The New York African Film Festival, 2022

21 May

One of my favorite things to do every year in New York is attend its African Film Festival (the NYAFF). I have written about it a couple times before in this blog [here] and my other blog [here]. The festival has always had a Pan-African spirit, so it includes black films from across the world, not only filmmakers living in Africa, but also the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe. Often, the films are followed by 30-minutes of Q&A time with the director and/or some of the actors so that people in the audience can ask questions or just express their opinion of the film.

If you’re unfamiliar with the structure of the NYAFF, there are actually three parts, the first part is the premier of mostly new films at Lincoln Center which hosts the filmmakers and includes the Q&A time and parties, etc. The second part is a focus on documentary at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, and the third part at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) coincides with the African dance festival, and this part repeats some of the films from the previous year along with other films of interest, some old, some new. Unfortunately, I had to travel during the Maysles and BAM parts this year.

The new movies that I saw at Lincoln Center were Freda (directed by Gessica Généus, Haiti), Vuta K’Kuvute/Tug of War (directed by Amil Shivji, Tanzania), Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste a l’Opéra (directed by Charles Castella, France), and Ayaanle (directed by Ahmed Farah, Somalia and Kenya). In addition to these new films, I also saw an old film made in 1982: Jom, the Story of a People (directed by Ababacar Samb-Makharam, Senegal.) I also attended a seminar with the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima and another seminar about “social impact cinema” on the topic of water scarcity and climate change. In addition to the films I saw in the theater, this year, for the first time, the festival tried a hybrid format. This was something learned from the COVID pandemic lockdown. What this meant is that some films were streamed online instead of projected in theaters, and so, in the comfort of my own home, I watched Juju Stories (directed by Abba T. Makama, Michael Omonua, and C.J. Obasi, Nigeria) and The Gravedigger’s Wife (directed by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, Somalia and Finland.) There were many films I didn’t have time to see, because, of course, I’m also a professor and it was in the middle of my school’s final exam week, but you can see the Lincoln Center schedule [here].

On Thursday at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, I watched the new Haitian movie Freda, and after the film, its director Gessica Généus was there to talk with the audience. This was the opening night for the festival, and the theater was packed. Some special guests were dressed up for the invite-only after-party. My friend and I were a bit star struck when we discovered also sitting in the audience was the glamorous Senegalese-French actress Aïssa Maïga, and we were somewhat disappointed that we weren’t going to attend the after-party. (But to be honest, I’m a little shy anyways.)

This film is about a young woman named Freda and her relations with her mother, sister, and boyfriend during a time of political protest in Haiti in 2018. Some shots of the political protest will feel shockingly real to the audience, and as the director later explained to us when she was asked about that, that’s because they are — these are not recreated dramatizations, but shots they took while they were there experiencing the protests. These political events and conversations Freda has with her fellow college students about them are only part of the context for the story. The film really centers the daily experiences of the three women as they do their best to manage their lives. Freda’s sister is a light-skinned beauty who seeks to marry a wealthy man, but sadly this man turns out to be abusive. Freda’s boyfriend is an artist who wants her to leave Haiti with him for a better life, while her mother struggles to save face and find spiritual salvation from a history of sexual violence. Meanwhile, Freda and her sister enjoy listening to hip hop and reggae music at the local club. The film layers the various dimensions of social reality and complex issues that affect their lives in a way that is beautiful and rewarding. One thing that I appreciated is how the film does not aim to judge or moralize, but allows us to appreciate and respect the difficult decisions that the characters have to make even if those decisions turn out to have unfortunate consequences. This includes a very sensitive exploration of the sadness and dilemma of Freda’s romantic, artist boyfriend. Freda is certainly a film to look out for, and I am confident that it will soon become available on some streaming platform.

The audience was deeply moved by this major achievement by a Haitian filmmaker, and when you attend the NYAFF, it’s always the case that the audience is global, coming from all over the world. One member of the audience from a different island in the Caribbean, exclaimed, “when I watch your film, I see my country in your country.” And truly, his comment epitomizes the soul of the NYAFF — comradery across cultures and nations among people of color from all over the world. The festival is a place where universal experience is discovered and rediscovered in films about unique situations.

The next night, Friday, I saw Tug of War, which is a beautifully composed, romantic historical drama set on the island of Zanzibar in the year 1954. It is adapted from the popular Swahili novel Vuta N’Kuvute by Adam Shafi. The film tells the love story between an African communist revolutionary named Denge, who is fighting to liberate Tanzania from British colonial rule, and an Indian-Zanzibari women named Yasmin, who is running from an abusive marriage with an older man. Their love reinforces the development of their political consciousness. The film is expertly shot, and the cinematography of some scenes may remind one of another period-piece drama, the famous film about Hong Kong in the 1960s by Wong-kar Wai, In the Mood for Love. The film also aims to be rooted in Zanzibari history, and as the director explained, they did a lot of archival research to truly capture the music and imagery of the 1950s. Since the colonial archive is biased from the perspective of the white male colonizer, the director explained how they needed to deconstruct that archive to excavate the stories and sounds of that time period from the perspective of ordinary people who found joy in their music and their society even as they also organized to change their world.

