions and Islamic religious traditions are satirized.) However, the conversation between Niankoro and his uncle Djigui indicate a concern with the future. “Science is inexhaustible, miracles eternal,” says Djigui as the camera cuts from him to Niankoro’s newly pregnant wife bathing in the magical water of a spring. “The country’s future hangs by a thread.” Literally, as we soon find out, the future hangs by the umbilical cord of Niankoro’s wife, as her son must carry on the father’s legacy into the future. Likewise, in Cissé‘s film Finye, we can see a similar theme connecting tradition and modernity as the main characters look to tradition for sources of inspiration, power, and even trickery to combat a dictatorial governor but always in ways that are inventive or adaptive to changing socioeconomic conditions and give way to a progressive politics.

One example of this issue of modernity is the symbolic image of the blacksmith that appears multiple times in Yeelen. This image may serve to remind the European audience of the Afrocentric point that Africa (not Europe) was the origin of such technology, but it is also symbolically important for the larger themes of the movie as it presents us with the problem of modern science, since Niankoro’s father uses this technology for destructive rather than creative purposes. Ultimately, the film does not choose between tradition and modernity but stages a mythic dialectic of destructive and creative forces (fire and water) that forge the new nation. In conclusion, in my view, Yeelen is a modernist synthesis of traditional mythic tropes to create self-conscious national epic.

In contrast, Ouedraogo’s Tilai focuses on the drama of ordinary life, a conflict between father and son who are both in love with the same woman (Nogma). The movie begins with the son (Saga) returning from a long journey to learn that the father has taken Nogma as his second wife. But Saga and Nogma are still in love and begin an affair. The town condemns the affair, and Saga’s brother Kougri is expected to carry out the sentence by killing Saga. What the movie so brilliantly plots in this archetypal drama is a conflict between two laws — the law against adultery versus the law against killing one’s brother. The drama also presents a tragedy where father and son fail in their relationship, the father pursuing his own sexual interest rather than loving his son, and the son consequently disrespecting his father, leading both to reject each other. Hence, there is no easy moral answer to this troubling situation, and therefore the movie encourages not a return to any particular traditional framework but rather a liberal generosity and openness to the human condition. You can watch the whole film on YouTube here:

The gorgeous imagery and cinematography appears to capture some pre-modern village culture. Unlike the films of Sembene that focus intently on the relationship between Africa and Europe, and unlike the films of Cissé that focus on the continuities and discontinuities between tradition and modernity, Ouedraogo creates a world that seems to exist outside of any historical time. Considering that Islam came to the region as early as the ninth century, it is unclear when this story (in which no Islam or Christianity is present) would have taken place. Other anachronisms, such as the presence of maize and peanuts (both food originally from Central and South America) suggest a community out of historical time. His films have been criticized for being “calabash cinema” (named after the kind of large gourd that the African women use to carry water on their heads) — that is to say, cinema that appeals to a European’s anthropological stereotypes about Africa as a primitive place. It is cinema that might remind us of the old issues of National Geographic magazine rather than a self-consciously progressive African cinema. But in my view, Tilai is a postmodern film that presents a nostalgic image of not so much a pre-historical past but an a-historical timeless time and place-less place.

Such a timeless place devoid of any contact with the outside world is also the setting for Ouedraogo’s film Yaaba, as you can see in its opening scenes here:

If we consider Ouedraogo’s films in our present-day context of African identity and African cinema, we can read this film as a reinvention of African traditions, drawing from African folktales and poetry. In that sense, Ouedraogo’s films assert a distinctly African cinema in the context of a global movie industry dominated by Hollywood and Europe. Chinua Achebe does something similar in his classic novel Things Fall Apart that begins with a family drama in a small Igbo village. His novel presents the rich history of a town–explicitly, as we see at the end of the novel, the sort of rich history that would merit little more than a footnote in the European account. According to some of my students, Achebe’s novel is sometimes taught in American high schools as a window onto African culture, even though to teach it this way is a mistake, since the novel in fact is really a dramatization of a very specific historical event — how European colonialism and Christianity undermined the Igbo framework for law and order in the nineteenth century. The difference between Ouedraogo and Achebe is that Achebe is very specific about the historical and geographic frame for his novel and the political relationship between colonizer and colonized that interests Sembene, but Ouedraogo’s work seems to step outside of history and political geography.

