Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary African Cinema: The Politics of Beauty 9781784533359, 9781350105058, 9781350105065

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Ethics and Aesthetics in Contemporary African Cinema: The Politics of Beauty
 9781784533359, 9781350105058, 9781350105065

Table of contents :
Title Page
Copyright Page
List of illustration credits
Chapter 1 The trouble with beauty: Reimagining African film aesthetics
Chapter 2 On the front line: In/visible violence, formations of style and aesthetic resistance
Chapter 3 Screening Dakar: Locating beauty in the afropolis
Chapter 4 Voice, language, mystery: From ideological struggle to aesthetic shudder
Chapter 5 Queering the Baobab: Male intimacy, the erotics of abstraction and the right to beauty
Chapter 6 On the border, becoming world: Migrant beauty, migratory narratives and the transmigration of cinematic form
Chapter 7 The afropolitan present

Citation preview


Series Editors: Lúcia Nagib, Professor of Film at the University of Reading Julian Ross, Research Fellow at the University of Westminster Advisory Board: Laura Mulvey (UK), Robert Stam (USA), Ismail Xavier (Brazil), Dudley Andrew (USA) The World Cinema Series aims to reveal and celebrate the richness and complexity of film art across the globe, exploring a wide variety of cinemas set within their own cultures and as they interconnect in a global context. The books in the series will represent innovative scholarship, in tune with the multicultural character of contemporary audiences. Drawing upon an international authorship, they will challenge outdated conceptions of world cinema, and provide new ways of understanding a field at the centre of film studies in an era of transnational networks. Published and forthcoming in the World Cinema series: Allegory in Iranian Cinema: The Aesthetics of Poetry and Resistance By Michelle Langford Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca By Stefanie Van de Peer Basque Cinema: A Cultural and Political History By Rob Stone and Maria Pilar Rodriguez Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia By Lúcia Nagib The Cinema of Jia Zhangke: Realism and Memory in Chinese Film By Cecília Mello The Cinema of Sri Lanka: South Asian Film in Texts and Contexts By Ian Conrich and Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin

Contemporary New Zealand Cinema Edited by Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray Contemporary Portuguese Cinema: Globalising the Nation Edited by Mariana Liz Cosmopolitan Cinema: Cross-cultural Encounters in East Asian Film By Felicia Chan Documentary Cinema: Contemporary Non-Fiction Film and Video Worldwide By Keith Beattie Documentary Cinema of Chile: Confronting History, Memory, Trauma By Antonio Traverso East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film Edited by Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai East Asian Film Noir: Transnational Encounters and Intercultural Dialogue Edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Mark Gallagher

Film Genres and African Cinema: Postcolonial Encounters By Rachael Langford Impure Cinema: Intermedial and Intercultural Approaches to Film Edited by Lúcia Nagib and Anne Jerslev

Queer Masculinities in Latin American Cinema: Male Bodies and Narrative Representations By Gustavo Subero Realism in Greek Cinema: From the PostWar Period to the Present By Vrasidas Karalis

Latin American Women Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics Edited by Deborah Martin and Deborah Shaw

Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality By Tiago de Luca

Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond By Lina Khatib

The Spanish Fantastic: Contemporary Filmmaking in Horror, Fantasy and Sci-fi By Shelagh-Rowan Legg

New Argentine Cinema By Jens Andermann

Stars in World Cinema: Screen Icons and Star Systems Across Cultures Edited by Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer

New Directions in German Cinema Edited by Paul Cooke and Chris Homewood New Turkish Cinema: Belonging, Identity and Memory By Asuman Suner On Cinema Glauber Rocha Edited by Ismail Xavier Palestinian Filmmaking in Israel: Narratives of Memory and Identity in the Middle East By Yael Friedman Performing Authorship: Self-inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema By Cecilia Sayad

Theorizing World Cinema Edited by Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam and Rajinder Dudrah Viewing Film By Donald Richie Queries, ideas and submissions to: Series Editor: Professor Lúcia Nagib – [email protected] Series Editor: Dr. Julian Ross – J.Ross1@ Publisher at Bloomsbury, Rebecca Barden – [email protected]



James S. Williams

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2019 Copyright © James S. Williams, 2019 James S. Williams has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on p. xi constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover image: Daratt, Ali Barkai (hand) and Youssouf Djaoro, (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2006) (© Pyramide International/Courtesy Everett Collection) All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-7845-3335-9 ePDF: 978-1-3501-0505-8 eBook: 978-1-3501-0506-5 Series: World Cinema Typeset by Deanta Global Publishing Services, Chennai, India To find out more about our authors and books visit and sign up for our newsletters.


List of illustration credits  viii Acknowledgements  xi

1 The trouble with beauty: Reimagining African film aesthetics  1 2 On the front line: In/visible violence, formations of style, and aesthetic resistance  39 3 Screening Dakar: Locating beauty in the afropolis  91 4 Voice, language, mystery: From ideological struggle to aesthetic shudder  139 5 Queering the Baobab: Male intimacy, the erotics of abstraction, and the right to beauty  173 6 On the border, becoming world: Migrant beauty, migratory narratives, and the transmigration of cinematic form  211 7 The afropolitan present  263 Notes  273 Bibliography  320 Filmography  341 Index  347


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Mandabi directed by Ousmane Sembene © Comptoir Français du Film Production (CFFP), Grove Press, and New Yorker Films 1968. All rights reserved  6 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  20 Moolaadé directed by Ousmane Sembene © Filmi Doomireew, Direction de la Cinématographie Nationale, Centre Cinématographique Marocain, Cinétéléfilms, Les Films Terre Africaine, Ciné-Sud Promotion, and Artificial Eye 2004. All rights reserved  47 The Night of Truth directed by Fanta Régina Nacro © Acrobates Film, Les Films du Defi France 3 Cinéma, and BFI 2004. All rights reserved  57 Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, Arte France Cinéma, and Artificial Eye 2006. All rights reserved  66 Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, Arte France Cinéma, and Artificial Eye 2006. All rights reserved  69 Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, Arte France Cinéma, and Artificial Eye 2006. All rights reserved  72 Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, Arte France Cinéma, and Artificial Eye 2006. All rights reserved  78 Timbuktu directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Les Films du Worso, Dune Vision, Arches Films, Arte France Cinéma, Orange Studio & Le Pacte 2014. All rights reserved  87

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Borom Sarret directed by Ousmane Sembene © Cinema 16 (World Short Films, 2008) and World Cinema Foundation 1963. All rights reserved  96 The Silent Monologue directed by Khady Sylla and Charlie Van Damme © ArtMattan Productions (Great African Films – Vol. 4), Athénaïse, Iota Production, and Karoninka 2008. All rights reserved  105 Aujourd’hui (Tey) directed by Alain Gomis © Granit Films, Maïa Cinéma, Cinekap, Agora Films, and Jour2Fête 2012. All rights reserved  108 Aujourd’hui (Tey) directed by Alain Gomis © Granit Films, Maïa Cinéma, Cinekap, Agora Films, and Jour2Fête 2012. All rights reserved  112 Mille Soleils directed by Mati Diop © Anna Sanders Films 2013. All rights reserved  124 Mille Soleils directed by Mati Diop © Anna Sanders Films 2013. All rights reserved  127 Mille Soleils directed by Mati Diop © Anna Sanders Films 2013. All rights reserved  135 Le Franc directed by Djibril Diop Mambety © Waka Films, and La Médiathèque des Trois Mondes 1994 and 2002. All rights reserved  145 Yeelen directed by Souleymane Cissé © Les Films Cissé, and Kino Video 1987. All rights reserved  151 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  153 Waiting for Happiness directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Arte France Cinéma, Duo Films, and Artificial Eye 2002. All rights reserved  155 Waiting for Happiness directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Arte France Cinéma, Duo Films, and Artificial Eye 2002. All rights reserved  159 Bamako directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Archipel 33, Chinguitty Films, Mali Images, Arte France Cinéma, and Artificial Eye 2006. All rights reserved  166 Dakan directed by Mohamed Camara © Film Du 20ème Créations Cinématographiques, René Féret, and M.F.D 1997. All rights reserved  184

Illustration Credits


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Mandabi directed by Ousmane Sembene © Comptoir Français du Film Production (CFFP), Grove Press, and New Yorker Films 1968. All rights reserved  187 A Screaming Man directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun © Pili Films, Entre Chien et Loup, Goï Goï Productions, and Soda Pictures 2010. All rights reserved  191 Abouna directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun © Arte France Cinéma, Duo Films, Goï Goï Productions, StudioCanal UK (formerly Optimum Releasing), and ICA Projects 2002. All rights reserved  194 Daratt directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun © Pili Films, Goï Goï Productions, Arte France Cinéma, and Soda Pictures 2006. All rights reserved  196 Grigris directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun © Pili Films, Goï Goï Productions, France 3 Cinéma, Les Films du Losange, and New Wave Films 2013. All rights reserved  201 Un matin bonne heure directed by Gahité Fofana © Arte France Cinéma, Bafila Films, Key Light, and L’Harmattan 2006. All rights reserved  220 The Pirogue directed by Moussa Touré © ArtMattan Productions (Great African Films – Vol. 4), Les Chauves-Souris, Arte France Cinéma, Astou Films, Appaloosa Films, Royal Pony Film, Studio 37, LCS, and Rézo Films 2012. All rights reserved  226 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  240 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  245 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  251 La Vie sur terre directed by Abderrahmane Sissako © Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Haut et Court, and La Sept-Arte 1998. All rights reserved (Courtesy of Elise Finielz / Jump Cut)  255 Félicité directed by Alain Gomis © Andolfi, Granit Films, Cinekap, Need Productions, Katuh Studio, Schortcut Films, Jour2Fête, MUBI, and Strand Releasing 2017. All rights reserved  266

Illustration Credits


I would like first to record my thanks to the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Royal Holloway for granting me leave to complete this book, and also for providing funds towards its production. I thank also the staff at the Institut Français du Sénégal in Dakar and the Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis for their excellent advice and support, as well as the staff at the Cinémathèque Française and Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the British Film Institute in London. I am above all immensely grateful to the wonderful team at Bloomsbury for their exceptional support and expertise at all stages, in particular Visual Arts publisher Rebecca Barden and her assistant Alex Ciobanu, as well as Lúcia Nagib, editor with Julian Ross of the ‘World Cinema Series’, whose immediate enthusiasm and total commitment to the project were a source of inspiration. My sincere thanks also to Anna Coatman who initially commissioned the book, project manager Sweda R., quality reviewer Nandini Satish, Aishwarya Mohan for her scrupulous copy-editing, and Alan Rutter for his superb work as ever on the index. The identity of the anonymous readers of the manuscript must necessarily remain unknown, but I record my appreciation for their many insightful comments and important suggestions which proved enormously helpful in preparing the final version. The book has also benefitted enormously from conversations over the years with friends and colleagues about African cinema and culture, in particular Daniela Berghahn, Vicki Callahan, Fabrizio De Donno, Charles Forsdick, Catherine Grant, Julia Gallagher, Frances Guerin, Will Higbee, Edward J. Hughes, Regina Longo, Will Montgomery, Redell Olsen, Eric Robertson, Caterina Scarabicchi, Phil Powrie, B. Ruby Rich, Danielle Sands, Beryl Satter, Michael Sheringham, Paul Julian Smith and Alfred Thomas. Finally, my special thanks to Mbaye Diouf, my intrepid guide to Dakar and its environs, and to my sisters Myfanwy Williams and Susan Williams who, along with Jason Gittens, encouraged me during the long haul and offered important practical advice when needed. Earlier versions of some sections of chapters, which I have expanded and in most cases substantially developed, were originally published in the following edited volumes and journals: Studies in French Cinema (2017) (Chapter 2); The Made and the Found: Essays, Prose and Poetry in Honour of Michael Sheringham

(Cambridge: Legenda, 2017), ed. Emily McLaughlin and Patrick McGuinness (Chapter 3); The Multilingual Screen: New Reflections on Cinema and Linguistic Difference (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), ed. Lisa Patti and Tijana Mamula (Chapter 4); Film Quarterly 67:4 (2014) (Chapter 5). I would like to thank the publishers for granting me permission to draw on this body of material.

xii Acknowledgements


It is no longer sufficient that we keep on producing in order to waken people’s consciousness, etc.. We have to be humble enough to move the debate on to film as a form of artistic creation in itself rather than as a means to achieve progress for a cause. MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN

Now with a camera I can see the world differently, I feel I exist when I film. I feel joy, I can see beauty.


In African cinema, beauty is trouble. This is due not simply to the long, complex, and deeply contested legacy of colonial ethnographic film with its dubious exoticist tendencies and racist pretensions of absolute knowledge and truth, namely of the black Other.1 The first generation of black African filmmakers and critics in the 1960s considered the very idea of cinematic beauty highly suspect, and at best irrelevant, if it did not fall squarely within the bounds of ideological critique and postcolonial allegory. At the risk of gross simplification, beauty was a tainted marker of oppressive colonial ideology, at once false and reactionary, even deviant, because it interfered with the urgent, idealizing myths of nationhood, modernity and cultural revolution. Pioneering filmmakers like the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, the so-called ‘Father of African cinema’, who regarded cinema’s primary function as an emancipatory tool for decolonizing the mind as well as for forging a national imaginary, defiantly eschewed all notions of beauty which he deemed Western and imported. Sembene even declared rhetorically that

the word ‘art’ did not exist in African languages, deliberately choosing to ignore that the Igbo word ‘nka’, for instance, means ‘artistry’ or ‘of art’. In such an ideologically charged context, beauty could only operate in excess of desired political aims and outside the prescribed parameters of national and working-class consciousness. Starting with Sembene’s groundbreaking, politically engaged fictions like Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) (1963) and Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1965), the aesthetic was forced to carry the burden of political aims and ideals. This process would be explicitly formalized in Sembene’s celebrated political allegory and satire, Xala (1974) (The Curse), where the sudden sexual impotency of the protagonist El Hadji (Thierno Leye) on his wedding night – related to, if not directly caused by, his role in neocolonialist corruption and aping the sterile structures of the former European colonizers – is also linked to his penchant for stylized black-and-white art images of exoticized young African women. One such is a photograph of his new, third wife Ngoné (Dieynaba Dieng), her face and naked upper torso shot in profile with one of her bare breasts just visible – an eroticized image of her commodification sealed, during her Western-style wedding, by the plastic model of a white bride and groom on the cake and the presents lavished upon her as part of her dowry. Such nefarious signs of European taste are powerfully contradicted by El Hadji’s proud, rebellious student daughter Rama (Marème Niang), who speaks in Wolof, often dresses in a Senegalese robe (the boubou), and is presented throughout as a progressive force for change. To claim that Sembene was a revolutionary artist who simply had no time at all for beauty in his search for new African symbols is, however, potentially to miss the point. His allegorical mode of social realism advancing the new nationalist narratives of social progress and pan-African modernity was, after all, continually working through, as much as against, the dominant aesthetic codes of European cinema, resulting in the case of Xala in what Laura Mulvey has aptly called ‘a kind of poetics of politics’ (Mulvey 1993). And beauty as the index of a certain ‘false realism’ was also rechannelled and reconfigured in the radical modernist experimentation of arguably the most gifted filmmaker of this first generation of African cinema, who started five years after Sembene, his fellow-countryman Djibril Diop Mambety. In dazzlingly experimental films like Touki-Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena) (1973), which fulfilled even more dramatically the general desire of early African directors to escape any trace of colonial documentary naturalism with its descriptive visual reportage and ‘neutral’ mode of voice-over commentary,2 Mambety mined material reality for poetic rather than political symbol. Yet while their styles and methods were poles apart, Mambety and Sembene shared an underlying aim to harness the external world for symbolic purposes. Such pervasive, ingrained suspicion of ‘raw’ realism – and in Sembene’s case of any direct engagement with the material beauty of natural things – has withstood the major twists and turns in the evolution of African cinema, including the ‘return to the source’ or calabash tendency, the second decisive new phase of


African cinema that came to the fore during the 1980s with Burkinabe director Gaston Kaboré’s rural film God’s Gift (Wênd Kûuni, 1982), and which included popular films of village life by his fellow-countryman Idrissa Ouedraogo such as Yaaba (1989), as well as more self-consciously poetic works like the Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s Brightness (Yeelen, 1987).3 Ouedraogo’s at once realist and poetic gaze on marginal peasant characters, intensified by long takes and depth of field, harboured clear political intentions. Yet although calabash cinema purported to be an authentically African approach and style, employing, for example, classic tropes of the rich, griot, oral storytelling heritage, it ultimately fed into the Western art cinema tradition and was immediately castigated as regressive by Third Cinema critics and filmmakers like Sembene who had more pressing and explicit political questions on their agenda. They regarded such films as Yaaba and Brightness, which for many viewers across the world still represent an artistic high point of African postcolonial cinema, as a misguided, apolitical project – a reactionary, universalist aesthetics of pseudo- or neo-négritude that conscripted nature and landscape to create a timeless Africa. Moreover, it fell into the trap, one that still exists today, of reproducing stereotypically ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ images of Africa which Western producers, who continue largely to underwrite African cinema, invariably demand: scenic panoramas, pastoral innocence, untarnished tribal customs. In one influential essay, the American scholar of black cinema Clyde Taylor called for African film critics to abandon aesthetic considerations altogether, for such an approach was fatally compromised by the Western imperialist notions of universal value which underpin them (see Taylor 1989). It is on and around the surface of the female body that the prohibition of beauty was most acutely played out in African cinema, because within predominantly patriarchal African societies the female form is viewed as the most conspicuous display of human beauty. Indeed, female beauty was often seen not just as counter to the serious political ideals of the national independence project – a form of political imposture and open provocation to bad faith – but also as a dangerous and potentially fatal influence tout court if not politically encoded and held allegorically in check. The films where the very idea of female beauty is devalorized within the narrative are too numerous to mention, but one in particular stands out: Flora Gomes’s The Blue Eyes of Yonta (Udju Azul di Yonta, 1992). Set in Guinea-Bissau, it features a stunningly attractive young woman called Yonta (Maysa Marta) who is first courted by the older Vicente (Antonìo Simâo Mendes), then later dismissed as ‘just a girl’, that is, as someone who has not lived like him through the glory days of revolution and independence. Vicente’s political background is presented as a poisoned chalice, however, since he finds life in present-day Guinea-Bissau perplexing and frustrating. He has become disillusioned and beset by demons, unlike the candid and confident Yonta who embodies the new generation of materialism and consumerism by embracing Western notions of beauty. Gomes establishes a clear formal opposition between female beauty linked to the contemporary world of



youth and fashion and codified as naïve and shallow, and old-school revolutionary idealism regarded as fundamentally masculine and authentic. This highly loaded binary articulated in terms of surface and depth appears to be dismantled at the end when, the morning after a wedding party, Yonta leads the way by dancing past the swimming pool and out of the villa with her peers and young children, sweeping past their elders in a magisterial symbolic tracking shot. It suggests that the country’s youth will succeed if they do not let their dreams hold them back like Vicente and remain instead focused on the future. Yet the dynamism of the shot is not enough to dispel the key, structuring, misogynist idea of the film, and indeed much of African cinema, that visible beauty is intrinsically feminine and therefore unformed (notwithstanding the equally handsome mature beauty of Vicente), and that once it has been recognized as decorative, illusory, and inferior, it must be swiftly disavowed. The Blue Eyes of Yonta even includes a subplot where a young male student Zé sends Yonta anguished, florid love letters praising her beauty, the lines cribbed from a Swedish book and therefore precisely ‘un-African’ in origin and intent.4 So persistent has been the ideological suspicion of female-encoded beauty within postcolonial African cinema that even the Senegalese director Safi Faye’s Mossane (1996), hailed as the first feminist film by the first African woman filmmaker, presents beauty as both a blessing and a curse and constant cause for alarm. Based on a Wolof legend, Mossane concerns a fourteen-year-old girl, the eponymous Mossane, who brings disaster to her family by refusing to submit to an arranged marriage with a man who works abroad for a French conglomerate. Despite the fact that the film is shot in exquisite colour set off against desolate expanses of coastline and grassland, Mossane is fated to die simply because she is too pretty, a victim of the Pangool (ancestral spirits of the Serer) who keep returning like ghostly, menacing presences. As Vicente with Yonta, Mossane’s mother complains that the young generation are forsaking tradition and becoming hopelessly attracted to contemporary ‘exotic’ styles of dress and behaviour. In another strikingly similar example of the fatal attractions of haunted female beauty within Senegalese cinema, Mansour Sora Wade’s The Price of Forgiveness (Ndeysaan, 2001), set in a mythical, precolonial period, the most charming girl in the village, Maxoye, finds herself the impossible object of murderous envy between two male rivals. Once she discovers she is pregnant with the child of her murdered lover Mbagnick, she sets the price of forgiveness: his killer Yatma must bring up her child as his own. Such firm resolution is not enough, however, to appease the ghost of the victim. It is not only female beauty that is put under erasure in postcolonial African cinema. In the opening credit sequence of Mandabi (1968) (The Money Order), a key founding text of African cinema and the first film by Sembene in his native Wolof, Sembene effectively established a template and set of stylistic terms and conditions for representing all forms of beauty, whether feminine or masculine,


human or non-human. We start with an aerial medium shot of the large crown of a baobab tree. The camera then moves swiftly down to ground level where two men are pictured in long shot being shaved at an outside barbershop under the tree’s shade. There is no time here to contemplate the tangled canopy of the baobab, a remarkable deciduous tree (Adansonia digitata) native to the African sahel and savannah with distinctive swollen stems and huge, smooth, shiny trunks that can grow like pillars up to twenty metres high (without leaves a baobab appears like a set of roots sticking up into the air, as if planted upside down, giving rise to the alternative name of ‘upside-down tree’).5 Hollow inside, a baobab can serve many human purposes in African societies (as food, shelter, medicine, a site of ceremony). However, because it can store massive amounts of water in its large roots, allowing it to cope with seasonal drought and live indestructibly for hundreds, even thousands, of years, it is revered above all as a sacred ‘tree of life’ and eternal source of wisdom. Yet just as there is no opportunity in the highly elliptical prologue of Mandabi to capture the grandeur and wonder of this extraordinary tree, so, too, there is no chance for human beauty to impose itself and delay the film’s critique of corruption (the treachery of petty officials) driven forwards by the rhythms of a West African marching song. Attention moves quickly to an extreme close-up of the face of an older customer at the very moment the barber’s steel blade enters his nostrils with expert touch. The close-up is purely functional, however, and the viewer is kept at a respectful distance from the men’s bodies – we are not invited to linger on the warm eyes and gentle smile of the barber for more than a brief second. The same with the glisten of the knife on exposed male flesh. Moreover, none of the six men gathered, whether barber or customer, looks each other in the eye. The return of the male gaze appears strictly prohibited, and, since the entire sequence is shot objectively, there is no possibility of a mutual shot/counter shot formation. It is as if merely to look at the male body and open it up subjectively to aesthetic or erotic interest were potentially to hinder its agency and tamper with the master narratives of African manhood and nationhood. His shave completed and paid for, the older customer (shortly to be revealed as the protagonist, Ibrahima Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye)) stands up and exits the frame which swiftly expands into a wide shot of a communal space into which four women now enter – the beginnings of the film’s heterosexually arranged plot. Social exchange and masculinity are thus dutifully maintained as vehicles of the social and cultural order, achieved under the aegis of the iconic baobab tree as symbolic ‘head’ of African culture. Sembene is evoking in Mandabi an organic object not as a manifestation of environmental beauty, but rather as a privileged and defining symbol of panAfrican influence and continuity in the march for new political self-empowerment (the baobab is also the national emblem of Senegal and features on the country’s coat of arms with the words: ‘Un peuple, Un but, Une foi’ (One people, one aim, one faith)). In other words, the tree is not seen here for what it is, namely an instance of



FIGURE 1.1 Tracking down the baobab in the opening credit sequence of Mandabi (1968).

material being, for in the very moment of calling up the baobab Sembene consigns it to a rigid frame, holds it down, and covers it over with the opening credits in Wolof. It is thus enlisted as a tool and agent of nationalist thought in a postcolonial politics of language and representation. Put differently, natural beauty, like the human body, cannot be left alone ‘naked’ in black African cinema and must be politically framed and inscribed – otherwise it poses a potential threat to the body politic.

Baobab thinking: Deep, invisible, underneath Let us be completely clear about what we have just witnessed in Mandabi: the baobab tree, a unique and lofty pillar of African continuity, truth and tradition, remade by Sembene as a symbol of change and progress in the continuum of black African society and history, is operating as a model of conceptual thinking, at once fixed, unitary and universal because based on objective certainties rather than subjective feeling or speculation. We may call it for short ‘Baobab thinking’, the capital letter denoting its symbolic weight. This avowedly anti-aesthetic, political form of cinematic thinking provided the new, ‘sacred’ roots of first-generation African cinema. As film theorist Dudley Andrew puts it, Sembene named, identified and recorded the agents, institutions and practices of Africa while offering proverbial wisdom through shaming and praising, his work thereby reconstituting a moral and geographic landscape (Andrew 2000: 229). Such a soaring social, political


project would later literally be brought down to earth by calabash cinema, where the revered genealogical baobab reaches down with its roots into the pure water of heritage and, because made of memory, ‘stands as a living marker of the debt the present owes the past’ (Andrew 2000: 232). Indeed, as Andrew states of calabash filmmakers of the 1980s and since: ‘Invariably it seems they encounter a baobab, the great tree whose stature arrests the free movement of thought and cinema, turning to a past represented by its roots. Ultimately, African cinema would yoke the dual impulses of identity and liberty, represented, respectively, by the sahel and the rooted baobab’ (Andrew 2000: 230) (my emphasis). The traditional figure of the griot, who serves to promote the stability of the family, heritage, paternity and territory, is pivotal here, often as a matter of life and death, for, as Andrew notes, the past in calabash cinema ‘is both a tree of knowledge to which the griot is bound (literally indebted), and a family tree to which he is bound by fortune of birth … the past he calls upon exacts its own demands and is inescapable as fate. … The tree may very well root the culture to terrain; outside its shade, however, one dies of exposure’ (Andrew 2000: 237). Calabash filmmakers thus project images of a rooted past, an ancestral tree ‘so vast as to interrelate distant branches and roots’ (Andrew 2000: 234), in order to secure an identity they can proudly proclaim iteratively (Andrew 2000: 238).6 The elaborate, pre-credit sequence of Djeli (Djeli, conte d’aujourd’hui, 1981), a modern tale about forbidden love by Ivorian director Fadika Kramo-Lanciné, epitomizes this crucial constellation of defining elements. Here, a griot (Kramoko Kouyaté), accompanied by musicians, sings the legend of two brothers who, after wandering the sahel to the point of starvation, sit beside a baobab tree. One of the brothers cuts flesh from his own body in order that the other may eat. As Andrew puts it, this ‘communion sequence’ introduces ‘a strain of African cinema that would dominate critical writing for the next fifteen years’ (Andrew 2000: 230), whereby the baobab functions as ‘a “fabulous” tree that encourages transit among worlds’ (Andrew 2000: 236). One sees here that the revered baobab tree constitutes a primary site for the construction of identity in African cinema, whether as progressive and communitarian in Sembene’s nationalist cinema, or as divine and divinatory in the calabash tradition which emphasizes identity ritually through the past and memory. The first generation of African filmmakers led by Sembene tapped into – and deployed – the invisible underneath of things for the strategic purposes of dialectical logic, giving it form as symbolic and political allegory in narrative fictions where the very prospect of visible beauty becomes a liability, just as surely as later calabash directors dug deep into the roots and rituals of rural tradition and heritage for sacred messages. Yet in both cases the baobab operates didactically as a symbol and allegory as well as a source of authenticity, whether political, social or superstitious. Moreover, the outcome is the same: the reduction of the baobab’s material beauty as a living object to a static vessel for a higher, deeper truth. The fact that it is hollow inside serves only to magnify the baobab’s potential as a locus



of symbolic – and essentially patrilinear and heteronormative – projections and allegorical ideals. Such common focus on the baobab’s meaningful roots and submerged wells, and with it the effective cancelling out of its potential for beauty within the visible, forms part of a much larger pattern and model within African film aesthetics which generally privileges what cannot be seen externally. To invoke the influential terms proposed by the pioneering African film theorist Teshome Gabriel to describe Xala, the purely visual surface aspects of the image are put to one side and disregarded in a cinema of ‘wax and gold’ (sem-enna-worq) where, as in the case of Ethiopian folk art, one has to prise open the wax (the ‘superficial meaning’, in this case the comedy) in order to unearth the embedded gold of ‘true meaning’ in the artwork (i.e. its ideological message) (see Gabriel 1982a). The wax of the everyday is simply the humble vehicle by which nuggets of political and aesthetic meaning may be obtained, with the result that intricate, multi-narrative forms of allegory and fable, where the image operates as a kind of concealed mystery, have continually been prioritized in African cinema and African film criticism. As Gabriel puts it in terms evoking the core principles of Third Cinema: ‘In any image there is always a picture of difference. Every image is a mask; it conceals another image. Any single image is in fact a compendium of several images that prepare the way in which each individual image is seen and read’ (Gabriel 1982b: 81). The desired invisible underneath of things encourages both recourse to symbol and allegory, and a general denigration of surface detail and presence in favour of imagined potential depth. The gold underneath the wax approach, with its natural suspicion of visible evidence and the outside, feeds into the profound mistrust of beauty as a purely surface matter that one observes within African aesthetics more generally. It entails a regular debasing of the most immediate and material level of the art object which is commonly relegated to secondary importance. Aesthetic value is invariably deep rhythm and linked to the making of a community of integrated artistic production (e.g. dance in ritual). We are reminded here of how an aesthetics of depth inspired négritude thought precisely in the form of human rhythm. Léopold Sédar Senghor, who regarded rhythm as inherently African, wrote in 1967: ‘This organising force which makes the black style is rhythm. It is the most perceptible and the least material thing. … Even in the nightly drumming, black music is not a purely aesthetic manifestation, but brings its faithful into communion, more intimately, to the rhythm of the community which dances, of the World which dances’ (my emphasis).7 Such devalorizing of the material visible within African artistic forms, where the invisible inside is considered a source of spiritual truth and where the metaphysical and mystical are prized over the physical, is ubiquitous in African societies. In an illuminating anthropological study entitled The Underneath of Things (2001), exploring beauty and ugliness in relation to the Mende mask in Sierra Leone,