On Saturday, I attended a seminar about decolonizing cinema by the famous Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, whose important film Sankofa (1993) was recently re-released on Netflix. For those familiar with Haile’s many published interviews and statements (i.e., see Tekletsadick Belachew’s annotated bibliography of them), he’s been making pretty much the same argument repeatedly since the early 1980s, but for those aspirating filmmakers encountering him for the first time, I can imagine how his energetically combative and humorously sarcastic speaking style would be inspiring. What was perhaps a special and unexpected treat for me was that in his seminar he showed us two of the first short films he made while a young film student at UCLA. These films have only recently become available because of the UCLA Film Archive’s efforts to preserve, digitize, and make accessible the films of what has been dubbed the “L.A. Rebellion” — those early black filmmakers in the 1970s who began to theorize and practice alternatives to the hegemonic Hollywood system. After this, I got some lunch and then attended a presentation of short films by the Let’s Talk about Water program and representatives from the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) who had partnered together to make films with community stakeholders in various African countries about water issues. The short films were illuminating, though two of them seemed somewhat problematic, one-sided representations of rather singular political viewpoints. After this stimulating event, I decided that instead of staying for more films, I should go home and run a few miles and take care of my own health.

Sunday, I returned to watch two films. First, Abderrahmane Sissako, un cinéaste a l’Opéra is a documentary film directed by Charles Castella about an opera being put together for the French stage by one of the most successful and respected African filmmakers (the only one to ever win an Academy award). The documentary explores Abderrahmane Sissako’s creative process, the challenges of the COVID pandemic, and his teamwork with other artists such as the rock musician Damon Albarn. Just a few weeks before the American premier of this movie at NYAFF, Sissako’s opera Le Vol du Boli was performed in France at the Theatre du Chatelet, and there is hope that the performance might travel to other countries. The opera engages with the history of the rapprochement between Africa and Europe told through the metaphorical concept of the “Boli” — the figure of a buffalo that for the Mandika ethnic group is a sacred symbol of spiritual and political power. The conversation with the audience after the film took a surprising turn. First ensued a debate about the question of translation and the use of the word “fetish” to describe the Boli. Second was one of the actors in the opera, Baba Sissoko, happened to be a real “griot” (traditional African storyteller), and whenever he was asked a question, he would answer through a poetic song. At one point, he spontaneously broke out in a moving song praising the organizer of the festival, Mahen Bonetti, who was there in the audience. The festival’s capable young translator deftly translated the song line by line for the audience.

The next film was one of two Somali films at the NYAFF, and this is significant since fall-out from the Somalia’s civil war in the early 1990s interrupted and hampered the development of Somali cinema. (A detailed history of Somali cinema can be found in the chapter by Daniele Comberiatti in the book Cine-Ethiopia: The History and Politics of Film in the Horn of Africa.) I believe this year was the first year the NYAFF has ever featured any Somali cinema, so it’s significant that it’s not just one film, but two. We might hope that the organizers of the the NYAFF or some other African film festival can find a way to have a retrospective screening of the earlier era of post-independence Somali cinema, such as the films of Abdulkadir Ahmed Said — The Somali Dervish (1983) and Sea Shell (1992) — as well as the film Dan Iyo Xarrago, by Idriss Hassan Dirie,1973. Such a retrospective, I might imagine, could also include Somali co-productions made at the end of the colonial era such as Horn of Africa (Hussein Mabrouk, 1961), Love ma yaqaan dhibaatooyinka hortaagan (Hussein Mabrouk, 1961), and Miyi Iyo Magaalo (Hajji Cagakombe, 1963).

The new film Ayaanle was made by an international team of Somalis currently living in Minnesota and Kenya. It focuses on the experience of Somalis who face discrimination from corrupt police officers in Nairobi, and in doing so aims to counter the stereotype of Somalis as violent terrorists that the toxic Hollywood cinema and western news media promotes. However, the movie’s story is essentially a spy thriller and case of mistaken identity, as an aspiring young Somali actor is mistaken for a real terrorist after filming himself pretending to be one. He is recruited by the Kenyan intelligence agency to go undercover and help uncover a real terrorist network, and so the thriller plot unfolds. It is a good film, but perhaps one weakness (pointed out by a member of the audience) is that a film that aims to counter stereotypes about the violent, terrorist Somali male is in effect a film about stereotypes of the violent, terrorist Somali male. Instead, might the film have done more to follow up on the opening scenes of the movie where it showed ordinary Somali people living their lives in Nairobi. Also, even though Somali women clearly have played a powerful role in the social and political life of Nairobi, for instance, in the organized protests against ethnic discrimination (which is briefly shown in the film), the perspectives of women in the film are a bit flat. Nevertheless, the genre of the film is a suspense, action thriller, and a good story for all that.

