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.