African Cinema: Invisible Classics

Film still for African Cinema: Invisible Classics

African cinema boasts a rich, exhilarating ferment of styles and themes and major directing talents to rival those of any other continent. How is it, then, that its masterworks are so hard to see in the west, wonders Mark Cousins

Donald Rumsfeld was half right. There's what we know we know, and there's what we don't know we don't know. What he didn't say is that, in between, there's what we (in the north) have heard of, what we know we should know, but which remains penumbral. In this mental shadowland lies a world of cinema: film-makers as significant as Martin Scorsese, as discrepant as Orson Welles; imagery as mythic as that of Sergei Paradjanov or Nicolas Roeg; life stories with the amplitude of Francis Ford Coppola's. These are films from a continent three times the size of the US, with more than 50 countries, over 1,000 languages, and nearly 300 film-makers in the Francophone territories alone. Many of us know something about Ousmane Sembène or Djibril Diop Mambéty, but their films don't become obsessions, something we rave about when drunk, or need to own, or show to lovers, or give to friends. Should they? Let's see.

The northern hemisphere invented cinema and set the ball rolling. East Asia ran with it and from the 1930s gave it new pace and direction. Africa, however, didn't get a decent touch until 1935 when the MISR film studio in Cairo became the first of its kind in the African (or Arab) world. Its output was mostly formulaic comedies and musicals, but films like Kamal Selim's The Will (1939) showed more serious potential. The Egyptian Youssef Chahine built on that potential with the seminal Cairo Station (1958) - polygeneric, prefiguring Hitchcock's Psycho, and laying the foundation stone for Arab film-making. Fuelled by Nasserian socialism, Chahine was the first of Africa's directors to see that the continent's cinema would be energised by decolonisation. At the inaugural Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in 1966 he declared that "freedom of expression is not given, it is taken", later adding: "I'm the first world. I've been here for 7,000 years."

New alliances forged at 1955's Bandung conference of African and Asian states in Indonesia and the wind of self-determination in Africa fanned the flames, and by the mid-1960s the idea of indigenous African cinema had caught fire. Egypt continued to have a functioning film industry and Algeria started making great work like Ahmed Rachedi's Dawn of the Damned (1965), but it was in sub-Saharan Francophone Senegal that the promise burned brightest. There, in 1965, three years before the first major American film directed by a black person, African cinema's second artistic father-figure emerged. Most of those who followed were born into educated middle-class families,

but Ousmane Sembène started as a bricklayer, became a Citroën factory worker and eventually a novelist. Like Chahine, he was angry, a Marxist who pointed out in his seminal paper ‘Man Is Culture' that the word ‘art' doesn't exist in any of the languages of West Africa. Such talk makes him sound didactic, but if he's often accused of preaching, that's only because he has taken on most of the big issues of his time. From 1966's La Noire de..., through the hilarious Xala in 1974, Sembène tackled gender. In Camp de Thiaroye (1988) he tracked the tirailleurs senegalais, the black African troops who fought for French colonial armies. Ceddo was ballsy in 1976, but consider its theme now: the arrival of Islam in 19th-century West Africa. Like Euro-Christianity, it brings violence and forces compliance; its advocates are fanatics, blind to cultural freedoms. The film ends with the local Wolof princess shooting an imam.

Such range made Sembène not so much a state-of-the-nation film-maker as a state-of-the-continent one, the John Ford of Africa. In his monograph on Sembène, David Murphy quotes Edward Said as saying that in his films we see "the transformation from filiation to affiliation": the change in society from blood relations to civic ones. Sembène's work is all about rethinking and modernisation, and by the mid-1970s his voice had been joined by others. In Mauritania in 1970 Med Hondo had made Soleil O, the first, greatest, incandescent film about African immigrants. Safi Faye's feature debut, the first film by a black African woman, was the beautiful Letter from My Village (Senegal, 1975). In the same year Algeria won the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Mohamed Lakhdar-Hamina's Chronicle of the Years of Embers, shot on 70mm. Still in 1975, Hailé Gerima's Godardian Harvest: 3,000 Years not only put Ethiopia on the film-making map but, with lines like "Is there anywhere in the world where there are no flies or Europeans?", turned African cinema white hot. Sembène had said, "You don't tell a story for revenge but to find your place in the world", and now lots of African film-makers were doing so.

