DOCUMENTARY DREAMS, CINEMATIC TRANSFORMATION
told in the two documentaries in tonight’s program could not be more different,
and yet THEY are similar in many ways.
They both have to do with idealistic dreams (and ultimately fantasies)
of the ways that movies could change African countries newly independent. The first film, Al’lèèsi . . . An African Actress brings us a group of young filmmakers
intoxicated with the West, and particularly with its spiritual
home—Hollywood. Kuxa Kanema, on the other hand, tells the
story of the efforts of the Mozambican National Cinema Institute to create an
early-Soviet style of cinema, a cinema that could effectively create a new
people and liberate them from the cultural and psychological shackles of
centuries of colonial rule. After
intoxicating, dynamic beginnings, both ultimately failed: the film industries
of both countries are today in ruins.
The reasons for their respective failures are both unique to their own
situations and similar—in ways that are emblematic in many ways of larger
forces that we can see at work throughout the African continent.
AFRICAN ACTRESS (Niger, 2004, 69 min.), written and directed by Rahmatou Keita; cinematography by Philippe Radoux-Bazzini, sound by Manuel Gasquetand
Roger Dupuis, edited by Omar Ba, Yero
Maïga, and Sabastien
Garcia. In French and
with English subtitles.
opens with a graphic telling us that aside from Egypt,
Niger was the
first African country to produce movies.
Well, this isn’t quite true, but it is true that something happened in
that country in the mid-1960s to create a sense that this was going to be a
special time and place for African cinema.
The story of this exciting trajectory is told in this film through the
vehicle of the woman who would become identified with the cinema of Niger, and
indeed among the best-known actresses of Francophone Africa: Zelika Souley. We meet the Zelika of today, nearly 60, a good, pious, Muslim
mother. We hear her story through her
own lips, along with those of the directors and other actors from that period,
as well as clips from some of the films that are rarely seen today.
In 1966 Zelika was just an ordinary 19-year-old in Niamey,
the capital city of Niger,
though probably more ambitious, outgoing, and beautiful than most. She happened to live in the same compound as Moustapha Boubacar (alias “James
Kelly”) a young projectionist who longed to get into filmmaking. He got his chance when a budding cineaste, Moustapha Alassan, decided that he
wanted to make a Western in Niger. Why?
If the Italians could make “Spaghetti Westerns,” why couldn’t West
Africans make Peanut-Sauce Westerns? He
wanted to show to the Africans that even Africans could be cowboys.
young people, Westerns meant America,
and America was
a land where anyone could become anything (where even a cowboy—Ronald
Reagan--could become President!). America
meant success, wealth, and power. So,
they were going to make a Western featuring an all-African cast, the film that
was to be Le Retour
d’un Aventurier/Return of an Adventurer. The
premise of the story is that a young man from Niger
returns to his village in the savannah from a period in the U.S.
and brings with him cowboy outfits, Colt 45s and all. He gives the outfits to his closest friends,
so that they can become true cowboys and tame the West—the western savannah,
that is. Instead of racing cattle on
horseback to stem a stampede, we will see them trying to herd giraffes. The film clips that we see in the documentary
suggest that this was a very remarkable (if strange) film.
In true Hollywood
fashion, the young actors all took on “normal” American names:
Yakuba became Steve McQueen, Djingarey became Jimmy; Zikka
became Reagan, Boubacar became James Kelly. We also had Black Cooper, Calamity John, and
Billy Walter. And Zelika
became Queen Christine.
throwing herself into the role of a tough young cowgirl in the film, this young
woman from a profoundly Muslim family and society caused quite a stir. She of course had to kiss the leading man,
which actually turned out to be harder for young Djingarey
than it was for her. As a result, she
was labeled a prostitute and a renegade.
She looked men in the eye, addressed them directly, and in subsequent
films played liberated wives and even prostitutes. Needless to say, this caused her no end of
trouble in her traditional country, but we sense that even while she resents
this criticism, she also revels in it.