This step outside of history into a nostalgic indeterminate past is what the scholar and theorist Fredric Jameson criticizes as an essential feature of “postmodernism” in his book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Following Jameson’s conceptualization of postmodernism, Ouedraogo’s cinematic style focuses on two-dimensional spatial relations (i.e., relations between those inside and those outside the village walls — what anthropologists call liminal spaces) rather than historical relations (i.e., the historical dialectic that concerns Sembene and Cissé.) For Jameson, such a commodification of the past that we may discern in Ouedraogo deceptively presents an image of a more innocent bygone era that appears “real” (and even “realistic”) even though the representation is actually appropriated from an imaginary museum (or what the psychoanalytic theorist Lacan calls the “imaginary“.) I will have more to say about Ouedraogo’s postmodern style later, but for now I want to reflect a bit about my hypothesis that Cissé‘s movies present national allegories concerned with the continuities and discontinuities between modernity and tradition in contrast to Ouedraogo’s movies that present a historically vague postmodern liberalism.

To theorize this representational difference between Cissé and Ouedraogo further, I will consider the debate between Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad in the pages of the journal Social Text about the term “third world.” In his essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” published in the fall issue of 1986, Jameson poses the argument that following the independence movements, post-colonial novelists, poets, and film-makers faced an aesthetic dilemma or “crisis of representation” (p.81) in the face of neocolonialism and uncertainty about the fate of the nation state. Jameson uses the work of Sembene as a case study to argue the controversial point that “all third-world texts are necessarily… national allegories” (p.69). What Jameson means by that is that the story about the personal lives of individuals represents the political issues of the nation state. To be sure, it is hard not to read Sembene’s films this way since as a writer and director he was so self-consciously concerned with the politics of national development after decolonization.

Jameson makes several problematic points, but before I summarize Ahmad’s critique of Jameson, I think it is worth putting Jameson’s argument in a context — in this case, my own context that I think might somewhat parallel the context he gives for his own essay in the opening paragraphs. In casual conversations I’ve head with colleagues, friends, and students, I’ve noticed that for many — if they know any African films at all — Sembene’s classic movies La Noir de… and Xala may be the only African films they can claim any familiarity with, and consequently, in a somewhat odd way, Sembene comes to stand in for all of African cinema in various undergraduate classes such as world literature, world history, post-colonial literature, introduction to film studies, and even French cinema. I am guilty of this myself (though in my “introduction to film” class I selected his later, more feminist work Faat Kine.) Indeed, when Jameson famously made the case way back in 1986 in his controversial essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” for English and Comparative Literature departments to get over their parochial attachment to western modes of reading that fetishize a certain style of “literariness” that is narcissistically self-referential and canon-specific (e.g., T.S. Eliot’s famously elitist, Eurocentric, and somewhat depressing notion of tradition and the individual talent), the one work he chose to stand in for Africa was Sembene’s Xala (both a novel and a film). This presents a problem because, as influential as Sembene was on later African film-makers, he is also famously idiosyncratic. Arguably too, La Noir de… (translated as “Black Girl”) is perhaps popular in world literature and French cinema classes  not only because it is brilliant (which it is), but because it is the most “French” of Sembene’s films in terms of its style and content.