Mariane Ferme reveals the sometimes violent tensions between concealing and revealing that are embedded in masking, arguing that ‘visible and more easily accessible practices in Sierra Leone are presumed to be activated by forces and meanings “underneath” them. These forces shape the perception of the visible world – the meaning of language and names, the history of places – and social relations ranging from the domestic to interactions with strangers’ (Ferme 2001: 3). The Mende word for meaning, yembu, which stands for ‘that which is underneath’ things, already points to the primacy of the concealed in understanding the visible (Ferme 2001: 4). Ferme shows how the elements of Mende cultural logic constitute a hermeneutics of secrecy and concealment whereby ambivalence is celebrated (including verbal artistry, puns and riddles), and where the careful management of ambiguity in the case of the mabole and sobel (i.e. the management of multiple levels of hidden meanings, and their interpretations) can bring about reversals of fortune (Ferme 2001: 224).8 The skill to see beyond purely visible phenomena and to interpret deeper meanings becomes a culturally valued and highly contested activity because on it are predicated all social and political actions and different forms of wealth (Ferme 2001). Indeed, random wealth is conferred by diamonds and gold once their dull sources are worked to reveal the reflective brilliance underneath (Ferme 2001: 5). The Mende are not exceptional in their essential demotion of the perceptual domain. The aesthetics of ambiguity is widespread in the region where the dark star brimming with potential depths holds more fascination than the depthless (and therefore already obsolete) bright star, and where overly determined images are generally viewed as the work of outsiders and rejected. Writing about the processes of visuality in Baule art in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the African art specialist and curator Susan Vogel highlights the importance of keeping objects hidden, wrapped in blankets inside dwellings, and thus mysterious and ambiguous – part of an approach that regards the materiality of the objects as superficial and of lesser worth. It is the way the observer remembers and imagines the object that conveys its essence, and mental images are therefore paramount. Night, darkness and obscurity are accepted and welcomed ‘as a normal inconvenience and experienced as positive, useful and pleasurable’ (Vogel 1997: 75). In fact, the daily Baule experience of art occurs mainly in unspoken memories and occasional dreams (Vogel 1997: 74). Hence, understanding is actually deepened by ambiguity and fed by imagination and memory: the viewer’s mind supplies what is visually withheld, creating lasting images to satisfy its own tastes, moods, desires and psyche. It means that a Baule believer approaches the object as an ‘incompletely seen object’ linked to the forces of darkness and visual memory, and thus in a wholly different way from a Western observer seeking to engage with its immediate material appearance. Indeed, looking and seeing are learned and culturally constructed modes in Baule visual practice. Vogel again: ‘Baule believers first encounter the object’s indwelling, spiritual powers, or the metaphysical ideas



it evokes, while the connoisseur begins with the visible forms, colours, textures – the artist’s material creation’ (Vogel 1997: 65). As for the Baule artist, s/he does not contribute ‘the object’s powerful essence but simply its locus, a shell that is its physical exterior’ (Vogel 1997: 72). So prevalent is the metaphysics of the invisible and underneath as part of the forces of darkness and gods and spirits in African societies and cultures that, to return to the medium of cinema, the invisible is often the automatic point of reference from which all else follows. In his voice-over to the documentary Holiday Back Home (Vacances au pays, 2000), part-personal travelogue and partdidactic essay about ‘tropical modernity’ and the impact of the global economy, the Cameroonian director Jean-Marie Teno speaks of the valley he finds himself in during his visit to his native village: ‘Here, the earth gives us life, takes our bodies, freeing them into the invisible world. Returning here, I pay homage to our dead – may they rest in peace, let their sacrifice be sacrificed … and then let modernity become in Africa a concept for improving the lives of her peoples.’ As African film scholar Jude Akudinobi writes of this sequence, the valley, ‘as threshold, gateway to “the invisible world”, is an apt setting for near mystical experiences, tribute to his [Teno’s] forebears’ resistance to colonisation, and meditation on the future’ (Akudinobi 2000: 355). The visible serves merely as a frame here, and the cinematic image itself is only ever performing as an oblique metaphor, though one, as we are finding, that has often been reduced in African cinema to a fixed symbol, however concrete and gloriously real the object may be like the mighty baobab. In short, the heavily symbolic, allegorically (over-)determined, filmic readings proposed by Gabriel, along with other leading theorists of African cinema whom he influenced such as N. Frank Ukadike, revolve around an African aesthetic grounded in depth conforming, at least during the first decades of black African cinema, to the grand narratives of liberation, nation-building, and meliorism. This combined logic of depth, invisibility and authenticity, and with it the need to fathom deep (and therefore higher) layers and so discover the hallowed treasure of meaning (symbolic, political, ideological), has ensured a fundamental continuity between the tradition of black African cinema and the emerging field of African film criticism. Yet it has also encouraged massive, essentializing generalizations and prescriptions about what African film is and should be, whether an extension of African oral storytelling traditions and an educational tool, or a modern conduit of sacred messages, or an agent of social and political change.9 While celebrating pan-African knowledge as the spirit of retrieval and recontextualization of Africa’s past with its present (Ukadike 1994: 303), many African film scholars have, in fact, become fixated on a calabash-inspired notion of authenticity concerning the ‘true’ African film and the most appropriate form of critical response, resulting in a highly normative and often reductionist search for critical meaning and certainty (a process well documented and analysed by David Murphy in Murphy 2000). Ukadike goes even further in this regard by adopting a moralizing attitude about


what is suitable viewing for an African audience, declaring, for instance, that sexually explicit images and bad language are improper and the fault of Western influence (see Ukadike 2002: passim). Such absolute pronouncements seem increasingly out of step with the enlarged, transnational framework of production and exhibition within which African cinema is consistently operating. To consider all the early works of African cinema as defined by different forms and principles of depth (political, allegorical, folkloric, rural) is, of course, potentially to misread and underrate them. In a timely re-examination of the origins, borrowings and legacy of Francophone African nationalist cinema, Sada Niang rightly argues that by reducing nationalist African cinema to its didactic function and anti-Western ideological stance, film scholars have done a disservice to a body of work whose strident social messages of identity construction and nation-building have overshadowed their aesthetically hybrid nature (see Niang 2014).10 What is surprising, moreover, is that such an all-encompassing symbolic approach is still espoused by the new generation of African film critics and scholars. Taking his cue from The Bloodettes (Les Saignantes, 2005) by the filmmaker and fellow Cameroonian Jean-Pierre Bekolo, where two female ‘demonhunters’ Majolie and Chouchou battle a world ruled by corrupt politicians and psychotic vampires, Olivier Tchouaffe invokes the ancient Beti ritual of Southern Cameroon called mevungu, a purification and restorative ritual traditionally performed by secret female societies that is also a metaphysical practice linked to the invisible forms and spirit of nature (see Tchouaffe 2015). Tchouaffe uses this knowledge to articulate and promote the oppositional strands of local resistance to the dystopian governance of the elite in Cameroon which engages in what the prominent Cameroonian philosopher and theorist Achille Mbembe provocatively calls ‘necropolitics’ (Mbembe 2003) – that is, an inverted form of politics where the capacity to take life is the domain of the sovereign alone and is closely aligned with the power to consign the living population to the realms of the ‘living dead’ (or ‘death-worlds’). Tchouaffe presents the rise of the mevungu cult, where women maintain control over their bodies in order to retain a sense of self and selfgovernance (the cult believes a life-force or evu is located directly in the female belly), as a mark of the resurgence of the sacred to ward off the invidious (i.e. un-African) individualism and decadence threatening to engulf the country.11 This is because the mevungu, according to Tchouaffe, is an internal cosmology and indigenous wisdom that captures the magic lying underneath the ordinariness of everyday life: the life-force hidden in plain sight, or the light in a country full of shadows, and the possibility of metamorphosis and transformation embedded within the making of humankind, even though men in Cameroon would wish to consign mevungu women to permanent invisibility. Tchouaffe is at pains to point out that this phenomenon is not a return to some precognitive mysticism, but rather a place of sensuality, imagination, dramas, memory and fantasy, and a healthy mistrust of conventional (mediatized) reality (Mbembe 2003: 19). For



Tchouaffe, mevungu offers the possibility of national healing to transcend the ‘Afro-pessimism’ diagnosed by Mbembe. We see again here how the invisible is prioritized over the visible at every level in a clear metaphysical scheme, for aesthetic experience is only genuine when it becomes philosophical thought – otherwise it remains simply ‘kitsch’ (Mbembe 2003). Bekolo himself suggests that the invisible, magical (sacred) force of mevungu cannot be discerned within the visible image itself, but rather is felt within the film’s rapid editing. From this perspective, African cinema becomes a space for souls to connect (Mbembe 2003: 52), and the African filmmaker becomes what the celebrated Malian writer, cultural theorist and director, Manthia Diawara, calls ‘a sculptor of masks’ – a role reserved to people in Africa with sacred knowledge (Diawara 2010: 150). In such an esoteric domain of knowledge and transmission, the visible remains always an object of opacity requiring delicate and skilful transcoding. Put differently, the visible image is the derided, negative inversion of the invisible, and beauty must accordingly be veiled, concealed, and mediated politically and ideologically. As Tchouaffe puts it: ‘This notion of the mask is predicated on the idea that there are invisible and hidden frames structuring the visible. This usage of the mask points to the concept of the filmmaker’s metaphysical ambition to cut through the clutter surrounding the visible’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 7) (my emphasis). As we have already seen, such obstructive ‘clutter’ is not only femaleencoded, but also, in the case of Mandabi, inherently ‘unmasculine’, and must be quickly brought into political line or else discarded.

Millennial cinema: New vistas, new visions The lure of the symbolic and the preoccupation with invisible depth have been so great in the evolution of African film criticism that, while close textual and stylistic formal readings of classic films certainly do exist (e.g. Peter Rist’s detailed 2010 account of shot length, camera movement, character movement and composition in Sembene’s God of Thunder ((Emitaï, 1971) – see Rist 2010), they are the exception rather than the rule and often theoretically unsophisticated, undertaken as if entirely secondary to the main task of allegorical and political interpretation and the precious translation of symbols. Ukadike’s canonic study, Black African Cinema (1994), is symptomatic of this trend: aesthetic concerns are confined to a highly schematic and generalizing four-page concluding section entitled ‘The Question of Aesthetics’, which simply notes that there can be no universal aesthetics. The entrenched limits and limitations of African film criticism have led the film and literary theorist Kenneth Harrow to argue that it has coalesced and stagnated around five key claims or ‘shibboleths’, which he lists thus: African film is important in the communication of history and the correction of past misrepresentations of history; African film is important in writing back to


Hollywood and to misrepresentations of Africa in the mainstream media; African film represents African society and culture; African film should be a site for truth; and African film is essentially African (Harrow 2007: xi). Harrow asserts further that the concept of authenticity that undergirds such universalizing claims – whether regarding the representation of history or that of the culture and people, the screen image, the truth, or ‘Africanity’ – has been fostered in particular by expat African film scholars based in the United States, and that it should now be rejected. But how? How, that is, can one prevent the cinematic image from being ritually degraded in the name of deep ‘value’, and any intimation of beauty from being made subservient to a higher, ‘innate’ meaning in a general depreciation of the visible. Put differently, how can one resist the routine relegation of the aesthetic – and with it the body, sexuality and the material world of the everyday – in favour of the conceptual and political, or what I’m calling Baobab thinking? In short, how can the standard bias against the visible ultimately be reversed in order to engage more fully and freely with the plasticity of the cinematic image – its material forms, colours and textures – while taking into account its many other dimensions, not only political and symbolic but also, for example, those relating to gender and eroticism? The answer is to be found within the practice of contemporary African cinema itself, for with the need for nationalist narratives in the general political project of African nation-building effectively over (even if that project has arguably never been fully realized), filmmakers are now more able to create their own imaginary cartographies and focus their attention on the medium at many different levels without recourse to a fixed schema or mythos, political or otherwise. This is in large part due to the considerable shift in themes and content that has taken place over the last twenty or so years, for while African filmmakers of the new millennium are still pursuing longstanding issues such as neocolonialism and neo-exploitation, state corruption, and the clash of traditions and modernity, they are also engaging with a host of new subjects reflecting the continent’s changed social, cultural and historical circumstances and the transformed biopolitical sphere. These include the often total erosion of the state due to uncontrolled neoliberalism, causing social disintegration and fragmentation at a local level; increased Chinese economic influence and investment in the sub-Saharan region; destabilization due to religious fundamentalism and mounting intolerance and ethnic violence (including genocide); demographic explosion and the development of the African mega-city or ‘afropolis’; displacement and migration to Europe at unprecedented levels, aggravated by the catastrophic effects of climate change and ‘manmade’ natural disasters like desertification (the increasing norm in the sahel is of villages without men who leave for work elsewhere as they can no longer grow crops or support livestock). The familiar patterns of modern daily life are also being dramatically transformed, leading in turn to changes in social and cultural



attitudes and the gradual engendering of new sensibilities and subjectivities. Such immense and wide-ranging, new and evolving concerns generate others in turn. For instance, the flows of mass migration and diaspora directly foreground issues of alterity and cultural and linguistic difference. Many critics have acknowledged the extent and significance of these new themes and concerns in recent African cinema. In Postnationalist African Cinemas (2011), for instance, a broad study covering genres and categories like comedy, musical, myth, epic, crime and dance, Alexie Tcheuyap writes incisively of the new transnational configuration of the cultural landscape and its deconstruction of the very category ‘African cinema’. He argues bracingly for a postnational(ist) imaginary and new paradigms, positing new ‘post-resistance, postnational frameworks where the nation, its fragments and components, have been peripheral, if not absent’ (Tcheuyap 2011: 237), and where intermediary ‘third’ spaces between long-held binaries can be located. In a cultural terrain where identity and otherness cannot now be so easily separated, and where the era of isolated subjectivities is over, transformed genres and forms renounce social agency and aggressive ideological considerations and aim instead at entertaining and making culture popular (Tcheuyap 2011: 234). Certainly, the intensely transnational and transcultural works now being produced are not only bearing witness to how progressively more invasive forms of globalization are transforming the traditional fabric of social and cultural practices and impinging on the very nature of subjectivity and consciousness, but also imagining new forms of community and kinship, new shared commonalities and connectivities, and new kinds of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism. But there is another crucial aspect to millennial African cinema, for this expanded set of new themes and subjects is also helping to dislodge accustomed attitudes and modes of African cinema and encouraging fresh ways of thinking and doing film. Without wishing to oversimplify or overgeneralize, African directors are now reconceiving the aesthetic as a vital point of departure for addressing and interrogating the political in ways no longer tied to the original Sembenian political ideals of pan-Africanism. While they are still embedded in different ways within their particular national context, they do not seek to mould their ideas into the production of a single, allegorical, sociopolitical truth corresponding to the ritual binary terms of inside/outside, underneath/above, visible/invisible, wax/gold, etc. Indeed, millennial African films appear boldly and fascinatingly unpredictable in their treatment of such rapacious binaries as deep and shallow, inside and outside, as well as of any simple notion of the global versus local, traditional versus modern, official history versus popular memory, autochthonous versus immigrant, inclusion versus exclusion – restrictive, often dangerous binaries which can now be consciously played with and ironically reversed, even undone. Moreover, rather than aiming simply to channel politically the aesthetic possibilities of form, directors are allowing themselves to be ‘ambushed’ by surface


matters and the materiality of form in order to formulate new kinds of aesthetic contract and new formal strategies. For example, a more complex use of shallow versus deep space, and a more sustained interplay between diegetic and nondiegetic sound in ever-shifting formations and gradations of surface and depth, line and movement. Such commitment to formal experimentation has led to a profusion of narrative and aesthetic forms with new vocabularies, temporalities and spatialities – multilayered works that defy straightforward, unilinear, symbolic readings. This opening up of new possibilities and energies in the cinematic field allows for ambiguity, vacillation, uncertainty, mystery and random chance to exist and proliferate, to the point that all on the screen may be both visible and invisible. Further, the intersubjective and intermutual possibilities of film are inspiring new kinds of relationality and affectivity, softer and more generous articulations of gender (in particular masculinity), and new intimacies and mutualities (as opposed to dualities). In addition, the new films are often highly intertextual in nature, with directors engaging directly in complex formal ways with the ideas and methods of their predecessors and grafting new cinematic affiliations across gender and generation – this is African cinema also about African cinema. It means that African films are now both more directly personal (i.e. less focused on the individual as allegory or symbol of the communal and collective), and more pluralist in their forms and styles. In fact, black African cinema has never been more heterogeneous and diffuse: there is no one predominant trend, and each filmmaker is fashioning a personal authorial style and recognizable signature running from extreme minimalism to large-scale dramatic action. In addition to Bekolo already mentioned, the key voices that have established themselves internationally over the last fifteen to twenty years are Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania), Joseph Gaï Ramaka (Senegal), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad), Fanta Régina Nacro (Burkina Faso) (the first Burkinabe women to direct a featurelength drama), and Alain Gomis (France-Senegal). To this main list may also be added Newton I. Aduaka (Nigeria), Djo Tunda Wa Munga (Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)), Gahité Fofana (Guinea), Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda (DRC), and Osvalde Lewat (Cameroon). A telling factor in this new cinematic landscape is that the once marginal genre of documentary, derided for so long for the reasons already given, has recently established itself as one of the most vibrant and dynamic strands of African cinema.12 The most influential exponent of documentary, both nationally and internationally, is the aforementioned Teno, whose politically committed, firstperson documentary work exposes the continuities between the colonial past and the postcolonial present in Cameroon, in particular state violence and neocolonial corruption in this and other contemporary African societies.13 At the other end of the spectrum is the Senegalese filmmaker Mamadou Sellou Diallo, who promotes a more intimate, domestic form of self-figuration or ‘self-fiction’ whereby he and his entourage become characters in a work presented as a life-story. Le Collier et



la perle: lettre d’un père à sa fille (The necklace and pearl: letter from a father to his daughter) (2009), for instance, records the pregnancy of his wife in close detail up to the moment of giving birth, in the process assessing the ambivalent condition and construction of women in society. In fact, the field of engaged social and political documentary is increasingly dominated by women filmmakers who have a particular incentive to raise crucial questions about their societies and tell stories that would not otherwise be told,14 thus exploiting the potential of documentary as a genre where arguably every aesthetic element possesses ethical aspects, and where every ethical feature may be employed aesthetically. African documentary should be viewed ultimately within the general evolution of the African cinematic tradition which is fundamentally syncretic – a mixture of imported and appropriated cultural traditions and influences, cross-linguistic exchanges, and intergenerational dialogues. Just as African narrative cinema has always slipped easily in and out of documentary registers in a range of hybrid forms and combinations like docudrama and docufiction (for instance, Faye’s ‘ethno-fiction’ in Lettre paysanne (A farmer’s letter) (1975), which juxtaposed long takes of everyday action and flagrantly fictional episodes with a narrative voiceover by the director – see Loftus 2010), so documentaries often appear highly fictionalized. It means that in the hands of practitioners like Teno and Diallo, documentary is a compellingly ‘impure’ form of non-fiction that can encompass a range of sub-genres, including historical/political documentary dealing with civil war and trauma, the personal journey or quest documentary, the portrait or tribute (of an individual, community or place), the crime or social investigation documentary, and even mockumentary (e.g. Bekolo’s Le Président (2013)). Coterminous with this concerted new investment in fictional documentary has been the production of ever more audacious and far-reaching configurations of fiction incorporating documentary-style elements devoted to major social and cultural issues. Indeed, it is in this distinctively African hybrid area that millennial African cinema has had the greatest impact in world cinema. Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2002 feature film, Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono, 2002), for example, which received the highest prize of the Étalon de Yennenga (awarded to the film best showing ‘African realities’) at the 2003 edition of the foremost African film festival, the bi-annual Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), was a clear response to contemporary global flows between Africa and Europe. Sissako has developed a distinctly personal approach to his filmmaking, pursuing a trajectory very similar to that of his Chadian counterpart, MahamatSaleh Haroun. Both directors, working in half-forced and half-voluntary exile in Paris, are part of the Paris-based African Guilde des Cinéastes set up by Haroun and others in 1997, and both figure prominently within the group of African filmmakers funded by ARTE, so creating the so-called ‘ARTE generation’. Their first features – Life on Earth (La Vie sur terre, 1998) by Sissako, Bye Bye Africa (1999) by Haroun – were equally intimate, low-key, autobiographically influenced


dramas with a highly self-reflexive use of the first-person (including fictional forms of themselves), in which they explored feelings of loss, exile, failure and identity through the prism of the relations between here (Africa) and there (Europe). These compound ‘bio-doc-dramas’ offer some of the most varied and subtle blends of documentary fiction in African cinema, destabilizing the boundaries between fiction and documentary and leaving one always guessing as to how much is documentary record, reconstruction, or pure fabulation. Moreover, Haroun and Sissako both cultivate a minimalist style of composition and framing, with particular attention to mise en scène, plural modes of address, and particular oral storytelling techniques such as narrative digressions and parentheses, resulting in a poetics of ellipsis, uncertainty and evocation courting mystery and opacity while confronting the intractable and indiscernible. An unabashed personal perspective characterizes much of millennial black African cinema which is generally more concerned with mental states than physical action. Yet precisely because of their ties in the diaspora and their shifting identity as exilic filmmakers crossing between continents, the new generation of filmmakers like Sissako and Haroun are also firmly oriented towards global cinema, refusing to be confined to producing films aimed specifically at an African audience, a filmic landscape they may nevertheless actively campaign for.15 Sissako and Haroun in particular, whose work since the late 1990s has been engaging with issues of the global North and South, borders and boundaries, migration, exile and the diasporic consciousness, are universally recognized as global auteurs (a status they readily acknowledge), and their films are circulated widely on the international film festival circuit, often premiering at Cannes (Sissako was nominated president of the 2015 Cannes Cinéfondation and Short Films Jury). As Rachel Gabara notes in an important study of the politics of contemporary African cinema, Sissako’s complex poetic use of film language and style, with its meticulous framing and fondness for tableaux, profoundly undermines conventional oppositions between a Second Cinema of the ‘I’ (i.e. European art cinema) and a Third Cinema of the ‘we’ (political cinema), prompting some to suggest it has no place in African cinema.16 Haroun has been tarred with the same brush, and he responds thus: ‘Our cinema is not fond of singular auteurs. Those who have lifted their heads above water are accused of conniving with the West, of being traitors to their cause, and of no longer being real Africans.’17 Yet rather than insist on the separateness of African styles, themes and traditions, or claim a compromise identity as griotauteur (or griauteur), both Haroun and Sissako proceed defiantly on the basis that the stories they tell can be at once geographically and historically specific and of universal interest and appeal. As Haroun puts it: ‘If there’s something worth defending, it’s not “African cinema”, which doesn’t actually exist, but visions of Africa by different African auteurs’ (Haroun 2011b: 135). In the case of Sissako’s Bamako (2006), a form of docudrama set in a working-class area of Bamako, it has manifestly global ambitions and reach as it puts the agents of globalization such



as the World Bank directly on trial, while Timbuktu (2014), about the social and cultural consequences of jihadi terrorism in Mali, became the most widely viewed African film in the history of cinema (in France it attracted one million viewers). Saër Maty Bâ has summed up Sissako’s achievement thus far in terms that underline the director’s powerful investment in the aesthetic. He writes that Sissako’s work has opened up new spaces between the strands of fiction and documentary through ‘key characteristics: light as a metaphor for culture (diverse, unfixable, and to be shared), silence as audible; poetic and intellectual film language compelling the spectator to “engage her/himself in the image” … and a diasporic aesthetic conveying location, culture and identity as shifting paradigms’ (Bâ 2014: 20). He adds that Sissako’s films – circular yet open-ended, generally slow and ambiguous, foregrounding estrangement or isolation – ‘transform representation and open new horizons, [and] aspire to perpetual motion beyond any and all boundaries’ (Bâ 2014: 23). While both accurate and affirmative, such critical language risks sounding a little abstract and even abstruse out of context. Let us therefore gain a concrete measure of the new openness to aesthetic possibilities in contemporary African cinema, and how this demands a new type of critically enlightened and liberated viewer, by looking now at the opening episode from Sissako’s Life on Earth. This short sequence engages directly with the central problematics of Baobab thinking we have been analysing, and it offers a vivid glimpse of what I’m proposing as a new, ‘post-Baobab’ style and expression.

Rerouting the Baobab Life on Earth opens with a slow, lateral tracking shot across endless rows of shelves stacked with cheese in a Paris supermarket, accompanied by the diegetic sounds of overhead speaker announcements. There is a sudden, random, unexplained move to slow motion to capture a woman trying on hats in a shopping mall store where a man dressed in an overcoat and fedora (clearly identifiable as Sissako) is also pictured entering. All is rendered blurred and bizarrely abstract in a hypersaturated mise en scène of colour with rotating racks of jewellery and rows of red and black shoes. This highly elliptical opening sequence – a study of serial form, difference and duplication in an unfolding pageant of form and colour – demands an active, vigilant viewer to appreciate the subtle spectrum of rays and reflections of the glass windows and panes melting and bleeding into each other within the image. The fact that this quietly absorbing aesthetic effect is produced within such a commercial setting immediately raises the question of authenticity, yet such concern is just as quickly suspended by the patterns of colour and dispersed. It is as if for Sissako to return from Europe and film the small Malian village of Sokolo, he must also draw explicit attention to the economic relations of international exchange (the film itself, a commissioned contribution to ARTE’s


‘2000 vu par/2000 seen by’ series, is an exemplary transnational product financed by European television). Indeed, Life on Earth will continually stress the primacy of global commodities, from imported foods to a Japanese SUV – part of the daily fabric of African life. The fluid play of liquid colour, form and varispeed movement continues into the next shot where we cut to Sissako carrying an enormous, stuffed, white toy polar bear (it is Christmas time in Europe), as if playing up ironically his identity and status as global auteur. He is now riding up an escalator (a reverse-tracking objective shot), conveyed again in subtly slowed-down motion. The surface skin of the image is being pulled in tension and slowly loosened up and down like a fine, giant membrane, such that the viewer quickly loses his/her bearings in a disorienting reverse movement. For during the back-tracking shot on the escalator we look down on Sissako from a higher stair as he moves upwards while staring forward blankly as if into an abyss. The gentle, plaintive plucking of a solo string instrument (almost certainly an oud) can now be discerned on the soundtrack. Before he reaches the higher floor, however, the image is suddenly cut dry to a single, large, withered-looking baobab. The viewer now experiences an equally slow, fifty-second, horizontal forward-zoom tilted slightly upwards while still moving towards the tree’s crown of bare branches – as if the cut of montage were itself able to activate a formal counter movement. The zoom serves effectively to crop the baobab and transform it into a multi-tangle of branches. The monochrome shot cross-fades gently into black, over which the opening credits now arrive in orange, accompanied on the soundtrack not only by the string instrument but also by the rising sounds of insects and distant crowing of a rooster and mooing of cows. These natural sounds constitute a sonic bridge, for following this initial sequence of altogether six shots we are promptly transported to Mali with a succession of assorted ‘local’ images of nature (sun at dawn, red soil, a herd of cattle). The slow, visual zoom towards the baobab is clearly more than simply a transitional bridging device between the film’s two geographical poles (Paris and Sokolo). The fact that it is arrested before it reaches its full, natural course (the smallest branches and twigs) puts already into question the notion of a secure destination, provoking the viewer to interpretation: Is the sequence announcing a possible drought in Sokolo, and thus serving as a metaphor for Africa’s permanent state of crisis in the face of Western excess? Or is it, conversely, as one critic, Sarah Hamblin, claims, a metaphor for transnational négritude, with the film’s entangled mass of interconnected pathways presenting an alternative notion of national identity that emphasizes dynamism over fixity and incompleteness over totality? (Hamblin 2012: 23). Certainly, confronted in the initial images by the spectacle of overflowing wealth in the global North, we are powerfully interpellated as a Western viewer to reflect on the ethics of the gaze. Yet it is still far too early in Life on Earth to speculate further in such terms, just as it is to talk of the black Other adrift in white society, even though during the sequence just described Sissako



FIGURE 1.2  Moving slowly forward into the canopy of a baobab in the opening border sequence of Life on Earth (1998).

stands out dramatically from a super-white landscape and is heard very soon afterwards on the soundtrack composing aloud a letter home to his father and making the difference between ‘here’ (Paris) and ‘there’ (Sokolo) while invoking negatively ‘that Europe’ (‘cette Europe-là’) with reference to an unnamed poet (soon to be revealed as Césaire). Equally, the sequence offers no simple critique of Western fetishistic capitalism, for its composite formal elegance confounds any obvious binary opposition between the fake, neo-liberal system of consumer excess in the metropole (the internal, artificial spaces of the mall complete with hyperunreal objects) and perceived African values of ‘realness’ on the impoverished margins (the external world with its unchanged daily rhythms). Sissako ensures precisely that we do not rush here into any quick or easy symbolic readings and interpretations. What counts most in this formal instance of border crossing between scenes, with sound crossing in advance over the perimeter of the visual image and the tree itself performing as a frontier image, is both the focus on the concrete and literal and a simultaneous poetic move to abstraction, whereby the eminently natural and material enters into – and partakes of – the realm of the aesthetic. For this is clearly not a standard symbolic or political evocation of the baobab as sturdy, lofty pillar of African continuity, truth and tradition – indeed, all here is suddenly made obscure, literally and metaphorically, when the screen goes dark. Instead, the zoom performs a desublimatory move, occluding the phallic trunk and silently stripping bare and dethroning the symbolic. As such, it reverses the glorious start of Mandabi where the baobab stood tall over the outside barber shop accompanied by pounding African rhythms. In Life on Earth, where the suggestion of a forward trajectory and narrative journey is dynamically upended


before it has even had a chance to take root, the baobab appears more an upturned, uprooted rhizome, exposed and vulnerable. The force and impact of this deflationary gesture of controlled, gentle, formal violence – an arresting expression of authorial intent – cannot be overstated. By decisively rerouting the baobab and making it an object of strange, almost ethereal, wonder, Sissako is both cutting loose from the idea of the baobab as something inherently symbolic, sacred and untouchable, and insisting on the very materiality of this natural object as a source of cinematic beauty. Suspending the political requirements and burden of the aesthetic and displaying natural matter as a primary object of aesthetic contemplation, Life on Earth is summoning the viewer to an aesthetic relation. Moreover, the concerted move to abstraction transforms the found object itself into a relational element connecting two different spaces and cultures, thereby signalling a wholly new and unexpected path towards African materialism that sidesteps the familiar metaphysical model of visible versus invisible and matter versus spirit subtending traditional African art and ritual. Indeed, with its root-like branches spreading to the sky in an expanding set of relations, the baobab formally announces the theme of relationality, evoking Édouard Glissant’s non-binary, non-hierarchical concept of relational poetics where identity is no longer based completely within the root but also ‘in Relation’ (one is already in the Other, not as dialectical opposites but in an interplay of interweaving relations), and where a ‘totality’ of identity is created through the ‘accumulation of sediments’ (Glissant’s metaphor is based on the image of the mangrove tree and suggests meaning below the surface of a text).18 As Sheila Petty has justly argued in a discussion of Teno’s Sacred Places (Lieux Saints, 2009), a film exploring the subculture of video clubs in Burkina Faso, Glissant’s concept, which visualizes the production of culture and art as an unfolding process by which the synthesis-genesis of identity and aesthetics continually evolves (Petty 2013: 72), is particularly valid for African cinema where filmic structure can offer a kind of ‘circular nomadism’ that makes every periphery a centre, to the point of abolishing the very notion of centre and periphery. This places the viewer in a prime position to navigate the film’s differential relational values and so determine the relation between meaning and what is presented on the screen. The opening border sequence of Life on Earth establishes a similar, extended, fluid network of multiple relations: between visible and invisible, matter and spirit, concrete and abstract, sound and image, below and above, up and down, forward and backward, past and present, inside and outside. Real objects are eager here to take abstract form, pointing to a productively relational presence in the world, and this takes place formally at the junction of montage which, viewed at its most basic, is a connective process bringing together and (re)combining different kinds of matter – objects, people, and events, related or unrelated – to create new correspondences and forms of dialogue. Indeed, like Sissako’s later works Heremakono and Bamako, Life on Earth will unfold as a paean to the play and patterns of editing which



releases relational energy and heat, for sounds and images can be linked together without there being a need to freeze the process symbolically or allegorically. Indeed, if Sissako puts into play operations of difference and relationality, he insists on not reterritorializing this process as sacred, but rather on maintaining it as at once material and poetic. The baobab sequence dramatizes the aesthetic totality of perception and the senses, as opposed to cognition and Baobab-style conceptualization, and it solicits an attentive, immersive gaze responsive to the boundlessness of nuance, colour and movement, and to the gaps, openings and striations on the plastic surface that serve to reawaken a sense of curiosity about the material world and sensory matter. Sissako gives the spectator time and space to appreciate matter in motion, just as he will do later in Bamako where the viewer is invited to behold and scrutinize in close-up male and female figures poking through sheets of brightly coloured batik cloth hanging on the line – another way of saying that the viewer is being directed by Sissako to consider and appreciate new kinds of material and erotic folds within the very fabric of the aesthetic.