For a decade or so, she was a real star, enjoying all the fruits of her
she was a big fish in a relatively tiny pond, a pond which eventually dried
up. In the end, the film uses her story
to show us the demise of all those dreams and ambitions. Today, there are almost no movie theaters
left in Niger,
and very little film production. Zelika eventually needed to supplement her film work with
work as a receptionist and then as a teacher in a youth center. The film’s final graphic tells us where she
is today, and it is an astonishing outcome for someone who just a few years ago
was named a member of Niger’s
Legion of Honor. It is a reminder of the
difficulty of making it in the world of African film. While the actors and directors in this film
are certainly proud of what they were able to accomplish, they cannot help but
feel let down by a culture and set of illusions that seemed to promise them so
much, yet really was never going to give them the time of day.
* * *
Born in Niamey,
Rahmatou Keita studied Philosophy and Linguistics in Paris
and began working as a journalist for French newspapers, magazines, then radio
and television. From 1987 to 1993 she
worked for international television networks and was the first African
journalist to appear regularly on French television. Her work on the television series L’Assiette Anglaise for
French Antenne 2 won her the coveted “Golden 7”
awards in 1988 and 1989. In 1993 she
wrote SDF, Sans Domiciles Fixes, a
book about homelessness in France
and then went on to make documentary films.
She has the following to say about Al’lèèsi . . . An African Actress:
When I was a little
girl, cinema was like magic in Niamey. In lakuruusu, my
neighborhood, the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra that we thought were African
queens, were definitely White women.
They looked like Gina Lolobrigida and Liz
Taylor. We were wrong. We didn’t know anything about our history
before cinema came. On certain nights,
we were close to riots because Ramses II, alias Yul Brenner, had resuscitated in The Magnificent Seven or Charlton Heston
was seen on the eve as Moses had become El Cid . . . One should say that in
those days cinema was a White men’s concern and White men in films were
somewhat of a divine nature. Images had
such power that we did not doubt one second what we saw on screen. Until the day our actors appeared. The women were not vamps and the men were
unlike any of the Hollywood stars we were used to watching. They were ordinary people, with a normal
color and normal features. People were
* * *
2003, 52 min.), written and directed by Margarida Cardoso, cinematography by Lisa Hagstrand;
edited by Isabelle Rathery and Timothy Miller. In Portuguese with English
What happened in that
building is exactly the image of the country:
In the end, the walls are there, the building is there, the films are
there, good and bad, kept in the same cans, with the same labels, in the same
storeroom, etc., and it’s something that exists without existing. And then this gives a sensation, a strange
sort of anguish, everything that was made was not destroyed, but also does not
Today, throughout the
country various TV channels broadcast the image of a dream, which people will
never be able to attain. Deprived of an
image of themselves, the people gradually forget their
past and their present. (In the background, we see a broadcast from CNN
World.) Of the other dream, the dream of a different
country, no-one speaks . . . Not anymore.
In 1975 the
Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) successfully liberated the
colony of Mozambique
from centuries of Portuguese rule.
Simultaneous with the creation of the a new
government under the leadership of the charismatic Samora
Machel, a film industry was born. Actually, “industry” is not the proper term
for would would be a bureau run by the National
Cinema Institute (INC), releasing films under the name “Kuxa
was a cinema fueled by idealism, youthful passion, and ideological fervor, by a
faith in the ability of cultural work to transform Mozambicans from the
identity of a fragmented, colonized people to the identity of a confident
people in charge of their own destiny.
reasons, it ultimately failed.
Director Margarida Cardoso, a veteran of
Mozambican filmmaking, has chosen in this film to tell the story of this
experiment in revolutionary filmmaking, an experiment whose fortunes were tied
inextricably to the fate of the Frelimo government
itself, and particularly that of Samora Machel. Using interviews with former Kuxa Kanema directors, writers, producers, and technicians,
together with excellent archival footage (which she apparently found in an
abandoned, burnt-out building). She tells the story of Kuxa Kanema (and of FRELIMO) for
the fifteen or so years of its ascendancy, until the system moved to a new form
in the early 1990s.
early days, FRELIMO looked to the Soviet and Cuban models of an “engaged,”
“committed” film movement as part of its effort to give people a sense of
purpose and to build a nation. It sent
filmmaking crews out to the countryside to make 16mm newsreels that helped to
explain what the new government was trying to do, then projected
those newsreels in makeshift open-air theaters.
