Imagine africa volume 3, p.13
Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 13
KENNETH HARROW is Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University. His work focuses on African cinema and literature, and Diaspora and Postcolonial Studies. He is the author of Thresholds of Change in African Literature (Heinemann, 1994), Less Than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 2002), Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Indiana UP, 2007), and Trash! A Study of African Cinema from Below (Indiana UP, 2013). He has edited numerous collections and written over 50 articles and a dozen chapters. He has organized numerous conferences dealing with African literature and cinema. He served as President of the African Literature Association, and was honored with their first Distinguished Member Award.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo, one of Africa’s most important artists, is an award-winning writer and director from Cameroon whose work addresses local and global audiences with its bold genre-blending and avant-garde aesthetics. His most recent film Le président highlights the problem of Africa’s cult-of-personality leaders who never seem to leave office. Bekolo engages in a spirited discussion with Kenneth Harrow, a leading authority on African cinema. Dictatorships, colonialism, African emancipation, the filmmaker’s resistance and complicity, aesthetics and cinematic identification are only some of the topics they touch upon.
Kenneth Harrow: Jean-Pierre, I was thinking about the films Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako and your 2013 film Le président. They are films dealing with power and rule in Africa; and the transitions in and out of power. This very minute, we are watching the situation in Burkina Faso unfold with troops of the army racing to the capital to contest the palace guards’ attempted coup. The coup leader Gilber Diendere was a longtime associate of ousted president Blaise Compaoré, and his years in power were ended only by a popular uprising. Alongside the situation, one might consider the low-level fighting in Burundi where Nkurunziza (a two-term president) has now imposed his rule by forcing through a third term and the attempted military coup that failed to stop him. One thinks of Kagame forcing through legislative change permitting him a third term. One thinks of Assad, and Qaddhafi, or Bourghiba, rulers who wouldn’t leave in a timely fashion, along with Biya seen in Le président, your film on that topic.
This isn’t entirely a question, but I’m wondering, how are we to think of this, of Africa’s rulers, its Mugabes, its Bongos, its Biyas, you name it, in power for so long? It seems too easy to say, make them democratic or that the West has solved this issue.
An African Woman in Space, 2007
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: Ken, I have been thinking a lot about the very nature of cinema that we (I say, we African filmmakers) started producing in the early stage (the Sembène years…) and the cinema we are doing now, and all the steps it went through. At some point, perhaps because that cinema was born almost along with African nationalism and therefore independence, it took on the identity of being a tool, a medium, a means of emancipation of African people, a kind of utilitarian mission that later moved it to serve some of the purposes of NGOs. Some others pursued a kind of ethnological objective of explaining the complex African society to the western world. If I had to keep one thing that was key for me in the making of Le président, it was this idea of emancipation in a context marked by alienation. We can see this with the example of the role played by football which was supported by African regimes and yet was a means of alienation despite the fact that we all like it. The question is how do you pursue the initial cinema’s emancipation project of the continent, in the Africa we live in today? Consider our behavior as filmmakers who have emptied FESPACO (Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou) also of all its political meaning and substance, maybe since it was held in Burkina Faso, a country that symbolically assassinated that project of emancipation. And we as filmmakers accepted it.
We African filmmakers have partnered with our dictators for pragmatic reasons, I guess, and have now neutralized that project of emancipation of the continent. I can say that Congo’s Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda is with Kabila, Chad’s Mahamat Saleh Haroun with Idriss Deby, Abderrahmane Sissako with Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Bassek Ba Khobio with Paul Biya, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Gaston Kaboré, Fanta Nacro all with Blaise Compaore, etc. I remember asking Balufu, why are you so happy now? You who were so angry at Compaoré (you see it in his film on Sankara), angry at neocolonialism, at the French, Belgium etc. Nothing has changed. Things might even be worse with the French military presence on the continent, the intervention in the killing of Qaddafi, their acts in taking out Laurent Gbagbo…but you, and everybody else, are content, what happened?
So we can’t separate what we filmmakers have become from the films we are making in relation to these powers that are ruling Africa. Is it a deception in the relationship we expect to have with France as the financier of African cinema, the France that made us dream it was a democratic country that would accompany us in our emancipation project? It seems like we are mimicking the relationship France has with those dictators and therefore perpetuating them.