The critical warp The reverberations and after-effects of this quietly momentous, liberating event of cinematic form in Life on Earth are, I would argue, still being felt in African art cinema, which is slowly re-envisioning the very nature, location and function of both the aesthetic and the political in film in ways that directly bypass and surpass standard Baobab thinking. The experimentation in form and new kinds of cinematic imaginary instigated by Sissako, like that of the other key figures in the current generation of black African directors, clearly has major implications for the study of African film and spectatorship in general. However, critics are struggling to find a vocabulary and approach supple and extensive enough to do critical justice to this new body of radical work. Diawara, for one, is certainly correct when he states that the predominant art et essai style of Sissako’s films abound in understated metaphor and indeterminacy, and that with his obsessive relation to framing and meticulous composition of frames-within-frames Sissako is using poetry as a challenge to, and refusal of, narrative linearization, making his cinema at times more like free verse (a visual poem) than narrative cinema (Diawara 2015). Yet Diawara does not actually attempt to theorize this intricate, formal poetic process and its ethical and political ramifications. Similarly, Tchouaffe rightly champions Sissako’s anti-linear storytelling practice which creates ‘new forms of syncopated subjectivity and new perceptual possibilities’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 7), thereby allowing for new kinds of space for reflection and connection while promoting film as a still valid and necessary crucial medium, especially in the context of Nollywood, the Nigerian video film industry which began in 1992. Yet while he presents Sissako’s production


of beauty as an inherently revolutionary act (Tchouaffe 2017: 8), positing that his work, ‘embedded in a unique, sensuous rhythm, deconstructs social realism that has dominated African cinema’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 71), Tchouaffe goes no further in his analysis, as if the new perceptual possibilities achieved were somehow self-evident. But what is meant exactly by ‘unique, sensuous rhythm’, and how does it serve to ‘deconstruct’? There’s almost a wilful vagueness to such formulations, and it comes down again to a certain befuddlement about what the aesthetic really is in African terms. More troublingly, Tchouaffe is far too eager to transcend the material surfaces and sensations of the visible which Sissako is making so tangible and graphic. This is a potentially regressive critical move, for although he claims that Sissako ‘brings up’ a regime of visibility and selfrepresentation that can serve as a foundation on which to examine subversion against other regimes of visibility in colonial and neocolonial archives (Tchouaffe 2017: 54), Tchouaffe automatically evokes ‘the necessity of a metaphysical vision embedded in Sissako’s narratives’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 50). According to Tchouaffe, Sissako seeks a ‘symbiotic relationship between internal and external processes’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 51), an aim that is at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘mystical’ (Tchouaffe 2017). Setting the metaphysical bar even higher, Tchouaffe asserts that Sissako aims to ‘locate transcendent places within the simulacra of global popular culture’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 46) and succeeds in creating ‘a theology of grace’ (Tchouaffe 2017: 33). Yet the work of Sissako, like that of Haroun and the other contemporary directors I have identified which adumbrates an aesthetics of surface as opposed to psychological depth through rigorous attention to material detail and a more mobile, intensive kind of looking and auditory viewing, is creating new aesthetic spaces to address and celebrate difference and diversity at ground level in the everyday present. Similarly, their style of framing is no longer simply ritually determined (politically or otherwise), but also elicits a pleasure of form in the very act of composing. Indeed, these millennial directors are formulating new regimes of visibility and visuality by effectively reengaging with, and advancing, an avantgarde tradition that was sidelined by the officially sanctioned path of social realism and politics of representation. This is a tradition encapsulated in the thrilling early avant-garde works of the Mauritanian director Med Hondo – Marxist-inspired, anti-colonialist films like Soleil Ô (Oh, Sun) (1969), yet brimming with surprising, often surreal stylistic effects – and above all in the exhilarating poetic experiments of Mambety which were perceived as opaque, non-political and marginal to the grand narratives of social change.19 As the British filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins put it eloquently in his 2011 television documentary, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mambety called for a ‘here-and-nowness for Africa’ that displayed an openness to the world. Sissako, Haroun and other new millennial African filmmakers embody a similar optimistic sense of syncretism and polyphony in their opening up of new aesthetic ground to stimulate fresh kinds of thinking and



sensation, empathy and understanding, That is to say, they do not seek politically to control and arrest the aesthetic flow, nor to deploy symbolism as a strategy, even though their films, like virtually all African cinema, often start off instinctively from a bedrock of symbolism which they then work with, through, and against. A strikingly original and lyrical film like Haroun’s brooding A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie, 2010), for instance, is structured initially around a simple tale of Oedipal rivalry – even the father’s name is Adam. There is always more at stake, however, in such singular narratives, including unaccountable, asymbolic elements and movements, as they cross in and out of different modes and registers and slide into new forms of space and time that are often deliberately scrambled. The challenge for the critic is to be open to such aesthetic possibilities, and to maximize in turn the possible means of critical access and interpretative approach by remaining firmly on the surface (aural as well as visual) and attentive to all signs of movement and inter-relation, plastic and textual, without immediately resorting to obfuscatory notions of the mystical. It is fair to say that this vital challenge has generally been avoided, however, and that scholars of African film have lagged behind the new millennial turn in African cinema as if caught in a time warp. It is not simply that one still encounters the ongoing political search for symbolic narratives encouraged by Gabriel. Apart from odd, extended pieces on aesthetics in specialist journals such as Journal of African Studies (e.g. Stefanson 2009b on the renewed attention to genres in African cinema, and Papaioannou 2009 on a salient move from orality to visuality), there remains a lingering suspicion of the critical worth of explicitly aesthetic matters – one that verges at times on casual indifference. In the large 420-page African volume of the Directory of World Cinema, published in 2014 by Intellect and co-edited by Petty and Stefanson, only a short section is devoted specifically to aesthetics (six pages comprising two short pieces confined to musical scores and location shooting), in sharp contrast to the long list of ‘themes’ and ‘genres’ that follow with brief accounts of selected films. The term ‘aesthetic’ is used liberally throughout the volume by different contributors, yet without any real theoretical shape or definition. Elsewhere, considerable time continues to be spent trying to periodize the evolution of African cinema with Sembene as the obligatory root, leading to endless, in-house debates about the correct genealogy of African film and ever-new taxonomies and statements of critical position. MaryEllen Higgins, for example, takes issue with Diawara’s theories of new cinema ‘waves’ inspired by French cinema which could cover any genre or theme (e.g. the ‘New Popular African Cinema’), proposing instead ‘winds’ as a more apposite conceptual framework (see Higgins 2015b). And so on and so forth. The result is an ever more elaborate rationalizing of the story of African cinema in ever-decreasing theoretical circles. Of course, in a context where, apart from South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa has relatively few thriving national film industries to speak of – meaning that


African films have an audience but not a ready market in the sense of a system of economic exchange, and that films are usually multiply co-produced by different nations – there remains with good reason much discussion of the perennial issue of funding and its effects on film practice.20 The European Economic Community (EEC), for instance, is largely interested in African images only at the level of anthropology, that is, as images of the ‘reality’ of Africa (ideally tragic), often preventing films from being viewed and distributed as auteurist works with an ideal African spectator in mind.21 Such a mired economic and political process, which is rarely a level playing field, is tackled head-on by Bekolo in his much discussed Aristotle’s Plot (Le Complot d’Aristote, 1995), a highly self-reflexive film essay about the politics of funding, genre and format in contemporary Cameroon and a direct critique of the British Film Institute which initially commissioned the work as part of a series called ‘Millennial Cinema’ but which, scandalously, awarded more money to the other European filmmakers involved (with its devices of cross-cutting and multifocality Aristotle’s Plot has since become a key text within postcolonial art cinema22). Yet while it is necessary to be fully informed of the complex issues of funding and the influence of subsidy commissions on the content and types of films made, just as it is to be of the politics of exhibition and African film festivals like FESPACO,23 I wish to retain my focus on matters of critical reception and the interpretation of the astonishing new films being produced in this millennial – and now post-millennial – period. For not only do many of the original presuppositions of African film aesthetics still hold, but also the field of African film studies itself appears worryingly blocked. This is because it is effectively caught between two distinct, methodological extremes, represented on the one hand by Kenneth Harrow, whom we have already encountered, and on the other by Olivier Barlet. First, Barlet, author of the important historical and comparative 1996 study Les Cinémas d’Afrique noire, and who might be justly described as the unofficial chronicler of African cinema.24 He has produced a ceaseless flow of surveys, compendia, reviews and reports that bespeak a multi-local cinema in continuous transition. If foundational African film theorists sought in different ways to prescribe African cinema, their contemporary equivalents like Barlet are often content now simply to diagnose. In a 2010 article he heralds a ‘new consciousness’ in African cinema that ‘breathes an awareness of the current challenges facing the continent’. He adds: ‘The ready-made solutions of the past, with their commanding messages and messianic ideologies, are no longer appropriate’ (Barlet 2010a: 73– 4). Yet although he recognizes that the artistic and critical stakes of African cinema have now been raised, Barlet admits he has no quick solutions for initiating a necessary and comprehensive debate on African cinema which continues to remain on the outer periphery of the general mediascape.25 In another piece on the ‘new paradoxes’ of black African cinemas, he posits a ‘subversive aesthetic’ shared by the new generation of directors experimenting with forms very different from



the format of popular cinema. Barlet concludes passionately that the West needs ‘to make room for African cultural expressions as an autonomous proposal within a new imaginary, capable of channeling the tremor of the world’ (Barlet 2010b: 225), but again offers no sense of how this might be achieved. Barlet’s arguments are always impressively well-informed, with copious examples of films to illustrate key points, yet they actually contain very little sustained critical analysis of the primary material. It all comes down essentially to strategies and counter-strategies about what might be (he talks, for example, of ‘imagined forms of utopia’26), at the cost of exploring in creative detail what actually is. At the other extreme is Harrow who breaks the prevailing critical mould decisively by proposing extended theoretical readings of films. His 2007 study, Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism, is at once a polemical broadside against current African film criticism and a noble pitch for a new postmodern poetics and aesthetics (it features an important chapter on Aristotle’s Plot, a chapter on Cameroonian cinema (notably Teno), and a brief engagement with the work of Nacro in the concluding post-face, ‘Towards a Postmodern African Cinema’). Yet while offering complex postmodern philosophical and psychoanalytical readings of politics and ideology in African film with chapter titles such as ‘Towards a Žižekian Reading of African Cinema’, Harrow has little or no time for film aesthetics and ends up instead attempting to pin down and categorize the poetic processes of ambivalence and indeterminacy through overarching theoretical paradigms. Trash: African Cinema from Below (2013) attempts to make up for this lack of sustained textual engagement and deals in part with films by Haroun, Sissako, Nacro and Ramaka. Harrow invokes specialists of ‘garbology’, a field in which the concept of trash as a metaphor allegedly works from below to affirm a destabilizing aesthetic of African cinemas derived from the system of global consumerism. By championing trash which he links to the eclipsing of patriarchy by Nollywood melodrama, trash television, and a perceived ‘new matriarchy’, Harrow aims to expose and invert the symbolic narrative tradition of African cinema. Yet he actually stays firmly within the binary paradigms and dualities already in place, such as ‘above’ and ‘below’. Indeed, Harrow’s sense of the disruptive possibilities of the trope of ‘trash’ founders at the moment of analysing the works themselves, for again he appears to be more interested in testing out every available poststructuralist/postmodernist theory on the ‘virgin territory’ of African cinema, from Badiou and Rancière to Lacan and Žižek, subjecting it to an overdetermined theoretical grid in order to make grand iconographical claims with little actual reference to film theory or history. The clear risk here is that films are not engaged with on their own terms, and questions of formal experimentation and formations of fantasy and desire are pretheorized and implanted within the rhetorical lines of his philosophical exegeses which are intended almost exclusively for the specialist. In fact, such readings, however invigorating and brilliant in design, overlook – and in some cases, as


we shall see later, actually misread – key aspects of his chosen films, notably concerning masculinity and the aesthetics of space. In short, the sensory pleasures and excitement of contemporary African films are frequently lost in the mucilage of Harrow’s theoretical arguments. In between the two powerful extremes posed by Barlet and Harrow lies the majority of African film criticism, torn between a perceived need for exhaustive coverage complete with diagnostic account, and a wish for universal paradigms and theoretical templates. This critical middle-ground can prove to be in practice a rather limiting and vague compromise position. Anjali’s Prabhu’s Contemporary Cinema of Africa and the Diaspora (2014) is emblematic of this tendency. A wideranging study arranged around space, character and narrative encompassing the entire continent, including Lusophone African cinema, it constitutes an ambitious attempt to move between close-readings and general comparative discussion in order to formalize the notion of an ‘Africanized viewer’. Yet so disparate and dispersed are the areas, themes and contexts covered that the results in the case of sub-Saharan film, while always intelligent and of interest, remain ultimately uneven and preliminary. Another compromise critical approach involves the deployment of hypothesis and speculation. At the end of a trenchant analysis of the funding crisis facing African cinema that highlights the structuring absence of the state, film scholar and curator Aboubakar Sanogo proposes with regard to Bekolo and Sissako the notion of ‘prospective engagement’ as a way through and out of the present conjuncture of quasi-totalitarian capitalist hegemony.27 Such an engagement would multiply the modes and registers of engagement through an induction of the space of the imaginary. It would also mark, Sanogo claims, the advent of a critical auteurist tradition in Africa distinguished by its ‘vanguardist anticipatory function’ (Sanogo 2015: 149) and invested in an ethics and politics of social responsibility in practice. Such a richly suggestive and utopian hypothesis remains merely virtual, however, suspended both in terms of the concept (a pure ‘projection’ of engagement) and its articulation (unsubstantiated here by any real evidence or critical analysis). How then, finally, is one to engage both directly and contextually with millennial films like Life on Earth in their full aesthetic intensity and formal complexity – films which, in their proliferation of new forms and original stylistic configurations, encourage the viewer to reflect afresh on the status and value of the aesthetic within the general context of African art and culture, and to see and hear through the prism of beauty now relieved of its symbolic and political burden and cut loose from its stiff allegorical moorings and determinants? We have already established the auspicious relational aspects of the baobab zoom sequence at the start of Life on Earth with specific reference to the processes of montage. Yet is it possible also still to deploy such terms as visible and invisible, deep and superficial, beauty and ugliness, without getting caught up in hierarchical binary divisions? We are compelled to return again to these basic concepts in their original cultural



setting and from the specific perspective of image creation in African culture, for they are not actually as fixed and deep-rooted as they initially seemed and may indeed offer a valuable critical way forward.

Beauty unbound In his probing study of contemporary Cameroonian cartoons in On the Postcolony, Mbembe remarks how the image is deeply impregnated with the ideas and preoccupations of the internal and external worlds, and how at the same time it acts upon them. He talks of the originary relations of similarity in the tradition of artistic representation in Southern Cameroon between the seen (le visible) and the not-seen (the occult), between what was first heard, spoken and memorized, and what was concealed (the secret), giving rise to the wholly autochthonous principle of ‘simultaneous multiplicities’ (Mbembe 2001: 145) (original emphasis). This was a process directly opposed to making one thing a mere copy or model of the other, for the invisible was not simply the other side of the visible, its mask or its substitute – it ‘was in the visible, and vice versa, not as a matter of artifice, but as one and the same and as external reality simultaneously – as the image of the thing and the imagined thing, at the same time’ (Mbembe 2001) (original emphasis). In fact, there was no representation of the real world without a relation to the world of the invisible. Mbembe explains thus: It was to this extent that the world of images – that is, the other side of things, language, and life – belonged to the world of charms. For having the power to represent reality (to make images, carve masks, and so on) implied that one had recourse to the sort of magic and double sight, imagination, even fabrication, that consisted in clothing the signs with appearances of the thing for which they were the metaphor. (Mbembe 2001) What was crucial in this context was the capacity of the thing represented to mirror resemblances and, by means of the interplay between bewitchment and enchantment (and maybe excess and extravagance), make the signs speak. This entailed a particular ontology of violence and the marvellous – one was bringing to life ‘another side of all things’ which abolished (and thus also confirmed) the distinction between being and appearances, the world of the living and the world of the spirits (Mbembe 2001: 145–6). Put differently, the strength of the image lay in its capacity to provide a basis for the being and non-being of persons and things, that is, the radicality of their life and the violence of their death (Mbembe 2001: 145). For Mbembe there still remains a vital, live, imaginary world in Cameroonian culture, part of the general subconscious without which the figurative expression has no status, and it imposes a framework on the uses that the postcolonial world makes of figurative expressions (Mbembe 2001: 146).28


In Mbembe’s reading, then, the obverse and reverse of the world communicate not only by a complex interplay of correspondences and intertwined relations but also by relations of similarity. The image represented may still serve as a metaphor for what cannot be seen, but all is imbricated relationally (being and appearance, image and imaginary, life and death). What this suggests is that to reduce the invisible/visible relation to an evaluative positive versus negative binary is both a forced and misleading critical manoeuvre, for a less stratified and more fluid and expansive way of conceiving and perceiving visuality in African culture is also possible. Revisiting our earlier outline of anthropological theory we can now revise and nuance our findings by emphasizing important, shared elements. In the occult economy of Mende culture, for instance, within which the circulation of everyday objects takes place, and where an aesthetics of the ugly protects the incommensurability of the ritual object and enhances its efficacy, there is also, according to Ferme, a contingency of meaning configurations – that is, all meanings depend on the historical and political circumstances to which they are activated and so are not fixed (Ferme 2001: 18). Similarly, if visuality is only one small part of the Baule experience of art, it is, in the words of Vogel, ‘consistent with a world where obscurity and ambiguity do not have negative connotations’ (Vogel 1997: 74). Indeed, for the Baule, darkness is a not a lack of light but an alternative state and medium, or ‘neutral’ reality. Finally, writing in general terms about how African art both conceals and reveals, art historian Mary Nooter notes that ‘meaning is elusive, in part because secret knowledge is organic, always in the process of change, and also because its interpretation will vary’ (Nooter 1993: 57). These crucial insights into visuality in African culture enable us also to look differently at other characteristic dyads which remain so common within African modernity such as surface and depth. For there are other, far less rigid and more flexible approaches to African art and beauty, as well as to the body and the senses, that conceive the visual regime and visuality in more complementary and reversible terms than those of a dialectical metaphysics where one must always go through the negative (the visible surface) to attain the positive (invisible and hidden depth). In her introduction to the innovative volume Beautiful and Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (2006) entitled ‘Rethinking Beauty’, where she examines the existing paradigms of African beauty and takes on board the work of both Ferme and Mbembe on the spectral aesthetics of ‘the other side’ or ‘underneath of things’ imbued within the world of imagination and sensations, the South African literary and cultural scholar Sarah Nuttall states the following: For both Mbembe and Ferme, that which we consider beautiful originates at the point of confluence between appearance and imagination. It has both a material nature and a nature which exists on the other side of materiality. It is this dual dimension (material and ideal) which makes it so difficult to grasp. Secondly, beauty (like ugliness) belongs to the world of [senses and] sensations



… beauty is to a large extent dependent on ugliness to be properly recognised. (Nuttall 2006: 22) Ugliness emerges in Nuttall’s account not as the binary opposite of beauty, but intricately tied to and imbricated within it, along with abjection, in an essentially future-oriented tense of radical uncertainty that belies a static, binary view of the world. Nuttall argues further elsewhere: Art could be taken as something future-inflected because not entirely knowable, something not only contingent but also capacious, which could speak in a way that seldom has constituted the grammars of the African sign, shaped as it so often has been by the sublime powers of economics and politics; as something that could suggest a politics of hope and anticipation, a surge of feeling beyond the merely given, present moment. (Nuttall 2008: 138–9) Nuttall goes further. Taking her lead from one of the contributors to the volume, the historian of contemporary African culture and arts Dominique Malaquais, she points to the striking visual conceptualizations of beauty and ugliness by contemporary Cameroonian street artists in the public spaces of the postcolonial city, for beauty can be glimpsed here in the mundane, nondescript everyday and even the socially inflected ‘ugliness of dispossession’ (Nuttall 2008: 138). While mindful of ‘the recalcitrance of beauty as a concept’ and the fact that beauty has had an ugly history in Africa,29 most obviously due to the racist dismissal of African art as simply ‘ritual’ objects and artefacts because they could not be termed ‘art for art’s sake’ (they were revealed as beautiful only in the eyes of educated outsiders (Malaquais 2006: 158)), Nuttall insists on the possible pleasures of such art within an ethics of globalism. Putting this within the context of the ‘return to beauty’ in Western aesthetics during the 1990s, when there was a resurgence of interest in beauty as a focus of aesthetic enquiry,30 she concludes that aesthetic pleasure in African art may ‘help us to begin to see what a diasporic and properly global erotics of pleasure might amount to’ (Nuttall 2006: 28) (my emphasis). Nuttall’s unstable ‘beautiful-ugly’ nexus translates finally as ‘the need to experiment with, and harness, beauty’s capacity to un-self us, to take us out of who we already are and perceive ourselves to be’ (Nuttall 2006: 144) (my emphasis). Indeed, it offers the chance ‘to be brought to the most profound level of our symbolic faculties, to more fully enter into affective regimes of the beautiful, the ugly, and the abject – to be taken into and become lost within the erotic, the carnal, the world of bodily sensation’ (Nuttall 2006). Such rousing and far-reaching, yet also eminently grounded, assertions about aesthetic mediation and the constantly shifting ugly-beautiful relation accord well with the other theorizations of visuality in African art we have been tracing, where such notions as visible and invisible, deep and shallow, inside and outside, are not


as anchored and reducible into positive/negative binaries as Gabriel’s wax and gold binary model once supposed, and form instead part of a more fluid, ambivalent process in a material and erotic meta/physical continuum. An African image may be incomplete, fluid and intangible, yet precisely for this reason it is potent: it carries the ideas and fantasies of the observer/onlooker who internalizes it and fleshes it out by supplying in his/her mind what is withheld. Drawing on the work of Mbembe, the political theorist Julia Gallagher writes in this regard that image creation in African culture is a drawing in of the observer’s fantasies, an introjection of something external (Gallagher 2015: 12). As a site of projections, the image thus constitutes an active intersection between the internal and external – it is ‘a shaper and site of negotiation between inside and outside. Image [sic] faces both ways, conveys different meanings outside and back in … it must encompass shared ground. It also shifts and changes, is pulled and pushed from both sides’ (Gallagher 2015: 12–13). This suggests that for an African sensibility, looking at images is always a relational experience: I’m looking at visible forms, but in the full light both of what is not visible and of the limitations of the visible. Such a mediated, open process of image formation restores agency in a conditional, negotiated form, since it constitutes a dynamic nexus of interrelations between self and other in which the image is the receptacle or holder of elements from both the inside/object and the outside/observer. (We are reminded here also of Mbembe’s primary observation that the demands of changing political regimes in the postcolony have necessitated a fluid form of subjectivization, both in terms of an African’s own self-constitution and of the social imaginary that posits him/her. It means that the subject of the postcolony possesses the ‘marked ability to manage not just a single identity, but several – flexible enough to negotiate as and when necessary. … It is this practice that enables subjects to splinter their identities and to present themselves as always changing their persona; they are constantly undergoing mitosis’ (Mbembe 2001: 104).) The composite notion of the image as both an interface between the visible and invisible and an interactive site of projection – that is, a transferential zone actively involving the viewer and encompassing the (conventionally) ugly and beautiful – implies that the image can never be closed or fully readable but is in continual flux, mutating and transforming. Or, to revise Gabriel’s own terms, it is simultaneously wax and gold. Such interrelational fluidity recalls Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to perception as a matter of communion and synergy between the visible and invisible – a process that takes place in the vast, reversible ‘intertwining’ (entrelacs) of the tangible and visible, and the world and the self (see Merleau-Ponty 1964: 142–53). Seeing for Merleau-Ponty is a two-way process or ‘chiasm’ ((le) chiasme) that entails crossing over into the medium of things: a movement outwards and an internalization or invasion by the outside. It is where the visible is rooted in the invisible, that is, in what the subject brings to the process of perception (Sheringham 2017: 204). Such formulation of an open totality attacks



false dualities and stresses our continuous commingling with the world, for we are inexorably caught up in the fabric of things and sensations ((le) tissu des choses) in a form of mutual participation (Sheringham 2017: 203) whereby vision becomes a kind of touching. This type of ever-revolving, open-ended, material process – an aesthetics of the in/visible material image – is itself a source of beauty and pleasure, and it suggests, if we return again to the cinematic sphere, that one further reason why conventional documentary was not prized by the first generations of African directors was that it aimed to be directly representational and mono-dimensional, and thus without any real potential for relational movement.31 Indeed, what the in/visible image of African cinema invites us to do is resist the urge to read/see/ think ‘deep’ and attend instead to the materiality of the surface, in order precisely to apprehend the greater picture. Or, put differently, it impels us to explore the texture of the image in its all visual and haptic potential (its protean folds, creases, patterns, traces) as part of an expanded visual and relational field revolving around ever-permutable forms of inside and outside, underneath and surface, visibility and invisibility, centre and margin. It follows from this that the most productive way forward critically in the case of contemporary African films is to approach them not as repositories of allegorical or political meaning, but rather as unique works in and of themselves offering potential new aesthetic and erotic lines of relational beauty and pleasure – itself an inherently political cultural process. For too long the fluid, reversible processes of relationality in African film have been freeze-framed for political motives by oppositional, binary, Baobab thinking (visible vs invisible, surface vs depth, inside vs outside, matter vs spirit). Yet the multifarious films currently being created require us to move fully beyond expectations of the ‘invisible’ message, that is, a message to be extracted (the ore of ‘correct’ interpretation, political or otherwise), and focus directly on what is actually being physically and materially presented – and to do this in the full light and anticipation of what may lie unseen and inaudible off-screen in the hors-champ. That is, they ask us to stay close to the visible surface of the image (the unique and singular) while being alive to its potential invisible depths (the plural and communal) and alert to the possibilities of ambivalence, ambiguity, inversion and subversion. In a word, millennial African films demand that we fully assume the risk of the aesthetic by entering the aesthetic realm more acutely aware of a film’s social, cultural and political subtexts and contexts, and by allowing ourselves to be open and receptive to the subjective pleasures, sensations and seductions of the image in its concrete materiality (visual, aural, tactile). Such attunement to the materiality of cinematic form has always been possible, of course, in African cinema, yet it has been discouraged or denied or disavowed by political ideology and vested interests in African film criticism that have sought both to predetermine and overdetermine certain responses. At the heart of this new critical move is a commitment to new kinds of encounter with film as an art object, understood in Benjaminian terms as a moment of


interconnection in the here and now, when the image can explode the ‘continuum of history’: the shaft opens, time is unlocked, past and present exist in the same instant, and we are reminded as beings that we are interconnected. For this to occur, however, we need to remain susceptible to a possible encounter with the image in its visible and auditory aspects as much as in its ‘underdrawing’, as in a fresco – that is, as a presence beneath the surface, unseen and unsaid yet present. As the American art critic Dave Hickey puts it, let us celebrate encounters with the ‘vernacular’ of beauty ‘as pleasant surprises, positive moments in the history of our free responses to the world’ (Hickey 2012: 80) – as moments when ‘our bodies, our minds, and the world beyond us coalesce and vibrate like a tuning fork’ (Hickey 2012: 80–1). Within the long history of aesthetic discourse in Western art, this experience is one of relative beauty resting upon the essential principle that ‘in the moment of encounter, intricately constructed patterns of embodied reference always have the potential to completely reinvent themselves, to reinvent their own pasts and yield up the future in new, surprising, and totally unauthorized designative meanings’ (Hickey 2012: 117) (original emphasis). And it is precisely beauty’s promise of radical destabilization that contributes to its striking capacity to ‘locate us as physical creatures in a live, ethical relationship with other human beings in the physical world’ (Hickey 2012: 118). Bringing together the various elements of this section, we can say that aesthetic ‘beauty’ is always contingent upon context, always relational, and resists any inflated stately and rarefied universalizing notions of the Beautiful as transcendent. Moreover, it is uncontrollable in its very mystery and materiality and surpasses ideologically created boundaries. Hence, to consider embodied aesthetic experience in recent African cinema is to explore how cultural and political manifestations (national, transnational, ethnic) intersect simultaneously with patterns and networks of colour, sound and light, creating new openings whereby the aesthetic can disarticulate the conventionally political in exciting, mutually illuminating, ethical ways. A genuine cinematic engagement requires staying close to the physical materiality of the aesthetic object – that is, the combined erotics, abstraction and plasticity of the medium – and tracing a live process of cinematic form in a mobile process of thought at once provisional and free-forming, beyond the strictly applied limits of knowledge and political meaning (the dictates of dialectical thinking, for example), and without the expectation of an immediate significatory return. Such absorption in the materiality and temporality of film means exploring the facture of beauty in the relational processes of mise en scène as well as of montage, to be regarded as itself a form of the invisible within the visible, as in continuity editing where it is intended precisely to remain unnoticed. It also means being fully conscious of the performative power of the image as a vehicle for the imaginary and springboard for projection with the potential to change perceptions and self-perceptions. An open spirit of theoretical enquiry of this kind undermines the notion of conclusive readings and frees up new critical



energies, leading to more dynamic, speculative and holistic ways of seeing and interpreting.

The politics of beauty This book, it should by now be clear, is concerned not simply with the identification of aesthetic as opposed to ideological features in individual films, but also with the appreciation of beauty as a core object of critical enquiry within African film studies. Its essential premise is that aesthetic claims in contemporary African cinema are fundamentally ethical and political in nature, for millennial African films both foreground the ethical dimensions of beauty and reveal how aesthetic questions are intimately related in complex ways to the political forces that feed into history. Yet the notion of the political is not an absolute, and it is continually reconceived and redefined in the aesthetic process. If one can still speak of allegory here, it is in the sense that this prodigious new body of work allegorizes in multiple ways the power of the aesthetic and beauty’s struggle to be seen and heard. Indeed, the possibility for beauty in these recent films entails the search for new relational forms to counter not just the Eurocentrism of dominant film aesthetics (that goes without saying), but also the fixed parameters and increasingly outmoded paradigms of African film aesthetics. To reimagine African film aesthetics is to open up creatively the study of African cinema to new theoretical ideas and aesthetic concerns figured in the works themselves, for example, structural violence and terrorism, urban geography and global ethics, the environment and eco-criticism, sexuality and eroticism, migratory movement and transculturalism. Drawing on the more adventurous aspects of African film criticism and engaging equally with both African and Western aesthetic thought and philosophy, the book will explore areas not usually broached in this generally conservative branch of world cinema studies, such as gender and alternative sexualities, new materialisms in the era of the Anthropocene, migration as a form of migrancy, and the strange, dissonant beauty of particular forms of violence and non-communication. While the question of human rights is not presented explicitly in detail, it is implicit in the evolving discussion of the right to beauty in African cinema. Since African cinema is such a vast field within world cinema, I will limit myself largely to the sub-Saharan region with particular reference to West and Central African films, though, for the reasons stated (their complex international production and global ambitions that extend beyond the borders of both nationalism and pan-Africanism) I will approach these as fundamentally transnational works. With no pretensions to total coverage or a survey, I will examine a relatively small corpus of primary films, including some released only in the last couple of years. I will engage with some of the key figures of contemporary African art cinema, not only Sissako, Haroun, Nacro, Ramaka and Gomis, but also


emerging young voices such as the French-Senegalese director Mati Diop. My focus will be the film d’auteur tradition, yet I will make comparisons and contrasts with more populist African films, as well as with Nollywood and Ghanaian video films when and where appropriate. I will also refer to the first generation of filmmakers, most obviously but not exclusively Sembene and Mambety, as well as engage with directors from the pre-millennial period such as Moussa Sene Absa (Senegal) and Moussa Touré (Senegal) who are still producing important work today. While I will be discussing many works by women filmmakers, I will not consider specifically the question of African women’s cinema, a subject addressed at length elsewhere.32 The immediate advantage of such a selective palette is that it creates more room for extended close textual readings and for entering fully into, and expanding, comparative theoretical debates. In all cases I will prioritize those films that put directly into question narrative demands of certainty and logic (the hallmarks of Baobab thinking) and purposely entertain opacity, ambiguity and ambivalence – that is, films which insist confidently on the validity of cinematic beauty and the aesthetic, even if that sometimes takes the paradoxical form of working against natural and physical beauty and applying violence at a formal level. Ethics and Aesthetics of Contemporary African Cinema is structured around five main thematic zones: violence, the afropolis, language and sound, male desire and intimacy, and migration. These zones of enquiry will generate interconnecting and overlapping themes, such as cultural memory and the everyday, abstraction and pleasure, the physical world and human agency. The male body in particular will constitute a rolling topic in my exploration of interrelated movements and desires in the free-play between inside and outside, surface and depth, visible and invisible, as well as between the literal and figurative, the concrete and abstract. Indeed, a key concern of the book will be to establish how the body and the image can be stretched to new limits of abstraction as part of an enabling relational and intersubjective process that extends even to the non-human. Each of the five major chapters will map out a clear framework sensitive to the chosen films’ multiple contexts and subtexts (political, cultural, historical, geographic, economic, local, global, linguistic). While I will not be unduly bothered by questions of genre which, as I have suggested, African cinema has always played fast and loose with, I will provide where necessary a compact overview of a particular cinematic tendency or strand and its principal codes and conventions. To ensure that the operative terms of the book’s title and subtitle – ethics, aesthetics, politics, beauty – remain relational and floating, I will enter into serious play with the mobility and reversibility of such open, ambivalent terms as surface and depth, inside and outside, visible and invisible, tracing their non-binary movements and patterns in individual films and following where these lead. I will also move freely in and out of narrative fictions and documentaries, featurelength films and shorts, especially since, as already stated, most sub-Saharan



African films, and particularly those of the millennial period, exist naturally in a hybrid, fluid, inter-space of docudrama and docufiction. A crucial term, one fully contingent on the particular field in question, will be the ‘border’, conceived here as a fluid zone and site of transcultural transfer at once real and metaphorical and operating beyond customary stable binaries. By crossing through and over disciplinary borders and charting the workings of difference in multiple fields, I aim to keep the very matter of the aesthetic moving. Above all, by attending to the relational beauty of cinematic matter (visual, sonic, gendered, geographic, environmental), I seek to honour the seismic relational event of the forward-zoom in Life on Earth and its quietly explosive aesthetic rerouting of the Baobab outside the immediate coordinates of knowledge and the ontological order. In some cases this more experimental, unbound, critical method carries particular risks due to longstanding taboos in the region, notably around homosexuality. Yet such a multi-levelled, elastic and sensory relational approach will help to remap and reimagine the domains of African film criticism, and, I hope, take it forward to new critical thresholds. Chapter 2 formalizes the central aspects of post-conceptual, aesthetic thinking in African cinema with particular reference to the theoretical work of Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit on the relations between violence and visuality in art. It confronts the tired stereotypes of a ‘wounded Africa’ – an Africa cast precisely outside the realm of beauty and form – and of African cinema as in turn wholly immersed in the visual spectacle of violence, by first considering film as a vehicle of reconciliation and renewal in recent cinematic depictions of civil war, violence and trauma. The various films investigated reveal a common set of competing drives, caught between a narrative desire to show visual violence and a formal resistance to such fascination, resulting in what I call an ethics of ‘opaque vision’. Through a close reading of key turning points in Sissako’s Bamako, where overt signs or traces of violence are actually rare, I will examine the possibility of a new ‘violent beauty’ perceptible at the concrete level of film syntax and montage. Bamako, I will argue, directs the viewer to the violence of the editorial cut, and in so doing makes us fully aware of the visible/invisible relation as an eminently relational aesthetic process conducive to new ethical forms of cultural resistance. This is in marked contrast to Sissako’s follow-up, Timbuktu, where cinematic beauty is conscripted in the political battle against terrorism. Taking Dakar as a casestudy, Chapter 3 explores screen representations of the seemingly borderless urban space of the new African metropolis and examines how it is ‘scaped’, that is, imaged, framed, felt and heard. The promise and implications of the afropolis for new forms of material beauty and a new grammar of urban resistance are evaluated with particular attention to Gomis’s Tey (Today) (2012), approached in the light of other contemporary West and Central African films portraying cities such as Kinshasa, Lagos and Ouagadougou. An extended reading of Diop’s Mille Soleils (A thousand suns) (2013) will reveal how new, liberating


projections and imaginaries of African culture and society can be generated in the present by plugging simultaneously into the bounteous archives of Dakar’s cinematic history and those of the urban everyday. Chapter 4 takes the pulse of language and sound as a shifting set of plurilingual concerns in sub-Saharan African cinema where there has been a recent proliferation in transregional and multi-dialectic approaches to language. The films that have most to say about polyphony and plurilingualism, I will contend, are those that actively work against the sheer volume of existing languages and focus instead aesthetically on the plurivocal grain of language, notably in the concrete crisscrossing of auditory borders between inside and outside instantiated by the cinematic apparatus. The material mystery of sound and its potential as both an erotic contact zone of the body and a form of ethical revelation – what I propose as ‘aesthetic shudder’ – are then placed in a more general perspective of materiality that extends to the environment and the geophysical world. Chapter 5 focuses on the body, specifically the erotic male body which has been rendered all but invisible in African film criticism. Following an examination of the social and cultural reasons for the dearth of gay images in African cinema, I will explore in detail the intimate male dramas of Haroun’s films which subtly undermine the conventional ‘discretion’ of African cinema surrounding the sexualized body. Delving deep into male space at all levels (depth of field, framing, characterization, physical gesture) and tracing new, marginal, queer spaces and folds of male relations and desire, I will reveal that the homoerotic (invisible only to those who are not inclined or willing to look) is always imbricated within the homosocial, that is, within the accepted realms of the visible. Haroun’s work, I hope to show, transforms the parched ‘dry season’ of masculinity scarred by the patriarchal logic of revenge and tradition into something more liquid, mysterious and poetically flowing. In so doing, his films loop back to earlier moments of black African cinema either lost or ignored in its official story. Chapter 6 begins with an overview of recent African migration cinema as the necessary basis for engaging theoretically and philosophically with the notion of migration as a radical experience of migrancy and drift. After first establishing the key modalities of this relatively recent genre, the chapter adopts a more freely speculative critical register. Through detailed textual and intertextual analysis of Sissako’s Life on Earth, I will argue that new aesthetic projections of migrancy and transcultural liminality offer, in their continuous grafting and ‘transmigration’ of forms, a possible working model for a new kind of cosmopolitanism as a ‘becoming world’ – that is, an ethico-aesthetics of transmigratory being rooted in materiality and relationality and characterized by unbounded migrancy. A short concluding chapter brings together the key strands and findings of the book with specific reference to Gomis’s new film, Félicité (2017). This will allow me to reflect on the role of contemporary African art cinema within the expanding field of African visual cultures. I will suggest that films, like other types of art work



currently produced in Africa, should be regarded as acts of cultural ‘infiltration’ that serve to redefine the nature and terms of artistic culture and beauty in African society. The chapter is followed by a filmography of all the films referred to in the book.33 It should be stressed, finally, that the prospect of a politics of beauty and aesthetic pleasure in contemporary African cinema is not presented here as an inevitability, and that the notion of aesthetic resistance as the free-play of relational and sensory forms will constitute an ongoing subject of interrogation and definition. Certainly, the terms of resistance are now very different from the kind of Third Cinema oppositionality pursued by Sembene and other first-generation filmmakers, for what is at stake is no longer the idea of cinema as a communal gathering with the spectator as historical agent, where cinema claims the power to intervene directly in the process of transmitting historical memory. After all, the original celluloid set-up of public projection is fast disappearing as cinemas across Africa are closed down. Rather, contemporary filmmakers are exploring potential new aesthetic modes and modalities of cultural resistance and contestation directly through the poetics of form. Yet if, as I hope to demonstrate, the aesthetic as a process of fluid being and relating possesses political relevance and value as a form of resistance, especially in the present neoliberalist condition, how is one to prevent such resistance from itself becoming congealed and recuperated as an agent and tool of the political? That is, at what point does the aesthetic, which assumes a pre-eminently relational and resistant mode in films like Bamako, flip over and become frozen as ‘the political’, and therefore precisely anti-aesthetic? In short, how is one critically to prevent the aesthetic from cancelling itself out as an absolute form of political resistance? It is a constant theoretical concern that does not presuppose a ready solution, and it propels and underlies all that now follows.



