Volume 10, Issue 4
Roy Armes. African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006. 214p.
African Filmmaking North and South of the Sahara is a study of African filmmaking that links the production of film in the Maghreb (comprising of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) to what is often referred to as Francophone sub-Saharan Africa (which includes the former colonies of French West Africa; French Equatorial Africa and the protectorates of Togo and Cameroon).
The book begins with an overview of the postcolonial context of African filmmaking with the formation of nation states in the late 1950s and early ‘60s ideologically opposed to imperial colonialism, yet inextricably linked. Armes describes not only the vastness and diversity of the continent, the existence of modern national states alongside different ethnicities, languages and religious practices but also looks at how modern African nations inherited a colonial structure based on autocratic centralism, a Euro centric educational system and the languages of the colonizers.
The French system in West Africa produced assimilés, a class of educated Africans who assimilated the colonizer’s culture and administration and became the first leaders of independent African states. This system in turn produced what Armes describes as emotional ties between France and its ex-colonies seen for example in French cultural policies concerning filmmaking. Filmmaking was of course a foreign technology adopted after independence carrying with it prestige. While the vast majority of films north and south of the Sahara use local and national languages, including variants of Arabic, in order to receive foreign aid or co-production finance, films have to be originally scripted and dialogued in French. Similarly, the term Francophone African cinema (as opposed to Anglophone or a Lusophone one) is still a dominant yet limited definition. These are some of the contradictions and layers of meanings Armes offers as a backdrop to Africa’s rich cinematic history and suggests it has inspired African filmmakers and cultural workers alike to use culture as a means for emancipation and freedom from imperial and autocratic political systems.
Armes places the importance of Islam on the African continent, north and south of the Sahara, in its rightful place, describing not only the long history of Islamisation and trade in Africa but also the Africanisation of Islam, seen for example in its visual culture. Although the pioneers of African film like the leaders of the newly independent African nations in the 1950s and ‘60s were politically influenced by socialist sentiments and created filmic critiques of colonialism as well as the practice of Islam in Africa, Armes suggests that “today’s filmmakers – caught between their French education and their Islamic heritage – offer an ambiguous, but totally contemporary – African visual culture” (p.10).
In Part 1, Armes describes the origins of cinema in Africa starting with the beginnings of film during the colonial era in the 1890s, pretty much at the same time cinema spread across Europe and the United States. Although these colonial films tended to use Africa just as a scenic backdrop to a purely European drama or perpetuate racial stereotypes to legitimise western cultural, political and financial dominance, Armes describes the varying types of film production in Africa from colonial rule to post-independence, including the Tunisian pioneer filmmaker, Albert Samama Chikly (1872-1934) who was the only one from the Maghreb or West Africa under colonial rule to make feature-length films.
Going on to post-independence filmmaking, Armes looks at the emergence of African filmmakers alongside the dominance of Western films over African screens, while the structural organisation of African film production retained fundamentally a colonial structure. Early film production in post -independence Africa was very much seen as a state production, while Armes suggests a shift occurred in the 1980s and 1990s due to the closure of numerous state production organisations and the development of French aid to finance African film production.
In Part 2 & 3, Armes gives a comprehensive overview of films led by the pioneers of the 1960s such as Ousmane Sembene in Senegal, Ahmed Rachedi and Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina in Algeria and Omar Khlifi from Tunisia, following on into the 1970s with filmmakers such as Mauritanian Med Hondo, the Malian Souleymane Cisse and Senegalese woman director Safi Faye, who used film to highlight the social issues of a postcolonial society and their liberation struggles, developing an African perspective denied after a long period of colonisation. He suggests that in the 1980s and ‘90s filmmakers shifted to a more personal dimension to represent individual struggles as a result of political and ideological disenchantment. Armes also writes about what he calls experimental narratives and looks at the work of Djibril Diop Mambety from Senegal and Med Hondo (Mauritanian by birth but based in Paris), as well as examples of comedies from Morocco and Ivory Coast to exemplify the alternatives to social realism prevalent in the first generation of African filmmakers. As Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike notes, this “compelling experimentation enables us to appreciate African cinema as innovative and diverse” (p.122), which Armes suggests is a trend that continues with many filmmakers working in the 2000s.
The new generation of African filmmakers represented by the "New Millennium" group includes “forty filmmakers--five of them women--[who] have given us over fifty feature films in the years since the late 1990s”(p. 143). Thirteen of these filmmakers come from Morocco, ten from Tunisia, one from Algeria, and sixteen from sub-Saharan countries.Almost all are film-school trained (mainly in Paris), and, as a whole, they represent one of the most highly educated groups of filmmakers in the world. Most have a production base in Europe where they tend to reside in order to qualify for European production funds. This group has a strong sense of unity and is organized in the Paris-based Guilde Africaine des Réalisateurs et Producteurs. Many of their works explore exile and diaspora such as Jean-Pierre Bekolo from Cameroon, whom Jonathan Haynes described as “a cagey and attitudinous guerrilla roaming the post-modern globalized mediascape, opening the way for other bold young experimenters who made award-winning films” (p. 154). Armes also acknowledges Nigeria's booming video film sector to contrast it with the financial continuities in the Francophone world. The book concludes in Part 4 with a focus on the most promising New Millennium directors: Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad); Dani Kouyate’ (Burkina Faso); Raja Amari (Tunisia); Faouzi Bensaidi (Morocco) and Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania) giving this new generation of African filmmakers the final say.
Helena Cantone School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London