Kenneth Harrow: But what does it take to represent this in film? That’s really the first question. I am thinking of the relationship between film, representation and political urgency. What are the constraints that are placed on cinema that keep it from falling into traps – commercial, political, ideological – that make it problematic to make a film about the need for a president to retire, an overdue retirement, or to make a film about a militant jihadist movement that takes over a town and destroys its culture. I wonder if it is impossible, even though you and Sissako have made your films on such topics.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: In a letter I wrote to Abdoulaye Wade, then president of Senegal, that was published in Jeune Afrique, I appealed to Wade to support African cinema, which he sees as a transnational, panafrican African enterprise. I also told him that cinema is the frontline of engagement: “Dear President Wade, Africa is at war, a war of images, and we filmmakers are at the frontlines.” The other thing that remains as unfinished in the same way as the emancipation project is the forms of our films themselves, so that one would have to say Le président is experimental, and it has to be. My feeling was that I had to play a three-part role: myself telling the story (as the filmmaker), as the subject (the President), as the audience (the Cameroonians). Whatever comes out of all this is an attempt to reconcile the three. And the theme is not chosen by coincidence: it’s a topic that defines so much of our lives and our future on the continent; it gives the process another dimension and pushes us to redefine cinema for us and what its role could be in our existence today, even as a state/nation.
With Le président again, I was telling the Cameroonians about a man they know better than me. So I had to find a form that doesn’t really tell them the story of the president as much as gives them time while sitting in front of their screen to go with their mind where they are not otherwise allowed to go—maybe because of self-censorship, propaganda etc., facing the kind of meditation that they have been avoiding. This is where the typical narrative form could be alienating in some sense. Maybe here, the fact that my Cameroonian audience that is dealing with Paul Biya on a daily basis was my obsession, and this shaped the film the way it did. It was not like I was trying to tell to a global audience what’s going on in Cameroon. I didn’t want to mythologize the story as Sissako will do, or aestheticize it for no specific reason. There is no doubt that the audience in Cameroon got confused. This included the “censors,” which also includes the French ambassador who said to me in a letter that Le président is political, and cannot be shown in the French Cultural Center because he has to be neutral in the fight between the two political entities (me and the regime). I believe that it is from such confusion and debates or controversies that we will be able to have an impact as filmmakers on our society, people, dictators, colonialists and so on.
Scene from Le Président, 2013
Kenneth Harrow: Your letter to Wade and your response to my first set of questions gestures toward your own w
This protest is admirable and ennobling. You call it the project of emancipation, and lament that in all this time after independence it has not been realized; it animates your letter to Wade in which you beg the president to support African cinema so that we can see African images produced by African filmmakers to be shown to African audiences. A plea that really animated FEPACI (The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers or Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes) and the original activists who embraced Third Cinema, and sought to do something positive that would counter Hollywood, and its equivalent negative imaging in the films of other countries.
Yet at the same time, I resist your reactions despite sharing your embrace of the emancipation project. I don’t think emancipation can be won by making films that exhort the audience, which is what positive self-images might be thought to accomplish. Just the opposite, I think the audience will be alienated when it senses that the filmmaker is telling them what to think. And maybe I don’t even care if the audience takes it well or not; I think of emancipation in different terms.
I don’t know how you can negotiate between the desire to educate an audience, to lecture to it, as if you have the truth and want to give it to them, and the desire to engage in a dialogue with the audience in which they are given their due respect as holders of their own opinions.
I am most intrigued by your notion that Le président is sustained by three poles. So now I can see you seeing yourself as an outsider presenting their president to them (“a man they know better than me”). Then you say you are giving them an opportunity, or permission, to think the unthinkable which was blocked “maybe because of self-consorship, propaganda, etc.”—to critique their president, their éminence grise who is always there, behind the curtain, governing invisibly with a hand that somehow cannot be contested, despite the 1990s and his own losses. He would seem to embody something, like Mugabe or Bongo or Obiang Nguema, what Gabriel Garcia Márquez captures in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or what Sony Labou Tansi represented in the dictator-autocrat in his novel Life and a Half – the ridiculously inhuman embodiment of power that won’t go away.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: The term “emancipation” here is connected with the idea that Africans are not allowed to speak, that they (Europeans?) speak on their behalf in the same way Africans have no history. They could only exist through a European destiny, using European religion, European names, European knowledge…they even had to claim European ancestry—“nos ancêtres les gauls” (the gauls, our ancestors). That’s the alienation that Ousmane Sembène’s generation who experienced colonialism tried to overcome by taking a camera to emancipate themselves. If Sembène always signed his letter with “la lutte continue” (the struggle continues) it is because beyond the themes of his films, he considered that the “lutte” was not over. If I draw a parallel with Cameroon where the nationalists lost, we can consider it is still ruled with the DNA of the colonial alienation program, from Ahidjo to Biya.
Kenneth Harrow: The people of Cameroon can’t see the real Biya; can’t speak to him; can’t influence him, despite his ubiquitous presence in their lives. You take on the role of the people in their need to address him, and when Vespero faces the camera and tells the implied president what the youth need, a scene which summarizes the entire project of the film, I see Bekolo addressing a Biya whom he cannot actually confront face to face. So you face him by writing to Wade; by making this film and animating it with characters like a president whom you can address through the voices of characters throughout the film who respond to his words. And if it is inconceivable that in real life a real African president will really quit out of fatigue, or go underground and sneak out of his palace, or stop to chat with a popular rapper, well, film makes the inconceivable possible by offering a pact to the audience that it can share in the fantasy for an hour, and then safely go home without the police bothering them.