And above all beware, my body as well as my soul / beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, / for life is not a spectacle, / a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, / a screaming man is not a dancing bear. AIMÉ CÉSAIRE, CAHIER D’UN RETOUR AU PAYS NATAL

I have a kind of magnetic attraction to situations of violence.


Can art heal and console? It’s a familiar ethical claim that was memorably contested by Leo Bersani in The Culture of Redemption (1990), which argued that the tendency to reduce trauma or painful experience to a mere aesthetic concern constitutes a major pitfall of aesthetic thinking, and that art’s claim to salvage damaged experience and thereby redeem life (based on the notion that art in the realist mode can capture and transmit real experience) represents a misplaced and even dangerous move. Bersani’s critical warning powerfully rewrites the common charge that beautiful images either divert attention from the suffering and hardship they portray or else reify the afflicted subject of the image, in the process universalizing pain and suffering as the ‘human condition’. But let us rephrase our opening question by being more direct: putting aside the possibility that violence may in itself be redemptive (e.g. the myth of redemptive violence found in the book of Revelation), can art reclaim violence? More specifically, can cinema, a visual medium that offers an immediate way of experiencing violence through

the graphic simulation of live spectacle and the possibilities for spectatorial identification, provide an aesthetic means for engaging ethically and politically with the reality of violence? Such basic aesthetic questions become all the more urgent in an African context where, in addition to natural calamities and catastrophe (famine, drought, pandemics like AIDS and Ebola), human violence and atrocity is so prevalent: from female genital mutilation (FGM), drug wars, human trafficking, gangsterism and enslavement, to genocide, war crimes like mass rape, acts of terrorism, and bloody civil war culminating in anarchy. Africa is now witnessing what Arjun Appadurai calls new forms of ‘ethnocidal violence’ and warfare increasingly tied to the yolk of religious intolerance and radicalization, with mutilation and cannibalism, rape and sexual abuse involving friends, kinsmen and neighbours (see Appadurai 1998). This worsening situation has led Mbembe to argue that, in the African postcolony, where human rights are consistently flouted and the tribal tradition of the curse (la malédiction) still flourishes, there now exists a ‘necropolitics’ of life and death exploited by those in power whose goal is the ‘generalised instrumentalisation of human existence’ and the annihilation of the Other (see Mbembe 2003). Indeed, contemporary African politics often appears the administration of death on a regional and global scale: the terror of state regimes, genocidal governance, and the forced disappearance and deportation of people. In the face of such overwhelming geopolitical violence and suffering, despair and dispossession, whereby Africa not only becomes what Judith Butler calls a ‘permanent elsewhere’ left off the symbolic global map (see Butler 2009) but also is cast completely outside the aesthetic realm (viz. the tired stereotype of a ‘wounded Africa’ torn asunder by its ills, encapsulated in the title of Raymond Depardon’s French documentary, Afriques: comment ça va avec la douleur? (Africas, how’s it going with pain?) (2006)), what is – and what should be – the role and function of cinema? If violence is an irreducible fact, might cinema, by recasting and recalibrating it, actually serve to challenge and pre-empt it? Put differently, in an art form like cinema habitually caught in the direct crossfire between the political and aesthetic, might the remorseless destiny of violence and cruelty, death and suffering, be potentially offset and redirected, even positively rechannelled, by the formulation and manipulation of screen images? Much important critical work has been done on violence in African cinema from the clinical perspective of trauma, healing and reparation, notably in the case of truth and reconciliation films.1 Chapters and articles have also been devoted to the cinematic ‘re-represencing’ of a violence-ridden Africa (see Eltringham 2013), as well as to the cultural aspects of African violence, notably Stefanson’s thematic analysis of male rivalry, paternal rage and the battle for space in Cissé’s films (Stefanson 2009a), and Olabode Wale Ojoniyi’s exploration of the intentionality of violence for survival and power in two Yoruba films (Ojoniyi


2015). The most complete and influential textual study, however, is Lindiwe Dovey’s African Film and Literature: Adapting Violence to the Screen (2009), which provides a detailed overview of major West African and South African literary film adaptations such as the Malian director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko’s Genesis (La Genèse, 1999), a transportation to Mali of the epic feud between Jacob and Esau in the book of Genesis. Dovey skilfully illustrates how, by ‘updating’ and rehistoricizing the history and literature they adapt, African filmmakers are using the cinematic medium to confront physical and psychological violence as part of a more general political critique of their own cultures. Based almost entirely on graphic screen adaptations of rape, murder, carnage and genocide, Dovey’s book is archetypal for being premised on an essentially visual understanding of violence, and the assumption not only that violence and its effects can be visibly depicted and represented, but also that the visual staging of a scene of violence may incite violence mimetically. This particular aspect of the visuality of violence, and of the violence of visuality, has been explored elsewhere, notably in the context of African HIV and AIDS films (see Rwafa and Mushore 2014).2 But in a recent article, the Zimbabwean film and media scholar Nyasha Mboti takes direct issue with Dovey’s emphasis on visually explicit representations of violence which he deems standard clichés of African film violence, arguing that such representations are merely incidental, even irrelevant, to the ‘idea’ of African film, and that to focus solely on them constitutes a serious misreading of postcolonial African cinema. Further, Mboti claims that the working definition of violence by African directors is ‘profound, grounded, lived and much more subtle than this’, for their concern has never been simply with adapting physical violence to the screen (there are, after all, relatively few well-known, Hollywoodstyle action movies and thrillers from Africa), but rather with exposing the hidden, hegemonic system of violence often invisible to the naked eye, yet which underpins and enables all other forms of violence (Mboti 2014: 41–2). Where physical violence does occur in underdeveloped, crude, ‘vulgar’ form, it is, he suggests, merely symptomatic of a preoccupation with systemic violence – a more sinister, quiet violence that goes by other names (Mboti 2014: 42).3 Mboti concludes that the way one reads representations of violence needs to be subjected to rigorous contextualizing and historicizing, for if some films show violence in its Fanonian sense as liberatory, creative and absolute, others are far more ambivalent and treat it as a perpetually destructive force.4 Mboti’s vigorous critique of the pervasive critical obsession with what is shown, and thus with the raw surface of screened violence, is timely and persuasive, and it raises a number of key related questions. First, is the cinematic spectacle of violence perhaps only a smokescreen for a more disturbing yet unseen structural violence? Is there, in fact, a cinematic ‘underneath’ of violence subtending the rhetoric of violence visible and audible on screen, however extreme? Second, can discursive cinematic practices serve in themselves both to undermine and



potentially reverse the dehumanizing logic and rule of violence? That is, can the aesthetic play a decisive role in reorienting and transforming our awareness of violence, even helping us to move through and beyond violence? For violence is always aestheticized to some degree in cinema in the way it undergoes different gradations of visuality according to the type and genre of film and the different forms of representation and address involved. Such combined, core ethical and aesthetic questions prompt one to ask how an ethico-aesthetics of violence in African films about violence might be formalized and developed, and whether there are any limits to engaging with violence on screen other than the current laws of censorship. In a groundbreaking 2014 study of human rights cinema and the reception of images of atrocity, one that goes beyond the well-established general debate about the specularization of Third World suffering, violence and social injustice in the Western media which promotes a numbing and increasingly sterile public spectacle of pain (see Chouliaraki 2006), Shohini Chaudhuri approaches morality within an ethical framework that reflects upon the causes and contexts of violence rather than seeking to impose a moralistic outlook that might reassure ‘us’ of our moral place in the world. Her argument is founded on an important distinction between morality and ethics: morality, she suggests, ‘refers to the domain of normative values, manifesting in socially formed laws and codes of conduct. [It] exists in multiple forms and differs from one set of circumstances to another. In contrast, ethics explores the conditions under which morality is constructed under different circumstances; it is a metareflection on the moral framework’ (Chaudhuri 2014: 14). Chaudhuri uses this crucial difference to privilege those films that withdraw from the certainty of a normative moral universe through tidy resolutions and narrative teloi (the mainsprings of classic narrative such as causality, closure, coherence), and offer instead greater space for ethical reflection. She goes as far as to claim that filmic disruption of the masterplot constitutes in itself a form of violence that subverts the marginalization and victimization of the powerless. In contrast to the widespread play on moral sentiment (the ‘politics of pity’) which relies on icons of spectacular violence and positions viewers as benevolent rescuers (a major ideological effect of human rights representations), film can, Chaudhuri argues, use emotion to disrupt habitual perceptions and generate new affects, connections and spatial mappings, in the process providing a critical tool for affective thinking and analysis capable of illuminating structural violence and our links with it (for instance, spatial divisions as a figure for social divisions) (Chaudhuri 2014: 183). To oppose the voyeuristic focus on the spectacle of physical violence with a reflection on the causes and contexts of violence affords an ethical way of representing and writing about atrocity, precisely because it is about finding ways of breaking patterns of violence often shaped by, and echoing, colonial violence.5 Moreover, one’s engagement with cinematic


brutality can take place through multisensory means, a process implicitly more ethical than the intrusive gaze. Conceiving thus of film as an embodied event revealing an ethic of its making, Chaudhuri suggests finally that ‘through their appeal to our own embodied histories as sites of reception and understanding, sensory images have the capacity to trigger and disturb memories that we hold as individuals and communities’ (Chaudhuri 2014: 182). Hence, films can choose to take the ethical risk of making comparisons between different types of violence as a way of confronting us with what is still occurring and the need to reflect on the links between past and present (Chaudhuri 2014). Chaudhuri’s particular emphasis on structural rather than purely visual and spectacular violence accords well with Mboti’s understanding of the essential nature and stakes of violence in African cinema. Yet it is her insistence on the one hand on the fatal narrative violence of physical spectacle, and on the other on the affirmative, ethical and political possibilities of cinematic violence – that is, on cinema’s potential to disarticulate and disband normative perceptions and build new ones due to its capacity to stimulate fresh experiential connections across time and space through creative juxtapositions of montage and mise en scène – that is of most interest and relevance to our discussion. Although she does not mention the work of Bersani and Dutoit on violence in art, specifically their 1983 book on seventh-century bc Assyrian art and narrative, The Forms of Violence, which analyses in close detail the multiple, shifting forms of violence traceable in Assyrian palace reliefs representing the brutalities of war and hunting, Chaudhuri shares the same understanding of narrativity as sustaining the ‘glamour’ of historical violence in Western humanist culture, since it creates violence as an isolated and identifiable – because visible – topic or subject. We have been conditioned to think that violence, when centralized and reduced to the level of a plot, can be mastered and eliminated due to the pacifying power of such narrative conventions as beginnings, explanatory middles, and climactic endings. Yet as Bersani and Dutoit point out, such fetishistic immobilization of a violent event invites a fascination, even pleasurable identification, with its enactment, for a coherent narrative depends on stabilized images, while the suspenseful expectation of climaxes provokes the mimetic impulse. By contrast, the anonymously produced Assyrian art, although it appears to accumulate scenes of infamy with a singular complacency, never allows violent spectacle to maintain a privileged position. Instead, it continually displaces the viewer’s attention and prevents the stable reading of the palace reliefs as static images, all the time training the viewer to formalize psychic mobility: we are unable to abstract a particular historical horror from our mobile attention which is inherent in our contacts with the world. Such perceptual disruption obliges us to trace a continuity among all forms of violence and to recognize and redefine ethically our own permanent implication in violence. As Bersani and Dutoit dexterously show, narrative in Assyrian sculpture (in one sense the simplest model of linear,



non-transgressive storytelling) is consistently undermined because it produces a narrative movement away from centres and climaxes of violence to supplemental non-narrative points of interest, thereby offering a means to resist any destructive fixation on anecdotal violence.6 Bersani and Dutoit’s pioneering reading of the different layers and forms of violence in Assyrian visual art exposes the violent image as a locus of competing drives, narrative and non-narrative, visual and non-visual. It reveals that the predominant narrative drive to violent spectacle may operate in continual tension with formal counter-drives which powerfully resist its fatal attraction by encouraging self-reflexive forms of perceptual disturbance. Drawing on this pivotal understanding of the ethical possibilities of aesthetic violence and friction as a potential corrective to our ‘natural’ fascination with violence, as well as on Chaudhuri’s vital related insights into the ethics of screened violence, narrative form and affect, I wish to consider in this chapter to what extent formal violence – or more precisely the formal cultivation of violence – in contemporary African cinema may serve to counter the narrative drive to sensationalize violence, and whether one might be able to posit a beauty of violence in cinema that transforms the very spectacle of violence. Taking as my case study Sissako’s Bamako, a feature film referred to by Mboti though not examined in any formal detail, I will pay particular attention to those areas of cinematic form and style that are not usually taken into direct account with narrative-driven films of violence simply because they are not ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ in the enveloping noise and panic, yet which are intrinsic to the physical, embodied experience of watching them. I am referring here to what is implied and suggested in the folds, textures and gaps of cinematic style: framing, point of view, extra-diegetic sound, and the minor ‘events’ of formal violence like material disruptions, cuts and abrasions on the cinematic surface produced through the various processes of montage. My objective here is to establish how Bamako’s overt themes – the everyday reality of neo-liberal economics in Africa and the structural violence of contemporary African life – relate to, and interact with, the way the film unfolds aesthetically – this in order to determine whether the sustained play of cinematic form and the affect generated offers a more subtle, progressive and ethical understanding of the workings of violence beyond the fixed bounds of conceptual Baobab thinking as defined in the previous chapter. Bamako, I will attempt to argue, constitutes a new aesthetic proposition of formal violence – what I shall call ‘violent beauty’ – in resistance to political and structural violence, and as such it opens up a new border on the front line in postcolonial art cinema and African film aesthetics. First, however, it is necessary to identify the general working rules of aesthetic engagement with violence in African cinema, and to locate the boundaries and parameters for visualizing violence in this particular field of image operations. Since I am not proposing an exhaustive or detailed typology of African films of


and about dark violence, I will not be considering standard genres such as the historical epic initiated by Sembene’s God of Thunder,7 or emerging genres such as the political thriller about state violence (e.g. Ramaka’s engaged docufiction And if Latif was right! (Et si Latif avait raison!, 2006)8). Nor will I focus on the self-styled ‘reflections of violence’ by Teno whose first-person documentary films, while they may diagnose and demonstrate the acute continuities between Cameroon’s colonial past and postcolonial present through state violence and neocolonial corruption, do not actually engage at a formal level with the aesthetic and ethical implications of screening violence (whether staged, reconstructed, or derived from the archives).9 Instead, I will confine myself to four recent films where cinematic form constitutes to varying degree an explicit agent of critical reflection on the nature of screen violence, and which present such engagement as both a primary aesthetic concern and an ethico-affective dilemma. They are Moolaadé (2004) by Sembene, Ezra (2007) by Nigerian filmmaker Newton I. Aduaka, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy (Hissène Habré, une tragédie tchadienne, 2016) by MahamatSaleh Haroun, and The Night of Truth (La Nuit de la Vérité, 2004) by Burkinabe director Fanta Régina Nacro. Distinctive in style and format, register and mode of address, these four important and highly emblematic films (all narrative fictions with the exception of Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy) each deal with a very different subject: female excision, child soldiers, state torture, civil war. Yet they are all equally concerned with the nature of corporeal violence and its emotional as well as psychological effects, including for the viewer. By scrutinizing the tears and controlled violations of form on the surface of the image and assessing the contrasting formations of style, I aim in this first section to reveal how such films, through their aesthetic choices and relational strategies regarding the visibilization of violence, have the capacity to create particular ethical viewing experiences conducive to change and transition, however tentative and conditional.

Approaching violence: Degrees of in/visibility i. Moolaadé Set in a small village in Burkina Faso and featuring mostly non-professional actors speaking in Jula, Sembene’s Moolaadé is a powerful rural drama about the social and religious ritual of FGM. The title refers to a protective spirit and sacred rite of asylum in Bambara culture which is immediately invoked by the female protagonist Collé Ardo (Fatoumata Coulibaly) when four young girls suddenly appear on her doorstep in tears seeking sanctuary. Along with two others who have now disappeared from the village, they have fled from a purification ceremony



called salindé subjected on girls aged seven, sometimes even younger, and which involves the removal of the clitoris by women called salindana. Collé ties a piece of coloured string of yarn across the doorstep of the enclosed cluster of huts she shares with her husband and his other wives, and the law states that as long as the girls stay inside, no one can touch them, nor can they be removed. The nononsense, pipe-smoking Collé is already regarded as something of a rebel, since she refused to allow her own daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traoré) to undergo the procedure which she was forced herself to endure as a girl. In sheltering other women’s daughters from the fearsome, red-robed priestesses who perform the excision ritual, and who zealously believe no man will marry a bride who has not been ‘cut’, she finds herself cast as a dangerous subversive, accused of going against religious teachings and threatening the social order of the village. Even her daughter, engaged to a man called Ibrahima (Moussa Théophile Sowié) returning home wealthy from France, reproaches her for compromising their planned marriage. The film’s narrative hinges ostensibly on whether Ibrahima’s experience in Europe has freed him of ancient barbarities, or whether he, too, will demand a bride who has been cut. As one might expect from an engaged Marxist filmmaker like Sembene, there are a number of highly didactic sequences in Moolaadé that make it appear at times almost a public health information film, as when Collé invites the young girls to explain their desire to refuse excision. Yet the full violence of excision is purposively not shown, even though the viewer is always waiting fearfully for explicit visual signs (blood-drenched flesh in gruesome close-up, for instance). The ritual is instead limited to off-screen cries and a brief glimpse of small, red-handled knives. Only in the far distance can the salindana be seen applying physical force on one terrified screaming girl who tries in vain to resist and will die as a result of the cutting – a tragedy that will eventually cause the other mothers to change their minds and oppose the ritual. This cautious stylistic approach by Sembene, which effectively protects the viewer in a screen approximation of moolaadé, contrasts directly with the highly mediatized documentary short Dilemme au féminin (1994) by Chadian director Zara M. Yacoub, which alternates alarming real and enacted footage of a circumcision ceremony with interviews with the young victims, health workers and women’s group representatives.10 Yet what is at issue for Sembene is not simply maintaining narrative suspense with suggested and implied violence potentially lurking off-frame – he refuses to succumb to the cinematic injunction to show the moment of excision, since this would be to subscribe to the spectral logic of patriarchal violence. Indeed, the monstration of violence would detract from, and potentially obstruct, the viewer’s affective solidarity with those women bravely resisting tradition and its traumatic effects and ramifications. What is rendered visible instead are the traces of mutilation, for instance, the scars on Collé’s belly testifying to a childbirth made dangerous by the ritual. In a flashback we see her ‘honouring’ her husband with sexual intercourse (again, not explicitly


conveyed) which clearly causes her unbearable physical pain.11 She bites her ring finger, symbol of her marriage, until it bleeds, and remains awake till dawn to wash her body and remove the blood from the bed sheets. If the act of excision around which the whole drama revolves remains a visual taboo in the interests of Sembene’s critique of imposed violence, this does not mean that other forms of violence are not pictured. Collé’s enraged husband is deemed by his fellow elders to have lost his ability to control his own wife (even his first wife supports Collé). He is obliged to regain his social status by beating Collé with a leather whip in the full presence of the community so that she may be ‘purified’ and order restored. The elders demand that she utter the magic word that will remove the four little girls from her protection. Yet no matter how hard her husband whips her (‘Tame her!’, the assembled men howl), she silently endures the ordeal, refusing to give her tormenters the satisfaction of even a scream or cry. Opposing groups of women shout to her to revoke or be steadfast, but no one dares interfere. Again, this awful public flagellation is not filmed in grisly detail but confined to long shot and the odd close-up of facial gestures of pain. It is eventually stopped by the travelling merchant and former Second World War veteran Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeïda), who steps out of line literally by standing in front of the elders and declaring ‘I can’t bear this violence’, in the process redeeming his character as a ladies’ man and swindler. He pays a heavy price for this good deed, however, for he is soon hunted out of the village by the elders and murdered, an event that characteristically takes place off-screen and out of sight. Moolaadé possesses, in fact, the theatrical quality of an elaborately choreographed stage presentation, with characters moving into and across the common open area of the village as if from the wings. Indeed, the mise en scène

FIGURE 2.1  A young girl transported by her mother for cutting in Moolaadé (2004).



is rooted in a rigorously democratic mapping of perspectives that deliberately avoids any one privileged, individual (male) point of view (there are virtually no subjective point-of-view shots).12 After the opening images surveying the architecture and geography of the village (a standard documentary prelude), the film details the routine domestic and religious rituals and rhythms of daily life, including collective songs. We follow shot by shot a highly symbolic chess game of spatial moves, leading to a sustained narrative reflection on the power relations between men and women, youngers and elders, parents and children, mutilating women and non-cutters. The result is a dialectical play of multiple, demarcated, physical spaces (private, communal, traditional, patriarchal, matriarchal, religious, secretive, ritualized), and a geometry of lines and shapes at the centre of which lies the cordon sanitaire of the sanctuary. In the case of the village well, it constitutes initially a female space, but when two girls throw themselves into it after being cut it is promptly closed up and reappropriated by the men as a punishment for transgression. The widescreen compositions and bold use of colour endow Moolaadé with a strange, contemplative aura, even as the story’s conflict becomes progressively more intense. Indeed, New Yorker Films sought in its publicity to promote Moolaadé as ‘magnificently beautiful’. Yet Sembene is also working here crucially against beauty as much as violence and will not allow himself to be sidetracked from the narrative imperative of female resistance by the immanent beauty of the village and surrounding countryside. In fact, the resistance to violence plays out cinematically not only in the avoidance of showing the spectacle of violence but also, in an ironic conjunction of ethico-aesthetic values, in the very act of formally declining natural beauty. There are typically no still-frames or gentle panning shots simply to record and savour the natural landscape glimpsed in the back of the frame, and the one stunning, slow, lateral tracking across the main branches of a large, leafless baobab does no more than index the tree as a patriarchal symbol of African community and tradition (the next low-angle shot is of two elders ritually filling up the well where the two girls lie buried, the baobab towering above it in the background). In the film’s pitched battle for social enlightenment, it soon becomes clear that beauty is actually working on the side of violence and serves directly to accentuate its intensity, most obviously by means of colour. The deepred hues of the huts and mosque magnify the red robes of the cutters – part of what Jonathan Mitchell has suggestively termed the film’s ‘motif of the vanquishing flame’ (Mitchell 2014: 164), from the early reference to the ‘fire’ Collé has ignited to the torches of Mercenaire’s pursuers and the final burning of the women’s radios (confiscated by the all-male village council because the broadcasts communicated gender equality and freedom as well as a sense of communal fun). The beauty of cinematic movement itself is likewise conscripted as an agent of violence, for the camera is continually on the move in long takes linked by dry cuts that seem to mirror formally the purely imagined process of genital excision, by turns zooming


in and zooming out, shifting, pulling, tugging, dizzily tracking forwards and backwards, then retracking at angles, asymmetrically, even occasionally overhead above the village. Such relentless, clinical encircling and circumscribing of space as a site of fear, attrition and conflict, with the camera crossing through and around the silent horror of the village as if preparing for the right angle of attack to approach the dangerous, forbidden nexus of imposed violence, is like a ritualistic dance of death. In short, despite the narrative displacement of violence from the scene of cutting to that of temporary whipping, the film’s formal aspects – colour, movement, angle, shot, editing – are all centripetally motivated and contracted into the formal manoeuvres of violence. One is reminded here of Bersani and Dutoit’s analysis of Assyrian art where the sculptural representation of the slaughter of lions offers the spectator an alternative mode of agitation, calculated not to produce ‘aesthetic calm’ but rather to make the viewer enjoy a kind of aesthetic violence – the violence of multiple contacts producing multiple forms. There, the perceptual wandering from one part of a scene to another, together with the extended use of repetition, led to an affirmative, epistemological uncertainty about the identities of certain forms: Is it a leg or merely one of several parallel lines? Is it part of a spear or one side of a triangle? In Moolaadé, however, such intense formal activity exists precisely to substitute for what cannot be shown, that is, physical excision and laceration, with the striations of form making up for a representational void in the image. Indeed, the processes of perspectival mobility and repetition in montage serve here a highly circumscribed and strictly political purpose that ultimately smothers the free-play of the aesthetic. Although there is a narrative resolution to Moolaadé (Ibrahima eventually stands up to his father in a decisive, collective prise de conscience by announcing he is going to marry Amasatou), the final majestic, slow, sweeping, overhead shot underlines merely the many battles that lie ahead. It rises high above the dense plumes of smoke of burning radios towards a giant, ancient ostrich egg perched on top of the mosque; the image then suddenly cuts to an efficiently framed medium shot of a mounted television aerial that has the shape of a tree trunk with extended branches. This is Sembene’s political refiguration of the Baobab, and the allegorical message could not be clearer: only social change and technological progress, rather than the work of the aesthetic, however intricate as frequently the case here, can successfully combat the repression and intolerance of tradition.13 Another way of saying that, for Sembene, beauty qua beauty must ultimately always be kept in political and symbolic check.

ii. Ezra Set during the 1990s in Sierra Leone although actually shot in Rwanda, Ezra opens with a highly disturbing sequence where we see a young schoolboy called Ezra abducted in plain view by rebel soldiers from his classroom. He is immediately



brainwashed and brutalized into warfare as a child soldier for the ‘Blood Brotherhood’. The style of the sequence is documentary-like and matter-of-fact, yet it is soon followed by narrative scenes of frenzied, hyper-violent action. The viewer is immersed in what feel like orgies of wanton violence accompanied by Rasta party music – a form of violence Walter Benjamin termed ‘divine’ (Benjamin 1986: 294), that is, irrational outbursts of violence and destruction without preconceived ends. It is soon clear that the order of events is not strictly linear but discontinuous, at times confusingly so, perhaps because Ezra is high on drugs and alcohol and has become a permanently angry, dehumanized rebel exhibiting signs of schizophrenic behaviour. Much of the second part of Ezra adopts a rather different, didactic register, revealing the extent of corruption between the rebels, authorities and drug barons while also examining the politics of truth and knowledge and the powers of human healing. We follow the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings instigated under the aegis of the UN (deliberately not called a ‘trial’ by the foreign advisors in charge), and which feature speeches from village elders and testimony from victims of the events, including Ezra’s own sister Onitsha (Mariame N’Diaye) whose tongue he had cut out after killing the rest of their family and yet who defiantly rejects the status of victim.14 Having lost the faculties of memory and logic, the now adult Ezra (Mamoudu Turay Kamara) is unable to remember most of the unspeakable acts he committed and suffers internally from the demons of the past, conveyed in the form of objective flashbacks where he is pictured lost or delirious and on the rampage. He marries his co-soldier Mariam, who comes from a wealthy family and is committed politically to the brotherhood cause, yet she is killed in action while pregnant, denying him the chance to grow up and take responsibility as a father – he will therefore always remain a child. He blankly refuses to admit his crimes (‘I don’t remember!’, he hollers), but at the end will ask for forgiveness from the ‘spirits’ of all those who died in the war. Full justice through an international legal court proves impossible here, and the film offers no lasting solution for genuine reconciliation. Refusing narrative closure Ezra concludes on a troubling factual note with details of the official numbers of child soldiers (including girls), not just in Africa but across the globe. With its sheer pace and raw, at times hallucinatory, rage and convulsive wrestles of sound and colour, Ezra possesses an impressive and compulsive rogue beauty which served to garner the top Golden Yennenga Stallion award at FESPACO in 2007. Yet crucially, as in Moolaadé, the related acts of violence and atrocity are left largely unseen and merely intimated, as if fundamentally unshowable, like the terrifying event of Onitsha’s tongue injury. In fact, the film could have been more far more shattering and ‘unwatchable’ if it had chosen to stay within the past and restage Ezra’s personal daily diet of fighting and bloodshed. The particular narrative structure adopted by Ezra allows it to suggest violence rather than show it, and at the same time to explore how the experience of violence plays on the minds


of those who survive horrific events haunting them for life. Ezra differs sharply in this respect from the more consistently brutal American Netflix war drama Beasts Of No Nation (2015) by Cary Fukunaga, adapted from a 2005 novel based on extensive research by the Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala, where a prepubescent boy Agu (Abraham Attah), whose father has been slaughtered during civil war in an unnamed West African country, is forced to join a group of mercenaries high on psychotropic drugs. The continually brooding violence and terror unfolding in the filmic present is compared explicitly to the plague (bullets are locusts), although Fukunaga simultaneously humanizes all those involved, including even the sadistic Commandant (Idris Elba) whose deranged rhetoric and thirst for blood are counterbalanced by his fatherly concern for Agu. Such spectatorial comfort and release through familial identification is not possible in Ezra, however, where the main protagonist is kept always at a formal distance despite the amount of screen time shared with him. Instead, the viewer is focused on the always political struggle to talk about and through violence in a public setting, literally so if, like Onitsha, one has lost the physical means of speaking at all. Hence, if the film shields the viewer from the full, naked horror of violence, it also forces us to reflect directly on its devastating effects and consequences. A similar, though far more generic version of Ezra’s sublimatory tendency to filter and mediate adolescent violence through the discourse of courtroom drama is L’Œil du cyclone (The eye of the cyclone) (2015), a psychological thriller set in an unknown African country by the Burkinabe director Sékou Traoré. Here, a young idealistic female lawyer defends an unrepentant war criminal (known simply as The Rebel) who became a child soldier at the age of eight. All violent action is remembered and evoked retrospectively in flashback, serving again to highlight the issue of whether there can ever be proper justice after the event for such heinous crimes committed during periods of war. Such stylized and restrained use of violence contrasts with most commercial American or European films on the topic: Hollywood-produced blockbusters like Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2006), and, at the other extreme, Claire Denis’s European art film White Material (2010), set in an unnamed African country undergoing a coup d’état, which becomes increasingly graphic (in the penultimate scene Maria (Isabelle Huppert) strikes her former father-in-law repeatedly and mercilessly on the head – a deadly act that also physically closes up the image).15 Philippe Lacôte’s Run (2014), a coming-of-age drama set against the historical backdrop of political and military conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire which have claimed the lives of at least 3,000 people (notably during the tumultuous period of 2010–11), takes Ezra’s ambiguous approach to the spectacle of violence even further by crossing the border into magical realism and fantasy. The eponymous Run (Abdoul Karim Konaté) is first encountered running away after killing the prime minister at a public event. He ensures his escape in the ensuing maelstrom by assuming the face and clothes of a madman. His past life with its murderous militia episodes returns to him



punctually in flashes, yet he is also pictured at one point suddenly facing down an elephant as it roams through the streets of Abidjan. Such unexpected turns to hyperrealist fable and folklore (justified in the narrative by the fact that in his youth Run was apprentice to a master rainmaker called Tourou) throw into greater relief the current chaos of the country while also forcing us again to reconsider the range of aesthetic options – and limits – for properly confronting the actuality of civil violence.