We see reel after reel of the dynamic, ecstatic Samora
Machel, exhorting people to join him on this journey
of transformation. As one of the
interviewees puts it, “He taught people through cinema, step by step, what it
was to be living in an independent country, to be a nation. And all of this was done through
cinema.” For a new nation, marked by
illiteracy and other aspects of the colonial legacy, no one doubted the
cinema’s ability to reach out, make contact, and move the masses. Yes, it was “ideological,” yes it was
“propaganda”; but at the time it also was exciting and it was necessary.
If this all sounds like a far cry
from Hollywood, that’s because it
was. The U.S.
of course had little to do with this revolution. The equipment, projection vans, and training came
from the Soviet Union and other socialist
countries. The filmmakers were trained
on the job, and their early efforts were marked more by enthusiasm than by
technical competence. “We were going to
tame animals, build roads, change the world”; they were
going to combat social inequity and racial hegemony. And Kuxa Kanema naively filmed it all.
Unfortunately, though, Mozambique
did not exist in a vacuum. The
government of Samora Machel
was fervently opposed to the apartheid policies of its near neighbors, Rhodesia
and South Africa,
and it supported the rebel movements there.
To have such a government in place at their doorsteps was intolerable to
these two countries, and they soon began active campaigns to destroy the Machel government through front organizations and
mercenaries. The role of Kuxa Kanema became increasingly
focused on building the nation’s resolve in the face of these challenges
(compounded by drought, famine, and lack of support from the West). Battle
scenes, and particularly the terrible tribulations of the victims of enemy
attacks, soon dominated the newsreels.
Also unfortunately, the government
reacted by turning inward, as happens in such situations, freezing the
creativity and self-interrogation of the revolutionary moment. There was no room for spontaneous,
independent analysis; Kuxa Kanema
and other aspects of cultural life needed to be fully mobilized in support of
the policies of the ruling government.
When the eminent French film director Jean-Luc Godard
came to Mozambique
to work with FRELIMO in creating a kind of experimental “TV Anti-Service,” the
government saw it as a distraction and did not approve. Faced with the impossible task of holding the
country together in the face of these impossible odds, it did not want to give
up control of the image. They preferred
to put resources into a cinematic co-production with the Yugoslavians, which
was an ill-disguised fantasy of revolutionary good and evil. One begins to get a sense of a cinema losing
its soul. One one
interviewee put it, “The speeches became increasingly repetititve, increasingly the same, increasingly
government increasingly under attack—by the mid-80s the “imperialist war” had
become a civil war—the ability of Kuxa Kanema to show its films in the rural areas faded away, and
along with it, cinema’s nation-building role.
By the time Samora Machel
was killed (assassinated?) in 1986 in a plane crash after appealing to the
international community for help, it was a locus of growing
disillusionment. The new government that
came into place six years after Machel’s death only
put a final end to a dream that had long been dying (the new regime preferred
television and had little use for the public screenings for the masses that
marked the Kuxa Kanema era.
saga of Kuxa Kanema is a
story of despair and lost opportunities.
regime would rather forget that it ever existed, just as many in
those countries that formerly experimented with socialism seem embarrassed by
the memory of their nations’ wrong-headed embrace of socialist ideals. But director Margarida
Cardoso wants us to think a little more deeply about
that. Yes, Kuxa
Kanema was ultimately a “failure”; but something very
important has been lost, something not to be forgotten.
* * *
Margarida Cardoso was born in Portugal
in 1963, then raised in Mozambique,
to which she remains attached. She
received her diploma in Image and Audiovisual Communication from the Antonio
in Portugal. She has worked in various capacities on over
40 films, and has directed seven films of her own, both fiction films and
documentaries. Her first feature film, The Murmuring Coast, was made in Portugal
in 2004 and has been very well received internationally.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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