Those of us who were paying attention found the pace of these debuts, the rich ferment of styles and themes, exhilarating. Just as Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Bogdanovich were reinventing US film, so Sembène, Hondo, Faye, Gerima and Lakhdar-Hamina were inventing African cinema.

But to say so is to leave out Senegalese man of the theatre-turned-director Djibril Diop Mambéty. Mambéty drank like Sam Peckinpah and was as disinterested in polish and the niceties of synch sound as Orson Welles. At the age of 28 he made a caustic road movie, Touki Bouki (1973), Africa's equivalent of Easy Rider or A bout de souffle. Author of African Cinema Manthia Diawara wrote that Touki Bouki "tears up the screen with fantasies of African modernity never before seen in film" - and he was right. Mambéty, like his polar-opposite Dakar visionary Sembène, was calling forth a here-and-nowness for Africa, a cubist, layered modernity, a filiation untouched by revenge but bustling with recovery. Touki Bouki means "journey of the hyenas" and Mambéty saw the snarl of these beasts as the greedy face of the World Bank. Scandalously, it would be 20 years before he made his next feature, itself called Hyenas.

Mythic dreamtime

Even those who were following this ferment of film form were unlikely to predict what happened in the 1980s. Many African nations were forced to mortgage their economies to the IMF, and as their currencies dropped in value producers found that on average their budgets bought just one-twentieth of the film stock they had before. And African film dropped its love of the here and now, of the newly self-determined, and started to look backwards. Oral storytellers - griots - became a focus, along with village life, medieval settings, tribal culture and the world before Arab-Islam and Euro-Christianity began to dominate. Senegal was still a centre but Burkina Faso and Mali came to the fore. Their film-makers asked new questions: not ‘What do we do now that the colonisers have gone?' but ‘What were we like before they arrived?' The Maghreb film-makers of the north and the black African masters Sembène, Mambéty and Hondo were joined by three new directors of world class: Burkina Faso's Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo, and Mali's Souleymane Cissé.

Kaboré's Wend Kuuni (1982), set sometime before 1800, centres on a mute boy found in the bush who is adopted by villagers. Cissé's Yeelen (1987), set around 1500, takes a young man with magical powers on an Oedipal journey into the complex cosmology of his tribe. Ouédraogo's Yaaba (1989) shows how a boy bonds with an old woman whom the locals call a witch. In these encounters with mythic dreamtime, men talk to animals and trees; in Yeelen a dog walks backwards as if he's in Notting Hill at the end of Performance.

I watched my first African film, Yeelen, in 1990 and it changed my taste in cinema. I had read Roy Armes' book Third World Film Making and the West sometime after it came out in paperback in 1987, and so carried in my head the names of African films I wanted to pursue. Armes himself had seen his first African films in Bulgaria in 1978-9. He writes: "I discovered, much to my surprise, that there was indeed an African cinema, made by African film-makers, happily removed from the Tarzan films I devoured as a child." Removed indeed: Yeelen rained on the parade of pleasures I'd experienced watching Tarzan and The African Queen and Pépé le Moko. I turned 20 when Out of Africa was released, and seeing Yeelen made it look like Edenic paternalism.

After Yeelen I sought out Hondo's Sarraounia (1986), then Yaaba (1989), then Mambéty's Touki Bouki. By this stage the escapist, erotic pleasures I'd felt watching western films about Africa had been turned upside down. I was hungry for more films from Dakar - a place, I'd decided, that was as exciting cinematically in the 1970s as LA. Why was Sembène not part of the canon of great directors, like Sergio Leone or Ingmar Bergman? And I hadn't yet heard of Hailé Gerima or Safi Faye.