iii. Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy In Haroun’s Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, the perpetrator of violence is an acknowledged dictator who has inflicted medieval-style torture and genocide on his own people. Hissène Habré ruled Chad between 1982 and 1990, and, by means of his Documentation and Security Directorate (DSS), arrested and carried out random violence and torture on largely innocent people, resulting in nearly 40,000 deaths. Although it adopts a documentary mode and responds to events as they are unfolding (specifically the build-up to Habré’s trial at the African Union court in Dakar in 2015–16 for crimes against humanity), the film is not a conventional documentary and already assumes some prior knowledge of the period. It does not, for example, provide a full context for the political ascension of Habré or explore the machinations behind his government, although it makes clear that Habré received steady logistical support from both the United States and France. Equally, Haroun does not seek to reconstitute the savagery of the period by indulging in shocking spectacle. Instead, the film presents a series of recorded interviews with a number of survivors who bear witness to the events of genocide and reveal the tangible scars of physical and psychological torture, including hacked limbs and damaged eyes. It is worth recalling that ‘genocide’, a term coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, means literally killing those of the same birth, race or kind. Hence, as Zoë Norridge points out in a study of narratives from and about Rwanda, genocide is by nature generic, both in its definition and in its execution. The genericity of genocide is to be resisted precisely by prioritizing the individual and unique, the personal and the flawed, as part of a ‘poetics of resistance’ (Norridge 2011: 240–1).16 For this reason it is vital that Haroun ‘give face’ to each of the survivors individually as they talk about their ordeals, and that he insist on showing their tortured bodies (the men are sometimes stripped to the waist). Yet Haroun must also be sure here to undermine the generic demands of documentary and dislocate the kind of narrative logic that propels Habré’s trial with its clear, linear, procession of acts and protocols culminating in a final verdict. For this reason, although Haroun shows himself on screen and speaks on the soundtrack in his own voice with his distinctive, precise, clipped phrasings, the film’s connecting thread is provided instead (albeit only intermittently) by Haroun’s


friend Clément Abaïfouta, a former prisoner and now chair of the Association of the Victims of the Crimes of the Hissène Habré Regime in N’Djamena, who serves here as both agent and intermediary for the interviews. In one particularly tense encounter, Abaïfouta is present when a survivor confronts a guard who once meted out arbitrary torture on him. So potentially explosive is the scene that one wonders whether it has been deliberately staged for the camera, or is even, at least in part, a reconstruction. Certainly, arriving so early in the film before the recorded testimony has acquired cumulative weight and proof of veracity, the status of this event remains unclear, opening up a small margin of mystery and opacity within the film. This encourages in turn a salutary consideration of the relativism and impurity of things – a theme sounded poetically at the very beginning with shots of the natural elements in semi-abstract fashion (clouds of dust, then waves, sky, and signs of imminent storm), during which the sun is eventually eclipsed by darkness.17 The impression created here of a self-reflexive art film, and of cinema as a set of free, subjective, creative choices, is further developed in the intimate images where Haroun films himself in his hotel room as ‘the author’ putting pen to paper and crossing out the name ‘Habré’. An aesthetic relation is thus being established with the viewer in Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy which emphasizes the film’s own fabrication of naturalness and immediacy, consolidated by the way Haroun purposively cultivates slowness and repetition by returning to the small group of interviewees in extended long takes. This is a characteristically minimalist approach inspired by Haroun’s unceasing interest in what lies beyond the frame and on the edges of vision. In earlier feature films like Daratt (Dry Season) (2006) and A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie) (2010), which address the personal consequences of civil conflict, the dreadful reality of war remains always in the background or off-screen, barely seen and little heard. In the case of Daratt, for example, the physical void created by recent atrocities is rendered visible at the beginning by shoes strewn eerily across the road like ghosts after their owners have suddenly fled. As Haroun puts it: ‘I observe the landscape after the storm, the life that goes on after the debris, ruins and ashes.’18 What is different in Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, however, is that the visual mode adopted is always direct and frontal (to-camera shots, close-ups), with few if any of the angles, shadows and obscurities that come to define Haroun’s narrative fictions (to be discussed later in detail in Chapter 5). While Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy is clearly a work of aesthetic intermediation, its priority remains to give voice to those broken ‘half-men’ previously silenced by power, letting them speak directly to camera in an exemplary prise de parole and so bring to light what for so long has been both invisible and unsayable.19 At issue here is the question of how to accommodate and overcome the personal trauma of torture and achieve collectively some kind of communal healing. Haroun has said he wanted to understand if it was still possible for people to live together after such monstrosities, and whether survivors can find



a place for forgiveness in their hearts. The film honours not only the resilience and perseverance of these brave men and women, but also, above all, their wish to see justice prevail – if only to prove wrong those in Senegal, where Habré initially fled in exile, who claim that the accusations of torture are unfounded and part of a global plot and conspiracy. The film ends with the positive news of Habré’s guilty verdict (immediately challenged by Habré but subsequently upheld in 2017). Once again, the viewer moves gently but decisively to an abstract shot of ocean waves which we are solemnly invited to interpret. As a liquid, natural catharsis heralding a fresh start? Or a repetition of the same? There is no answer to this, any more than to the question of whether an avowedly poetic art film such as Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, which wilfully resists narrative closure with its softly undulating rhythms of montage, can assist in a meaningful way in the shared process of human healing and facilitate a redemptive form of emotional closure. It is not certain, after all, whether the actual act of providing personal testimony, during which survivors relive on camera their traumatic emotions through their words and expressions (even if, as here, there are often no words adequately to describe the horrors endured), is in itself a cathartic process. Such, of course, is the claim often made to justify and valorize the painful process of anamnesis in documentary cinema, most notably in Claude Lanzmann’s epic work of oral testimony concerning the Holocaust, Shoah (1985), which runs to over nine hours. Refusing to be tied down ideologically to any notions of moral beauty or even a politics of testimony, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy leaves open the issue of the relations between art, morality, and the function of the aesthetic. Its refusal to allow the viewer to rush to moral judgement, and its coterminous demand that we engage instead aesthetically and affectively with the sounds and images provided as part of our duty to reflect directly on the history and effects of violence, are a mark, I would argue, of its underlying ethical commitment.

iv. The Night of Truth As a film concerned primarily with ethnic violence and hatred, The Night of Truth falls squarely within the genre of the ‘African atrocity film’. There have, of course, been other important African feature films made about ethnic strife and intolerance, for example, Sembene’s Guelwaar (1992), but that was directly inflected by local religious conflict (between Catholics and Muslims) fomented by the onesided terms of Western food aid and manipulated by the corrupt governing elite.20 Set in an unnamed imaginary African country, The Night of Truth is a fiction that explores the laying down of arms and reconciliation process in the wake of civil conflict, focusing on the Bonandés and Nayaks as they struggle for sovereignty of their nation after a ten-year civil war culminating in a massacre at Govinda. That the insurgent Bonandés have long been treated as second-class citizens by the Nayaks clearly evokes the Rwandan genocide of 1994, as does the use of the term


‘cockroach’.21 Yet in contrast to the warring Hutu, Tutsi and Twa ethnic groups in Rwanda who share the same language and culture, the Bonandés and Nayaks are distinguished from each other linguistically and culturally. The daunting challenge they face therefore in this tense period of national reconciliation – a time of official new symbols and state-sanctioned art and propaganda with tribal dances performed in the Bonandé compound paving the way for peace talks (the revolutionary slogan ‘La patrie ou la mort nous vaincrons’ directly references the socialist logo and motto adopted by Burkina Faso in 1984 under its new president, Thomas Sankara) – is to forge a new political identity and national consciousness encompassing both groups equally on a power-sharing basis (again, unlike Rwanda). The emphasis here on the collective is paramount, for rather than simply seeking moral solutions to political problems based around a set of irreproachable individuals, The Night of Truth shows how everyone is capable of consenting to atrocities and personally embodying the systems of violence.22 The Night of Truth has become a virtual test case for African film scholars on the capacity of cinema to enable reconciliation and restore agency to an afflicted community suffering the trauma of extreme violence. Impressive claims have been made in particular for the film’s redemptive powers as art, notably by Dominica Dipio and Oumar Chérif Diop who suggest that cinema has the power to foster agency and liberate individuals in subtle and effective ways. Yet with its preference for raw, naturalistic, home-movie effects and ubiquitous handheld camera movement, its mixture of amateur and professional actors (including actual soldiers), and its formal nods to epic tragedy (an Aristotelian unity of plot covering thirty-six hours), The Night of Truth also works resolutely against the prevailing African approach of eschewing the sensationalist depiction of violence. Indeed, it almost revels in the spectacle of horror and descent into depravity. It is not merely that screen violence is pushed at times to new, highly stylized extremes of visuality, but also that the film adopts a frontal, matter-of-fact approach to the subject of violence and its bloody effects. Chaudhuri has noted the thoroughly unsentimental way The Night of Truth imparts the violent history etched upon the damaged child characters who tease on the floor about their amputated fingers and legs, their daily intimacy with violence enhanced by low-level camerawork (Chaudhuri 2014: 78–83). In fact, the process of visualizing violence in The Night of Truth is one of constant flux, and the film moves systematically through different modes of representing violence and destruction in a carefully plotted course through visual and aural forms: from the opening specular image of the water’s reflection of soldiers marching and chanting, which projects a sense of uniformity and unanimity underscoring the narcissistic ethnocentrism that has fuelled hatred and violence between the two groups (Dipio and Diop 2015: 42), to the final set of poetic words spoken over the closing credits. And throughout, always lurking in the background, is the strange electronic music announced at the start. This bespeaks the film’s undeclared project to establish the most appropriate aesthetic



balance for confronting and resisting unspeakable violence. I cannot hope in the space available to do full critical justice to such a densely rich film with multiple subplots, so will restrict myself to its defining formal movements and turning points. Our first major encounter with violence in The Night of Truth is as a fantasized event. Visiting the grave of her son Michel who was brutally murdered during the conflict by castration (his hacked-off penis was stuffed into his mouth), Edna (Naky Sy Savané), a Nayak and wife of the new president Mioussoune (Adama Ouédraogo), imagines him running outside his tomb in slow-motion. This apparition of Michel’s spirit, conveyed in the form of a subjective flashback, testifies to the fact that Edna is plagued by uncontrollable images and visions of horror and can neither forget nor forgive. It is just one of many fleeting, often subliminal, retinal afterimages of violence in the film, including also the nightmarish flashbacks of decomposed, dismembered bodies experienced obsessively by a Bonandé, Colonel Théo (Moussa Cissé), rendered in morbid, miasmic fashion with a series of one-shots of limbs and bodies carried along by the river (the natural landscape is awash with just visible rotting corpses and bones). As Chaudhuri writes, such visions, where the dampened ambient sound induces a surreal atmosphere, are not channelled into sentimental, humanitarian affect (as they are, for instance, in the sea-of-corpses scene in Hotel Rwanda), and serve instead as overt reminders of carnage without sanitizing the violence, as is usually the case with television news (Chaudhuri 2014: 79–80). Edna needs to know for herself what happened to her son, and, in her search for blood vengeance, implores Théo, whom she suspects of arranging the murder, to tell her the truth. Mute, psychotic, and in blind rage, as if in thrall to the now beating drums that had originally set in motion the demons of violence behind the Bonandés’ rampage at Govinda when they entertained godlike figures in their imagination, Edna will cunningly conspire during the ill-fated festivities of unity to have the colonel confess his crime and then be braised on a roast spit while still alive, so transporting violence to the level of macabre spectacle and grotesque excess. In this hypervisible, visceral mise en scène, thrown into ghoulish relief by the flares of celebratory fireworks, the viewer does not witness the actual throwing of the body on to the spit, but instead the resulting abhorrent image of the flayed body and its innards seeped in marinade. We do, however, see before our eyes in ‘real time’ the moment when the president shoots his wife Edna dead on the spot for committing such a barbarous act. With such monstrous scenes The Night of Truth lays a clear aesthetic wager: to reveal as much appalling brutality and terror as possible in order then for any counter-message of hope or reconciliation that might be salvaged to be all the more justified and compelling. The climactic moment of double sacrificial death is immediately followed by a joint public burial that marks the symbolic birth of the ‘Bonandayaks’. Fatou (Sami Rama), a woman of mixed background who owes her life to Colonel Théo who stopped Bonandé soldiers from slaughtering her as


FIGURE 2.2  Edna (Edna Naky Sy Savané) marinating the colonel (Moussa Cissé) in his own marinade in The Night of Truth (2004).

they had done her parents, sings a lamentation in her tribal language of Dayou and circles the assembled crowd, engaging them in a chorus call and response: ‘Too much suffering, too much pain. Oh, Lord, dying first is painful, even if death awaits us all. Life is empty. Everything is in God’s hands.’ Yet there exists another level of representation of violence running throughout the film, visible from early on during the initial tracking shots right to left across the village walls. I’m referring to the ghastly murals of blue faces lined with white and adorned with garish red berets, as well as cartoon-stick figures armed with guns and knives. These stand out dramatically from the blue and black/white bunting of the official reconciliation process adorned by images of hands shaking each other and a tree of prosperity against a yellow background. Moreover, they acquire progressively more grizzly spatterings of bloody red as the camera tracks past them slowly but obsessively in the first third of film. They are also glimpsed in the act of being painted, accompanied on the soundtrack by a jarringly jaunty tune, and are present when a group of local kids, some themselves mutilated, enter an interior space to view the tableaux and, as if being recorded for a documentary, voice among themselves who is who by tracing the visual likenesses. While the expressionist distortions and angular forms may evoke Western art (Redon, Munch, Picasso, Haring, Basquiat), they are presented specifically as African and female, the collective creation of the colonel’s elderly aunt Awa (Odilia Yoni), who is in charge of organizing the celebration feast, and an unnamed painter (Blandine Yaméogo) with a team of undifferentiated women who appear chorus-like to be documenting the events of war that occurred, including lurid scenes of rape, decapitation and torture of men and children, and an abominable, multi-headed woman.



The status and purpose of such gruesomely fascinating, traumatic images remains unclear. Do they form the basis of a public forensic investigation into the Govinda massacre? Or do they represent rather a non-official art of healing and catharsis? The colonel’s wife Soumari (Georgette Paré) is, after all, the leading supporter of a peace movement. This is certainly the view of Dipio and Diop who, in response no doubt to one particular line heard in the film, ‘Il n’y a pas de cinéma’ (It’s no game), claim that the murals open up the possibility of an exit from pain which can now be presented as a narrative (Dipio and Diop 2015: 48), thereby serving as a form of ‘re-membering’ that heals psychic and social fragmentation and reclaims agency. For Petty, the various mural sequences serve as powerful transitional devices, providing in the case of one series of vignettes a constructive space for the viewer to consider both the violence memorialized by these works and the implications of Théo’s traumatic nightmare visions of the Govinda massacre (the painted images here include a soldier shooting a civilian in the abdomen, a screaming woman’s face marked by a tear, and soldiers’ heads floating above the violence) (Petty and Stefanson 2014: 300–1). Yet with their highly graphic nature, scale and omnipresence, might these distressing narrativeinspired murals not also have encouraged diegetically an atmosphere of ongoing fear and slaughter, and served, on the contrary, to perpetuate the grim narrative of violence and death – one that is eventually consummated by the murder of Colonel Théo and the execution of his killer, Edna, in swift succession? For whatever their initial function, these images remain firmly within the visual and imaginary realm of spectacle, as well as part of the mimetic regime of representation. Moreover, the fact that they are left incomplete (the aunt, we are informed at the end, died before she finished her artistic project) means that they constitute at most the first stage of a long and uncertain process of reparation and reconciliation with the dark side of violence. If there is any aesthetic resolution in The Night of Truth, it comes via another medium altogether. In the film’s closing stages, six months after the bloody events just witnessed, and with all bitterness gone, the Nayak village jester Tomoto (Rasmané Ouédraogo) fulfils Théo’s wish to free a flock of sheep, an action conveyed symbolically in the form of an overhead shot accompanied by a tune sung by women (he declares to the colonel whom he imagines in his grave as if still alive: ‘Your death brought men together’). This would appear to be the end of the matter, as if all had effectively been redeemed in and through the image. Yet over the final credits a female voice is heard, that of Fatou giving a dictation in French. We then see young Bonandé and Nayak children (including Théo’s son, Honoré) assembled together in a school classroom. In clear tribute to the colonel, Fatou is reading out slowly, phrase by phrase, his poem in French entitled ‘La traversée’ (The crossing), which both acknowledges the suffering endured by both sides and, highly presciently, anticipates their eventual unity (it ends with the words ‘we all belong to the signs of broad daylight’). Two key aspects stand


out here. First, the text glimpsed on the blackboard is not, in fact, ‘La traversée’ but rather ‘Les morts ne sont pas morts’ (The dead are not dead), a reference to the famous 1960 poem ‘Les souffles’ (Spirits) by the Senegalese writer Birago Diop which celebrates a fundamentally vitalist African spirituality. Second, the recited poem continues even after the printed image has been replaced by black spacing, with Fatou’s voice expressing hope that the next generation will be taught different lessons from those their parents received. The insistence here on formal difference (further extended by Fatou’s own métissage and the fact that she screamed at the end of her public lamentation, ‘We are all God’s children, we are all different’), together with the supplanting of the visual image by the human voice, suggests that the film’s complex journey through visual form is resolved ultimately by a formal tension between word and image that works in favour of the non-visual. For in the continuous ‘crossing’ of forms and tensions culminating in the colonel’s poem of crossing, it is the fine thread of a human voice, a vehicle of poetic speech, that ultimately prevails over the visual narrative which has been taken to the point of virtual annihilation, as if now totally spent and reduced to black spacing. This is not presented as a victory as such, more an instance of what we might call collateral beauty, since the imposed nature and format of the dictation (all the more acute when the lingua franca is that of the former colonizer) sits uneasily with the notion of a universal, all-inclusive freedom promoted by the poem itself. However, after the earlier atrocious experience of sound when the beating of drums triggered barely suppressed resentment and released infernal anger, it does suggest that the relational intercrossing of sound and image (including in this case even the unprinted image) offers more formal possibilities for a genuine ethical respect of difference and alterity than the visual regime which can, on its own, so easily succumb, as the film harrowingly illustrates, to the fatal violence of narrative spectacle.23 Catherine Webster has justly remarked of the violence in The Night of Truth that it is not gratuitous or sensationalist, but rather ‘an incisive symbolic representation and condemnation of violence and brutality, ultimately hopeful in its resolution’ (Webster 2012: 228). Yet as we have seen, the stakes of The Night of Truth are actually much higher, for it is concerned finally with how to move beyond not just the spectacle of death and violence of the past which always runs the risk of being reignited when images of bloodshed are on hand to encourage mimetic excitement, but also, more crucially, the visual image tout court. The viewer is left at the end with an invitation to further speculation: What is the new generation of children (and the viewer) going to do in the future with this acquired knowledge of art, violence and trauma? What words and images will they choose to convey, and how? If The Night of Truth presents the hope that the collective social will can be a significant force for ending such conflicts (Petty 2012: 78), this hope, as Chaudhuri rightly suggests with reference to the African justice of Ubuntu based on the idea that truth and reconciliation work through forgiveness, plurality and



the establishing of agreement (rather than the desire for moral reformation or retribution) (Chaudhuri 2014: 83), comes with no illusions of universal human goodness or triumph over adversity.

The ethics of opaque vision Our analysis of Moolaadé, Ezra, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy and The Night of Truth reveals that all four films share a commitment to providing concrete ocular proof of physical violence, or at least to powerfully suggesting it, in order to persuade the viewer of its brutal reality and make us feel the individual and communal suffering, horror and trauma it causes. But this is an ambivalent, at times, even evasive, authorial gesture, for, as we have seen, in the very act of showing violence on screen, each film appears also to blur it, even screen it out. These works operate paradoxically at several removes from the actual scene and narrative spectacle of violence through the use of various types of filter and framing device (flashbacks to a lived past, screen memories, off-screen space, fantasy narrative, fable), and they insist in different ways on the non-visual (the various protective formal guards and shields in Moolaadé and Ezra, the self-reflexive recourse to opacity and poetic abstraction in Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, the emphasis in all four films on oral discourse). Even in The Night of Truth which takes the spectacle of total violence almost to breaking point, there is an impressive counter-drive in place towards intellectual reasoning and debate (the implicit, ongoing comparison of artistic forms and media). Such salient, at times, even teasing, techniques of cinematic discretion serve ultimately to denarrativize and displace the violence that cannot be presented in full graphic detail and must remain, as it were, obscene (from the Greek ob skene, offstage). Put differently, as the viewer becomes engaged in virtual mind games about the very nature and validity of the visual in relation to violence, so the certainty of physical violence itself beats a slow retreat. It becomes a matter of mediation and interpretation, with each film attempting in different ways to occlude the sight and open wound of violence by moving towards a higher, sublimatory level of discourse (verbal, artistic, poetic, political), in order precisely to stimulate reflection on the workings of violence – this as a necessary first step to directly confronting, resisting and transforming it. One might posit here a shared ethics of obscure or ‘opaque’ vision, and, in the case of The Night of Truth, a kind of ‘post-vision’, that is, an ethical form of spectatorship where the consummation of violence is both continually anticipated and consistently withheld. In fact, the narrative promise of explicit screen violence functions in all four films as a kind of spectatorial decoy or distraction in the greater interests of a provisional, aesthetic accommodation with trauma, and a potential reconciliation – affective, intersubjective, speculative – with the always ambiguously relayed event of violence. This leads not so much to an


evaluation of the moral worth of any one representation of violence, or of any one particular victim, as to a collective rethinking of the very limits and limitations of visuality and visual representation. The eminent proof of this is that, with the exception of Moolaadé and its final hyper-symbolic act of political consciousness, the struggle of and for form is never fully resolved – these films remain transitional, ethical experiments in audiovisual style. The kind of relational ethics of aesthetic affect we are formulating here, which operates beyond identification and vision as spectacle and encourages formal and spectatorial mobility, may be likened to the ‘empathic vision’ proposed by art theorist Jill Bennett in Empathic Vision: Vision, Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (2005). Bennett’s emphasis is not on what images represent or signify, but rather on how they activate sensation and the imagination. Celebrating the particular capacity of film to transcend the limits of perception, she invokes Kaja Silverman’s concept of an exteriorizing ‘heteropathic identification’ (Silverman 1996) as a form of intersubjective encounter predicated on an openness to a mode of existence or experience beyond what is known by the self (e.g. another’s suffering), and which is enhanced by the observer’s own bodily sense and memory. This allows Bennett to claim that art can facilitate an encounter of an ‘expropriative’ kind in which one feels, rather than simply mimics, the condition of another (Silverman 1996: 14). Indeed, it is precisely because affect flows through bodies and spaces rather than residing within a single subject (characters for Bennett are constituted in Deleuzian terms within affective flows (Silverman 1996: 16) and identity is grounded in affect (Silverman 1996: 18)) that art can evoke the extra-subjective aspect of trauma and give it an extension in space as ‘lived place’. Hence, Bennett argues, we need to think beyond morally fixed roles in a process of reflective thinking and aesthetic speculation beyond the gaze and strict definitions of visuality. Employing terms that may be immediately applied to the films we have examined (again, with the notable exception of Moolaadé), and which echo the earlier findings of Chaudhuri, she adds crucially that the ethical is about transformation versus morality within a given set of conditions (Bennett 2005: 15).

Neo-liberal violence on trial: The case of Sissako’s Bamako It is armed with the theoretical promise of a new ethical way of embodying violence in film – one that operates through affective connection and is characterized by a combined aesthetic of opacity, relationality and transformation – that we turn now to a film where, with the odd, very stylized exception, there is little explicit violence at all. No explosive or all-determining physical ‘event’ takes place in the main narrative, for Bamako is from the outset firmly planted in reasoned verbal



discourse – that of a public hearing or trial, a common theme in African cinema – and would appear content to stay there. The violence at issue here is essentially structural, for Bamako is one of the few African narrative fiction films to address head-on through language the question of neo-liberal attitudes towards Africa.24 The film stages the unthinkable: it puts the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on trial for their debt policies in Africa. The facts are well-known: for almost four decades these global institutions have forced governments to mortgage their economies to the West through imposed economic austerity measures and demands for excessively high interest payments. The so-called ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ (appropriately nicknamed ‘SAPs’) designed to ‘assist’ developing countries repay national debts have resulted in the dismantling of public resources and major cutbacks in state services, including the massive laying off of civil servants in the public sector and the suppression of state subsidies in the name of efficiency, cost-cutting and profitability. Some countries have even been forced to spend up to one third of their GNP to service such loans. This is the reality of global capital, the so-called ‘free market’ and unfettered, neo-liberal wealth transfer, aided and abetted by internal political factors and the corruption of new elites – and all arranged without any hint of democratic political debate or consent. In the new global order, Africans are now largely seen as inheritors of debts whose benefits they have never received. In the face of such iniquity, and in the absence of any political or juridical mechanisms to make the authors of such unjust economic policies accountable, Bamako stages a trial overseen by African judges in the courtyard of a large mud house in the working-class quarter of Hamdallaye in Mali’s capital. It’s the stuff of pure fantasy, of course, but played as if for real by Sissako with a range of professional actors and people playing themselves, including Malian magistrate Hamèye Mahalmadane as the presiding judge, and former Minister of Culture for Mali, Aminata Traoré, as a witness for the prosecution who states that Africa is paradoxically the victim of its own riches, exhorting her fellow Africans to take back ‘our assets’.25 Altogether six main witnesses or plaintiffs for African civil society take to the stand, and each express in French or Bambara the brutal toll and personal despair caused by predatory globalization and the slow, but acutely real, daily violence of imposed debt. Among them is a school teacher Samba Diakité who has lost his job directly owing to the SAPs and is now barely able to speak. Geopolitical gestures like the promise made by the G8 leaders at Gleneagles in 2005 to eradicate debt are dismissed as a masquerade of caring to enhance their own reputations. Not surprisingly, the defendant itself, the World Bank, is not present in court. The film’s many dense political arguments and heated debates about global debt and ethical responsibility, reflecting how the economics of ‘rations’ (allocations of food, infrastructure, provisions, medical care, etc.) corresponds to the ‘rationalities’ around which the world is discursively organized, to employ Tejumola Olaniyan’s felicitous term (see Olaniyan 2008), raise important issues about the wider effects of neoliberalism,


such as global consumption, corporate sovereignty, biopolitical divides, ecology and sustainability, as well, of course, as African cinema itself which, since the mid1980s, has suffered dramatically from the structuring absence of the state both in terms of production and exhibition.26 It is precisely the structural violence of environmental degradation that forces a peasant called Zegué Bamba to come to the trial and deliver a lament about crop failure. It may be more accurate here, in fact, to use the oxymoronic term of ‘slow violence’ proposed by Rob Nixon in his influential 2011 study of the environmentalism of the poor in the global South. As Nixon shows, structural violence, a concept originally coined by Johan Galtung who sought to foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in and of themselves (e.g. the underlying forms of racism), is ‘a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects’ (Nixon 2011: 11). By contrast, slow violence, while it may include degrees of structural violence, ‘has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time’ (Nixon 2011). Nixon argues that the casualties of slow and longlasting violence (environmental, chemical, radiological) are those most likely not to be seen and counted since they are out of sync with standard narrative expectations and ‘visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat’ (Nixon 2011: 6), thus occurring outside the purview of the spectacle-driven media. It is therefore a form of ‘invisible’ violence at once open-ended and embedded, ‘often difficult to source, oppose, and, once set in motion, to reverse’ (Nixon 2011: 7). The seasons that have organized the life practices of animals, plants and humans for generations now behave according to unpredictable rhythms and patterns that attest to the slow violence of global warming. Indeed, in the geological age of corporate extractivism that many activists now call the ‘Capitalocene’ (in preference to the less politicized term of ‘Anthropocene’), environmental destruction diffuses across localities in differential impacts which confuse human-centred senses of scale and causality. Bamako asks us, with perhaps more urgency than any other contemporary film, to consider how such economic and geopolitical forces are transforming artistic forms and genres in the new postcolony, now run according to what Mbembe calls an animist logic of hyper-capitalism where the very distinctions between the world of humans and that of objects are erased, turning everyone back into colonial ‘nègres’ (see Mbembe 2001 and 2013b). For slow and structural violence, like the environmental calamities of climate change and expanding drought, puts pressure on the inherited aesthetics, poetics and politics of representation. How, for example, can artistic practices narrate the collisions between the strange weather of the present, the ‘deep’ time of the earth, and the abstract future of extinction? Bamako attempts to address these pressing questions by cultivating another form of slow, structural violence at a formal level, revealing through the processes of montage the less immediate, more obscure, systemic workings of violence where it



would not normally be expected to manifest itself or be traced. In so doing, it seeks to establish whether violence also harbours the potential to resist and ultimately transcend itself in a different form and guise. This might seem at first sight a rather excessive hope and claim, since, with its long pages of opening and closing credits, Bamako naturally exposes itself as a global commodity sponsored by a host of public/private European agencies and organizations and operating within globalized markets and distribution networks. It thus lays itself immediately open to the familiar charge made against ‘Afro-pean’ productions that, by tackling geopolitical issues with the backing of European money, they stand politically compromised. The film was funded by ‘Fonds Sud Cinéma’ and the ‘Plan Images Afrique’ programme (created by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984 and 2004 respectively), ARTE, ‘Mali Images’, and ‘Archipel 33 et Chinguitty Films’, as well as by the American production company ‘Louverture Films’.27 Moreover, Bamako’s extreme emphasis on lengthy dialogue, together with its slow pace and rhythms stretching out time and repeating scenes in circular fashion (hallmarks of African oral traditions of storytelling), correspond in part to Western expectations of what a black African film ought still to be. Yet by putting both Western and African film aesthetics and modes of spectatorship effectively on trial through formal strategies of mise en scène and montage, and by allowing an array of both human elements and aesthetic questions to drift together graphically into its frame and intrude literally into the fabric of the economic and geopolitical, Bamako, I will attempt to show, also opens up new spaces and forms of spectatorial interest and pleasure not directly bound by questions of ideology. Indeed, it makes space for an affirmative aesthetics of violence directly counter to the structural and symbolic violence and quagmire (political, economic, individual) which it implacably relates. Based on what we have already ascertained, the success of such an internal formal solution will best be measured on one level by how far the film can actually work through and beyond the visual by other means (affective, sensory, abstract). But Sissako’s poetic investment in form also offers a rare and radical instance of violent beauty in postcolonial art cinema – one that has not been fully recognized by criticism on Bamako, and which demands new forms of critical and aesthetic response. Might such an evolving aesthetic practice result in a new, broader definition of political engagement in African cinema? Before we can pursue such an exciting possibility, we need first to determine Bamako’s structural set-up.

