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Review of Focus on African Films / Cinema and Social Discourse in Cameroon


By David Kerr

Focus on African Films. ed. Francoise Pfaff. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2004. 327pp. ISBN 0-253-21668-0 (pb). £18.95

Cinema and Social Discourse in Cameroon. ed. Alexie Tcheuyap. Bayreuth African Studies 69, Bayreuth, 2005. 342pp. ISBN 3-927510-82-3. Eur. £22.59

These two books on African cinema are poles apart in their conception, one a collection of very disparate essays dealing with cinema on the whole continent, the other concentrating on a single country. Both books, however, reflect certain new trends in African cinema.

Focus on African Films has a rather engaging eclecticism. There are many edited collections of essays on African cinema, the editors of which frequently struggle to find spurious unifying themes. Pfaff makes no pretensions of this kind. She stakes out certain broad categories on such general topics as history, space and expatriate/international connections. Within these the reader can find a whole gamut of styles, intellectual approaches and ideologies.

The book’s major function appears to be to fill in certain gaps which affect the existing critical canon. Several of the articles provide brief histories or taxonomies, almost like extended encyclopaedia entries. This applies to Robert Cancel’s survey of South African cinema from the early 1950s to the late 1980s, as well as to the two articles by Josephine Woll and Maria Roof, tracing the links between African cinema and those of the Soviet Union and Latin America, respectively. Other chapters such as Pfaff’s own on ‘African Cities as Cinematic Texts’ and Francoise Balogun’s on the video industry in Nigeria, mix taxonomic and critical perspectives.

Other chapters assume a much more analytical approach, either of specific films/film-makers or of genres. Kenneth Harrow, uses a post-modernist critical apparatus to reinterpret one of the most discussed films in the African canon, Sembene Ousmane’s Xala. Frank Ukadike dissects David Achkar’s Allah Tantou and Jean Marie Teno’s Afrique je te plumerai as examples of a new style of African documentary, which firmly places the film-maker in the role of subjective and committed interpreter of post-colonial reality, rather than privileged, pseudo-objective, omniscient narrator. Brenda Berrian provides one of the most interesting chapters in her interpretation of Manu Dibango’s music for Ousmane’s Ceddo. Music is one of the most influential artistic components of African film, but has so far been sadly neglected in criticism of the field. One thinks of other films, such as Soulemayne Cisse’s Yeelem or Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane’s Mapuntsula, which are crying out for informed musical analysis.

The section entitled ‘Reexamining “Official History”’ is one of the most useful in the book. Here Pfaff is able to discard the eclectic approach to some extent and allow her authors to dialogue key issues in Africa’s treatment of history. Mbye Cham’s survey of historical films establishes their aesthetic credentials with reference to a criterion of anti-colonial radicalism. By contrast Joseph Gugler makes a liberal appeal for Ousmane’s Camp de Thiaroye, Idrissa Ouadraougou’s Yaaba and Jamie Uys’s The Gods Must be Crazy, to be held accountable to the court of historical accuracy; at which all of them, he feels, must, in different ways and for different ends, plead guilty.

In general, however, the reader should not come to Focus on African Films looking for a coherent set of analyses or contrasting arguments, but for very useful histories and surveys which can act as crucial source of reference material. There may still be gaps which this collection of essays has still not filled. Although the early days of Nigerian video features is covered by Balogun, for example, its recent explosion of popularity throughout sub-Saharan Africa needs an accessible commentary. Likewise the continental co-operations now taking place (such as the films which Cisse and Ouadraougou have made in South Africa) indicate a trend which is worth investigating. But at 327 pages we can hardly complain, and, given Pfaff’s indefatigable nose for new trends, no doubt she is working on it.

Cinema and Social Discourse in Cameroon takes a quite different approach. Both Alexie Tcheuyap in his editorial introduction and Gilbert Doho in a keynote essay on the links between cinema and what he calls the ‘illegitimate state’ set out major ideas which unite most of the chapters in the book. The unifying feature of a book restricted to one country is supported by the relative ideological consistency in the selection of essays. Briefly the authors, to a greater or lesser extent, support Tcheuyap’s perspective that Cameroonian cinema, either wittingly or unwittingly, reflects a nation vandalised by the regime of Paul Biya. The whole book is haunted by the spirit of Cameroonian cultural analyst, Achille Mbembe, and his scabrous assault on ‘necropower’. Like Mbembe, most of the authors are in exile, and their denunciations of Biya’s regime are the more strident for being long-range.

One advantage of having a relatively limited number of cineastes to examine is that Tcheuyap is able to set up overlapping critical perspectives on the same films or film-makers. For example, Boulou B’beri frames Dikongue-Pipa’s film Muna Moto within a post-structuralist perspective, where the film almost disappears behind the weight of theoretical apparatus, while Edmond Mfaboum uses more of a cultural studies approach to assess the same film.

Jean-Marie Teno is central to the book. His documentaries and feature films are dealt with by Alain Nganang, Sheila Petty, Julie Papaioannou, Sarah Buchanan and Kenneth Harrow. For some of these Teno is simply an example in a broader argument as in Harrow’s application of Foucault’s theories of the panopticon to Cameroonian cinema, but for Nganang and Petty, Teno’s iconoclastic cinema is the focus of detailed analyses of film texts as appropriate instruments to challenge the Cameroonian neo-colony.

The films of Jean Pierre Bekolo receive similar close attention from Papaioannou, Jonathan Haynes and Sarah Buchanan. The article by Haynes is particularly useful, as it charts what he perceives as a major shift in African cinema from a rather purist, Third Cinema approach, wearing its authenticity and pan-African credentials very proudly and single-mindedly, to a much more syncretic, post-modernist style, comfortable with the influence of trashy occidental films and popular culture, to which most young urban Africans are exposed. Bekolo’s films exemplify the shift in sensibility, at the same time as they critique and deconstruct it.

The authorial overlaps apply not only to films, genres and directors but also to critical tropes. The powerful notion of silences and displacement as an artistic strategy to deal with the trauma of dictatorship is discussed with respect to several different film-makers by Nganang, Harrow and Tcheuyap (in his second article).

The only author who seems not to fit in the book’s post-modernist, Mbembe-influenced trajectory, is Bole Butake. He is the only Anglophone critic and, as such, in his article on cinema, CCTV and Cable Television, is able to draw attention to another form of oppression exercised by the Biya regime: the domination of the Francophone political elite over the Anglophone minority. Significantly, Butake is the only author not writing from a position of exile, and is thus able to pick up on the social impact of films, video and television from a perspective of recent experience. His focus is less on theoretical analysis of the film text than on a socio-economic survey, within which such players as developmental NGOs are able to find ways of manipulating state or private popular media towards progressive ends. This contrasts refreshingly with some of the more absolutist judgements based on theoretical discourse in the academic essays.

One praise-worthy feature of Cinema and Social Discourse in Cameroon is the high production values of the text. The Bayreuth Series, while always praised for its stamina and wide range, has sometimes been criticized for poor proof-reading and stodgy format. This issue, however, has been excellently edited, and both cover design and photo layout inside the book are very attractive.

Both these books are to be recommended. Focus on African Films fills several gaping holes in the field, and would thus be particularly useful for teachers and researchers of African cinema. Cinema and Social Discourse in Cameroon is worth reading, not only by those with an interest in Cameroon, but also by all those who wish to learn more about the links between cinema and national political economy. While both books are willing to engage with the history of African film, they also make a strong case for dealing with such emergent technologies and genres as the video revolution, post-colonial documentary and young African cineastes’ employment of popular syncretism.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (2006), pp. 87-91]

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