However, Sembene is not the only African film-maker, which is why I have been repeatedly returning to the differences between Sembene, Cissé, and Ouedraogo in this blog post. As Aijiz Ahmad argued in his response to Jameson published in Social Text the following fall (1987), such a classification of the “third-world” is rife with categorical problems, one of which is the lack of awareness of the diversity of literary agendas and styles in these so-called “third-world” countries (something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would has pointed out in a more simple manner is a perennial danger of the single story.) Ahmad’s larger point is that Jameson unwittingly invents the third-world as an Other in binary opposition to the first world. And to be sure, not only can one find countless examples of literature in countries such as Pakistan and India (where Ahmad is from) that are not “national allegories,” but also one can find plenty of examples in British and American cinema that are. Consider racist films such as Birth of a Nation, or consider any James Bond movie, or even consider the recent 12 Years a Slave, all of which are usually discussed by the critics (in very different ways of course) in terms of national allegory — that is to say, who we are and where are we going as a nation. For a more literary example, how else could one read Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible than as an allegory for the McCarthy trials of the 1950s?

But in critiquing Jameson’s first-versus-third world essentialism, Ahmad never acknowledges the ways in which Jameson is actually taking seriously the very self-consciously internationalist “third-w0rld” political movement following the 1955 Bandung Conference as well as the arguments for revolutionary struggle and the development of the modern nation state by no less a figure than Frantz Fanon. After all, in the 1960s and 70s, a movement started called “Third Cinema” precisely advocating for a revolutionary film against the hegemony of the United States and Europe. In other words, we can imagine that a film-maker such as Sembene might very well agree with Jameson rather than Ahmad considering the “crisis of representation” in an African film industry still dependent on France for production and distribution (as well as for international recognition at the Cannes film festival.)

Can a comparison of Cissé and Ouedraogo’s films help us resolve this debate? Manthia Diawara’s 1988 essay for the Film Quarterly entitled “Popular Culture and Oral Traditions in African Film,” observes the influence of oral traditions on African film style and aesthetics. His argument, though, is not that there is a singular African aesthetic determined by such a tradition; rather in affirming the potential of African culture against the Western hegemony, African film-makers have responded in varying ways, not only to those traditions but also to each other. Specifically, their attitude towards tradition may be subversive and satirical as well as affirmative. Stylistically, they may (like Sembene) position the camera in ways to accentuate the tradition of oral poetry and public debate by fixing the camera in one spot rather than cutting between points-of-view. Or, they may (like Oudraougo) follow the stylistic conventions of Hollywood realism perfectly but use them to tell African stories. One may theorize (and Diawara doesn’t attempt to theorize it in that essay) whether the relation to oral traditions in African film collapses the public-private division. It is this relation between the private life of the individual and the public/communal representation of the nation that Jameson describes as the difference between first-world and third-world literature. In other words, for Jameson, unlike western literature that focuses on the aesthetics of the individual, third-world literature concerns itself with the individual’s representative relation to the collective (perhaps an alienated relationship, perhaps antithetical, or perhaps heroically championing, but always somehow in complex allegorical relation to it.) Is there a formal connection between that sort of oral tradition and a cinema that is politically allegorical to collective identity? I don’t know.

I think it is arguably true that Sembene and Cissé‘s films are national allegories — complexly so, as I indicated in my previous blog post about Sembene. As stylistically and ideologically different as Sembene and Cisse are from each other, both foreground a modernist interest in the relation between past, present, and future. In contrast, one might point to Ouedraogo’s films as examples of movies that are not national allegories, that avoid the burden of political representation, and that instead focus on the fullness and richness of daily human life. One might do that. But instead my argument is that the postmodern liberalism of Ouedraogo’s films actually illustrates the more general hypothesis of Jameson’s work on postmodernism and the cultural logic of late capitalism. True, Tilai is definitely not the national allegory that Jameson claims is “essential” for third-world literature, and also true is that it it does not represent the political agenda of “third cinema” and the revolutionary aesthetics of Frantz Fanon, but it is also arguably weak, politically speaking, in the way that Jameson argues postmodernist literature and cinema is.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.