Court as open frame Filmed in medias res in a communal courtyard, the trial in Bamako is presented self-reflexively in Brechtian fashion with four digital cameras, each perched on a tripod and visible in the other’s frame (a sound recordist also lets himself be visible


on screen). The roving figure of photojournalist Falaï (Balla Habib Dembélé), who is recording the event of the trial unofficially and waiting for a death to occur since his profession before being laid-off was that of police videographer (death sells, he remarks matter-of-factly), emphasizes that the trial, conducted in French, is itself a borrowed form, conducted in accordance with French models of jurisprudence and replicating the structure of the former colonial power. As Dayna Oscherwitz notes, the imposition of Western-style law has been central to the project of neo-liberal expansion in the global South and advocated by the World Bank as a means of guaranteeing private property (Oscherwitz 2015, location 2221). The trial is policed here by a security man, Jean-Paul, who permits or denies access to the courtyard. Yet, as Oscherwitz also argues, the legal trial is both appropriated and subverted in Bamako by the Malians who take part: some speak out of turn, others testify when not authorized to do so or else remain silent. The mix of real people and professional actors (including members of Sissako’s own family) creates a live, theatrical space of fiction and documentary-style scenes and a rolling series of personal stories, vignettes and mini-narratives (what Sissako calls suggestively ‘parables’): from the staged trial sequences and speeches conducted like reality TV episodes of courtroom drama to cinéma-vérité scenes of daily life such as religious prayers and domestic rituals (peeling potatoes, getting water from a central tap), moments of family drama, and a wedding procession being camcordered (described by the chief judge as a ‘social reality’). The everpresent daily tasks of weaving raw cotton and washing, dyeing and drying cloth are performed by a number of men and women, and an entire process of production is glimpsed in non-sequential parts. Myriad loose threads of narrative are drawn out intermittently and transversely, such as a young man in bed slowly dying from an illness for which he is not receiving proper treatment, and the unemployed and morosely depressed Chaka (Tiécoura Traoré), a human casualty of the global markets, attempting unsuccessfully to communicate with his estranged wife, the singer Melé (played by the Senegalese-born French actress, Aïssa Maïga). We are constantly on the move between and behind scenes, sliding between daily rituals, chance encounters, drama and melodrama, politics, ideology and comedy, all the time observing, as Mboti well puts it, how the minutiae of ordinary everyday life affect the larger picture in ways not seen by the naked eye in quantifiable terms (Mboti 2014: 46). In such concentrated, composite frames with multiple, seeping margins and the constant potential of the hors-champ, no one element or plane appears privileged, resulting in a shared, non-hierarchical, cinematic space. This sounds on paper a smooth and fluent process of inter-movement and continual ebb and flow in an expanded depth of field. Yet the experience of Bamako is more one of perpetual tension and unease, complicating any notion that Sissako is simply returning agency to the poor and marginalized. For the film refuses to provide links between these parallel plot lines, producing links and correspondences that do not obey the straightforward logic of cause and effect. This ambivalence



and instability is implicit, of course, in the continual slippage and misalignment between the different instances of cour, in French both courtyard and courtroom, as well as the symbolic system of the Court. The sheer density of human traffic passing through the cinematic frame makes it a restless site of interference and displacement, disturbance and intrusion, leading to some startling and humorous visual and oral juxtapositions. For example, the (real-life) defence lawyer Roland Rappaport tries on a pair of sunglasses and demands the vendor prove they are genuine Gucci – then, seconds later, now in sunglasses, he is spooked by a frisky goat on a lead in a two-shot. Later, a besuited, English-speaking pastor rouses his small congregation into performing feel-good, ‘locomotive’ gestures to God just as a train passes by in the background. Moreover, flights of narrative drift and abstract, tableau-like effects open up the frame to surprise and unpredictability and a multitude of contingent visual details. Bamako often appears meandering and dispersed, with shots of excessive duration stretching at times the limits of boredom. The same is true to a lesser extent with the multiple diegetic and nondiegetic layers of the soundtrack, for Bamako is a work of sonic composition built around the constant hum and murmur of the courtyard which functions as a kind of echo chamber, just as Melé’s bedroom serves as an antechamber where the judge and barristers get robed in the morning. In short, the open frame of sound and image in Bamako creates in its profusion an escalating and tumultuous play of formal tensions and collisions in the mise en scène, exacerbated by the discontinuous editing which is often abrasive and aggressive and opens up sudden, random gaps and glaring contrasts. We cut dry, for example, from long shots to close-ups, and there are abrupt cutaways of

FIGURE 2.3  The set-up of Bamako (2006): The communal everyday intruding into the trial in the process of being filmed.


reactions to events (fixed frames of staring bystanders, a mother breastfeeding her baby, a sick child). A further level of formal destabilization is created by the insertion of external, set-piece sequences shot on 16 mm, like fragments of different films about contemporary African life that might have been made. These eclectic and heavily signposted episodes, including footage of Melé performing in a nightclub, a spoof film-within-a-film, and a flashback episode of migration, produce elliptical, disorienting shifts in space and time, style and function. In this brassage of interweaving forms, styles and genres, the notion of audience encompasses the audience at the trial, those outside listening on loud-speakers, the residents watching television one evening, as well as the spectator of Bamako itself. All appears in flux, en cours, in an endlessly various, multifocal (and multilingual) space of cinematic exchange and transfer. Or better: a metapoetic lieu de passage that is less dialectical process (the film is at once too crowded and diffuse for that) than a continually fluctuating coincidentia oppositorum. All is both familiar and mutually estranged, public and private, micro and macro, collective and individual, self and other, centre and periphery, local and global, and all is brought together conflictually and put on trial (en procès) in the interstices of montage. Hence, the dynamic set-up of Bamako is already an ironic, contorted expression of cinematic form, and the disturbance and disruption generated by the incessant staggering, puncturing and defusing of the main trial narrative set in motion an evolving web of aesthetic and political frictions and potential points of resistance. Indeed, while it may appear at first glance a quintessential concept film, Bamako is always exceeding its conceptual frame and entering the territory of the aesthetic as part of its political critique of the hegemony of neoliberalism.

The fabric of montage One discrete, set-piece sequence of Bamako, a scene of ‘fast’, spectacular, narrative violence that stands out dramatically from the rest of the film, has attracted much critical attention for its treatment of explosive physical violence. It is the five minute film-within-a-film, a mock-African spaghetti western entitled ‘Death in Timbuktu’ watched intradiegetically on national television in the courtyard and shot on location featuring (real) actors and filmmakers as cowboys in traditional Hollywood attire: the Hollywood actor/activist Danny Glover, cofounder and current CEO of Louverture Films; the directors Zeka Laplaine, Jean-Henri Roger and Elia Suleiman; producer Ferdinand Batsimba; and Sissako himself as ‘Dramane Sissako’. The gory excess of ‘Death in Timbuktu’, including the indiscriminate point-blank murder of a defenceless women and children as well as a teacher (surplus now to requirements in the new economic order), shows metaphorically how the West enacts the genocidal excesses of the Wild West, raising in turn questions of spectatorship and reception, for both adults



and children laugh out loud at scenes of fellow Malians being slaughtered by foreign invaders. In its faithful reproduction of the visual and editing codes of the classic western (including establishing shots and reverse-shot manoeuvres), the anonymous, unclaimed ‘Death in Timbuktu’ (authorial credits are conspicuously lacking) succeeds in exposing and undermining Western cinematic conventions in the same way that the endlessly disrupted mock-trial in a makeshift court destabilizes the standard power hierarchies of the courtroom drama. In the process it highlights cinema’s role in perpetuating the endemic violence of the global economic and political system, to which we are increasingly desensitized, for the sake of entertainment.28 Indeed, the shoot-out between two foreign forces vying for power (the international cowboys are all foreign to Timbuktu) appears to act out in allegorical fashion the directives of the IMF, substituting economic and symbolic violence with literal violence. Oscherwitz rightly states that in ‘Death in Timbuktu’, as elsewhere in Bamako, Sissako provides a sustained exploration of the relationship between neocolonial violence and the ideological violence of filmic form and neo-liberal aesthetics which the film attempts to destabilize through a kind of ‘anti-cinema’. For the film’s formal violence through reflexivity disrupts the dominant conventions of cinematic form and the real-world discursive structures such filmic practices reflect, resulting in a refiguring of genre and the structures in which it is anchored – a gesture of rupture that seeks to disrupt the image’s discursive field and the broader hierarchies it undergirds (Oscherwitz 2015). I wish to take this idea further, however, for the formal violence at work in Bamako is not just a matter of reflexivity but concerns the very fabric and plastic beauty of the film, including its fine lines and rich folds of montage. Let us look at a less physically explosive yet no less arresting episode that occurs just before ‘Death in Timbuktu’, and which works aesthetically through violence precisely to challenge and counteract such representations of hegemonic violence. Close analysis of the sequence will allow us to grasp fully the poetic reach of Sissako’s practice of montage in Bamako. It is constructed around the young Madou Keïta’s searing personal testimony of narrowly escaping death in a failed migration across the Sahara to Spain via Algeria. The courtyard falls silent as he speaks impassively to camera in medium close-up. We are transported into Madou’s imaginary and share intermittently his memory of events – a rare subjective encounter in a film that otherwise studiously avoids subjective point of view, yet one also kept purposively open and objective since it takes the form of what might be called a collective flashback (it is not clear, for instance, whether the young man in a cap lagging behind the others is Madou or not). The eight-minute sequence is framed at the start by Saramba (Maimouna Hélène Diarra), who owns the dying enterprise, placing wet, newly dyed cloth on an overhead line (0:26:16), then at the end (0:32:34) by her haranguing one of the defence barristers with the words (in Bambara) ‘Enough suffering!’, uttered three times in frustration at what she sees as his compete inability to understand Madou’s situation. Intercut in Madou’s testimony


are assorted images of cloth drying, shots of the trial audience and onlookers, and his screen memory of the moment in the journey (conveyed elliptically in eight separate shots) when a Ghanaian woman dressed as a boy was left to die in the desert (we hear the non-diegetic, plaintive strains of the song ‘Saa Magni’ (Death is terrible) by the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré). Madou explains that of the thirty migrants who started out, he knows of only ten who definitely survived. With his blank, destroyed gaze, Madou embodies the excluded, uneducated, and now utterly disposable, neo-liberal subject. In response to the lawyer’s question about what the state provided him, he declares emphatically ‘Nothing’. This both troubling and elaborate procession of sounds and images, at the centre of which lies a five-second still-frame shot of ochre-orange stained cloth hanging on the line, still moist from the dye and occupying the entire frame (0:28:40), demands to be interpreted. The rich mineral colour of the cloth being produced clearly stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly bleached images of desert expanse against which the migrants appear like small traces of blue or orange. Moreover, all those listening are dressed in different combinations of batik cloth – a concrete display of the aesthetic richness of local industry and the micro-economics of the global South currently at risk of being eroded by the macro-economics of globalization. The multicoloured and multi-patterned cloth, conveyed in saturated colour, implicitly negates the facelessness of global capital. As Rosalind Galt suggests in her powerful argument for the radical aesthetic promise of ‘prettiness’ to counter the Eurocentrism of dominant film aesthetics, the wealth of detail and materiality of colour and pattern in the dyed cloth in Bamako, along with the film’s striking pictorial compositions and sensuous

FIGURE 2.4  Human figures reflected upside down under newly dyed cloth hanging on the line in Bamako (2006).



qualities of cinematography, far from simply providing an ‘exotic’ distraction to the serious business of putting the World Bank on trial, directly undermine and resist neo-liberal abstractions of the global economy (see Galt 2011: 28–9). In her reading, the film becomes exemplary of a cross-cultural encounter in world cinema where the ‘resonance’ of the decorative image can negotiate globality, in clear contradistinction to the luxurious scarlet robe trimmed with ermine worn by the judge. How such resonance meshes with the film’s formal violence is not explored by Galt, however. Jacqueline Maingard, meanwhile, proposes a more complete reading of the ochre-orange cloth hanging up to dry, arguing that it represents metaphorically Africa’s fragility (Maingard 2010: 398). Thus, when the image cuts to a close-up of the blood-red dye draining away in a warm froth, and one sees and hears dirty water swirling into a small crevice in the ground, it is, she claims, Africa’s life-blood draining away (Maingard 2010: 401). In such a reading, the lines created by the scavenger beetles as they scramble haphazardly across the sand function as a metaphor for the hopeless wanderings of the migrants. Once they have passed through the frame, the wideshot is held in counterpoint with the ochre cloth – a juxtaposition serving, according to Maingard, as a reminder of the broken connections created by global economic policies.29 But does it? Should this collection of powerful images be read in such overdetermined and exclusively symbolic terms? That is, must colour and beauty always perform allegorically in African cinema? The self-declared postmodernist of African film criticism, Kenneth Harrow, proposes a very different approach. In Trash: African Cinema From Below, which pursues the trope of trash and champions those films that render up subversive readings of the system of global consumerism, he strives impressively to avoid simply reducing the hanging sheet of cloth to a shocking metaphor of the Ghanaian woman’s despair and final moments, suggesting with reference to Jacques Rancière’s Le Destin des images (2003) that we are rather in the presence of an image that imposes an order of silence on the story – that is, an ‘ostensive image’ blessed with the power of its material presence, without signification, prior to its metamorphosis in the ‘red screen’ (Harrow 2013: 188–9). The screen of cloth becomes the site of a transformation when Saramba is seen crossing it horizontally from left to right (0:28:07), and when, a little later (02:30:13), the figures of at least three female dyers are reflected upside down under it in a large puddle, the viewer enters, in Harrow’s words, ‘into another space beside the surface of the screen to its virtual reality’ (Harrow 2013: 189), with the red screen now passing directly into that of the yellow desert floor which fills the diegetic screen. For Harrow, everything comes down to an abstract relay of screens, with Madou’s screen memory serving, like the television screen for the embedded western, as the foil for a present whose ‘metamorphic’ images are, to cite Harrow, ‘split between those projected onto the screen of the trial, and those of the lives of people (and animals) who live in or around’ (Harrow 2013: 190). This leads ultimately to what Harrow calls ‘a screen of another kind of passing or


transformation, a dying screen with its cast-off images of discarded waste – runoff water, dead bodies, the site of death’ (Harrow 2013: 190–1). Yet is Harrow’s highly sophisticated (and paradoxically very neat and clean) reading of ‘trash’ as death and stasis, which enables him to talk of a new aesthetic regime reaching to a space beyond politics as we know it (a ‘meta-politics’ that would mark a revolution in the forms of the lived sensory world), ultimately any more enlightening about this sequence than a routinely allegorical reading? For something is lacking in both readings, and it has to do with the materiality and plasticity of film itself. The ‘Red Cloth Scene’, as Harrow simplifies it, encapsulates Sissako’s method. Every tableau-like shot is at once different and unique, a set of variations on a theme, whether of colour or scale and volume (visual and aural), sound (diegetic or dubbed), visual axis and perspective, angle, focal length, movement, or the spatial configuration of figures both within the frame and offframe or hugging the borders. In the case of one young man listening intently, he peers out first between a white-patterned brown sheet on the left and a more mauve, minimalist, floral one on the right (0:27:42), then, four shots later, between the same mauve sheet (now on the left) and a more classically designed, multicoloured decorative sheet on the right. It is as if the viewer’s gaze were continually being shunted along in a procession of visual and aural forms, the paler pastel shades and colours (including of Madou’s shirt) contrasting with the brighter shades and hues. We are actively encouraged to trace the patterns, contours and textures of this formal patchwork, as fluid as the molten liquid dye and discharge which form on the ground a vivid mosaic of movements, shapes and inverted images. Similarly, the lines of migratory movement in the desert, which seem to extend naturally from those of the scurrying beetles, connect across frame with the clothing lines that criss-cross the courtyard. At one point we see human figures coming into view from behind a ridge of sand – an almost abstract movement extended by a gentle pan that simultaneously opens up the desertscape – just as the doubledup lines of cloth bisect the frame of the courtyard diagonally. The result of such intricate formal manoeuvres and recalibrations in the film’s material fabric is a precise choreography and intensive play of colour and mobile forms throwing into powerful relief the rugosity of the ochre cloth – precisely not a smooth, abstract, single-coloured screen, but a wet, creased, mottled and all-too-real body of matter flush with indistinct shades and imperfect pigmentation. What Harrow overlooks because he fails to see it is precisely the glisten of cinematic form: the grain and relief of the image and the sinewed viscosity of montage. For him, filmic motion is above all diegetic: the narrative compelling us forward in order that the story be told and sense be stitched together. It is only when the image is slowed down to the level of a single, isolated frame that it holds our gaze. Yet such a reading profoundly misreads the violent beauty of the transformative process that is cinematic montage when poetically conceived: a beauty to be located even in the midst of desolation and abandonment, in the



worn surface of the image, and the sonorous, integrating rhythms of audiovisual composition that link together the multifarious concrete and abstract elements in stark, often brutal and unforeseen ways in a post-dualistic spirit of mutual intrusion. The aesthetic connections made are also inherently emotional and engender empathy not only with the suffering subject (Madou), but also with the objects of cinematic form. We may speak here loosely of a Deleuzian economy of material and affective flow – that is, of a cinema of the senses that resists congealment in symbolization and undercuts any interpretative strategy that would seek to reduce or close off the textual process. For with its knowing inconsistencies and wilful lack of easy access and legibility (the film cannot be

FIGURE 2.5 Plays of scale, shape and movement across frame: A scavenger beetle scurrying away from the dying Ghanaian woman, juxtaposed with a line of migrants slowly coming into view, in Bamako (2006).


cashed out allegorically), Bamako contests its own performability as a ‘significant’ African image and bankable global product. Further, its aesthetics of process and channelled free-flow via the authorial hand of montage opposes the fake flow of neo-liberal capital and its masquerade of mobility and transparency where nothing is truly shared, leading ultimately to the very blocking of human movement, most notably at the gates of ‘Fortress Europe’. Crucially in Bamako, all the component parts of its newly forged aesthetic blend of audiovisual elements are rendered equally visible and present. What we have, in short, is precisely not a cinema of wax and gold where, in Gabriel’s formulation, we might prise open the ‘superficial’ narrative wax in order to unearth the embedded gold of ‘true’ (i.e. ideological) meaning. After all, the political ‘message’ could not be more overt or obvious here. In the dense, polyphonic, textual weave of Bamako, where the continuous displacement of elements inside and out ensures a non-essentializing and potentially all-encompassing set of interrelations, such a distinction between external surface and internal depth is no longer valid. Like the humble hand-made cloth that envelops both the images and the figures within them, all is interwoven and inter-embedded through the inner and outer linings of montage. Form is the meaning here, and aesthetic abundance lies in the cinematic act itself – a relational, hybrid, affective process of controlled randomness, encounter, surprise and wonder – rather than in any golden sap (allegorical, political or otherwise) that might be extracted from it.30

The barter of the aesthetic The ochre cloth scene reveals the fundamental value and ethical potential of the open frame and applied montage in Bamako. It generates as many changes and shifts as possible, often violently, in order to reorganize the cinematic field and disqualify the supposed liquidity of Western aesthetics that would amass all forms of fixed interest (allegorical, political, symbolic) to ensure ultimately a fully accountable linear narrative of cause and effect, posited implicitly here as an exemplary neo-liberal cultural form. Indeed, Bamako demonstrates the advantages of working within a concrete, mobile frame – that is, an open, interpersonal frame generating new forms and connectivities – rather than positing a secure conceptual space or ailleurs, whether ideal or, as with Harrow, simply trash. By voiding narrative purpose and the need for violent spectacle, and by deactivating cinematic conventions like point-of-view shots and subtitling (strategies that allow the viewer in the case of the witness Zegué Bamba’s three-minute, impromptu, accusatory heartsong in his native dialect of Senufo to appreciate the granular intensity and affective power of his voice31), the film subverts and lays waste to the fatal universal paradigms of neo-liberal thinking in Africa (the infinite regress of indebtedness implied in national debt, the intransigent, cynical narrative of



global development, and so on). At the same time, by harnessing the metaphorics of movement, Sissako’s poetic method mints new and always provisional modes and networks of human connectedness, association and exchange through a freeflowing lattice work of montage grounded in division, difference and conflict. It is a matter of transmutation, with metaphor (Latin metaphorein, carrying across) and metonymy deployed as aesthetic currency. The art of orchestrated formal aggression and slow, silent violence through montage, like the hard graft of making unique and exquisite cloth, is a thing of beauty in itself, defined by rhythm, flow and context. In the image of its decentred physical cour, the entirety of Bamako thus becomes a marketplace (agora) and crucible for the recombination, substitution and transformation of thoughts, affects and sensations. Contrast this with what we witnessed in Moolaadé where the dry cuts and incisions of montage into the very surface of film did not lead to a sustained meta-reflection on the process of genital cutting and excision itself (i.e. on the forms of violence), but served rather to intensify narrative suspense and convey mimetically the drive to violence through agitated visual repetition (of colour, angle and perspective) in the absence of the (impossible) representation of physical mutilation, in the process effectively bridging and covering (up) the representational gap. It is not, therefore, just that Sissako exposes and undermines the corruption of imperialist culture and cultural forms, including cinema (specifically the western), for Bamako cannot be reduced to merely a late instance of Third Cinema and its aesthetics of ‘poverty’.32 The film’s perpetually fecund and resourceful creative enterprise resulting in new forms of dialogue and communication between images and sounds that incorporate elements of memory, trauma, the everyday, fiction, song and colour (to name just a few), resist and deflect the barter (la monnaie) of globalization, that is, the moral bankruptcy of the IMF and World Bank with their perverted idea of the free market and their organizational modes of dispersal and discontinuity, federalism and flexibility premised on infrastructural collapse. The imposed fractures and fissures of the social fabric, identified by Chaka himself as the worst after-effect of the SAPs, are counterbalanced by the freely created, overlapping folds and fabrics of cinematic form. I am not, of course, suggesting for a moment by this that an ethico-aesthetic economy of nomadic flow can somehow circumvent or sublimate the abstractifying global economy and the homogenizing and atomizing logic of capital, nor that the permanently evolving set of formal adjustments in montage rectifies and triumphantly transumes the structural adjustment programmes of the IMF. I am proposing, however, that by working through such political complexities aesthetically and creating loose, moving, organic chains of mutual human and aesthetic relations in montage, such that the aesthetic and political now frame each other mutually and textual material may be shared out and reclaimed collectively in line with longstanding African communitarian values, the aesthetic deal or compact brokered by Sissako’s extreme meta-cinema supersedes formally the


toxic binary of debtor and creditor and the strategy of the multinationals merely to distribute scarcity for profit. The revelation here that the world is not fixed in its current state, together with the liberating promise of endless aesthetic possibilities, nullifies the chimera of neo-liberal self-realization that leads to uninhibited exploitation and the uneven distribution of privileges. By positively encouraging aesthetic irony and speculation that skirt abstraction, in contradistinction to the speculative flows of capital based on the abstractions of derivatives and automated algorithms, Bamako invalidates all reductive intellectual approaches that would seek to impose rigid, closed systems of thinking, political or theoretical. In fact, Sissako seems almost to be goading and pre-empting the viewer into attempting allegorical formulations and judgements which go against the aesthetic mobility and consciousness he is elaborating. Maingard writes, for example, that the ‘Death in Timbuktu’ sequence ‘acts as a bloody allegory of the court’s proceedings’ and ‘metaphorically illustrates its testimonies, especially in the plotline’ (Maingard 2013: 109). I would argue rather that Sissako inserts such a hypertrophy of death precisely to alert us to the shortcomings of any allegorical reading that flattens out the visual and political. Sissako is far more subtle an artist than Maingard gives him credit for when she concludes that his work on sound and image ‘punches home the existential depths of his social message’ (Maingard 2013: 111).

Aesthetic rift Such a premium on material process and aesthetic friction is confirmed in Bamako’s closing stages, when Chaka’s sudden death brings the trial to a halt and postpones indefinitely any final verdict on the World Bank (as if, of course, there could ever be one, although the prosecution has just declared that the ultimate goal of the World Bank should be ‘community service for all humanity for all eternity’ (des travaux d’intérêt pour l’humanité à perpétuité)). Chaka is playing at night with his sick young daughter Ina (01:41:20), a scene which takes the form of a long take interrupted by a close-up of Melé’s tearful, piercing rendition of the song she performed so joyfully at the beginning (actually ‘Naam’ recorded by Ghanaian singer Christy Azuma). The two unfolding scenes are intercut as if in parallel editing, emphasizing in this case the cut of the couple’s irreconcilable separation, aggravated, if not directly caused, by Chaka’s forced unemployment. Melé had earlier announced she was leaving for Dakar and Chaka insisted that Ina stay with him. Her tears now indicate that the emotions she had so tightly repressed are finally flooding out, an eruption of grief heightened in the editing by a photograph visible above the bed of the two on their wedding day. Soon her image disappears, however, followed by her song. All we now see and hear in fixed medium close-up is Ina sleeping and a fan whirring away. Suddenly, what sounds like a gunshot rips through the aural frame (01:44:36). A split-second later the



scene cuts raw to a twilight image of Chaka falling down by the roadside and a car screeching to a halt in the shadows in far-shot. The formal gap created by this slight décalage of sound and image produces another space of disarticulation and uncertainty in the film. Could the sound have been simply the tyres of the car exploding (the driver immediately gets out of his car to inspect them), and thus merely a coincidence with the image of Chaka falling unexpectedly to the ground? In which case can we be sure that he has killed himself? And if he has, is it with the gun that went strangely missing during the trial? As we ponder these possibilities, twilight passes almost instantly into dawn, and a dog (the same dog glimpsed perhaps by Chaka in the opening prologue-like sequence sleeping in the telephone kiosk as he strolled in his prayer robe past construction workers on high scaffolding silhouetted in the half-light of dawn) sniffs his body lying by the roadside like human waste before moving on. Such delicately ‘imperfect’ synchrony of sound and vision highlights the event of montage and, in this case, the underbite of the cut, but in such a way as once again to refuse any pretence of seamlessness, still less narrative closure or cathartic climax, and instead open up the frame to interpretation and multiple readings. For we notice here the proliferation of small, often inexplicable human and non-human details which might otherwise appear wasteful and inefficient, even squandering. In fact, the unsettling and provocative, ironic repetition here of the same languorous, moody, Western-style theme music used earlier for the ‘Death in Timbuktu’ sequence suggests that all might potentially be reclaimed in an audiovisual poetics of remixing. For despite Bamako’s constant centrifugal pull, everything proves mutually integral and part of a self-sustaining, aesthetic whole: an elegant and vibrant economy of means where all can be aesthetically cycled and recycled, repurposed and reserviced, and thus of possible ethical and political value. It is now, however, that the most important rift in the film finally takes place – one that takes a supremely cinematic form and was always latent. It is the opposition between two very different aesthetic approaches to image-making: that of Sissako paying his final respects to Chaka as a tragic character who understood to his own cost the enormity of the global situation, and whose death now leaves a void in the community; and that of Falaï who befriended Chaka throughout (they joked together and Chaka confided in him that there was nothing better than death), yet who now at last has a death to record. Within moments of the death scene, Chaka’s body is brought in and placed in front of the judges’ table, draped in a radiant, dark blue and white striped cloth previously seen hanging up to dry. With the ‘Death in Timbuktu’ theme still audible, Sissako honours Chaka’s memory with a gentle, documentary-like forward-tracking shot past the line of devastated mourners in one corner of the compound, allowing us to observe their religious rituals and chanting (men and women are now separate from one another, and the barrister Aïssata Tall Sall, dressed in non-formal clothing, personally comforts Melé). An


overhead wide shot of the central space – the default deep-focus image of the courtyard – captures the intense criss-crossing of people, clothing lines, mats and garments. This grid of intersecting lines might suggest a symbol of entrapment, yet with the striated open frame, which stimulates a mobility of perception and invites the viewer to trace the play of multiple lines, shapes and colours relationally, Sissako is again insisting that everything remains interconnected and aesthetically potent, even – and perhaps especially – during heightened moments of communal emotion such as this when all Africans come together as one, including the judges and lawyers. In what becomes a graphic face-off between two different types of cinema, Falaï is captured head-on in the centre of the frame with his camcorder (01:47:09) as he positions himself for the best view. He zooms in first towards the corpse on the funeral stretcher as if attempting to peer under the cloth, before then rising up jerkily to capture in almost obscene close-up some of the grieving faces in a manner recalling the ‘Death in Timbuktu’ episode. Indeed, Falaï’s film is another instance of a film-within-a-film and is likewise presented in antithetical terms, for it is cashing in by giving what both the authorities and the media require: standard, generic, unedited footage of a human drama. By recording anonymously in a flat, linear, monochrome fashion with no sound, Falaï becomes all but invisible as a composer of images. Such lack of collective perspective or empathy corresponds to the uniformity of the system which Falaï now duly serves (we recall, too, that in ‘Death in Timbuktu’ the cowboy thugs impose silence in their shoot-out which claims a Malian mother in full song). The pale, sepia images drained of colour and blind to the beauty of composition are impoverished both aesthetically and emotionally, at once alienating and exploitative. As Falaï’s handheld camera records the pallbearers transporting Chaka’s body towards the open sandy-brown gate of the compound through which they slowly file out, Sissako inserts one last 35 mm colour panorama of the courtyard (01:48:24), a mish-mash of lines and colours heading off in all directions. We cut to Falaï’s tracking of the sick young man (Souleymane Diagouraga) making his painful way alone to the gate – as if Falaï were capitalizing here on a highly marketable concatenation of death and disease. Yet his camcorder does not follow the man thorough the gate and remains hovering in front of it, suspended, as if unsure what to do next for the sake of the story. This is decidedly not a liminal or threshold shot, but rather a creative failure to meet the challenge of the moment. It is, to put it crudely, sub-Sissako, and as spectators we are now suddenly left again in critical limbo and hanging – what Jaji nicely calls a ‘meditative lurch’ (see Jaji 2014b). Although this is the last printed image of Bamako, it is not the film’s final word, however, and the matter of form is not yet fully over. Falaï’s mercenary camera remains paralysed inside the gate for five long seconds before the printed image cuts to black, over which is inscribed, in small, white typewritten letters and still in silence, a quote attributed to Aimé Césaire: ‘l’oreille collée au sol, j’entendis passer



FIGURE 2.6 Sissako’s overhead, deep-focus view of the central courtyard with Falaï (Habib Dembélé) in the foreground moving past the mourners towards Chaka’s corpse in Bamako (2006).

demain’ (my ear against the ground, I heard tomorrow pass). This line of verse is the conclusion to Césaire’s 1941 poem of revolutionary universalism, ‘Les pursang’ (The Thoroughbreds), first published in 1941 and subsequently collected in Les Armes miraculeuses (1946). Its inclusion here naturally raises questions about the transmission of culture and (pan-)African futurity. Yet arriving as it does immediately after Chaka’s death and presented completely out of context (it is notable that ‘demain’ is not capitalized here as in the original published version), the line appears typically ambivalent, even ironic, and it places the emphasis back again on the individual spectator as witness and interpreter. Is the statement retrospective and nostalgic, or anticipatory and proleptic? That is, does it signify listening actively and productively to the unstoppable forces of change and progress, or rather being merely a passive witness to events that have already passed by, and over which one has no influence or bearing? The extreme aesthetic and affective engagement demanded of the viewer throughout Bamako, not only during its more intense moments such as Zegué’s chant, would incline us to the first reading of agency, and certainly, if one turns to the poem itself, one is greeted with images of the postcolonial subject (the ‘I’) growing symbiotically with the raw energy of nature like a plant. This is the emergence – the spiritual surge and prosperity – of a new thinking and politicized human being whose time has now come. In a moment of shared cultural legacy, as casual and yet significant as the moment just before when Chaka transported the electric fan used throughout the trial to Ina’s bedside to keep her comfortable (his last affirmative gesture), Sissako plugs into and ‘borrows’ the power of Césaire’s verse, thereby ensuring the film ends with a still live memory of unstoppable, organic, intergenerational, human flow – one intensely opposed to the


uncontrolled flow of capital and laissez-faire economics ruthlessly based on credit and loan, interest and debt, bankruptcy and bail-out. It might at first glance seem purely nostalgic and even regressive to return here to Césaire at the height of négritude and ideals of black wholeness – a philosophy so vigorously rejected as ‘negro-essentialism’ by Sembene and other politically engaged African directors of the first generation. However, Bamako, for all the reasons given, precisely denies aesthetic recourse to any fixed and totalizing universal vision. There can be no escape to a timeless safe haven of priceless, ‘authentic’ beauty, as once attempted by the calabash African cinema of the 1980s and 1990s which, lest we forget, was in part an artistic counter-reaction to the sudden financial and economic uncertainties of that period.33 Simply to oppose a ‘pure’ and untouched (pre-modern) African society to the rampant evils of the multinationals and all monetized transactions would be regressive and absurd, and result in yet another overarching and false binary. Similarly, the days of Fanonstyle revolution and emancipation through violence may be long over (Jean-Paul advises Samba to keep to himself his recurring dream of finding heads of African leaders in a large bag), but Sissako is certainly not advocating here vague claims for African reparation or compensation. In fact, the market economy and free enterprise can, of course, be a force for the common good if conducted in a fair, mutual and respectful fashion. Indeed, the key message of Traoré, who underlines the complicity of all in the prevailing system, including Africans, is precisely to generate new, fresh money in order to invest in jobs and infrastructure. Hence, Césaire’s role at the end of Bamako is rather as a call to action than as a utopian theoretical proposition – a call, that is, to attend fully to the present and approach the future proactively. The film thus inserts itself with Césaire into a larger pan-African tradition of postcolonial critique where notions of debt simply do not hold – mutual obligations and duties as an artist, certainly, but not debts.34 However, unlike a trial that is supposed to establish the truth and ultimately fix it in time, the ending of Bamako leaves us not with a conclusive image but with yet more open questions – about justice and agency, as well as aesthetic form and method. After Falaï’s aesthetic impotence and muteness, the inscription on-screen reverberates and re-opens the cinematic space for further aesthetic-affective reflection, mediation and interpretation.