Now that I was belatedly paying attention, I began to see what a feast African cinema in the 1990s was turning out to be. In the Maghreb, Morocco's Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi made the delightful comedy Looking for My Wife's Husband (1994). Tunisia fired out Férid Boughedir's Halfaouine (1990), about a 12-year-old boy negotiating the difference between female and male culture as he becomes a man; Moncef Dhouib's bleak semi-response to Boughedir's film, The Sultan of the City (1992); and Moufida Tlatli's The Silences of the Palace (1994). And from Algeria came Merzak Allouache's Bab El-Oued City (1994). These last five all challenge the reactionary elements of Islam.

Black African cinema in the 1990s was equally concerned with tolerance and modernity. In Guelwaar (1992) Sembène was again at his best, tearing into a story about attempts to find and bury a body with comic energy and humanism. In Burkina Faso, Dani Kouyate's Keita! The Voice of the Griot (1995) seemed to suck in a fusion of 1970s and 1980s African movies and breath out a dazzling portrait of a city boy who's been taught Darwinism only to be told by a griot about his mythic ancestors. Guimba the Tyrant (1995), made by Cheick Oumar Sissoko (not to be confused with Sissako), was framed by a griot too; this and Genesis (1999) show the Malian director to be a master. In Lusophone Guinea-Bissau, Flora Gomes' Tree of Blood (1996) was again about the opposed values of rural and modern life, and his follow-up, the musical Nha Fala (2002), was just as good.

Another of these 1990s directors, Mauritania's Abderrahmane Sissako (see page 30), is in the process of being acclaimed in Europe. His Waiting for Happiness - as good as Antonioni's The Passenger - debuted in Cannes in 2002, by which time he had already made three beautiful films: Sabriya and Rostov-Luanda in 1997 and Life on Earth in 1998. Sissako's Bamako (2006), with its caustic denunciation of African subservience and the World Bank, signals a shift in the direction of Mambéty.

Pasolini meets Mambéty

The attention Sissako has received represents a new chance for African cinema. But then it has had other recent chances too. BBC4 ran a short season of films. In Edinburgh, the Africa in Motion festival showed 15 programmes of classic African cinema, some of it never before screened in the UK. Sembène and Chahine both had films in competition at Cannes in 2004, a concurrence that acted as a reminder of how young African cinema is - it was like seeing D.W. Griffith on the Croisette. Yet when I tried to raise the funds for a television programme in which these men who have invented the language of African film and excoriated militant Islam and social conservatism would meet and talk, no British company would commission it. Shame on them. Sissako en fete is a chance for African cinema, but perhaps a small one.

A quarter of a million people marched around Edinburgh in July 2005 wearing white T-shirts and wristbands that said ‘Make Poverty History' because they had read in newspapers and watched on television accounts of a continent eviscerated by debt repayments, poverty and illness. Yet how many people in the UK will buy a ticket for Bamako, a great work of art that addresses some of these themes? And how many British film lovers have seen Mambéty's excoriating Hyenas? African cinema, despite its bravura, inventiveness and loveliness, remains on the to-do list.

This has several implications. The first is that the innovations of African film have not had much influence. Surely Werner Herzog, who at the age of 18 ventured across the Sudan, would have collaborated with or have been affected by Sembène if he'd seen his work. Wouldn't Pier Paolo Pasolini, who filmed several times in Africa, have found a kindred spirit in Mambéty or Gerima? And might Sembène's combination of neorealism and poetry, his elevation of the objects and events of everyday life into something resonant, not have influenced the evolution of the great Iranian directors? Daryush Mehrjui started rethinking Iranian cinema in 1970, four years after Sembène's first important work. Arabic and Indian popular cinema have always found enthusiastic audiences in Africa, but the iniquities of film history have deprived us of a possible collaboration between the great African and Persian directors.

It is time to stop having to imagine such encounters, but instead to commission books, films, articles, seasons and documentaries that restore this film culture to its proper place. Then, perhaps, when we talk with our friends about the great films of the 1970s, we'll mention Mambéty in the same breath as Scorsese, Bertolucci or Wenders. Then Ceddo will be as familiar to us as Taxi Driver.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012