Completely different from Ayaanle is the other Somali film at NYAFF, The Gravedigger’s Wife, which I streamed at home. This cinematically beautiful movie is about the deep love between a husband and wife on the outskirts of Djibouti. The wife Nasra is dying of a kidney infection, and ironically her husband Guled makes a living as a gravedigger. When he is informed that she can be saved by an operation that will cost $5,000 USD, he and their son Mahad engage in a noble, though also heartbreaking, quest to raise the money. By foregrounding their love for each other and for their son, as well as Guled’s friendship with his coworker, this movie (perhaps more than Ayaanle) also counters the stereotype of Somalis that saturates American media. There are deeply touching scenes such as when Nasra convinces her husband to sneak into a wedding party so that they can enjoy a last dance together before she dies. On the other hand, one criticism of the movie is that both the backstory of their romantic love and the improbable quest narrative to rescue her too closely follows Hollywood-style prescriptions that are heavily individualistic and exceptionalist. Although I was touched by the story of Guled, Nasra, and Mahad, I also found myself wondering about the other characters and the society in which they live. I have more to say about this movie, but that would entail an entirely separate blog post or essay, so I would love to talk about it with others. Both movies left me hopeful for the future of Somali cinema and eager for different sorts of stories.

Typically, the last day of the NYAFF at Lincoln Center is reserved for a retrospective on an older film. Often these films are not available on VHS, DVD, or streaming, so watching them at a festival such as NYAFF is the only way one can see them. For example, in previous years (before the COVID pandemic), I was able to see Ola Balogun’s Black Goddess (1978) and Med Hondo’s Sarraounia (1986).

This year, the film was Jom, the Story of a People, directed by Ababacar Samb-Makharam of Senegal in 1982. The main character of this film is a griot, who tells stories about heroes from Senegal’s history who exhibit the quality of “jom” which roughly translates as dignity, integrity, or courage. One of these historical figures is Dierri Dior Ndella, a Wolof prince who killed a French administrator in 1905 in open rebellion to colonial rule, and later, rather than submit, committed suicide. The second is Koura Thiaw, a celebrated dancer in the 1940s, who used her dance to lampoon the Senegalese bourgeoisie and express solidarity with the working classes. This segment of the film includes a wonderful scene of African dance. The context for the griot singing songs about the past is a present where the labor union is in the midst of a strike for better wages and protection of their rights. Some members of the union are being bribed to undermine the strike, but the leader of the union, as well as a collective of women in the community, exhibit the “jom” that Dierri Dior Ndella and Koura Thiaw possessed. As one might expect of films from this time period (e.g., the films of Ousmane Sembene), this film expertly blends traditional African narrative structures with cinematic form in a way that provocatively juxtaposes past and present to make a pedagogically political statement about the future direction of Senegal.

After watching the film, I did a little research and found a good review by Mohammed Mbodji [here] that explained the historical contexts that we see in the film. I also found some discussion of it in my copy of Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike’s classic book on Black African Cinema. Mbodji usefully points to some of the problems of the film that may help explain why it wasn’t as successful and well-known as it might have been. The problem, Mbodji argues, is that when a film cherry-picks details from history that are meant to have allegorical significance for the present, it leaves itself open to criticism that will bring up other historical information not in the film. In this case, the fact that Dierri Dior Ndella was a slave trader, and he was rebelling against the French administration because he wanted to maintain his trade in enslaved Africans. Moreover, the timing of the film was unfortunate, since the concept “jom” was then part of the campaign slogan of “jom, kersa, mun” (dignity, restraint, patience) for President Senghor, who had to resign his political position in 1980 just months before the film was released. The people of Senegal were perhaps interested in a new kind of story in 1981. Nevertheless, I felt lucky to be given the chance to see this film, as it represents a unique moment in African film history that was important for its development.

In sum, I had a wonderful time, and as always, my heart was inspired, and my brain was provoked to think.

The Hollywood Stylings of Harriet Tubman

3 Nov

This Friday, a couple friends and I went to see the opening night of Harriet, the new movie about one of the most iconic and celebrated abolitionists, Harriet Tubman. It has received many positive reviews, including the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, many of which point out that it’s not just a film about slavery but a film that also reflects on Tubman’s inner life, her romantic self-hood, her powerful relationship to her family, and gender roles. Indeed, signalling the centrality of such themes, the movie opens with Tubman having one of her sleeping spells that give her powerful visions, after which her family comes to get her so that they can present a legal petition for their freedom to their owner, which is of course rejected.  This scene is followed by a tender scene with her husband, as they think together about how to achieve freedom. Most of the movie then proceeds to tell the story of Tubman’s rise to heroic status, where her famously peculiar “spells” are not a disability for her adventures but give her something of a “super-ability” to predict the future and evade the dogs of slave catchers in action-packed chase sequences where she narrowly escapes or bravely confronts her pursuers. As we exited the theater, I  exclaimed to my friends that Tubman is a Jedi master, and awesomely so, but, as I discovered later on the internet, my humorous analogy is not actually that far off from the intention of the writers, directors, and actors who, in interviews, have compared her to super-heroes like Spider-Man and her “spells” to a “Spidey-sense.”

