By David Kerr
Framing Africa. Nigel Eltringham (ed). Berghahn Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-78238-073 & 978-178238-074-0.
Trash: African Cinema from Below. Kenneth W. Harrow. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2013. ISBN 978-0-253-00751-3 (pb.) and 978-0-253-00757-3 (eb)
Reviewing these two books about African Cinema has been a disorienting experience. I started by reading Trash, and found it very cerebral, with much post-modern jargon, while Framing Africa seemed, from the introduction, to be much more readable. So I decided to read a chapter from each book alternatively, which proved to be a switch-back ride between a lucid, measured, historical approach to recent films about Africa, and a dense challenging analysis of African political economy, using films produced mainly by African film-makers as the point of entry.
Framing Africa is a very useful addition to a recently emerging genre of film criticism by historians and sociologists, rather than by film critics. The trend can probably be traced to early 20th century documentary film-making as part of anthropological research, for example in the work of Robert Flaherty. In the late 20th century, however, historians started to realize that even commercial feature films could help popularize historical knowledge. R. A. Rosenstone is the pioneer of film criticism which tries to negotiate the imperatives of entertainment and truth. The academic trend soon spread to films about Africa (Bickford-Smith, Vivian & Mendelsohn, Richard, 2007) Framing Africa has updated this tradition by looking at 21st century cinema about Africa from a historical and sociological perspective. Of the seven chapters (including Eltringham’s very useful introduction) three are written by historians, three by social anthropologists and one by a cultural studies specialist. Not one was written by a film critic or cineaste. This helps explain the preoccupation with historical and cultural truth in its various nuanced forms.
An example of the variety of truths examined can be found in Lidvien Kapteijns’ chapter on Black Hawk Down, a Hollywood interpretation of the US 1993 military intervention in Somalia. Unusually, for an action film the producers received very close assistance (worth $2.2 million) from the US military to ensure authenticity of the equipment and action. However, as Kapteijns carefully explains, the surface fidelity to the military aspect of the film is not sustained in its relationship to historical events and political truth. For example, the film gives the impression that the 1993 venture was to give support to famine relief programmes, whereas it had more to do with President George Bush Senior’s desire to assert US authority in a post-“cold war” context. In addition, the film totally covers up the strategic errors that were at the root of US failure to bring peace to Somalia, either at a military or political level.
The other chapters in Framing Africa, to a greater or lesser degree, also go to great pains to distinguish truth from fiction. In his chapter on The Last King of Scotland, (2006) Mark Leopald shows how the film (and the novel by Giles Fodan on which it is based) is a mixture of truth and fiction, which often constitutes a form of metaphor rather than documentary truth.
Daniel Branch’s article on The Constant Gardener (2005) is another chapter which spends time negotiating the transformation of a novel (by John le Carré) into a film. Branch explains how le Carré has made the transition from novels about the “Cold War” to those about neo-colonial intervention by western pharmacological companies into Africa. Although there have been no cases of western pharmacological experiments in Kenya (the setting of the film), Branch is quite satisfied that the existence of a case in which Pfizer had to withdraw a drug being used on an experimental basis in Northern Nigeria, allows the film to be considered fundamentally truthful. Branch also praises the process of marketing the film version of The Constant Gardener, which was linked to a trust set up by the cast and crew to support health projects in Kenya.
An important motif running through Framing Africa is one which Eltringham calls “the sub-Conradian cliché of Africa as a canvas against which European heroism is enacted.” (3). The motif is found in the characters of Nicholas Garrison in The last King of Scotland, Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener, Danny Archer in Blood Diamond, Father Christopher and Joe Conner in Shooting Dogs, and Sarah Bareane in Red Dust. The only exceptions (where the main positive protagonist is a black African) can be found in the character of Paul Rusosabasina in Hotel Rwanda and Nelson Mandela in Invictus.
Another theme that runs throughout the various chapters is the way important recent events in Africa can be made available to audiences who wouldn’t normally be aware of their significance. The chapters constantly strive to balance the over-simplifications, stereotyping and even untruths of commercial cinema and popular journalism with the advantage of allowing cinema audiences to gain insights (however flawed) into such late 20th and early 21st century events as the violence in Sierra Leone (associated with the global diamond industry), the genocide in Ruanda, or the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision in South Africa. Without this exposure through cinema many people might have remained totally ignorant of these issues.
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Trash by Kenneth Harrow has a totally different take on African Cinema. To start with, rather than spending time on Western commercial Cinema, made for the most part by non-Africans, Trash looks, almost exclusively, to cinema created by African film-makers. The other major difference is that Trash has a single author, one with an idiosyncratic approach to African cinema. As an admirer of Harrow’s earlier book, Post-Colonial African Cinema, I wondered what new insights Harrow could reveal after only seven years. The answer is that he has used some of the same films as evidence for his arguments, but the whole perspective is different. In Post-Colonial African Cinema Harrow charted an emergent cinema that could clearly be distinguished from the brand of socialist, educationally-oriented cinema, associated with the Pan-African Film-makers Federation (FESPACI), distributed mainly through French-sponsored festivals. The new films, “liberated from the revolutionary burden of the past” (44), were not afraid to show the influence of Western commercial cinema, and to seek alternative methods of distribution.
The main thesis of Trash is that the current trends in African cinema help mediate for the audiences the marginalization at a global level of African economies, politics and social systems. In order to support the thesis Harrow has raided numerous sources in order to produce a mind-bending ideological and literary bricolage. Some concept of this stew of ideas can be gathered by a list of the more commonly cited sources, which include: Georgio Agamben, Aleida Assman, Georges Bataille, Judith Butler, Aimé Césaire, Sunita Chakravarty, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Manthia Diawara, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Camera Laye, Timothy Mitchell, Achille Mbembe, Jaques Rancière, William Shakespeare, Robert Stam and Slavoj Źižek.