You address the Cameroonians as the audience, in your remarks above, telling them, here is your problem—you know it better than I, since I am only a pop voice you can enjoy, knowing your real lives and everyday struggles can’t be overcome by a film about a mythic president who plays an aestheticized part. But maybe in the laughing, the nodding with the rapper, pointing up to the sky and telling you, young people, your day is coming—you will slyly seduce them to join in making this film. You can only do that if they join you in the fantasy of addressing not them, but Biya himself, the man on the billboard, and not the pretense of a president who regrets his past actions and failures, and who admits them to anyone who will listen, including in front of a camera.
So I refuse to take this direct address to the people as a tool of emancipation; I refuse to accept its summation of Biya’s failures, no matter how accurate, and instead insist on hopping on one of those motos (seen frequently in the film) with three people on it already, continually manoeuvering through traffic not so as to force me to ask, where are we going, but rather so as to let the ride and the rider become a moment of liberation. It is very scary when two cars or a truck is coming toward you, and you turn around and look back at the camera in the car that is tracking your ride.
Most of all, bringing the people into a space where they normally don’t go, aren’t allowed to go, not because of Biya but because of their own adherence to notions of what a film is supposed to do, to the prisonhouse of the mind that has come to accept ideas of normalcy as right and proper—this is what I look for in the risky business of making real films for real people with real lives, and most of all, with real confidence in their ability to respond when called upon. That emancipation sets askew the question of selling out to the regimes in place, working within their aegis, as happened when Kabore’s Zan Boko was made with the money of the very government and ministry he was critiquing.
For example, as it happened in your case, the French ambassador says, go ahead, make your political movies, they are great. But, he says, don’t expect us to show them in our Cultural Centers because we are guests in Cameroon that will regulate its own cultural limits and political limits of tolerance. My question above all is, how is the regulation of the artist’s relationship with power negotiated when a film is made and shown, and really what is the location where power and freedom meet in the struggle to dominate the other. Maybe Wade and Biya, two very old men who had known and still know one kind of power, are basically irrelevant to the project of emancipation which most of all still needs to be thought through. And I don’t mean to say that the thinking through means we no longer share the dreams of emancipation of 55 years ago, but that we fail those dreams if we hold onto their notions of struggle in their days as being the keys to our freedom today.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: A film like Le président is a profanation, a blasphemy to this thirty-three-years-in-power, godlike figure, but the film has no preachy intention. In my opinion the film is an intrusion into a sphere where cinema is not allowed, with its only intention being to disturb the established thirty-three-year-order of Cameroon. Now if the film is written, edited, and organized with the Cameroonian audience in mind, it is not because my intention was to dictate to the audience what they are supposed to think, but because like any author or filmmaker I am using the medium’s language to play with the audience’s fears, emotions, expectations etc. Here the montage as a language is used to produce a commentary on the situation in Cameroon where, for example, we see a long scene with prisoners planning to escape, but are never seen escaping. My intention was to raise the question of the powerful ministers who are in jail and who might be the alternative to Paul Biya when he is gone. Only Cameroonians might
I never said my films or any African film is an emancipation project. I oppose Sembène’s view of cinema to counter colonialism as a whole, a colonialism whose project was the alienation of African identities, etc. The very idea for that early generation was that they could take a camera and film, and this was already an act of emancipation in the face of the colonialists. I think the French of that time had a term for people whom they could pick and who would be on the way to becoming the Africans they liked, one that was “civilized”: they were “les évolués.” You can’t apply that notion of emancipation as a preachy, lecturing cinema to the Cameroon audience.
(Facing page) An African Woman in Space, 2007
Kenneth Harrow: What exactly is this emancipation about, and is alienation, as you are using it, its opposite? I gather from your initial statement about emancipation that it is a mental decolonization. But the target shifts from the French, in Sembène’s day, to Biya today. For me the mental goals of decolonization from the metropole can’t be the same as those of freeing oneself from the main mise of a strongman autocrat, or however you might want to call Biya. The issues of African identity, language, history, culture, selfhood—all pretty complicated notions that begin to come apart when examined closely—are different from complicity with an authoritarian regime. What alienation does Biya impose upon Cameroonians, other than their submission to his government as more or less inevitable. I’ve heard more than a few Cameroonians say, he isn’t great but he’s better than the others—whoever they might be. There seems to be a total disillusionment with the political process providing anything we could imagine as rallying the population, as happened in the 1990s. It is curious how the colonial project completely vanishes in your reading of Paul Biya. Why is that the case?
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