Although all of the usual media outlets are busy celebrating this movie as the first movie about Harriet Tubman, prefacing their praise with wonder why there hasn’t been any other movies made about her before now, it might be worthwhile to keep in mind that when magazine, newspaper, and TV reviewers (mostly white people) say, “oh, this is the first time there’s been a film about X or Y black subject,” what they often really mean is that it’s the first time for them. We can recall when reviewers were so excited about 12 Years a Slave being THE first movie to represent the horror of slavery, not noticing that exactly the same story (adapting the 1854 book by Solomon Northup) had been made before for PBS by the famous African-American director Gordan Parks in 1984 — all of which I wrote about back then on this blog [here]. It’s a bit like the statement that Columbus discovered America without noticing that there were people already there. So, the afternoon before we went to see the movie, I took a trip to the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library and watched “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” directed by Paul Stanley, starring the sensational Ruby Dee as Tubman alongside Ossie Davies and Brock Peters, broadcast on CBS in 1965. Remarkably like the new feature-length movie, the old 1965 dramatization for television also focuses on Tubman’s inner life and family — precisely the things the new 2019 version is being praised for — this older 1965 version perhaps drawing inspiration from the Y.A. biography of her published in 1955 by the famous writer Ann Petry (thanks and shout outs to my friend Miles for teaching me about that work.) Conveniently for you, you don’t also have to go to the special research branch of the New York library, but can watch it here on YouTube.

My point in bringing up this previous version is not to say that there’s nothing new about the new one. Because there is a lot new about the new one, and the acting, cinematography, and story-telling in the new one are all quite excellent, the way that Hollywood movies are so often technically excellent with their large budgets and resources. And the new one even offers us something very exciting, as I hope you will see in my concluding paragraph to my blog post. Rather, my point is to suggest that we can read Harriet in the context of all of the other movies about slavery that your average critic for whatever magazine, newspaper, or TV show will not bring up, because they probably haven’t seen them. For instance, another recent example of Tubman on the screen (that I haven’t seen mentioned in reviews of Harriet, surprisingly) would include episode six, season two of the show Underground, which aired in April 2017 and which was a truly remarkable piece of television since the entire episode was a single monologue by Tubman that inventively wove the issues of 1850s with the issue of the Trump-era today. Whatever it is you think you’ve seen on TV before, trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this — a 45 minute monologue ripping white America apart and declaring war by any means necessary on the institution of slavery by an iconic Tubman, all in a single camera take. But in addition to all of the innovative new television and film about slavery coming out in recent years (e.g., the movie Belle that I wrote about for this blog in 2013), there is also a long history of efforts by black and white writers and directors to dramatize for the screen the horrors of slavery and the awesome resilience of enslaved peoples, that I have been researching and first published an account of in my chapter on “Cinematic Slavery” in the book The Cinematic Eighteenth Century, published in 2017.

What struck me about Harriet was not its uniqueness, but precisely how it did exactly what one would expect it to do (if you had read my chapter on cinematic slavery, wink wink), considering Hollywood conventions about dramatizing slavery and how the genre of cinematic slavery has evolved over time in dialogue with the Marxism, Civil Rights Movement, and Pan-Africanism that blossomed in the 1960s as well as the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements more recently.

So, I want to compare Harriet to some of these other films just to indicate what a story could be, in contrast to the way that Hollywood does it.

First, what do I mean by the Hollywood style. Put simply, the Hollywood style requires a rearrangement of history to maximize the individual heroism of the subject. As a summary by Slate and another summary by the Smithsonian of all the historical inaccuracies in the film suggests, the movie focuses on her exceptional super-abilities and unique heroism. For example, in the movie version, even the Fugitive Slave Act seems to have been passed because the South was frightened of Tubman’s ability to free slaves, when in fact, the passage of this law happened before she had freed more than a few. In Hollywood, all history is rearranged around the exceptional heroism of the main character in order to magnify their uniqueness and historical significance, making heroism the causal factor in the unfolding of history. In the movie, Tubman is able to accomplish all that she accomplishes because God speaks to her and because of her strength of will. Ironically, in a film presumably about the Underground Railroad, the role of the Underground Railroad is sometimes minimized — the vast network pops up here and there as a resource for Tubman, but for the most part the movie characterizes Tubman as someone who defies the Underground organization and instead accomplishes everything by herself — alone — rather than as part of a political network.

