With Black History Month upon us now, an important time for learning and celebrating your past, I (a very white man) tasked myself with writing an article of relevance in this time of reflection.
In George Orwell’s 1984 he writes “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” – basically meaning, those with power and in control now have the ability to change our perception of the past, and hence of ourselves, changing our identities, hence also controlling what is possible in the future. This to me bares resemblance to what has happened in the past with Africa. The white men come in, colonize, and yes, bring many good things with them, but also squash the cultural identity and history of the continent.
This is still the case; contemporary African societies live in an environment in which they are dominated on several levels: politically, economically and culturally.
In the French colonies, Africans were legally prohibited (“Laval Decree”) from making films of their own. So until decolonisation, Africa was portrayed as an exotic land without history or culture – in famous films such as The African Queen (1951). For this reason, African cinema is an expression of a cultural identity; it is the search for an own specific style and a way to overcome alien influences – much like a lot of recent African history. Early African filmmakers were predominantly educated in France, and hence given special permission to make films within France, such as Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, who shot a short film in Paris by the name of Afrique Sur Seine (1955) – considered to be the first film directed by a black African.
For African filmmakers who saw the films prior to independence as ‘egregiously racist in nature’ – such as Ousmane Sembene and Oumarou Ganda – filmmaking was an important political tool for rectifying the erroneous image of Africans put forward by Western filmmakers and for reclaiming the image of Africa for Africans.
African cinema focuses on social and political themes rather than any commercial interests, and is an exploration of the conflicts between the traditional past and modern times – in this very specific way similar to British cinema.
African cinema is also often seen as a part of ‘Third Cinema’ – a Latin-American film movement that started in the 1960s–70s which decries neocolonialism, the capitalist system, and the Hollywood model of cinema as mere entertainment to make money – as well as being heavily influenced by Italian neorealism, Brazilian Cinema Novo and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
For this reason, the role of the African filmmaker is often compared to traditional griots – a West African bard-like figure who acts as part historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and musician. Like them, the filmmakers’ task is to express and reflect communal experiences.
Despite the Nigerian film industry “Nollywood” being the second-biggest film industry in the world after Bollywood in terms of output, for decades African filmmakers have struggled to present viewers their own perspectives. Be it due to lack of funding, a lack of distribution possibilities, and or due to the lack of audiences or the absence of cinemas on the continent. With no proper distribution channels on the African continent in place, there is need for a parallel development in Internet accessibility and affordability for urban and rural Africa alike.
One of the challenges African cinema faces in this context is to avoid being overwhelmed by the powerful cultural imperialism coming from western media – through films, television, and the Internet.
Beyond the limited perspectives of European and American mass media productions, which reduce Africa to misery or something simply “exotic”, African films present a different insight into the diversity of the continent and its current social and political conflicts.
African films can very seldom attain more than an ‘exotically interesting’ status and are only accessible for a limited public. Despite the fact that they win prizes at festivals all over the world, these films are rarely programmed for regular screenings, be it on TV or in local cinemas.
This is a real problem for the continent, art changes our idea of ourselves, our knowledge of our past, and hence, what is possible in the future. Black History Month is vitally important in this respect, it promotes taking back the cultural identity of Africa. African Cinema has an up-hill battle to climb. As members of the Western audience, doing anything, playing any small part, and helping their fight, is vital for the continent. It’s just something we shouldn’t dismiss.
See the African film festival in New York: http://www.africanfilmny.org/
See the Pan African Film and Arts Festival: https://www.paff.org/
See the FESPACO: https://www.fespaco.bf/en/