Recovering Lost African Film Classics

Selbe, Safi Faye 1983 (courtesy Women Make Movies)

In the second year of Africa in Motion we are continuing our aim to recover 'lost African classics'; this year with a focus on the work of pioneering female directors through a project sponsored by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

Although female African directors are hugely underrepresented in the film industry, it is often overlooked that African women started making films not long after their male counterparts. Consequently, the role of pioneering female directors in the development of African cinema is sometimes neglected in African film scholarship, not least because early African films are often extremely difficult to access. The aim of this project is to reconsider a selection of films (shorts, documentaries and features) by pioneering female African directors from across the continent, in order to reconsider and expand existing critical models for studying African cinema. The project also includes a number of films by contemporary female African directors, in order to explore the links between the pioneering work of female African directors and the work of young and emerging female directors. The following films are included in the project and will be screened at AiM 2007: Sambizanga (1972) by Gaudeloupean director Sarah Maldoror; La Nouba (1978) by Algerian director Assia Djebar; Selbe (1983) by Senegalese director Safi Faye; Pour la Nuit (For the Night, 2004) by French/Ivorian director Isabelle Boni-Claverie; and Sous la clarté de la lune (Under the Moon's Light, 2004) by Burkinabe director Apolline Traoré.

Dominant accounts of postcolonial African film history typically focus on the work of the major pioneering West African filmmakers - almost all male - such as Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambety from Senegal, Souleymane Cissé from Mali, and Med Hondo from Mauritania. However, on closer examination, one finds that African women started making films not long after men, with Cameroonian journalist Therese Sita-Bella's 30-minute documentary Tam Tam à Paris, made in 1963, which is generally cited as the first film by a sub-Saharan African woman. If one turns to North Africa, we find highly influential female actor-producers (who may also have been uncredited directors) making films from the 1930s. In the early 1970s, Senegalese director, Safi Faye, and the Guadeloupean-born Sarah Maldoror, began to make extremely important films but they are now rarely screened compared to work by their male contemporaries. White South African female directors, such as Katinka Heyns and Elaine Proctor, started makings films from the 1980s onwards. Their work often challenges the dominant apartheid ideology of the time, and even though these films are distanced from the black South African majority, they offer critical perspectives on the situation of white South African women at a time when apartheid was increasingly condemned from within and outside the country. These films, as with the white-dominated cinema in South Africa generally, are excluded from dominant historical and theoretical studies of African cinema as a whole. However, the current reintegration of South Africa into the rest of Africa and the social, economic, political and cultural realignments that are taking place in post-apartheid South Africa, offer the opportunity to reconsider the historical and critical value of these films, which questioned and critiqued the oppressive policies of the time.

A number of leading scholars of African film have been invited to the screenings at Africa in Motion, and to take part in a roundtable discussion on the films, which will take place after the screening of La Nouba on Sat 29 Oct.

The scholars involved will be invited to contribute to an edited collection on neglected strands and new trajectories in African cinema, which will be completed during 2009 (this will also include contributions by the scholars who took part in the Lost African Film Classics project in 2006). Wallflower Press which specialises in publications on world cinema, has already been approached and has expressed a strong interest in publishing a collection of this nature.

Lost Classics 2006

This project, co-ordinated by David Murphy and Lizelle Bisschoff, and generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), aims to 'rescue' early works from the late 1960s by both major and neglected African directors in order to develop a more complex understanding of African film history. Dominant accounts of postcolonial African film history have argued that the 1960s-1970s witnessed the development of a largely realist aesthetic in which priority was given to the exploration of important social and political 'issues'. However, in so doing, these historical accounts have generally been extremely selective in their discussion of work from this period, and a number of films by prominent African filmmakers made at the beginning of their careers during this early period have thus fallen into undeserved obscurity. In some cases only one film print survives and no English subtitles are in existence, causing the exclusion of detailed analyses of these films from major critical and theoretical studies on African cinema. 'Rescuing' four 'lost African classics' from obscurity and screening them at AiM 2006 was thus an important event in allowing critics and audiences to develop a more nuanced conception of African film history.