Some of the historical inaccuracies are telling about how Hollywood carefully aims to avoid offending white audiences, so, for example, her white former master (a character invented for the screen and not based in history) is given perhaps more screen time than almost any other character (more screen time than Janelle Monae’s character, whom I think we’d all much rather see, and more screen time than the iconic Frederick Douglass, who had scarcely a line); repeatedly, the audience is subject to this white man’s tortured feelings for her because of their childhood relationship, tortured feelings that for no apparent reason are made to seem… um… relevant?…Blah. We saw this before in the movie Belle about a biracial heroine whose black mother was taken out of the original script to be replaced by the producers with a incredibly sensitive white father… Gah. Also historically impossible would be the presence in the movie of gun-toting black men working as slave catchers below the Mason Dixon line; but in fact, the law prohibiting black people from owning guns was one of the very first laws passed in the British colonies of North America. Another curious detail is how a black church in Maryland occupies a special place on the Underground Railroad, a historical improbability since black ministers were not allowed to have their own churches at this time. All of these details serve to appeal to a white, middle-class viewing audience who want to see that there was some black-on-black violence, not just white-on-black violence, and that although the church may have been a bit imperfect at times, it was mostly for the good of us all, and that white people could be very conflicted emotionally about slavery, boohoo. Sorry, not sorry, for my sarcasm.

But most importantly for me is the issue of whether Harriet is some kind of exceptional super-hero accomplishing incredible feats on her own or part of a larger political movement and complex social network. This is a more complicated question that, I think, requires us to situate the new movie in cinema history. Certainly the real Tubman was exceptional and incredible, I don’t mean to express doubt about that, but also just as certainly, she was part of a broad social movement and sophisticated political organization.

So, how might a Pan-African filmmaker tell the story of Tubman? Pan-African films such as Sankofa by Haile Gerima, Ceddo by Ousmane Sembene, and Black Goddess by Ola Balugun (which I’ve written about [here] in another blog) tend to focus on the support systems and deep cultural resources of the black community. One of the key differences between a Hollywood film and a Pan-African film would be the characterization of religion. So, while in the Hollywood Harriet, the Christian church is an ally for her escape, in the Pan-African Sankofa it is African spirituality and culture that is the ally, while the church is what betrays the rebellion. Likewise, Marxist cinema such as the classics Burn! by Pontecorvo and Last Supper by Alea paint the church as a hypocritical institution. It is probably worth mentioning that Harriet Tubman’s fellow abolitionists in the 1850s, Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, were closer to the Marxist viewpoint in their own direct analysis of the problematic double-role of the church as on the one hand serving the interest of the power structure while on the other hand preaching salvation to the slave. It is to the credit of the movie Harriet that it subtly indicates the complicated position of the church in relation to slavery. Historically, both scenarios were possible — sometimes the church was a resource for slaves, but other times it was the church that served as a source of intelligence for the white master in order to maintain control of his slaves through soft, indirect ways that supplemented the raw brutality of domination. Hollywood movies, including Harriet, tend to lean far in one direction in its representation, while Pan-Africanist and Marxist cinema tend to lean far in the other direction. Moreover, what Marxist and Pan-African cinema will emphasize instead of the heroic individual is the heroic community struggling to maintain solidarity and a unified voice. One might guess why Hollywood would shy away from the kinds of stories preferred by Pan-Africanists and Marxists, since the story of an empowered community of black people in mass revolt is a whole lot more scary to the white establishment than the story of an exceptional individual with superpowers constantly in a state of anxious flight.

I mention these other films not to say that Harriet is bad, because I do really think it’s good, but just to remind viewers that other stories are possible. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoyed watching a superhero Tubman, constantly in motion, as if running to the theme song from Chariots of Fire. But my point is that you wouldn’t know that other stories are possible if you only watch Hollywood stuff and read the reviews in American media. You also won’t really appreciate what is unique and interesting about Harriet.

What I think is actually great about Harriet is precisely the scenes with the other members of the Underground Railroad — how the many men and women work together. Although the central story of the film is Harriet the superhero, at the same time, here and there, are scenes of solidarity, cooperation, and intelligence. And this is what I think Hollywood has actually been learning from the Marxist and Pan-Africanist cinema of the past, now that more men and women of color are gaining positions as writers, directors, and producers in the film industry and can build upon the work of past black artists and activists to come up with a better, more innovative, and more multi-voiced vision of their art. I say this because there is no doubt that Harriet is a much better film than Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad and Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, both of which focus on the exceptional heroism of white men on behalf of enslaved people rather than on the political solidarity and cultural resources within the black community. In addition, in many ways Harriet is a much better movie than Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis’s 1965 production, not just because it has a bigger budget and fancier cinematography, but also precisely because now black writers and directors can imagine (and not be prohibited from imagining by the production companies) such complicated political networks and cultural forms of solidarity, while the 1965 film was limited to dramatizing Tubman’s relationship to her family. I think we can appreciate Harriet in the context of cinema history as so many young and amazing artists, writers, and directors, now more of them women of color than ever, are able to lend their artistic vision to how the past informs our movement into the future.