Aesthetic resistance: The right to violence We see, then, that Bamako does not simply expose and contest the violence of globalization directly through verbal discourse by allowing the victims of capitalism to be seen and heard and bear their own witness (Diawara 2015), but also works directly through the daily trauma this causes in every sound and image, sublimating it affirmatively through form – the rifts, ridges, internal folds of montage in the



skin of the image, the disarticulations, cuts and tears on the filmic surface, the visible violations of form. Sissako is far more than just a conceptual filmmaker who casually ‘straddles the subtle border between poetics and politics’ (Adesokan 2010: 148), and Bamako pursues more than merely a ‘rhetoric of reflexivity’ (Akudinobi 2000: 356) with which to question the ideological underpinnings of filmic discourse, including the dogma of narration (Diawara 2015). The defining aesthetic tensions and perturbations of form in Bamako constitute, as we have seen, its real political and ethical critique. The film not only unmasks the often invisible, systemic violence of the neo-liberal condition, but also places such disfiguring violence squarely within the domain of beauty and reveals how it can be offset and remoulded through various kinds of aesthetic counter-formation. That is, Bamako trades formally in violence in order to find the right balance and means of resistance to the underlying structures of violence. The message of Bamako lies precisely in its aesthetics of violence which needs to be seen exactly for what it is: a battleground where the cinematic frame becomes a contested, often agonistic space. Further, to create a cinematic space of, and for, the aesthetic subject, rather than simply for political discourse, is to open up vital spaces of opacity and resistance to the values of the prevailing system in the absence of any effective legal redress. The film dares to suggest that there could be new, necessarily impure forms and formations of aesthetic beauty in the endlessly fertile present tense of montage which, in its multiple rhythms, can juxtapose and bring together still more elements, always to be traversed and negotiated speculatively, even troped on like the very capital of Césaire’s ‘Demain’. Such is the violence of Sissako’s vision, and, at the risk of gross universalizing, one can justifiably argue that he is asserting Africa’s right both to beauty and to violence on its own terms. By continually encouraging aesthetic questions to intrude freely and graphically into the field of the economic and political, Bamako’s ethico-political act of cultural resistance and infiltration not only offers new projections of crosscultural liminality and transnationalism, with opacity as the very sign of radical, cosmopolitan openness, but also lays the grounds for a possible new African film aesthetics. A Sembenian aesthetics of political and ideological struggle has been replaced by one of resistance and self-resistance whereby cinema, to reinvoke Bennett’s theory of empathic vision, is continually forced to transform itself and, in the process, transform thought (Bennett 2005: 15) (Bennett talks appositely of a mode of politics that enacts the political as a ‘sphere of interconnection’, in which new subjectivities are forged and sustained (Bennett 2005: 21)). Indeed, what is ultimately at stake in Bamako’s politics of form and violent beauty is rethinking, and reinvesting in, notions of the aesthetic as relational process and montage – that is, the sensory collaboration with forms – as a means of regaining agency and engaging as critically informed citizens of the world in critical dialogue and dissent, presented here as a creative form of thinking predicated on an acute recognition of the inescapable reality of violence. Art is thus being (re)made by Sissako as an


act of political revelation, with the affirmation of such aesthetic forms and spaces providing a useful working definition of the democratic project. These may also help to redeem the individual spaces relegated by the neo-liberal system which demands, as one of the witnesses, economist Georges Keïta, so forcefully puts it, ‘the rape of the imagination, of the small sense of self still remaining and which I might develop’ ([le] viol de l’imaginaire, de la petite conscience qui me resterait et que je pourrais me faire de moi). (Le Viol de l’imaginaire is also the title of a 2001 book by Aminata Traoré arguing the need for Africans to rediscover their core values and imaginations in order to overcome the ravages of globalization.) Hence, if the development of a common humanity that engages collective responsibility for globalization is not to remain a pipe dream, our very conceptions of art and beauty will need to expand and be transformed in the heat of aesthetic production and exchange. Such an intensively aesthetic register of political engagement is very different from those attributed thus far to Sissako’s work, whether Adesokan’s concept of an emerging aesthetic of an engaged and probing expatriation35 (an idea already complicated by the fact that Sissako recently relocated to Nouakchott in the country of his birth, Mauritania), or Sanogo’s notion of a ‘prospective engagement’ owing to Sissako’s ‘induction of the space of the imaginary’ which situates the present social and historical reality in relation to some futurity or virtuality (Sanogo 2015: 147–8). For Bamako does more than simply gesture to a vague, utopian tomorrow, and Sissako is precisely not drawing on Césaire as a purely prospective, transcendent form to imagine a future Africa emerging from the hard work and vision of its children like Ina. Rather, he is laying down a challenge to the viewer to cross the threshold of form in the immediate present and to invest imaginatively in the bountiful potential of montage and the cinematic process. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak remarks with regard to the purely symbolic trial that the entire film may be a figuration of why political protest and resistance against transnational agencies like multinationals misfires (Spivak 2012: 478). I would go further and say that Bamako dramatizes the very limits of the political (as conventionally defined) as a path to progressive change if it is not integrated within a creative, aesthetic project that is also fully committed, formally as well as affectively and intersubjectively. This crucial fact – that political and judicial speeches and protest against neoliberalism are not enough, however heartfelt and eloquent – is demonstrated in the very city where the ‘Bamako Appeal’, an anti-globalization document developed by the Polycentric World Social Forum, took place in January 2006.36 Moreover, Bamako proves in every frame that African cinema needs to experiment in new and dynamic aesthetic ways that both challenge and resist the social, cultural and political presuppositions of the global economy and, as Rancière puts it, analyse the forms of circulation of social and commercial imagery and the operations interpreting this imagery.37 One must always see and hear, and hear and look



again, more alertly, more poetically, for our critical response is impoverished if we do not see the aesthetic in its entirety. To invoke a proverb of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Southern Benin: ‘Anyone who sees beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor.’

Timbuktu’s swerve: The ambush of beauty The stunning achievement of Bamako becomes even more significant in the light of Sissako’s follow-up feature, Timbuktu (2014), which received seven César awards in 2015, including best film, best director, and best screenplay (co-written by Sissako and Kessen Tall). The film was inspired by real events: the capture and nine-month siege in 2012 of Timbuktu in northern Mali by Islamist militants, mainly the fundamentalist Muslim rebel group Ansar Dine (in Arabic ‘helpers of the (Islamic) religion’ or ‘defenders of the faith’), an Islamist sect with ties to alQaeda seeking to impose strict Sharia law across Mali and create an independent state. Yet if Bamako shows that the rhythms of violence can be repurposed relationally and aesthetically as a primary means of resistance to the continuous catastrophe of immanent violence, Timbuktu, which returns us directly to the spectacle of ‘fast’ violence, offers a powerful reminder that the transformative relational process of cinematic beauty in the realm of violence is far from assured and carries significant risks. Shot largely in Oualata in south-eastern Mauritania with only two days of location filming in Timbuktu which was considered still too dangerous, Timbuktu was originally meant to be a documentary. However, Sissako realized he might endanger the lives of those involved with possible retribution if they spoke openly. He thus embarked on a fiction with the narrative portrayal of a family of minority Tuareg (Berber) pastoralists residing in the desert outside Timbuktu: a herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka ‘Pino’) with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and an adopted, twelve-year-old shepherd boy, Issan (Medhi A. G. Mohamed), who shares vivid memories of his dead shepherd father. Their isolated yet relaxed lifestyle is at odds with that of the unnamed jihadists who pay odd visits from their base in the city. One of the leaders, Abdelekrim (Abel Jafri), who has already confronted an iman, loiters around the striking and sensuous Satima when she is alone with Toya, and he will phone personally to say ‘It’s all over’ (‘C’est terminé’) when an incident involving her husband quickly spirals into tragedy. After one of his cows called GPS (a sobriquet derived from ‘Global Positioning System’ and thus a metonym for guidance and direction) gets caught up in the nets of a local fisherman called Amadou, Kidane confronts him in the river and ends up accidentally shooting him dead – an act presented significantly not in terms of ethnic or religious strife, but as a fatal consequence of the escalation of historical tensions and rivalries in the region between herders


and fishermen. It is the beginning of the end because Kidane cannot provide the victim’s family with the payment of blood money demanded or the equivalent of forty cows – he must therefore face death by stoning. By focusing equally on the Tuaregs and citizens of Timbuktu, an historic home of learning and melting pot of the cultures and civilizations of Northern and subSaharan Africa (Muslim, Christian, and other), Timbuktu is clearly suggesting that the presence of the Islamists in this area is a symptom (one among many) of the Malian government’s failure to resolve the age-old conflict between nomads and sedentary peoples in the Sahara desert, exacerbated by scarce resources and the threat of desertification due to the slow violence of climate change (Kidane refers at one point to the ‘long humiliation’). Sissako has even claimed that the jihadists were able to take over the city and surrounding area because there was no longer enough of a social structure to keep them out. One thus might have expected the film to pursue a multi-levelled critique of the erosion of society by neoliberalist policies in the mould established by Bamako. Yet Timbuktu is from the outset wholly different in form and style from Bamako, not only because, as Gabara asserts, it solicits an emotional engagement from the viewer with little selfreflexive irony (Gabara 2016: 55), but also because it sets an absolute premium on both natural and plastic beauty, with gentle, sweeping pans of the rural panorama set to lush instrumental theme music – an alluring mix of Western-style orchestral music and traditional Malian songs produced by the young composer Amine Bouhafa (the first time Sissako has commissioned an original score). Sissako is aided here by the widescreen photography of Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani, which counters the starkness of jihadi ideology with the warmth and grace of desert light falling on buildings, dunes and faces, although this has at times the unintended effect of approximating the standard high production values of Hollywood films set in Africa. Other new features in Sissako’s style include recourse to the intimacy of subjective point of view, as when Kidane departs to confront Amadou and Satima looks on by means of a subjective point-of-view shot. As Maria Garcia elegantly puts it: ‘A diaphanous fabric appears to hang from the open end of the tent, in front of which the desert and Kidane are evanescent. The cloth is not actually there, and exists only in Satima’s mind as a sign of her husband’s impending fate, and the feeling that she and Kidane no longer share the same emotional landscape’ (Garcia 2015: 55). The film also comprises set-sequences of concerted parallel editing, an influence perhaps of the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche with whom El Fani has worked extensively. Yet where Timbuktu most differs from Bamako is in its creation of symbols and symbolic links and spaces. The shifting variables and fluid permutations of the court in the earlier film (courtroom/courtyard/Court) have now been levelled out and as if locked into a court of Sharia law where there is no room for manoeuvre or play between different levels (literal, figurative, metaphorical). Gone, too, are the multi-strands unfolding and developing in real time to and fro across the surfaces



of the everyday, replaced here by a static collection of self-enclosed and seemingly self-sufficient episodes and mini-scenes. Indeed, each image appears to offer yet another potential site for symbol and allegory, as if we have suddenly returned again to the well-worn, allegorical African film tradition that Bamako so brilliantly exposed and deconstructed. Timbuktu’s opening sequence is of a gazelle – an all-too-obvious symbol of natural beauty, freedom, fragility and peacefulness – being ambushed and mown down by jihadists, followed by Dogon statues or totems being sprayed indiscriminately with bullets by rookie soldiers in a heavily encoded act of iconoclasm and cultural desecration. As Tchouaffe writes, such wanton destruction of nature and culture exemplifies the fact that the messianic terrorism adopted by jihadists, based on an authoritarian logic of absolute purity and theocratic prophecy (a fantasy of original unity and apocalypse), can neither tolerate the void nor accept complexity (that is, the archives of esoteric knowledge) (Tchouaffe 2017: 15). In the film’s final sequence, during the chaos that ensues after Kidane and Satima have both been shot dead, Toya and the shepherd boy are shown running for their lives like the gazelle at the start. And in case we cannot make the connection for ourselves, Sissako now suddenly intercuts another brief shot of the same opening sequence of the fleeing gazelle.38 We know beyond all doubt what fate must befall the two children, and, like the amputations alluded to in the film but not actually shown, there is no need to display it – they’re as good as dead. The symbolic has become here deadly real. Such overkill of symbolism sets the tone for the rest of the film which chronicles acts of violent punishment and repression, as when the mutaween whip a young woman for making music with her friends.39 A cavorting, hysterical Haitian woman and possible enchantress called Zabou (Kettly Noël) who, like a kind of holy fool complete with rooster, fearlessly speaks truth to power, wears a colourful quilt of reused fabric like symbolic pieces of her past. In a separate scene of impromptu singing (an act also forbidden by the regime), the voice of a female singer accompanied by string instruments is clearly intended as a sign of freedom. Deliberately devoid of subtitles, this episode is presented as what Garcia aptly calls a ‘representation of the purest expression of Malian identity’ (Garcia 2015: 54). The often overbearing, overcompensatory use of gorgeously refined music to counter the suppression of music in what is historically one of the world’s richest nations for music underlines many other such heavily signposted moments. Indeed, with its smorgasbord of familiar figures and Western tropes, including knowing references to contemporary popular culture like the footballers Zinédine Zidane and Lionel Messi, Timbuktu bears all the cross-cultural hallmarks of a commercial product aimed at global humanist appeal. Yet it is also on one level almost oldschool calabash cinema in a long line of epic films that include Sissoko’s The Tyrant, charting the rise and fall of a cruel and despotic rural chief, Guimba, and his son Jangine in an isolated fictional village in the sahel of Mali, and which, although largely a comedy drama featuring some extraordinary moments such as a sudden


solar eclipse brought on by magic, was received by many as a social and political satire against the Mali government and an allegory of contemporary dictatorships in Africa.40 Indeed, unlike in Bamako, Sissako does not interrogate cinematic form in Timbuktu but rather capitalizes on it in a veritable surfeit of ‘deep’ beauty (of colour, landscape, physical gesture). Where Bamako traded in the themes of global capital in order to undermine them aesthetically, Timbuktu pursues a critique of Islamic fundamentalism aimed precisely at the international market. The theme of money in the earlier film encouraged a new and radical engagement with form and modernity, yet an engagement with the forces of religion in Timbuktu appears to end up invoking the past and inviting nostalgia for those very customs now under threat of decimation. For these reasons, Timbuktu constitutes an inversion of Bamako, specifically of Sissako’s project to resist both slow and fast violence through the play and beauty of formal violence. Indeed, in the absence of a clear critical framework, Timbuktu feels like the long-version of the oppressive and fatalistic symbolic tendencies of Bamako’s ‘Death in Timbuktu’ sequence (Glover as avenging angel for the murdered mother and saviour of her child representing the future of Africa). That short episode is effectively expanded, reworked and inverted here in protoHollywood terms, despite – and yet also precisely because of – its concentration on overt, physical violence. Sissako is, in fact, playing a finely calibrated and highly manipulative formal game in Timbuktu. Again and again he bestows dazzling, almost pristine images and compositions of natural beauty and innocence, encoded variously as female and childlike, and then invites the viewer to count how long before these scenes are physically threatened, despoiled or forcibly suspended and arrested by human action and presence (invariably male). Such calculated withholding and withdrawing of beauty, along with the systematic complication of any easy access to nature or rural vistas, forms part of a clear dialectics of natural beauty (and, by extension, of the often sensuous human body) versus the ugliness of terroristic acts, as well as of the free-flow of movement versus the imposed stasis and violence of fundamentalist interdiction. The most obvious example of this is when jihadists suddenly open fire on a protruding tuft of desert scrub visible on undulating sand dunes in the distance – a misogynistic, patriarchal projection of a woman’s naked pubic mound which must be immediately eradicated. This disturbing sequence contrasts directly with that of Satima gently combing her hair with her daughter Toya in the dunes. In making these various critical points, I am not, I should stress, being unduly influenced by the story of Timbuktu’s production which caused a scandal when it was revealed, just days after the César awards ceremony, that Sissako had been working since 2011 as cultural advisor for the Mauritanian president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, even though Sissako claimed this was already widely known and that he had never sought to hide the fact (he repeated in interviews that Aziz’s authorities simply ensured it was safe enough for him to film in Oualata and



tacitly supported the production).41 Sissako, it was alleged, had somehow agreed to make a film about the occupation of northern Mali in order to divert attraction from the more important subject matter he had originally wished to focus on, namely contemporary slavery in Mauritania and the detention of those activists who oppose a practice only recently made illegal (and arguably only nominally so). According to the same allegations, Sissako was personally persuaded by the President of Mauritania not to touch such an explosive topic and instead deliver something more appealing to a Western audience: the depiction of evil jihadists.42 If true, this fact would add further fuel to those critics who have claimed that Sissako does not have the ethical courage necessary for a politically engaged artist now working ‘at home’, and certainly it compromises the message of a film like Timbuktu which addresses politics and the war of terror so directly. These are, of course, serious claims with important ethico-political implications, yet they would need to be carefully assessed and measured within the larger context of the extreme difficulties of funding and producing films in present-day Africa, where compromise remains the order of the day. As Bekolo has recently acknowledged, a degree of complicity or ‘partnering’ between directors and heads of state frequently occurs in the region for purely pragmatic reasons: not just Sissako with Abdel Aziz, but also Haroun with Idriss Déby in Chad, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda with Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Fanta Nacro with Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso (see Bekolo 2016: 146). My own particular issues with Timbuktu centre instead on what Sissako is doing in the name of beauty. For on a purely formal level Timbuktu performs an emphatic representational swerve away from the spectacle of violence to that of beauty, countering the former with the latter in a fully assumed act of artistic resistance. A proclamation of the absolute need for art and beauty would seem a laudable cri de coeur, a commendable chant of artistic revolt, in view of the alarming context depicted. Yet such worthy intentions square uneasily with Sissako’s many longstanding public pronouncements, continued in interviews for Timbuktu, that he remains always in a combative and agonistic position regarding beauty – statements of the kind: ‘What I really try to do is destroy the beauty of a location. That’s why I don’t have lingering shots on the beauty of the countryside. It stays beautiful because it is beautiful – that’s just how it is. But I always come back to the person’ (Sissako 2015) (original emphasis). Or the following: ‘Especially in naturally beautiful spots. You have to break the intensity of colours and desaturate subtly’ (Sissako 2014: 21). The method pursued in Timbuktu appears rather an active suppression of violence in the very execution of the order of beauty. Taoua rightly suggests that ‘the glory of Timbuktu lies in its devotion to local knowledge, in the way it allows its gaze to wander away from violence toward images of beauty and grace’ (Taoua 2015: 274). Indeed, like the films discussed earlier which engage in different strategies of obscure vision, Timbuktu offers a continuous display of tasteful and discreet avoidance of the full, graphic nature of violence. However, the


purpose and aims are decidedly different here because dictated uniquely by the puissance of the aesthetic – as if the proof of hypertrophied beauty might somehow serve to address and assuage the actuality of violence and lead to some immediate accommodation with reality. This aesthetic process gives rise to a series of increasingly predictable symbolic oppositions rather than initiating an evolving poetics of critical montage of the kind witnessed in Bamako. In one example, the motion of a fanatical jihadist breaking into uncontrollable dance in the privacy of Zabou’s courtyard is joltingly cut to lingering close-ups of two lovers stoned to death and left in the ground as public spectacle. In the case of the killing of Amadou by Kidane, violence seems to be abstracted and sublimated in the name of a universal natural beauty. This is conveyed by a remarkable, wide-angle long shot of almost infinite reach, where the two men separate from each other along an extended horizontal plane. The shot suggests, as was clearly intended, that the river is the thread that ties their fates together: when Kidane reaches the frame’s mid-point, the sweeping instrumental music starts up again (violin, guitar, woodwind) to underscore the pathos. What counts here is the message of the image, since the entire film is constructed as a fable about the power of poetry over oppression. It means, crucially, that we do not witness the human-on-human violence directly in close-up or ‘real time’; as in the case of the perpetrators of music buried up to their heads in sand, one sees only the scene of violence being set up, then the final results of such senseless acts of violence. Hence, the film artfully declines to reveal the full graphic enormity and scale of the violence to which it consistently and obsessively alludes, preferring instead to maintain action at a purely symbolic level. Such an absolute swerve to symbolization represents more than just a vague attempt by Sissako at reparation and reconciliation through beauty. For in seeking directly to oppose violence, bigotry, intolerance and fear with the quiet, sober dignity

FIGURE 2.7 A wide-angle long shot of ravishing beauty in Timbuktu (2014): Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka ‘Pino’) staggers to shore on the far left, while on the far right Amadou (Omar Haidara) is in his last death throes.



of extreme beauty, Timbuktu constitutes a willed, aesthetic counter-formation – an impassioned ode to universal resistance. According to Diawara, Sissako is less concerned with proposing a counter-discourse to the iniquities and liberticide wrought on Timbuktu by the jihadists than with drawing new imaginaries with enough poetic power to enlist the spectator’s symbolic participation in taking Timbuktu back. He writes: ‘As we tremble with the images, faces, and landscapes of Timbuktu, we enter a new imaginary … and we are reborn as new spectators’ (Diawara 2015). It is a thin line, however, and Sissako is acutely aware of the obvious risks of essentializing beauty in the very act of engaging it as an everavailable, common source of resistance to fundamentalist ideology. These risks culminate in a game of fantasy football, when a group of boys pretend on a dirt field and with an imaginary ball to play the beautiful game now banned by the jihadists – a deliberate evocation of the tennis game simulated in silence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), although accompanied here by what sounds like subTchaikovsky ballet music swelling the emptied frame. We are commanded to see precisely what is not there (i.e. the ball) as if it were. What results, therefore, is the reverse of the tennis sequence in Blow-Up which explored the impossibility of attaining full knowledge and proof through vision. In the very act of incorporating key Western modernist and deconstuctivist film tropes, Sissako turns them inside out. Instead of being trained in the benefits of visual uncertainty and doubt, we find ourselves sutured into the lure and fascination of the cinematic image, and, like the induced moment of shared consciousness during Satima’s subjective point-of-view shot, obliged to take the purely virtual for real. Timbuktu ultimately remains more a political statement than an aesthetic experience, if we define the aesthetic in the particular terms proposed by Bersani and Dutoit in their 2004 study of Western (post)modern cinema, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, as a sign and process of formal irresolution. Examining the modes of our connectedness to external reality beyond standard notions of identity, and seeking a productively relational rather than intrinsically oppositional presence in the world, Bersani and Dutoit argue persuasively that only the non-aesthetic is formally fixed and readable. In art, by contrast, images, sounds and words communicate indiscriminately with one another, and to be actively receptive to the correspondences of the world means engendering a less possessive, and therefore more ethical, way of relating to the world – at the risk even of being ourselves ‘dispersed’ or ‘shattered’ by such correspondences. Writing in particular about Terrence Malick’s 1998 action film about the meaninglessness of war, The Thin Red Line (an adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 autobiographical novel about the conflict at Guadalcanal during the Second World War), Bersani and Dutoit suggest that such a possibility is linked to the very medium of film itself, and specifically its perceptual aesthetic ‘which registers not the real world “as it is”, but a positioning in a real world’ (Bersani and Dutoit 2004: 175) (original emphasis). That is, ‘the images of film propose relational modes, which means


that film can’t help but work within the field of ethics’ (Bersani and Dutoit 2004). Hence, we are always perceptually implicated in cinema as aesthetic subjects, and the only cinematic truth is relational. What is at stake here is a purely potential being – or a potentiality that persists in and beyond all realized being. For to privilege what is unknowingly evolving as potential between the subject and the other, or between the subject and the world, represents a prioritizing of being over knowledge, or a displacement from the search for psychic truth (about the self) to an experience – and experiment – in relational transformation. The aesthetic subject is engaged in a process of expansive or ‘impersonal’ narcissism (defined as loving the other’s potential self), where what is experienced is a process of becoming, or what Bersani and Dutoit propose suggestively as ‘evolving affinities of virtual being’. To be open to the world, they conclude, is a measure of both our flexibility and the extensibility of being (Bersani and Dutoit 2004: 8–9).43 Such potential for aesthetic fluidity and ethical disponibilité is massively curtailed in Timbuktu, which instead proselytizes about art as an absolute solution and beacon of light in the heart of darkness created by jihadi fundamentalism. Here, art = beauty = resistance. Simple as. Beauty is turned into a weapon of politics in a bloody battle of and for culture, with the film unfolding as a direct counterattack against terrorism through the assembled forces of beauty. Yet the very act of instrumentalizing beauty as a primary ethical and political tool of beauty leads, as we are seeing, to a diminishing of aesthetic returns, and Timbuktu arguably ends up reproducing the dualistic, Manichean dynamic of a global clash of civilizations (the North vs South, the West vs Islam, etc.) which Sissako’s previous work sought so deftly to undermine.44 Indeed, if Bamako sought to reclaim violence aesthetically through the processes of montage, Timbuktu pursues a violent claim for Beauty which hypostasizes it. Put a little differently, Timbuktu and its intended viewer have ironically been ambushed and taken hostage by the very idea of Beauty, that is, by conceptual rather than aesthetic thinking, in what appears an incongruous throwback to the sacred, universal parameters of Baobab thinking. In one sequence that begins as an ambitious critique of the links between spectacle, terrorism and the systems of global consumption, a young rookie attempting to explain his religious conversion in front of a camera for the purposes of a recruitment video very quickly becomes nervous and has to be coached. Sissako’s evolving poetics of relationality has ironically been short-circuited here by a politics of moral relativization through a humanist insistence on demystifying the young jihadi fighters and showing that they are really human just like us – at once fragile, awkward and vulnerable. Hence, the ethical possibilities of a relational aesthetics and of cinematic being as a process of becoming – always to be carefully traced, negotiated and formalized as in Bamako – are ultimately supplanted by a politics of morality. In short, where Bamako opened everything out aesthetically and ethically, Timbuktu squeezes all into a suffocating, hyper-symbolic nexus that boils down to pure concept, pure narrative, and ultimately pure violence – in other words,



aesthetic stasis. In Bamako the aesthetic allowed us to see through the hidden violence of neoliberalism: every frame, sound, image was nuanced, bracketed and problematized, suspended like the dripping yet never static clothes on the line for the purposes of intersubjective, creative negotiation – a process in which we are consistently encouraged to take an active and vigilant part. In Timbuktu, by contrast, we are interpellated into the overt, explicit, narrative spectacle of beauty as the only certain answer to violence – a formally crude process that ultimately plays out as another form of imposed violence, albeit to a much lesser degree than the actual physical violence being evoked. This is the real risk of beautifying violence: we have moved from the indeterminate, relational beauty of formal violence to the determined, violent application of beauty. In other words, rather than expose to full view the cracks and depths of violence, Timbuktu works essentially to cover up the real evidence, to sublate and sublimate it, through the fatal allure of a certain kind of audiovisual beauty. It is presumptuous, even misleading, for critics like Victoria Pasley to suggest that Timbuktu constitutes simply a testament to the resistance of Malians (see Pasley 2016), for the viewer has been seduced away from a critical consciousness of the workings and politics of violence, occluded here in the very name of a universal constant: Beauty. In the final analysis Timbuktu reveals itself as a strangely complacent, even rather smug film – every shot, image, frame, note of music, and ravishing composition fatefully and grandiosely proclaims: I am beauty and thus a positive act of resistance and moral triumph over religious intolerance and fundamentalism. Indeed, for a filmmaker who positions himself in resistance to natural beauty and its easy trappings, Timbuktu feels like an artistic capitulation on the front line of African cinema. It is in itself a fundamentalist act, that is, an instance of overdetermined, non-negotiable filmmaking, as if Sissako had ultimately taken the path of least resistance, aesthetically speaking. His clear defence would surely be that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that there can be no reasoned political debate or subtle filmic praxis when engaging with such evil – the only appropriate artistic counter-response possible in extremis is artistic absolutism. But we see there are major risks to playing this game of universals and absolutes, for Timbuktu is premised necessarily on the certitude that ‘we’ know already what beauty is, and that it exists exclusively for those like ‘us’ who know. Far more urgent and vital, I would argue, is that we acknowledge fully the intractability of violence and return to the core principle and working method of Bamako, namely that to see and hear through violence aesthetically and empathically, via cinematic form, structure and dialogue, is also to counter its often irresistible force and fatal attraction as spectacle. To confront critically one’s fascination with violence as a viewer is an ethical imperative – one that may serve as the basis for a space of resistance to it, and even as a potential corrective. The permanent challenge remains, of course, how to harness such individual acts of formal resistance and so transform the global condition of violence into new, collective, democratic forms of cultural and political action.



If you’re trying to find the right image of [Dakar], you can have a thousand images and still not have the perfect picture of [Dakar]. The real [Dakar] exists in the gaps between all those pictures. ALAIN GOMIS

Kinshasa the beautiful, Kinshasa the garbage.


Frenetic, clamorous, chaotic, volatile, blistering, overflowing: the overwhelming impression of the African megalopolis, or ‘afropolis’, is of relentless commotion and confusion, brutal shock and awe. One is assailed by its seemingly endless urban and peri-urban expanse and its ever more alarming and obscene extremes of wealth and poverty. The standard, fixed oppositions between centre and periphery, urban and rural, territory and border, appear now redundant. Indeed, the afropolis has become a fertile and ever-shifting site of projection and free imagination for contemporary theorists and philosophers scrambling to come to terms with the immensity and apparent mayhem of such stupendous demographic explosion often glimpsed at the margins of human existence. The urbanist and sociologist AbdouMaliq Simone, for instance, has coined the term ‘worlding’ to account for how African cities are propelled by the processes of the global economy into a state of being ‘everywhere and nowhere’, making living conditions for their inhabitants an experience of perpetual disorientation (Simone 2001: 17–18). For Mbembe, the mega-cities of Kinshasa, Johannesburg and Lagos (Africa’s largest city with a population of over 21 million and fast rising) are generating a transcontinental

urbanspace where everything is in flux and in the process of ‘passing’ (men, women, trade, ideas, forms).1 Such gargantuan conurbations are linked together precisely as cities of migrants, the result of massive waves of rural migration across the region. Mbembe cites the historical fact of nomadic cities of migrants based on the model of the caravan (or ‘métropole caravane’), a model that survived colonization, to account for how everything in the afropolis seems displaced and in constant circulation. This is also, of course, the logic of the market and exchange where all remains subordinate to the imperative of traffic and can be endlessly recycled (Mbembe 2010).2 Noting that the links of migrants back to their villages have invariably been severed, Dudley Andrew talks in Deleuzian terms of urban nomads forming new types of tribes that grow their roots in the new afropolis like rhizomes (see Andrew 2000). He hails the new urban rhythms of ‘Afro-pop’ films like Bekolo’s Quartier Mozart (1992), set in Yaoundé’s working-class district of Mozart, and Drissa Touré’s Haramuya (1995), set in Ouagadougou, which show normally excluded city dwellers eking out an existence in African cities where everything – religion, histories, customs – is now entangled in aleatory fashion, where identity is movement, and where everyone is continually readapting to survive. Faced with such an all-enveloping, all-consuming urban experience, contemporary African filmmakers engaging with the new afropolis would appear to enjoy a potentially limitless and inexhaustible set of aesthetic options. Without wishing to assume an essentialist position, however, is there perhaps a more appropriate and valid way to visualize and ‘scape’ the new afropolis? That is, is there a more suitable cinematic idiom to choose, and a more effective angle, format or genre to adopt, not simply to capture the sheer energy and excitement of such an extreme urban experience, but also to convey the new encounters and frictions, connectivities and modalities of living in such a rapidly expanding and contested urban space? Is the documentary form, for example, sufficiently flexible to communicate such vast, rapidly changing and diffuse urbanscapes, or do these invite and require new, more fluid, fictional narrative forms that can freely open out and extend even to the fantastical, mythical and legendary? Moreover, what can and should – or conversely should not – be shown and heard? For screening a real object or place also entails necessarily a process of ‘screening out’ particular elements for reasons of authorial style, priority and focus. Put differently, how is beauty to be defined in African films set within the afropolis, and where and how exactly is it to be located? To consider these important interrelated ethical and aesthetic questions, I wish to take the case of Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. Located on the majestic Cap-Vert peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic ocean, Dakar was once the showpiece port of France’s oldest colony as well as a grim hub of the Atlantic Slave Trade – the Maison des Esclaves built in 1776 lies three kilometres off the mainland on the île de Gorée. The city is now home to over a million inhabitants, with the metropolitan


area as a whole surpassing three million, almost a quarter of the entire population of Senegal.3 Its strategic political and international importance in the region is attested by the fact that, as noted in the previous chapter, the former Chadian president Hissène Habré was finally brought to justice here and indicted for war crimes, the city’s new Palais de Justice serving as the African Court of Justice. And, of course, Dakar is the historic capital of black African cinema. Indeed, as the birthplace of postcolonial African cinema with Sembene’s short Borom Sarret, which offered the first indigenous cinematic vision of an African city, Dakar became during the 1960s and 1970s the seed-bed for a golden age of prodigious innovation and experimentation – a shining beacon of radical Third Cinema inspiring some of the greatest African films by Sembene, Mambety, and many others. Since those heady days, the film industry in Dakar, as elsewhere in West and Central Africa, has been in steady decline due to the almost total withdrawal of state support. Only a small handful of features are now made annually, and Dakar has effectively fallen dark with the closure, demolition or repurposing of virtually all of its great movie palaces.4 Yet the historical prestige and significance of Dakar within the African cinematic imaginary is such that the city constitutes a privileged site for thinking about the new afropolis and also the present and future possibilities of African film. It is entirely appropriate, for example, that the first edition of the international festival of films on human rights, the Ciné Droit Libre, took place in 2014 in Dakar where it has continued to be held. In what follows I aim to explore how filmic representations of Dakar have developed as the city has emerged into an afropolis due to virtually unregulated growth. I will approach the screened city not simply as an urban setting but as a geopolitical and transcultural field, a moving mosaic of textures, surfaces, flows and inscriptions of memory, and a visual rhetoric of graphic symbols and symbolic spaces – in short, as both a living, breathing ethnospace and a cosmopolitan text. I will focus on what makes Dakar so exemplary of the modern African city, yet also so special and unique as a city of cinema. I will also examine how the very act of screening the city becomes a matter of ‘rescreening’, with contemporary directors not simply evoking the imagery – and reworking the methods and strategies – of earlier filmmakers, but also turning directly now to the archives to reengage and reinvent the cinematic tradition of Dakar. For how one frames and projects the afropolis is also a matter of how one positions oneself within the long history of filmic representations both of the African city and of the African cinematic tradition in general. I will argue that what we are seeing take place before us in current African films set in Dakar is not only the drama of wild modernization and urbanization due to the unchecked globalization of space, but also an evolution in the very perception of urban space and how it is shot, framed and staged. This will lead me in turn to consider whether the seemingly borderless afropolis, one that is continually outstripping its own physical and topographical boundaries and demanding new rules of cinematic engagement, might also mobilize new



and unfathomed frontiers of being beyond traditional and normative social and cultural frameworks. I need first, however, to establish how Dakar was imaged by the first Senegalese filmmakers in their creation of a luminous ‘Dakarscape’ that continues to influence, in profound and often contradictory ways, the current generation of directors engaging with the magnitude and ferment of this restless, irrepressible city.

