Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 13, April 2004

 

 

Teresa Hoefert de Turegano

 

On Questions and Critical Methodology of African Cinemas:

Ukadike's _Questioning African Cinema_

 

 

Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike

_Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers_

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002

ISBN 0-8166-4004-1 (hb); 0-8166-4005-X (pb)

319 pp.

 

_Questioning African Cinema_ consists of twenty interviews with African filmmakers from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. N. Frank Ukadike seeks a fuller understanding of African film practices through these conversations, and his overarching aim is to contribute to the debate on contemporary critical methodologies for dealing with African cinema. The individual achievement of each filmmaker provides a context to discuss historical, social, political, economic, and state practices that affect the production of films in Africa. In addition, issues such as distribution, exhibition, video, television, acting, thematic diversity, stylistic configurations, and the role of cultural codes in patterns of signification are addressed.

 

The book is divided into three parts. The first highlights various pioneers of African cinema (Kwaw Ansah, Souleymane Cisse, Safi Faye, Gadalla Gubara, Med Hondo, Lionel Ngakane, Chief Eddie Ugbomah) and has a strong anti-colonial tone. The second part consists of filmmakers from the second, or as Ukadike calls it, 'new generation' (Flora Gomes, Gaston Kabore, Djibril Diop Mambety, Ngangura Mweze, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Brendan Shehu, Cheick Oumar Sissoko), and here there is more discussion about contemporary realities and problems facing the development of African cinemas. The third part provides space for more confrontational positions (King Ampaw, Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Salem Mekuria, Haile Gerima, Ramadan Suleman, Jean-Marie Teno). In these last two parts, postcolonial power structures are more crucially in question. The choice of filmmakers and the questions are the backbone of the book: each interview constitutes one chapter, which Ukadike begins with a biographical introduction about the filmmaker.

 

The interviewer has paid careful attention to giving even weight to directors from both anglophone and francophone sub-Saharan Africa. This is noteworthy because much of the attention in previous writing on African cinemas is on the francophone directors, so this attention to the anglophone directors makes the book particularly useful. There is considerable diversity among the perspectives of the individuals, although there is an overriding anti-colonial/neo-colonial discourse resulting in a slightly off-balance result. For many younger directors the colonial period is not a point of reference, although they are still concerned with inequalities and injustices of power. Ousmane Sembene is not included in the collection for reasons justified by Ukadike, but his role in African filmmaking is not omitted as his name and work surface in many of the conversations. However, it is a shame not to have included some of the more established younger filmmakers from the francophone sphere, such as Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania/Mali) who holds a very prominent role in the field. The conversations are quite revealing about the personalities of each filmmaker; they not only elucidate some of the circulating notions on African cinemas but also indirectly reveal the internal challenges, which the enterprise of African cinema as a whole faces, as a result of all these divergent personal ideologies.

 

The questions posed by Ukadike contribute to both the strengths and the weaknesses of the work. His knowledge of the subject allows him to pose questions that enable the filmmakers to speak about issues they consider crucial. Most of the conversations are long and developed enough so that the reader can get a sense of the filmmaker's approach to their art and to African cinemas in general. The interviewer also asks some common questions to all, which contributes to the cohesion of the book. For example, each filmmaker is asked about: the possibility of a common African film language; the role of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO); where and how their films are distributed; whether they obtain State support for their filmmaking; and, how they view the possibilities of co-production. These are good questions, and as might be expected the answers vary in depth and scope. Notably a few directors refuse to discuss the subject of African cinema as a whole. For example, Souleymane Cisse and Safi Faye are quite clear about the issues they do not want to discuss.

 

The conversations reveal the considerable rift between the English and French speaking directors of West Africa, more than any of the other regions. Most of the English-speaking directors complain that FESPACO is too Francocentric. There is also a clear difference of opinion among the English-speaking directors, some of whom see filmmaking as a commercial enterprise to be privately financed, while others depend more on subsidies. In spite of the language differences there seem to be more commonalities of approaches and concerns among the French-speaking and South African directors, more so than between the French-speaking and the Nigerian and Ghanaian directors. One of the strengths of the book is that the readers will get a sense of the situation in the different regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges specific to each area.

 

As Teshome Gabriel notes in his forward to the book, African cinema does not follow a simple path and there are many strands within it. As one reads through so many divergent opinions, the challenge of understanding the *nature of African cinema* becomes more evident. On issues that are fundamental to the history of the subject, such as the social and educational character of African cinemas and their political role, there are totally disparate views. On the idea of cinema as a tool for teaching, readers will note that many (although not all) of the filmmakers included in this book are still very concerned with such a role for cinema in Africa. For some the idea of the educational role of cinema is still linked to a more didactic approach, while for others priority is given to entertainment without entirely dismissing an educational responsibility. Here a generational difference can be noted. Equally so, the responses to the idea of a common African film language are also totally diverse. But the presentation of these diverging perspectives is illuminating and in itself points to a better understanding of this cinema. If there is one overwhelming and recurring concern for these directors, they are almost all looking for ways to make low-budget, quality films that could survive independently through distribution on the African continent.

 

However, the questions posed by Ukadike also reveal that the interviewer has a very defined vision of what African cinema should be, and this inevitably shapes the book. For Ukadike the nature of African cinema lies in its link with African oral traditions, and without doubt this is an important site of nourishment for many African filmmakers, but the author's wish for such structural authenticity is somewhat tendentious. More disturbing is Ukadike's moral stance on what are appropriate images for African films, and so Cheikh Omar Sissoko is questioned because he allows the young boys in his film _Nymanton_ to swear and use bad language. Even more Victorian on Ukadike's part are the many comments on the inappropriateness for African audiences of sexual explicitness, and that this is the fault of Western influence. In addition readers may note an antipathy toward any non-African intervention or involvement in African filmmaking. Through his comments Ukadike also seems at times to reinforce the divisions between anglophone and francophone film interests with his accusatory tone.

 

On a stylistic note there are a few problems with the English in the book, some of which seems to be due to the translation from French into English. Also of note is the questionable use of anglophone and francophone as nouns instead of adjectives, and striking, although not incorrect, the repeated use of 'alien' rather than 'foreign'.

 

Overall, the book is a welcome contribution to the writing on African cinema because it gives voice to these filmmakers outside of their filmic work. It provides an update to a somewhat similar work done by Francoise Pfaff, _Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers: A Critical Study with Filmography and Bio-biography_ (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988). In contrast to Ukadike, Pfaff's work is more of a dictionary. She did not individually interview the filmmakers but completed a more biographical study, with bibliographical references for each director, and references of critical writing about each director and the main themes of their work.

 

In _Questioning African Cinema_ Ukadike's seems to have an agenda apart from the book's objective of a fuller understanding of African film practices. When this agenda is to challenge some of the obvious problems with which African filmmaking is confronted he moves the subject forward. In contrast, when he uses a moralising attitude on what are appropriate and acceptable images for African films, when he perpetuates and encourages the rift and boundaries of African and European, English and French, black and white, the work loses its force.

 

In terms of contributing to contemporary critical methodologies for dealing with African cinema the book is useful in spite of its drawbacks because it illuminates some of the directions that are not yet sufficiently addressed in critical writing in the field. Finally, the question that Ukadike is trying to get at is crucial because, in trying to delve deeper into the nature of African filmmaking, we see that it is through the process, rather than a specific answer, that we learn more about the subject of African cinemas.

 

University of Lausanne, Switzerland

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Teresa Hoefert de Turegano, 'On Questions and Critical Methodology of African Cinemas: Ukadike's _Questioning African Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 13, April 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n13hdt>.

 

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