Go see it for yourself, and then please comment on my blog if you think I’m wrong or have missed something important. Moreover, now that the American media industry is congratulating itself on finally making a movie about Harriet Tubman to prepare the way for her face on the 20-dollar bill, can they get to work on making movies about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…?


Alternative Black Superhero Movies for 2019: Supa Modo and Fast Color

4 Jun

One of the things I love about living in New York is its annual African Film Festival, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Maysles Cinema every year in May. One of the many movies that I enjoyed this year was a new Kenyan film directed by Likarian Wainaina: Supa Modo, a heartwarming story about a young girl named Jo with an incurable disease and only a month to live who loves superhero comics and movies. After Jo’s sister and mother argue with each other about whether to indulge her fantasy about having super powers during the final weeks of her life, the town ultimately comes together to make their own superhero movie with Jo in the starring role. It is a film not just about the importance of fantasy and story-telling in our lives, but also about how communities come together around stories. In a sense, the real superhero for the town ends up being the town itself.

At a moment in time when the Marvel and DC comic book universes are churning out productions each costing more than $300 million apiece, such as the never-ending Avengers series, what is also remarkable about Supa Modo is its showing us the joy of low-budget film-making. And it reminded me of another low-budget black superhero movie I saw a month earlier, Fast Color, directed by Julia Hart, about a young woman with a troubled past who can’t control her super powers in a post-apocalyptic, rural American landscape suffering from drought, where water has become the most precious commodity. It alludes to the deep inter-generational knowledge passed from mother to daughter as the family tries to evade those who want to appropriate and weaponize her super powers. It dramatizes the ways in which a “super ability” can also be experienced by the individual who has it as a “disability.” What both of these films offer is an alternative kind of black superhero, not one in which high-tech special effects unleash seemingly unlimited destruction, but one in which both fantasy and human community can play a hopeful and creative role in positively transforming the mundane realities of ordinary suffering and a character’s inner psychology.

And so I wanted to write about these two movies (and encourage everyone to see them) in the context of the most well-known black superhero movie. You know what I’m talking about. Unless you live under a rock, you remember how in February last year (2018), you and probably everyone you knew was going to see the Black Panther movie, not just once, but twice, or maybe even three times. It broke box office records worldwide. And if you happen to live in a culturally diverse city such as New York (like I do), it was also a cultural event, where people dressed up to go see it, and I don’t just mean “dressed up” like they put on a nice shirt and slacks or a pretty dress. I mean they dressed up to represent — perhaps representing their heritage or perhaps styling themselves towards a futuristic aspiration, blending a little sci-fi with that heritage. My wife proudly donned the traditional clothes of the Wollega region of her own Oromo people in Ethiopia when we went to go see it. And you may also remember how, in March of that year, complete strangers on the street or colleagues at work gave you the Wakanda Forever salute, crossed arms across their chest. It was a moment of black pride, the first blockbuster movie with an African superhero presenting a positive image of Africa — a futuristic image of an alternative African history, imagining perhaps what Africa might have been all along on the silver screen had it not been colonized and had not the racist stereotypes of that continent so thoroughly saturated global popular culture. Meanwhile, across Africa, moviegoers from Accra and Lagos to Nairobi and Addis Ababa debated how the movie had appropriated or represented aspects of their ethnic groups or cultural histories.

What I remember thinking back then, however, is that this Hollywood movie about Africa might once again so overwhelm the market that, ironically, it would make it even harder for the local film industries in African countries to compete with Hollywood’s hegemony. If you think back to ten or twenty years ago, local industries across the continent from Nigeria and Cote I’voire to Kenya and Ethiopia had finally started to emerge and develop a solid audience base. The movie industry that I participate in, and have written about, is Ethiopia’s, which produced only a handful of movies back in 2005 but was producing roughly 100 movies per year by the time Black Panther hit the scene. The movie theaters in Addis Ababa that two decades ago showed mostly Hollywood and Bollywood movies were now showing almost exclusively locally produced movies when I lived there and taught in the new masters program in film at Addis Ababa University in 2016. One of the big selling points of local black cinema is that it actually features characters and tells stories that resemble their audiences. It expresses not only their culture, but often, as in the case of Supa Modo — which is a movie about our relationship to movies — also expresses the positionality of their local culture (i.e., Kenyan or Ethiopian movies) in relation to the hegemony of the more dominant global culture (Hollywood movies). All the hype about Black Panther being this amazing representation of Africa would, I feared, not encourage people to take real African cinema seriously but might even distract African viewing publics from watching their own cinema.