The structure of Trash is determined by having each chapter illuminating a specific ideological proposition offering its own metaphorical portal into the concept of “trash”. Chapters 1 and 2 have few references to films, but use Bataille, Stam and Rancière in order to interrogate various meanings of “trash” in the post-colony. In chapter 3 Harrow uses Perry Henzel’s film, The Harder They Come and various films by Sembène Ousmane to identify varieties of a Third World lumpenproleteriat (petty criminals, beggars and prostitutes). Harrow labels these as human “trash” but with the added precaution that human trash, like its physical counterpart, can acquire a new value through processes of aestheticisation and recontextualisation. Chapter Four reveals how global capitalism encourages manufacturing countries to use the Third World as a dumping ground for disposing toxic waste, and how this reflects the dumping of human asylum seekers in North Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean. The ethical and ontological implications of this homology between physical and human trash are explored in Chapter Five.
Harrow analyses the process of trash’s conversion into value in Chapter 6 (“Trashy Women”) through an examination of Joseph Gai Ramaka’s extraordinary film, Karmen Gei, which celebrates the emancipated protagonist, Karmen. The gender perspective is continued in Chapter 7, “Trashy Women, Fallen Men”, illustrated by Fanta Nacro’s La Nuit de la Vérité; it traces the shift in 21st century gender relations, whereby the old patriarchy is quickly losing its power to sexually liberated women. Chapters seven and eight focus on human beings treated as trash. According to Harrow, Kimberly Rivers’ documentary, Trouble the Water about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on some families in New Orleans, and Abderrahmane Sissoko’s Bamako, about economic migrants dying in the Sahara Desert, provide the outlines of a new model for protest cinema, one that is nearer to people’s experience than to schematic ideologies. Chapter 10, on Zeze Gambo’s Ō Heroi and Mehamel-Salah’s Darrat, takes up the concept of patriarchy’s decline with respect to Africa’s wars, whether revolutionary in Angola, or insurrectionary in Chad.
Chapter 11, “Nollywood and its Masks”, and Chapter 12, “Trash’s Last Leaves: Nollywood, Nollywood, Nollywood”, provide the reader with a jolting contrast, an examination of Kingsly Ogoro’s Osuofia in London. The cerebral architecture of Trash seems challenged by this Nollywood farce. Harrow traces the origins of the genre to the liminality of black actors building on the racist buffoonery of the Minstrel tradition, but I feel that Nkem Owah’s popularity as an improvising trickster hero (even before the making of Osuofia) owes more to an indigenous, satirical oral tradition than to Minstrelsy.
For a book which spills into so many provocative intellectual directions it is inevitable that readers will contest some of the arguments. Perhaps my biggest concern is the way the illustrative films themselves are sometimes drowned by the burdens of philosophy that they have to carry. For example, it is rare for Harrow to acknowledge the persuasive power of the actors in films. Djeinaba Diop Gai, who plays the role of Karmen in Karmen Gei, embodies in her mood switches and mesmerizing eye flashes, much of what Harrow is trying to say in philosophical language about female emancipation. The same is true of the stoical perseverance that Makena Diop brings to his role of Vitorio in Ō Heroi.
Harrow states that his goal in Trash is “to open the glance that falls on African cinema to the possibilities of reversals in conventional estimates of value”. He relates this aim to a post-colonial social revolution not led by professional revolutionaries, and certainly not leftist academics, but by subaltern artists and popular leaders (especially women). There are, I believe, contradictions in this attitude. For example, Harrow’s “rescue” of Osuofia in London from the broad mass of Nollyood dross is justifiable, but is this any different from the process of rehabilitation found in mid-20th century modernist critics valorizing individual directors of genre films (such as Alfred Hitchcock for horror and John Ford for Westerns)? Likewise Harrow’s praise for films showing the power of “trashy” women in Karmen Gei and Ō Heroi seems to contradict the stereotyping of women as greedy or promiscuous money-grabbers in many Nollywood films.
An even bigger contradiction is in Harrow’s championing of “trash” and the preservation/ transformation of “trash”, whether in material or human form. Harrow’s language is unashamedly academic, ranging over many disciplines – literature, political economy, history, social anthropology, psychology and cultural studies, backed up by 26 pages of densely packed endnotes. Yet there is little articulation of cinematic techniques which might have helped concretize the academic and philosophical pre-occupations for the benefit of a “trashy” reader (the useful still photographs not withstanding). Harrow, clearly aware of the contradictions faced by an academic critic representing subaltern interests praises Cesaire for being able to “humble himself in order to be freed from the pretentiousness of calling himself a mouthpiece” (36). Harrow is painfully aware of the dangers of speaking for others, while he carries on speaking, from the perspective of, if not on behalf of, the trashy humans who are represented in recent African cinema. In an appropriately post-modern way, the contradictions are left for the reader to disentangle.
I found both Framing Africa and Trash well worth reading, though they are likely to appeal to different consumers. The former is for those who want information and insights that can be verified and are expressed in a relatively accessible prose, the latter is for those who want to be provoked out of their comfort zones, both existential and cinematic. But if the reader wants to enjoy them both, it might be better to consume them one at a time!
Bickford-Smith, Vivian & Mendelsohn, Richard (eds.), 2007, Black + White In Colour: African History on Screen, Ohio Press, Athens.
Harrow, Kenneth, W., 2007. Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington
Rosenstone, Robert, 2006, History on Film/Film on History: Concepts, Theories and Practices, Longman& Pearson, London
Reviewed by: David Kerr, University of Botswana.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 86-90]