Imagine africa volume 3, p.14
Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 14
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: Paul Biya is a French colonial product, he is running Cameroon with many French colonial principles, including repression, where we can see some of the methods of la guerre psychologique anti-révolutionnaire developed by the French during the Indochina war. He still runs the country with a team of people who from 1960 on, after independence, took over the French dirty job of repressing the nationalist UPC movement. Indeed these movements have lost, and 1990 was the second time they also lost: the disillusionment is something losers develop I guess.
Kenneth Harrow: Is countering colonialism the same as countering autocracy? More important to me, are the aesthetics that you identify as being produced in the struggle against Biya different from those of Sembène and his generation? The difference I see is profound. Sembène worked on an ideological level that was commensurate with realism, or with realisms, be they historical, social, or political. He wanted the audience to identify with the characters, as in Mandabi, and with their plight. In all his films these qualities were there: plight and identification, so as to educate and then mobilize.
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: The story of identification in cinema in Africa is very interesting. Do you think African audiences would have been able to watch Chinese Kung Fu films, Indian melodrama musicals, American Hollywood films if there were no identification? We can’t deny that identification comes into play when a child’s attention is lured by another child in a film or that the main reason of the success of Nollywood derives from Africans seeing Africans—for the first time people seeing other people that look like them, filling their screens. If cinema can’t go beyond the reality African youth are trapped in and that could still make interesting cinema, it doesn’t mean that that audience has no ability to project itself into another reality where a young woman could replace Paul Biya. Isn’t it also the function of cinema to break that screen of the real? Even if people in Cameroon, immersed in their reality, do not envision Paul Biya leaving, Paul Biya will leave. They have no idea of how it is going to happen, and the fact that they might not identify with any actor of that scenario doesn’t mean cinema can’t allow them to do so. Cinema is asking the “what if” question; Le président is speculating about an inevitable future Cameroonians are reluctant to address.
Kenneth Harrow: How has it been to have experienced life abroad and at home, on and off, in creating Le président or Les saignantes, which contain ostensibly very powerful criticisms of your home country, while also being at home in Europe, and in European or American techniques/technology of a cinematic vision, with a practice and a sensibility that is marked so strongly by hyper-modernist split-screen hip hop youth culture elements. Your essay “What is cinema” also leads to the question, what is the filmmaker in all this, and finally—as I love to ask what I am not supposed to ask—who do you think you are? How much do you feel having lived in France for so long shaped your way of thinking about making movies? How much does it shape your way of thinking about the politics of France, in the world, and in Africa?
Jean-Pierre Bekolo: It is funny how we Cameroonians like to compare the Germans and the French even though we were colonized by both. And I asked Professor David Simo, a German studies professor at the University of Yaounde that question: “Who between the French and the Germans are the most racist?” He gave me an answer he had heard from an older person who happened to live under both: “Tu me demandes de choisir entre la peste et le choléra?” (You are asking me to choose between the plague or cholera?)
To answer your question about identity and the different cultures I have encountered and the idea of assimilation, I always like to use the case of Cameroonian sax player Manu Dibango who left Cameroon at the age of fourteen in 1947. He hasn’t lost even his Cameroonian accent. His music for sure has a lot of western, African American and Congolese influence. Another interesting figure also from Cameroon and also in music is Francis Bebey. I think his African culture came more from studying Pygmies as an ethnologist than from his cultural immersion as a Douala. I learnt more about the Beti culture by becoming friends with Philippe Laburthe Tolra (as we tried to adapt his book Le Tombeau du Soleil into a film). I read about the ritual of Mevungu (used in Les saignantes) in his book. I had my first Ewondo email experience with Professor Lluis Mallart, a Spanish ethnologist who studied Beti as he wrote to me in Ewondo….
Who are we once we start moving, absorbing other cultures and influences? Is it about becoming? The process of becoming has many paths I guess. But becoming what? That is your question. Being an individual, something unique emerges, calibrated by your origins, and the encounters—the people you meet and your profession. In my case I think cinema is what I use in everything: I think, I write, I engage with Cameroon politics as a filmmaker. What I see when I land from the airplane, I see people who are not myself. And I really see people are the same wherever I go. The most difficult part is to convince people who are in the same spot that they are like the others I met 6000 kilometers away. This is what I argue in the “An African Woman in Space,” an installation I did at the Quai Branly on Diaspora. It doesn’t matter where you go, we are run by the “indigenous” who use the fact that their parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents were from that spot to make decisions for those who move around and who accumulate a lot by moving.
Bhakti Shringarpure, Imagine Africa, Volume 3
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