After all, we can think of other African superhero movies or what is sometimes referred to as “Afrofuturism.” Afofuturism has a long history. For example, Yeelen, directed by Souleyman Cisse from Mali in 1987, ranks highly as a classic of world cinema. It was, in my view, unfortunate that all the mainstream American media hype about the achievement of Black Panther didn’t recommend Americans to also go watch Yeelen. Based on a Bambara epic about a conflict between father and son over the future of their people, its “universal” mythological structure in some ways resembles Star Wars, as this video mash-up of scenes from Yeelen overlaid with the music from Star Wars suggests.


As much as I enjoyed Black Panther (and clearly, I did, since I saw it twice in the movie theater when it came out and will definitely see it again), Supa Modo and Fast Color were emotionally more satisfying. After all, there were many aspects of Black Panther that frustrated critics. For example, many wondered, as this Boston Review article did, why the ultimate “bad guy” in a film about black solidarity was the African-American male (and not a white colonizer). The movie’s representation of the Black Panther political party and the history of black liberation struggle of the 1960s and 70s was superficial at best. At worst, it sometimes seemed that the history of Pan-African solidarity was intentionally replaced in the movie by a benevolent king whose wealth is extracted from a unique natural resource. This is a problematic notion to be sure considering the current political conflicts across Africa as factions fight for control of exactly such mineral wealth in the service of European and American multinational corporations whose industries depend on them. Considering historically the role of the American C.I.A. in overthrowing democratically elected African leaders and propping up warlords in the service of such neo-colonial corporations, it is problematic, to say the least, that in the Black Panther movie the hapless C.I.A. agent in the film (Everett Ross) is the ally of Wakanda while the orphaned descendant of the Black Panther Party (Killmonger) is its enemy. The fantasy of the movie reverses the polarities of history.

Moreover, as Gregory Pierrot has shown, in many ways the movie taps into an earlier 500-year history of European fantasy about African royalty and heroism that has always had a curiously fraught and problematic relationship to the discourse of slavery. The concept of the Black Panther was, after all, originally invented by a white guy in the context of white superheros and popular Hollywood stereotypes about Africa in the 1960s. The new comic books by Ta-Nehisi Coates — more clearly and directly than the movie — confront the inherent contradiction at the heart of the Black Panther story between cultural stereotypes of African royalty and the desire for more democratic forms of representation.

Movies such as Supa Modo and Fast Color are self-conscious of their position in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not in a simple way. In Supa Modo, for the main character Jo, the Hollywood superheroes are not white or black. In other words, Superman does not represent the “American way” for Jo. Rather, they are what the scholarly field of semiotics calls “floating signifiers” evoking for varying contexts the fantasy of empowerment and the aspirations of our shared humanity. It is not that Jo as an individual overcomes her biological limitations by appropriating American culture. It is the African community who reflects on its values and reconsiders how it organizes itself as they come together to make their own superhero movie.  Moreover, the movie wisely evades the cheap sentimentalism of a stereotypical disabled character when Jo reveals her awareness of her sister’s attempt to indulge her fantasy life.


Supa Modo

Likewise, in Fast Color, the main character Ruth has spent a good part of her adult life trying to suppress and deny her super-ability through drug abuse. Her mother had also  hidden her abilities from the world for fear of how the public would treat her and the risk it would pose to her family. Here, the movie hints at the history of discrimination and oppression of black women. Meanwhile, the world around them seems to be caught in a terminal spiral of environmental decline, and this is not because of any singularly evil character. The movie is not a simplistic and shallow fight between good and evil where the complicated troubles of humanity are displaced onto a monstrous individual. The real “enemy” in the background of this film is climate change. And the solution, it seems, is the hidden wisdom possessed by black women.

fast color image

And this hidden wisdom neither is a fantasy nor is it hidden. We should recall the very real philosophy and environmental feminist activism of Wangari Mathai in Kenya, the leader of the Greenbelt Movement and winner of the Nobel Peace prize. And considering the Greenbelt Movement’s practice of planting trees and using traditional cultural forms of maintaining nature in response to the social problems caused by deforestation, we might enjoy another “Afrofuturist” short film that I first experienced at the New York African Film Festival several years ago, “Pumzi” (directed by Wanuri Kahiu) about the role of imagination to confront deforestation and climate change.

Reflections on Genre and the Cinematic Eighteenth Century

22 Dec

In this blog post I’m going to try something a bit unusual and think critically about my own work. A few months ago, my colleague Srividhya Swaminathan and I published a collection of essays that we co-edited together entitled The Cinematic Eighteenth Century: History, Culture, and Adaptation for Routledge. The book includes eleven essays on various topics including one by my co-editor and one by me. Some of the ideas for my essay, “Cinematic Slavery and the Romance of Belle” were actually first expressed in this blog — in the three reviews I did of the movies Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave. and Belle. After writing those reviews and after receiving some positive feedback from colleagues, I was inspired to go do more thorough research on the topic, audit a class on African Cinema at NYU, and teach an undergraduate class on it… and voilà.

