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REVIEW: Surveying African Cinema at the Walter Reade

REVIEW: Surveying African Cinema at the Walter Reade

REVIEW: Surveying African Cinema at the Walter Reade

Mia Mask

(indieWIRE/5.18.2000) — The sixth African Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater (May 19th through June 1st) presents an impressive array of aesthetically and
thematically diverse contemporary films. This year’s festival is comprised
of a series of five shorts and several compelling features from Senegal and
South Africa. It also includes a retrospective tribute to pioneer filmmaker
Djibril Diop Mambety (1945-1998), a man whose oeuvre symbolizes the artistic
dynamics and ideological complexity of black African cinema. From Mambety‘s
celebrated Senegalese feature “Touki-Bouki” (“The Hyena’s Journey,” 1973),
to Jeremy Handler‘s new South African short “Husk” (1998), these pictures
reveal the once disparagingly dubbed “dark continent” as a complex polyglot
of nation-states, whose reflexive filmmakers continue to depict the
socio-political ambiguities of post-independence nationality and
post-apartheid discomfort with cinematic dexterity.

For all their cultural specificity, these films have a common history.
Throughout the postwar 1950s and 60s, national consciousness and
revolutionary awareness emerged throughout the so-called “Third World.”
Filmmakers were increasingly influenced by this revolutionary sensibility,
by theories of subjectivity, Marxism, and the post-colonial writings of Aime
, Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James. As pan-Africanism became more politicized and permeated the social landscape, many filmmakers turned to a
deeper exploration of social issues and contemporary problems: traditional
culture versus Western influence, the dichotomy between urban and rural
life, unemployment, corruption, and the position of women in a
male-dominated society. The most renowned auteurs, like Ousmane Sembene and
later Mambety, exemplified this cinematic sensibility by capturing such
political self-consciousness on film. However, they went beyond the sometime
didactic approach to radical cinema by fusing their own concepts with
Italian neo-realism, Soviet cinema and other non-Western ideas about
cinematic spectacle.

Mambety’s now classic “Touki Bouki,” for example, critiques the mentality of
African youth who want to leave their homelands in search of the urban
sophistication of European city life. In this film, Mouri, a former shepherd
meets Anta, a university student, and eventually talks her into sharing this
dream of living in France. Without the money to embark on such a costly
journey, they scheme and scam their way aboard a European-bound cruise ship,
only for Mouri to discover his responsibility to himself and those around
him requires that he stay in Senegal. Often referred to as “an African
Bonnie and Clyde‘” for its theme, experimental editing style and ironic use
of non-narrative music, Mambety’s picture demonstrates the literal and
figurative bankruptcy of Eurocentrism, especially for young Africans seeking
validation and emotional support. In addition to its social message, “Touki
Bouki” suggests Mambety’s making intertexual links to radical Latin America
cinema, namely Fernando Solanas‘ and Octavio Getino‘s “La Hora de los Hornos” (“The Hour of the Furnaces” 1968).

Bye Bye Africa” (1998) is Mahamat Saleh Haroun‘s self-reflexive, docu-drama about the dualistic conflict between tradition and modernity. The film begins when
a Chadian film director living comfortably in France learns of his mother’s
death. Her sudden death beckons him back home where he’s forced to
re-evaluate his European lifestyle and French-assimilated identity. Once in
Chad, he is reacquainted with his father. But the gulf between the rural,
village-based father and cosmopolitan, French-educated son has widened so
far as to be unbridgeable. When Haroun quotes Freud and Godard to explain the psychological impact of cinematic spectacle to his father, the elder man
replies with honest naivet

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