ARISTOTLE'S PLOT (1996, Zimbabwe/Cameroon, 71 min.), directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo; screenplay by Bekolo; cinematography by Regis Blondeau; music by Jean-Claude Petit; with Albee Lesotho (Essomba Tourneur, the Cinéaste), Ken Gampu (Policeman), Siputla Sebogodi (Cinema), Anthony Levendale (Bruce Lee), Dylan Wilson-Max (Cobra), Rudo Hamudikwnda (Nikita), Brian Masamba (Saddam), Marco Machona (Schwarzenegger), Stanford Bennett (Van Damme), Michael Heard (African American), Walter Muparitsa (Police Chief), Somon Shuma (Barman). In English.
You want to do like in the movies
You want to live your life like in the movies
You play the tough guy here and there
You are showing off in the neighborhood
Why are African filmmakers always asked political questions? Where is the Black Man today? Are they all to be Nelson Mandela? Can Nelson Mandela make a film? Why are African filmmakers always "young ," "upcoming," "promising," "emerging," "developing," until they are eighty years old and then suddenly they become "the ancestor," "the father," "the wise role model"?
Aristotle's Plot is unlike any film that we've seen so far in the film festival. And that's precisely the point of the film.
The film had its origins when the British Film Institute selected Bekolo (director of the acclaimed, offbeat 1992 film Quartier Mozart) to be "The African" filmmaker in its series celebrating the first 100 years of film. Together with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Stephen Frears, and Bernardo Bertolucci, he was given a budget and carte blanche to make a film that would be a meditation on film. He took the assignment literally, and turned out a cinematic allegory on the meaning of film in Africa today.
The film reflects the young director's refusal to be pigeon-holed as a maker of "traditional" films set in a rural setting. This is what the West looks for in films from Africa, and, while he admires such films, they do not speak for his reality. He wants to make movies that reflect the hybrid reality of contemporary young urban Africans, for whom the struggle to find an identity IS their reality. He is not interested in telling dramatic stories à la Aristotle; rather, he wants to make films that are self-reflexive subversions of the Aristotelian conventions of linear narrative, mimetic realism, conflict rising to a climax, and catharsis (the purging of inner emotions by means of identifying with fictional characters and eliciting feelings of fear and pity). He wants to make films in which the spectator is always kept thinking, aware that s/he is watching a fiction, and wondering what it all means. He is much closer to the European avant-garde tradition of a Godard than to a Sembène, though like Sembène he is constantly thinking about his identity as an African. If he has an African model, it would be the late Djibril Diop Mambéty (director of Touki Bouki and Hyenas), to whom this film is partly dedicated.
The film partly operates on the level of "story," but only minimally. Much of the experience comes from the sound-track--from the lyrics to songs and, more importantly, Bekolo's voice-over narration. As we try to put all the pieces together, the plot turns back on itself, scenes are repeated, characters prance around like the pawns and symbols that they are.
As the film opens, a policeman has arrested two men, one who calls himself Cineaste (Filmmaker), and the other who calls himself Cinema. They represent rival forces in this film. Cineaste, we learn from Bekolo's narration, is actually a man named Essomba Tourneur (E.T.!), who came back from Europe to make films and build a truly African cinema. Self-righteous, whining, he is referred to by others as "Cineaste--You Silly Ass!" and there is a degree of truth in that (Bekolo is more than willing to point his sarcasm at himself). His rival counterpart, Cinema, does little more than watch movies all day long. He has watched 10,000 movies, hence is an expert. Of course, he cares only for action films, preferably of the Hollywood variety. He and his "posse"--Cobra, Bruce Lee, Van Damme, La Femme Nikita, Saddam, and Schwarzenegger--do little more than hang around and pretend they are tough guys straight out of the 'Hood. They are Americanized fools, mouthing slang and obscenities at an incredible rate. (You will hear the F- and Sh- words used more here than in any film I can think of--which is part of the self-parody) They are bored, high on Coca-Cola, and the cinema is their escape.
Realizing that he will get nowhere with them occupying the Cinema Africaine, E.T. forges some documents and gets the policeman (a different kind of fool who has been put on assignment to find out "how a person who's dying in one film yet reappears living in another film.") to evict them from the theater, so that he can get in there and show his true African films in their native languages. (By the way, Bekolo's father was a police chief, which adds a further level of irony to the film.)
Off in the bush, the wannabe gangstas plot their revenge (though one of them is intrigued by this primitive setting, which reminds him of Jurassic Park!). They decide they are going to go all the way and become action heroes (or bad guys, as they appropriately identify themselves). They assemble an arsenal and sneak back to the theater (which has been re-named Heritage Africa). The film technique at this point is Action-Kitsch--crazy close-ups and boring synthesized "suspense" music. They slit the projectionist's throat and kill the lone member of the audience, who is ironically an African American! In another bit of Bekolo satire, he has come to Africa to "celebrate his African roots," wears Kinte cloth, and is learning Swahili. Not surprisingly, his appeal to solidarity does little to move the gangstas, who are only interested in escaping their African roots. They race off to the countryside and build a new open-aired theater showing "African Action Films," which turn out to be quite popular, despite their intellectual nullity. Still, the gangstas are not satisfied.
Fortunately, Cineaste (ET) comes after them to seek his revenge, giving up his own intellectual pretensions in order to transform himself into a stereotypical "good guy." This pleases the gangstas no end, because they can now be the real "bad guys" and engage in a battle of bullets in which everyone is killed. At this point, Bekolo decides he doesn't like that turn of events, so he re-starts the story, and now the fight is Kung-Fu style. At this point, the policeman shows up again and we are back to the arrest scene with which the film began.
At this point, Bekolo has completely given up on Aristotle, and the film falls apart, splintering into a series of variations on the theme of the artificiality of film. In his voice-over, Bekolo muses, "My grandfather's words started to fill my mind. What is an initiation ceremony? Crisis, confrontation, climax, and resolution. Sounds, stories, images, narration, rhythm. Is there anything of this in cinema that is not African? Fantasy, myth we got. Walt Disney we got. Lion King, we got. Sex, action, violence, we got. Massacres, we got. Communion, music, we got. Paul Simon, we got. Aristotle, catharsis, we got. What don't we got? Why don't we got an African Hollywood? Probably because we don't want to produce our cinema outside of life. Because when it is out of life, it is dead. Like a difficult childbirth, which do we choose, the mother or child? Life or cinema? Because when cinema becomes your life your are dead, it is dead. We are all dead." Meanwhile, on film, his characters are shot, run over, beat up, yet they refuse to die.
This, too, becomes part of the film's allegory. As much as he would like to give up the game, give up on cinema, Bekolo finds himself unable to do so. It is precisely in this struggle, in this search for identity in the midst of conflicting impulses, traditions, and desires, that an African filmmaker must locate himself.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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