Here’s what I think our book does that’s groundbreaking. We put together some terrific essays by brilliant scholars, and one could read each one individually, but I think reading them all together is the real pay-off, because then you get a sense of the rich diversity of the eighteenth century and how different issues connect. As the chapter by Jodi L Wyett aptly demonstrates, adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Sense and Sensibility are remarkably varied in how they represent gender relations. But I think we might also think about gender and feminist ideas in terms of other issues such as piracy or slavery or the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Jane Austen would have been aware of all those other issues also, so our hope is that after reading our book one will take away richer sense of the interconnections among these different subjects and a fuller appreciation for real potential of the eighteenth century for film and for popular culture today. An essay by Ula Lukszo Klein tackle subjects such as homosexuality in movies such as The Duchess; essays by Dorothée Polanz and Elizabeth Kraft give a historical view of the centuries of commodification of the celebrity figures Marie Antoinette and Charles II; and Jennifer Preston Wilson analyzes how the camera techniques depict the mental illness and treatment of King George III. My own essay looks at the movie Belle, which is a film that takes the plot structure and setting of a Jane Austen novel, inserts a bi-racial heroine, and brilliantly uses that form to narrate complicated debates about the insurance industry’s relationship to slavery.

Other essays in the book do interesting things with genre. In a lot of scholarship, adaptations of novels to the screen are analyzed in one place while historical period dramas are analyzed in another place. But although scholars may categorize movies this way, I don’t think people who go to theaters always think like that. My colleague Srividhya Swaminathan’s essay on pirates theorizes the concept of the “transcoded mosaic” to show how the new TV shows Crossbones and Black Sails actually mix and mash together a little adaptation here, a little historical fiction there, with a lot of inventive storytelling to add more diversity to the characters. The chapter by Kyle Pivetti looks at how a sci-fi movie The Martian adapts Robinson Crusoe to twenty-first century economic ideologies; the chapter by Courtney Hoffman analyzes how the TV show Outlander uses time travel to prompt critical reflection on women’s history. Likewise, National Treasure uses the detective thriller form to portray the history of the Declaration of Independence (in highly inaccurate and politically misguided ways, of course, as the essay by Colin Ramsey in our collection explains.) And of course, lest we only think of the eighteenth century as something a bit stodgy or serious, another essay by Sarah Stein and Robert Vork shows how the TV satire Blackadder mocks the whole enterprise of making films about the eighteenth century. Point being, the different essays in our book speak to each other.

Nevertheless, since our book has been published, I’ve been thinking more about some of the issues we raise, including what the eighteenth century signifies globally in world cinema and what sorts of genres of film encode the different time periods. For example, the “pirate movie” is usually about the time period roughly 1680 to 1730 (the so-called “golden age of piracy”) while the “western” is usually about the 1860s to 1890s, and kung-fu movies are seen as having a different geography and temporality altogether. But let’s take the movie Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee in 1995. This movie is usually talked about in relation to other Jane Austen adaptations. But Ang Lee’s other most famous film is a kung-fu movie (a.k.a., the Wuxia genre), Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (produced in 2000) one of the most successful kung-fu movies of the twenty-first century and famous for encouraging more international collaborations in an increasingly global movie industry. We might note that the setting for Sense and Sensibility is England in the 1790s, and the setting for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is China in 1778 — remarkably the historical moments are just a few years apart from each other, but in terms of geography and genre, they seem worlds apart. And yet, Ang Lee’s two films are not so different from each other. Both movies foreground friendship and equality against cultural expectations of marriage and class distinction.

What might it do for us to reconsider a Jane Austen adaptation in relation to other film genres and other contexts? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a popular hit, but we might think more globally, as one of the contributors to our collection Dorothée Polanz remarked during an eighteenth-century studies conference in Toronto this past October that a lot of Japanese manga appropriate literary and historical figures from eighteenth-century Europe for their stories.

I think there’s a lot more to say about genre in a global context than we did in our book, so I’m hoping some new scholars will come along and pick up where we left off. The thing about genre is that it always must fulfill the audience’s expectations in some way, but the formula is not actually so rigid as one might think. Truly, the delight for the audience is in the innovation — how a movie, TV show, comic book, video game, or YouTube sketch might play with those expectations and perhaps uses the conventions of one genre to shed light upon another.

I’m curious what other examples people might know of such genre-mixing that pertains to an international eighteenth century. Please feel free to comment on this blog post to share some examples and your thoughts about them.


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 engender 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 Saintonge 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 “Boneshaker” 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 render 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 cultural locations 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.