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Review of Film in African Literature Today 28


By David Kerr

Film in African Literature Today 28. Ernest N. Emenyonu (ed.). James Currey & Heinemann Educational Books Nigeria, Oxford & Ibadan, 2010. Pp. 158. ISBN. 9781847015105 (pb). £17.99.

The Editor of this issue of African Literature Today introduces a very important topic – the relationship between African Literature and Cinema.  The massive impact of “Nollywood” on popular reading habits and perhaps even more importantly the rapid spread of digital technology (especially cell phones) among African consumers, has created a radical reconfiguration of technology in such issues as literacy, orality, popular culture and creativity.  Some applications of the World Wide Web even call into question previously received notions of creative production and consumption.  A few articles in this collection explore the implications of these developments on literature, though most seem to focus on communication issues associated with analogue technology.

Emonyonu’s introduction focuses on the comparative and historical perspective which dominates the whole book.  He identifies an early problem of popular literature and film in the 1950s and 60s, namely the snobbery of some literate Nigerians in the face of popular novels and films, particularly the pivotal case of Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana and the Nigerian government’s failure to support a film version of the novel.  Emonyonu feels that this precedent set the tone for Anglophone Africa’s neglect of African literature as a source for local film-making.  This potential conflict between critical approaches, one which asserts Pan-African authenticity through a rigorously policed, nationalist ideology and another comfortable with a popular, western-influenced, often escapist hybridity, runs throughout the collection, with few attempts made to reconcile the opposing tendencies.

The article which perhaps comes nearest to addressing the issue is the last, Ashuntantang’s examination of Anglophone film in Cameroon in which the author is at pains to explain the historical role played by Anglophone culture in general and film in particular.  Ashuntantang recognises the quality of Francophone film-making but is aware of the need for Anglophone cinema to develop its own cultural identity.  She recognises, however, that the model of Nollywood, with its gender stereotypes and scape-goating of indigenous African religion, though commercially popular, does not provide a suitable basis for Anglophone Cameroonian film.  Instead the industry needs to find ways of balancing issues of authenticity, identity and global influences, for the benefit of cinema/video audiences.

Arguably the most penetrating analysis in the collection is Mary Higgins’ article “From Negritude to Migritude”.  She takes pains to identify various strands of negritude, as they reflect not only conservative essentialism of Leopold Senghor but also the Pan-African radicalism of David Diop.  When she examines the cinematic equivalent of negritude, what Diawara, echoing Cesaire, calls “Return to the Source” cinema, she points out the genre’s various conservative and radical strands.  More importantly she shows how a shift among younger film-makers away from issues of identity and authenticity makes them open to issues of migration and hybridity.  Another article which re-assesses the debates of an older generation is Greg Thomas’s careful examination of the influence of Malcolm X on the films of Haile Gerima.  This raises important issues about the extent to which African cinema needs to engage with the ideas and aesthetic projects of the African diaspora.

Several articles in this collection are much stronger on historical context and genre taxonomies than on aesthetics or cultural analysis.  Aje-Ori Agbese’s article on the portrayal of mothers-in-law in Nigerian video dramas provides an informative template of mother-in-law  character types, but without making any deep reflection other than identifying the stereotypes they reflect.  Africanus Aveh’s article on the Ghanaian video industry offers an informative history of the rise, fall and recovery of the Ghanaian film industry linked to a taxonomy of their genres, but with a conclusion that leaves the reader hungry for more analysis.

Tekpety’s study of Ousmane’s novels and cinema successfully picks up the thread of Ousmane’s anti-colonial themes from the earliest to the latest novels and films.  A slight disappointment for the reader however is that Tekpety’s identification of cinema écriture and cinema stylo as techniques which influenced Ousamane is not backed up by any substantial evidence.  David Riop also uses a comparative framework by contrasting, at both thematic and cinematic levels, Raoul Peck’s biopic on Patrice Lumumba, Death of a Prophet with Jean-Marie Teno’s, Afrique je te plumerai.  The historical perspective is continued in Timothy John’s article, “Laughing off Apartheid”, which gives a nuanced and convincing explanation for the popularity in the 1980s of Dirk Uys’s film, The Gods Must be Crazy by linking it to the Apartheid South African, labour policy.

In general, this collection contains many productive historical contrasts, some of which are interesting mainly for their information, others for the complexity of their ideas.  They are all worth reading, even when they depart from a strict interpretation of the theme, film in African literature.

Reviewed by: David Kerr, University of Botswana (Professor David Kerr is guest editor of the forthcoming AFRICAN THEATRE 10: Media and Performance, James Currey/Boydell & Brewer, Autumn 2011).

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 79-81]

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