The four 'lost classics' selected for inclusion in the project were: Contras' City (1969) and Badou Boy (1970) by Djibril Diop Mambety, from Senegal; Nigerien filmmaker Mustapha Alassane's Le Retour de l'Aventurier (1966); and Ivorian filmmaker Désiré Ecaré's Concerto pour un exil (1968): brief summaries of these films are given below. In the case of Mambety, the omission of accounts of these films from key critical works has led to a somewhat truncated account of the development of this hugely important filmmaker's career, omitting significant aspects of his creative evolution. In the cases of Alassane and Ecaré, this neglect has in effect led to the relegation of these directors and their particular film styles to a marginal position within African cinema as a whole: most critical studies include only passing references to these films, or ignore them altogether. It is hoped that 'rescuing' these 'lost classics' from their current neglect will thus help to enable the development of new perspectives in the field of African film scholarship.

Issues of public dissemination and education are also at the heart of the project, and the organisers are keen to make these films available to as wide an audience as possible. The four films were screened in Edinburgh at AiM 2006, where they proved extremely popular with audiences. It is hoped that the project will also be of benefit to Anglophone film festival organisers and cinema programmers the world over, who will now be made aware of these rare films, and will have the opportunity to organise screenings of them with English subtitles. Most of these film prints are to be found in government archives in France, while others are in the possession of the filmmakers, and accessing English-language versions proved very tricky; in fact, in the case of Le Retour de l'Aventurier, the project organisers had to arrange for the creation of a set of English subtitles (which are available as text and slides for festival organisers for use with the 'soft-titling' system).

As part of AiM 2006, a number of leading scholars of African film - Roy Armes, Imruh Bakari, Jacqueline Maingard and David Murphy - took part in a roundtable discussion, chaired by the film critic, Mark Cousins, in order to debate the significance of these films to a reassessment of postcolonial African cinema. The project organisers are currently preparing a special dossier on the project, which will feature contributions by each of these scholars, and which will appear in the film journal Screen in late 2007/early 2008. The project organisers are currently seeking funding for further 'lost classics' screenings at AiM 2007 - focusing this time on films by African women directors - and plans are also under way for an edited volume on African film history.

Lost Classics Summaries

Le Retour de l'Aventurier

A young African returns home to Niger from the States with cowboy outfits in his suitcase for his closest friends. Soon, the friends - Black Cooper, Billy Walter, Queen Christine and the rest - are out riding the range, rustling the village chief's cattle (and some passing giraffes!), getting drunk, fighting and playing poker. A hilarious take on the classic motif of the African who leaves Africa for the West and returns home a changed man, that is, literally 'westernised'!

Concerto pour un exil

A group of African students in Paris are reaching the end of their studies. Should they return to their newly independent homelands or should they try to forge a home for themselves in a hostile and indifferent France? In a very moving and atmospheric film, clearly influenced by the French New Wave, Ecaré beautifully captures the radicalism, sensuousness and ennui of the late 1960s Latin Quarter, as well as his characters' sense of displacement and isolation.

Contras' City

Mambety takes us on a guided tour of Dakar - a city of striking contrasts - on the back of a horse and cart. Devout Muslins pray on the sidewalk while young Catholics make their holy communion. The baroque splendour of the French-built city centre is a world away from the shacks and slums of the outskirts. A wry and witty look at urban life in 1960s Africa, the film reveals Mambety's marked sense of both the beauty and the absurdity of everyday life.

Badou Boy

The eponymous Badou Boy is the first in Mambety's series of charismatic but ultimately doomed rebels. A handsome young man in a paisley shirt, Badou Boy wanders from one offbeat adventure to another pursued by the comic but strangely menacing figure of the fat policeman. A hugely innovative African take on late 1960s psychedelia, with a kicking rock soundtrack, here in its embryonic form is the genius that Mambety would bring to fruition in his masterpiece Touki Bouki.

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  AiM is funded by

Scottish ScreenThe Carnegie Trust for the Universities of ScotlandAwards For AllUniversity of EdinburghCentre Of African Studies
South African High Commission - United KingdomJubilee ScotlandGlobal Concerns TrustChallenges WorldwideUniversity of Stirling
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