Framing the postcolonial city In his influential study of space in African cinema, Cinéma d’Afrique Noire Francophone: L’espace-miroir (1989), André Gardies argued that early African films capturing Dakar intended not to show this or that particular city as such, but rather a universal, postcolonial space. What was at stake, he claimed, was the demonstration of African urban space as a new geosociological reality, with the filmmaker holding up a mirror to Africa in order to reappropriate space figuratively after so many years of colonial trauma.5 Accordingly, Sembene’s Borom Sarret telescopes into twenty minutes a day in the tough life of a cart driver called Modou (Ly Abdoulaye), taking the viewer from the populous shanty town of Médina to the central downtown area of Le Plateau and back. Following the opening shot of the newly erected Grand Mosque of Dakar, we move slowly through the streets of inner Dakar with jolting dolly shots from the point of view of the wagoner moving his cart uncertainly on uneven ground. This is not simply a sign of Sembene’s favoured Brechtian style of alienation, but rather a graphic indication of how his characters always feel displaced and disconnected in the city – a mood accentuated by a recurring formal, dialectical tension between close-ups and long shots creating a fragmentation of perspective and point of view. In the film’s central sequence where the wagoner reluctantly agrees to leave his local area of Médina and take a passenger to the ‘heights’ of Le Plateau, the style suddenly changes gear, with sweeping pans of the pristine white office and apartment buildings intercut with low-angle shots of imposing government edifices ironically accompanied by Western baroque music emblematic of European colonial culture. Where before the camera remained close to the wagoner, now the long focal length shots illustrate his alienation: his size and stature are reduced in Le Plateau as if he simply doesn’t count. He appears lost and bewildered, much like the naïve female protagonist Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) of Sembene’s later Black Girl who, before she departs for France, reveals that she doesn’t comprehend the city and its colonial indices. Walking with her (unnamed) male companion in the central public square called Place de l’Indépendance (formerly the Place Protét, created by the French on the site of a fort erected in 1857), she has to be told to stop dancing on the Second World War memorial with its inscription ‘For our Dead, a Grateful Nation’ which ties political independence with the sacrifice of those Senegalese


who died fighting for France. As Françoise Pfaff notes, Sembene’s editing here emphasizes the political irony of the situation, for newsreel clips are incorporated of Senegalese dignitaries placing wreaths at the foot of the monument to the sounds of French military drumming, while Senegalese war veterans hoist the flag of the French regiments in which they served.6 Black Girl also uses shots of the recently built National Assembly to accompany the details of corruption by officials and députés heard on the soundtrack. The message could not be clearer: led by its new neocolonial elite, Dakar still bears the oppressive topographic and historical imprint of its colonial masters. Each particle of framed urban space in these two pioneering films constitutes a locus of political identity and is ideologically loaded. Colonization, after all, entailed organizing the relations of production and control based on spatial arrangements aligned in terms of centre and periphery. Following independence, the old European section of the city (often erected on a hill) usually formed the downtown and upper-class residential areas, while the former indigenous sections (or ‘quartiers’) were inhabited by low-income Africans. Yet, as Simone points out, such a distinction required also the application of arbitrary divides, for the very notion of what it means to be ‘urban’ cannot easily be divided into terms where something is definitively ‘core’ or ‘peripheral’ (Simone 2010: 288). Indeed, it is an ideological construction, one that Sembene attempts precisely to dismantle in Borom Sarret by exposing and ironizing the horizontal/vertical axis. Pfaff has shown how this axis constitutes a standard paradigm of exploitative power over the lower classes who are confined to horizontal dwellings and unable even to access vertical buildings that are seats of power (banks, administrative offices, headquarters of firms, apartment buildings, luxury hotels), except as security or maintenance workers. She proposes ‘an aesthetics of spatial dualism’ (verticality vs horizontality) to reflect Africa’s social disparities between the oppressed masses and oppressive elites, not only in urban surroundings but also at the national level (Pfaff 2004: 105). Sembene’s principal two-stage strategy, pushed at times to a clinical extreme, is first to pan the city horizontally to expose its inequalities and deep divisions, then to underline them vertically. He invariably prioritizes the horizontal (i.e. the low-income areas and outskirts) over the vertical (the dominating towers of the neocolonial centre), for in his politics of space the centre is always positioned as negative, as in Mandabi where the protagonist Ibrahima’s Dieng’s Wolof-speaking community on the city’s fringes stands in active and antagonistic conflict with the bureaucratic institutions of Le Plateau where French remains the master language. For Sembene, then, the urban space of Dakar is always something more, namely a prime symbol and allegory of the African state post-independence. His universalizing, social-realist Marxist critique is most visible in Xala which takes place directly in the corridors of power in Dakar, although the capital is left deliberately unnamed in the film, all the better to serve as the seat of a generic,



African postcolonial state. As Lizbeth Malkmus and Roy Armes observe, the various aspects of social and domestic politics in Xala are worked out in preeminently spatial terms, from the domestic spaces to the rural countryside and all points in-between (Malkmus and Armes 1991: 194–5). Eventually, however, Sembene, who had himself grown up in the rural region of Casamance in Southern Senegal, gravitated in his films to largely non-metropolitan, rural spaces to pursue his allegorical narratives of progress and modernity, for he quickly realized that the possibility of genuine and immediate change in the postcolonial city remained blocked under Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s president from 1960 to 1980 – it was the same old poverty and inequality, but now under a different name. His later proud statement that the village-set film Moolaadé could have been made anywhere in Africa confirms, in fact, that he was always seeking in his Dakar-set films to attain a universal symbolics of space, rather than a specificity of place and location which a more sustained, organic engagement with the capital city would demand. Yet Sembene’s groundbreaking early works provided a basic grammar for all future cinematic and visual representations of the city – a grammar Mambety would eventually fashion and perfect into a dazzling poetics of urbanspace.7 There are numerous points of similarity between Sembene and Mambety, most obviously the fact that they both adopted spatial strategies of dualism by contrasting

FIGURE 3.1  A low-angle shot of the policeman towering above the cart-driver Modou (Ly Abdoulaye) in the heights of Le Plateau in Borom Sarret (1963).


vertical landmarks (colonial-era buildings, the emblems of metropolitan affluence) with horizonal drift (the daily lives of the poor). Mambety also shared Sembene’s grasp of the fundamental need to remap Dakar in order to eradicate the poverty of its denizens and cut loose once and for all from the colonial past. From wide panoramas and overhead shots to extreme close-ups, Mambety leads us around, under, through and behind the city, showing at once the visible and invisible, the ugly and the beautiful, the deceptive surfaces and all-too-real underbelly of Dakar life, rendered all the more flagrant for being exposed to full view in the unforgiving heat and sun of daytime, like the ‘ciel ironique et cruellement bleu’ (literally cruelly blue and ironic sky) subsuming Paris in Baudelaire’s ‘Le Cygne’. However, Mambety’s preferred technique for highlighting the accelerating divisions and inequalities caused by rampant neocolonial urbanization was less mise en scène and shot composition than a practice of intensive and disjunctive montage. By juxtaposing the city’s stunning peninsular location and the natural beauty of the surrounding hills and ocean with its pullulating sprawl and waste, he presented ever more damning contrasts between poverty and wealth, rural existence and the city. This systematic critique was initiated by his brilliant first short entitled appropriately Contras’city (1968), a subversive parody of the official tourist documentary. It featured a highly sarcastic and denunciatory off-screen voice-over by Mambety himself as a local in conversation with a French woman (Inge Hirschnitz) (at one point he even imitates the voice of Senghor). The topography of the city still looked pre-eminently European, with a clearly defined metropolitan centre circumscribed by familiar landmarks and flanked by rambling shanty towns or bidonvilles. Mambety revelled in underlining the many paradoxes ingrained in Le Plateau itself with its variously baroque and neoclassical French-built architecture, its Orientalstyle rooftops vying with Western-style high-rises, and the often absurd, surreal incongruities between ostentatious appearance and actual function.8 During a whistle-stop tour of the city in a horse-drawn wagon, the viewer glimpses not only Muslims praying on the sidewalk and the modest stores of the craftsmen near the famous Kermel covered market (originally constructed in 1860), but also the Rococo architecture of government buildings such as the neoclassical Chambre de Commerce (erected in 1930) symbolizing two periods of imperialism (Greek and French) (compared by Mambety to a theatre); the Catholic cathedral (consecrated in 1929) with its Byzantine dome and white, Sudanese-style minarets; the Hôtel de Ville (reconstructed in 1914); the Presidential Palace, the former residence of the French governor (built in 1907); and the Gare Ferroviaire de Dakar (the central train station) decorated with Moorish style mosaics. With his instinctive documentary-style approach to mapping out the city and putting down symbolic visual markers in order to create topographical coherence and an integrated, hybrid whole, Mambety short-circuited the generic approach formalized by Gardies, portraying Dakar as an utterly real and concrete space of human survival against the odds. He takes care to show the small daily acts of



community and resistance, particularly of those socially excluded inhabitants eking out a fragile existence on the city’s seeping margins. Indeed, his engagement with the real urban space of Dakar and its individual and communal activities and rituals (drawing water from the local well, public wrestling matches, the daily workings of the port) bespeak a commitment to capturing what Michael Sheringham, theorizing the quotidian and quotidienneté as a set of practices, relations and rhythms, has called ‘a commonality of experience that is endlessly forming and reforming human activities and encounters – if only we deigned to notice it’ (Sheringham 2006: 398). Mambety ensures we do exactly this, by providing scorching sounds and images that may be read directly as what Sheringham suggestively calls ‘figures of the everyday, pathways into the apprehension of everydayness’ (Sheringham 2006: 363). These incursions into objective reality privileging the long take and the slow pace of individual shots through lingering, probing pans allow the viewer to become immersed in the duration of everyday reality in Dakar, yet only intermittently. For like all early African filmmakers Mambety wished to avoid anything that approximated colonial documentary realism, with its descriptive visual reportage and semblance of ‘neutral’ voice-over commentary. Formal experimentation afforded him the means to escape being tied down to the enormity of the present, which raw documentary-style footage always ran the risk of merely reproducing. By challenging also the dictates of social realism and naturalism, Mambety managed to interweave his compelling fictions with punctual, audiovisual bulletins of his native city, now at risk of being flattened or else discarded by the dehumanizing and alienating narratives of industrial progress. Key to Mambety’s method was his détournement of cinémavérité images. At one point in Touki-Bouki he intercuts historical footage of a presidential procession (a banner is glimpsed with the names of Senghor and, just visible, Albert-Bernard Bongo (later Omar Bongo, president of Gabon)) with a tracking shot of the central young couple, Mory and Anta, in their newly stolen gear waving to the crowd from a Citroën decked in the stars and stripes of the American flag. Elsewhere, a sequence in an outside arena integrates recorded documentary images of Lebu elders attending a wrestling match to help fund a memorial statue to Charles de Gaulle.9 Yet if Mambety eschewed clear meanings, either overt or allegorical, he did so in favour of an associative, poetic logic created by a cross-fertilizing collage of rhythms, breathless ellipses, unaccounted for flash-forwards, abrupt, often absurd collisions, and acerbic juxtapositions. With its recurring, obsessive, lurid images of animals being slaughtered to evoke and intensify the fate of humans isolated from freedom, Touki-Bouki pits the bloodred energy of urban experience against repeated shots of the ocean (symbol of freedom) which become progressively more abstract, at times even occupying the whole frame. In this expanded urban map stretched towards the cosmos, the communal, dissident mass of quotidian existence is revealed as a form of local resistance to the control and codification of the prevailing system.


It is because Mambety enters a greater range of locations with his restive, roving figures forever on the make that he is never quite as pessimistic as Sembene about the politics of urban space. Moreover, unlike in Sembene’s work where the city must always perform allegorically and symbolically, Mambety seeks consistently to determine what makes this historic port city so exceptional and its residents so unique with their combination of natural grace and guile, raucous energy and tenacity, good humour and sense of mischief. We proceed in Touki-Bouki, for example, through a series of demarcated areas as stages in the protagonists’ personal trajectory, from the sahel to the shanty towns, an abattoir, an ocean villa, Le Plateau, and finally the port, passing by a series of recognizable urban topoi (the market, motorway footbridge, harbour, etc.). Yet we also spend time with these characters due to extended establishing shots that anchor us temporarily in a specific place and allow us to consider the intricate interrelations between habitat and behaviour – a complex, evolving process of identity that proved, for Mambety, a source of endless fascination. In the extended comic short Le Franc (1994), the first of a planned trilogy entitled Histoires de Petites Gens (Stories of the little people), where the illiterate Médina dweller Marigo (Dieye Ma Dieye), renting a room in a neighbourhood of low wooden houses, enters the bureaucratic labyrinth of Dakar’s public buildings to cash in his national lottery ticket (glued to his now disconnected bedroom door), Mambety shows his protagonist in one of the local cars rapides (small French vans reconditioned as buses and painted in vivid colours) passing Kermel market which had just burnt down. The West African States Central Bank (BCEAO) skyscraper on the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle serves as an unmissable, looming backdrop since Mambety even provides a close-up of the lettering at the top – bitingly ironic in view of the fact that Marigo’s win is rendered almost worthless by the news (a historical fact) of the massive devaluation of the West African CFA franc. Compare this with Sembene’s use of names and signs on buildings like the Chambre de Commerce which are invariably fragmented and estranged, or else made superfluous through excessive repetition. Dakar is thus always in flux yet clearly identifiable in Mambety’s work (the closing credits of Le Franc are careful to thank the inhabitants of Niaye Tioker, located just off the Route de la Corniche-Ouest between Le Plateau and Rebeuss). In contrast to the rigorously objective, cool detachment of Sembene, this is a director who presents his native city poetically as both motion and emotion. Indeed, each of his films constitutes a personal letter or poem to Dakar, warts and all, a conflicted object of both love and hate. The viewer is invited to appreciate the city’s hazardous evolution from film to film, including the steady collapse of public infrastructure like the central train station falling progressively into disrepair or the increasing amounts of rubbish washed up daily on the streets. The endresult of Mambety’s topophilic commitment to chronicling the capital is a radical reshuffling of documentary and narrative, experience and spectacle, and a unique and enthralling cosmopolitan poetics of the urban encounter.



Utopia denied The modernist grammar and visual rhetoric so confidently advanced and developed in different ways by Sembene and Mambety provided a composite template for all subsequent directors addressing the changing African urban landscape. The particular trope of the slow, opening, establishing pan across the urban skyline, suggesting potential trouble lurking just beneath the surface, accompanied by a crane shot descending slowly towards street level, has become virtually de rigueur in all subsequent African films set in the city. In Niiwam (1991) by Clarence Delgado, for instance, the opening credits roll out over Dakar’s modern skyline as the camera pans first left, then right, over the tall business and apartment buildings of the downtown area before then cutting abruptly to focus on the Sandaga Market, harbour and shanty towns, intercut in turn by brief shots of the Chambre de Commerce and Place de l’Indépendance – a series of juxtapositions directly foregrounding Senegal’s current socio-economic woes. The same visual vocabulary and sharp, geometric lines have been applied to other capital cities, although in the process it has been placed under intense strain, making us acutely aware of the mounting din and cacophony of the emerging afropolis and its rumblings of social discontent and frustration fomenting in the back of the frame or else off-screen. In the 2010 crime drama/thriller Viva Riva! by Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga, an initial series of slow, wide-frame long shots of Kinshasa conveys both the overpowering scale and adrenalin rush of this urban setting (a city of over twelve million) that will soon be depicted as lawless and out of control. Similarly, in the opening pre-credits sequence of Africa, I Will Fleece You, Teno, speaking in the first-person on the soundtrack, accompanies a slow pan across an otherwise gentle panorama of Yaoundé with the following expression of Baudelairean disgust towards the capital city where he grew up: ‘Yaoundé. Cruel city. You have stuffed our heads full of your official lies. You have trampled our distress into your arrogant filth … Yaoundé, cruel city, you have sown the seeds of shame.’ More generally, an opening panning shot can highlight the immense disconnect between the local and global. For example, in Imunga Ivanga’s Dôlé, l’argent (Dôlé, money) (2001) set in Libreville, capital of Gabon, the opening shot of a group of boys joyfully rehearsing French hiphop on a rooftop overlooking the city cuts immediately to a slow pan that moves across and past the same rooftop to capture the entire urban landscape in long shot, graphically exposing the reality of poverty in this central neighbourhood. While the sequence, as Petty rightly argues, aligns the boys with the histories of inequality and alienation expressed in hip-hop cultures within a global black diaspora (Petty and Stefanson 2014: 169), it also insists on the material gap between the local and transnational (including mediatized images of success and opportunity in the rich North) that must be faced and negotiated daily by those growing up in the afropolis.


This marked shift in focus and emphasis of such formal devices reflects the new and evolving constellations of real and imagined urban geographies and topographies, for in the afropolis all is at once more aggravated, magnified and dispersed, making impossible a readily identifiable, European-based set of coordinates either to trace parodically or else to subvert. In the case of Dakar, the spectacular swelling of its contours, exacerbated by massive migration from the countryside (in particular the Casamance region) which it is unable to absorb and contain, has taken urban planners by surprise. This is nothing new. In a sombre 1969 television documentary entitled Dakar: crise de croissance (Dakar: a growth crisis) by Swiss filmmaker Jean-Claude Diserens, a standard work of vox pop reportage devoid of Sembene’s own stylized urban cartography, Sembene as voiceover narrator was already warning that the city was becoming uncontrollable due to the rising tide of poverty and migrant workers. Yet Greater Dakar is now a mushrooming conglomeration of new and virtually unknown neighbourhoods and conurbations – shanty towns built of corrugated iron and scrap metal located on its ever-expanding outskirts that reach almost to Thiès, Senegal’s third largest city seventy kilometres away. If the division between the centre and margins is now less acute and concentrated, Dakar itself, like other afropolises, remains just as segregated, polarized between rich enclaves (and increasingly gated communities) and the indiscriminate rest. In fact, poverty has simply migrated and mutated, no longer confined to traditional working-class areas like Médina, Gueule Tapée, or, a little further away, Colobane. The sense of deluge and anonymous, uniform, low-rise sprawl is underlined by the topography of the urban landscape which is undergoing further degrees of transition due to the changing geo-economics. Dakar is being steadily bought up by Chinese investors, and parts of the inner city, including shoreline areas, currently lie in vacant lots following demolition and pending fresh construction. It means that the only distinctive new edifices breaking up the amorphous physical mass are either the largely private complexes and corporate fortresses being erected outside the city limits and in plush neighbourhoods and tourist resorts along the coast like Les Almadies (home to Club Med and the newly constructed American Embassy), or the hypervisible vanity projects realized by former president Abdoulaye Wade. These include the Place du Souvenir Africain built to immortalize the great figures of African science and culture, the Grand Théâtre National (inaugurated in 2011), and the 49-metre tall bronze statue Monument de la Renaissance Africaine located on top of one of the twin hills known as the Collines des Mamelles in the inner suburb of Ouakam overlooking the Atlantic. The latter, the tallest sculpture in Africa, was designed by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa and constructed by North Korean engineers at a cost of 27 million US dollars. Such supremely grandiose, megalomaniac follies serve, of course, merely to underline the basic lack of new infrastructure in the city itself which still has no metro system and relies on a minimal commuter train service. It is entirely symptomatic of Dakar’s plight that



its new airport, which opened in 2017 to replace the small, crumbling, out-of-date Aéroport International Léopold Sédar Senghor, is now located fifty kilometres south-east of Dakar – a deliberate strategy not merely to stimulate economic growth and jobs outside the capital and close to the main tourist areas, but also to allow foreigners to bypass the maelstrom of Dakar altogether. With the relentless dismantling of the state, many of Dakar’s multiple localities and communities are being allowed simply to deteriorate or stagnate.10 Struggling already with an exploding population, mounting inequality, and the flight of young migrants to Europe, the city is increasingly regarded and experienced as an oversized, under-resourced and unmanageable zone of grime and corruption subsuming everything, including the ocean. Moreover, the crumbling infrastructure and desuetude of Dakar’s key sites like the Gare Ferroviaire accentuates its increasing congestion and gridlock, further compounded by the bottleneck effect of its peninsular location that in turn exacerbates the unregulated effects of pollution. Already in Amadou Saalum Seck’s 1988 film Saaraba, the title of which translates ironically as ‘utopia’, the young Tamsir, returning to Senegal after spending much of his youth in France, is left perplexed and perturbed by the interminable deprivation he beholds as he is driven from the airport through the hinterland of Dakar: the destitute beggars and vagrants in the endless new, already dilapidated, neighbourhoods punctuated by pockets of exorbitant wealth and Western investment, including the new stadium (the Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor) built with Chinese money and the International Trade Forum. He reacts by expressing a wish to retreat permanently to his home village far from the city, since, in his words, ‘tradition is identity’, though his father reminds him that he must instead pay his dues as a returning citizen. Epitomizing the young generation’s lack of purpose and direction, Tamsir represents a broader question facing the country: How can postcolonial Senegal successfully articulate a sense not only of national identity but also of civic pride? The launching in 1998 of the major urban redevelopment project ‘Projet de Ville de Pikine’ was an attempt precisely to impose some kind of order on Dakar’s spiralling phenomenon of unchecked growth and impoverishment by drawing on the local need for community and solidarity. Yet, as Simone shows, Pikine, first established as a suburb in 1952 and existing in its present territorial configuration since 1996, reveals the effects of the general process of decentralization in Dakar that limits local autonomy and restricts the possibility of creating resources. For although Pikine has a current population of nearly two million and functions virtually as a city unto itself, there was until only very recently no official secondary school within its loose boundaries (see Simone 2004: 21–62). In fact, the bedraggled streets of Pikine often serve now as generic Dakar in Senegalese cinema, and they are the setting for one of the most acclaimed recent popular features, Madame Brouette (L’Extraordinaire destin de Madame Brouette, 2002) by Moussa Sene Absa. The film illustrates the common lot of women in Senegal who


are faced with social and cultural obstacles to advancement in a male-dominated society where their role is often limited to that of producing children. In his earlier Tableau Ferraille (1996), set in the small streets of his native fishing village in the environs of Dakar presented as a standard banlieue composed of sheds of iron and wooden scraps, and where the barrels rolling up on the beach contain radioactive waste, Absa charted the rise and abrupt fall of an honest politician Daam (Ismaël Lô) specifically in terms of the betrayal of the ideals of national independence (in this toxic world of systemic corruption there are no laws or regulations, still less schools or hospitals).11 In Madame Brouette, however, the focus is on the daily life and destiny of a young single mother, the eponymous heroine Madame Brouette (or Mati) (Rokhaya Niang), who has decided to leave her husband and pursue a solitary life. She pushes a multicoloured wheelbarrow (brouette) of fruit through the streets of Niayes, an arrondissement in the Pikine department, presented once again in almost abstract terms as a mixture of passe-partout urban and coastal spaces with no identifiable images of Dakar (there is no indication even in the credits of where the various scenes were shot). Mati becomes synonymous with her barrow, instrument of her liberation, and, despite her lowly means and stark responsibilities, is hailed as a defender of women like herself abused by their husbands or lovers. The film’s mood and tone remain, in fact, surprisingly buoyant and affirmative, with an ‘Afro-Brechtian’ griot chorus commenting on the action and using music to enhance the emotional atmosphere. However, with its frank representation of archetypal social space in Dakar, the daily toll of poverty and reduced circumstances and horizons for women is plainly conveyed, along with police corruption, prostitution, and the endemic abuse of social and political power. The fate allotted to Dakar’s female population provides perhaps the sharpest indicator of the enormity of the material and social problems facing the city. Mambety and Sembene had already recognized the urgency of the situation. Mambety’s 1998 short, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil) (another of his Histoires de Petites Gens), concerned a feisty and fearless paraplegic young girl Sili (Lissa Baléra) brought up by her grandmother in a shack on the waste-strewn, outlying areas near the airport. She survives the mean streets of Dakar by selling the city’s newspaper Le Soleil and relying on the random kindness of others. The film’s searing depiction of life for the city’s marginalized takes us to the vicinity of the then headquarters of Le Soleil and the ferry docking area, shot in long takes to create the impression of documentary real time. In her brave, daily survival against hardship and constant taunting and bullying by rival boys also selling the newspaper (they even steal one of her crutches), Sili proudly reclaims the streets as female. The same is true, though on a different level, for Faat Kiné in Sembene’s 2000 film of the same name. A middle-aged single and unwed mother born in 1960, the year of independence, Faat Kiné (Vénus Séye) has triumphed over a personal history of male treachery and corruption to become a



successful, self-made business woman. In the film’s opening sequence comprising overhead shots of downtown Dakar which correspond to the vertical/horizontal axes already noted, a group of women in traditional boubous carry water buckets with babies tied to their backs as they walk across Place de l’Indépendance and the wide, paved, central avenues. This remarkable sequence culminates at a road junction when the car driven by Faat Kiné is obliged to stop and let the women pass, raising familiar concerns about tradition versus modernity but from a specifically female perspective. For Faat Kiné is the manager of a petrol station business she has established entirely on her own terms, employing a man as her deputy and assistant while also regularly giving money from her profits to help the local poor. Two male out-of-towners (one played by Sembene himself) can only gasp in astonishment and admiration at the supreme ease and confidence, social as well as economic, with which Faat Kiné and her two female friends leave a restaurant after having just discussed among themselves with unabashed candour their sexual frustrations and desires. We might link Faat Kiné’s bold signs of a new and powerful urban sisterhood with a recent Nigerian film, Biyi Bandele’s Fifty (2015), set in present-day Lagos, where a group of four successful and aspirational women redress the city’s economic imbalance not only in gendered terms but also spatially. A key backdrop to their lives is the recently built Lekki Bridge, a glittering architectural jewel and towering symbol of the new Lagos which they effectively appropriate for themselves in an exciting new cartographics of desire. Yet within contemporary Senegalese cinema such stories of female self-empowerment and enterprise through the reappropriation of masculine-encoded urban space represent more the exception than the rule. This reflects the fact that highly conservative social norms and sensibilities remain firmly in place in Senegalese society with its moral traditionalism based on Sufi religious customs. Shifts in social attitudes towards girls and women have been few owing to the immense value still placed on large families, and women’s voices and their right to autonomy continue to be sidelined. For example, the country’s almost total ban on abortion (it remains illegal in all cases except to save a woman’s life, and giving advice on where or how to access abortion is a criminal offence), has resulted in a growing wave of infanticides. Nearly one in five women in prison in Senegal in 2015 was imprisoned for the crime, including some who became pregnant due to rape. There has also been minimal improvement in economic mobility for women due to a lack of opportunities and limited horizons. The 48-minute docudrama Le Monologue de la Muette (The monologue of the silent woman) (2008), by the late writer and director Khady Sylla (assisted by Charlie Van Damme), offers a devastating account of the situation of young girls from Senegal’s rural regions who end up exploited as maids and housekeepers in Dakar. The young ‘Amy’, whose threadbare voice is heard on the soundtrack articulating her misery and oppression in a Sembenian prise de parole while she is


seen performing her endless menial tasks and duties in total silence, is presented as a modern African female type. Her condition is typical of the over 150,000 adolescent girls in her position who lead a hopeless, thankless life with little or no prospects and stand doomed to poverty. Even the early opposition established between ici (Dakar, where Amy exists physically) and là-bas (her rural home to which she remains tied in mind and memory) proves in the end irrelevant, since once they have left home such girls can never return on their own terms, ending up also exploited by their own family of which they no longer feel part. Sylla’s emphasis is always on the universal, and urban space is presented precisely as generic and indistinct. This could be any African city, Sylla states at the end in a voice-over, declaring that in order for this wretched situation to be improved, more is required than simply good intentions on the part of the government. For in the current system of globalization and capitalism, everyone and everything is being exploited – the girls are only one symptom of a larger process of marginalization, as inexorable as the desertification of the rural areas, and no one is exempt from this escalating cycle of misery, not even young men. The social conditions continue to reproduce themselves: the uneducated maids aspire merely to live in Dakar and employ maids of their own. The same sense of futility and lack of agency infused Sylla’s earlier 2005 short, Une Fenêtre ouverte (An open window), the poignant study of a self-declared ‘mad woman’ Aminta Ngom, now sequestered in her family’s home in Dakar. Intercutting grainy, digital video vérité documentary with performed monologues, the film presents the city as an unsettling space of errance where mentally disturbed people wander the streets lost in their own worlds. Yet this is also a highly self-reflexive

FIGURE 3.2  Another random view of female urban drudgery in Dakar in Le Monologue de la Muette (2008).



and intimate portrait of female struggle and marginality, for with her complete lack of inhibitions Aminta provides Sylla (mentally ill herself at the time) a new type of window on the world. In Le Monologue de la Muette, however, despite the odd dramatized scene of group confrontation and the occasional explosion of energy provided by a female performer hollering aggressively into the camera on behalf of Amy and all others like her (the viewer is positioned here uncomfortably as both voyeur and exploiter), the mood remains unremittingly bleak: all appears already lost at every level.

The elusive afropolis In view of Dakar’s increasingly harsh material and economic realities matched by entrenched social and institutional inertia, how do contemporary art directors working in narrative fiction cinema depict such a tumultuous and woefully divided urban space with its simmering undercurrents of frustration and discord? Are they obliged to continue adapting and revising the tropes of urban cartography and representation in Senegalese cinema established by Sembene and Mambety, or can they reject them altogether and start afresh? For lack of an immediate response, many filmmakers have been concerned to record and capture as accurately and uncompromisingly as possible the daily toil of the Dakarian afropolis, resorting to the more straightforward, short documentary form once renounced by their predecessors. The 2003 documentary short Fi Sabililahi by Aïcha Thiam, for example, provides a graphic sense of the scale of depredation and chaos in the city where young talibés in residential Koranic schools (or daaras) not only have to survive terrible, often abusive, living conditions, but also are forced by the marabout to go begging on the streets. In Mbeubeuss, le terreau de l’espoir (Mbeubeuss, breeding ground of hope) (2012), Nicolas Sawalo Cissé sensitively documents a now standard phenomenon of the afropolis: children and adults alike eking out a precarious existence on giant, uncontrolled and open waste tips (here the three-kilometre wide Mbeubeuss tip twelve miles north of Dakar), scavenging for objects to recycle and resell among the fetid debris that includes the decomposing bodies of unwanted newborn babies discarded in the city.12 Meanwhile, Alassane Sy’s fictional short Marabout (2015), employing a highly convincing documentary-style approach, tells the story of a young detective called Diagne (played by Sy) pursuing a group of street kids in Dakar who steal from him. He soon discovers the cruel dangers they are exposed to in their orphanage, run by a greedy and exploitative marabout. In a similar vein, Amadou Thior’s Mariage précoce (1995) focuses on a thirteen-year-old victim of a forced marriage in her search for freedom in Dakar, highlighting at the same time a city sinking under the weight of its own dirt and rubbish framed here provocatively by spanking new high-rises.


To return to the feature film format, however, let us consider in detail the example of Alain Gomis and his celebrated Tey, winner of the prize for best film (the Étalon d’or de Yennenga) at the 2013 edition of FESPACO. This compelling, meditative study of a young man coming to terms with his own mortality is also a poetic, existential journey through the streets of Dakar. Satché (played by the American hip-hop artist and spoken-word poet, Saul Williams) has returned home to his family in the capital to be told that, although strong and healthy, his time to die has been decided by higher forces. The film is presented explicitly in the opening prologue (a short paragraph of screen text) as a prelude to Satché’s ‘spirit’ being lifted to heaven, and it records the last day of his life on earth as a journey unfolding like the stations of the cross: he bids farewell in turn to his parents, the friends of his youth, his first love and former mistress Nella (Aïssa Maïga) in her downtown art studio, his uncle (Thierno Ndiaye Doss) who also ritualistically cleans his body, and finally his wife Rama (Anisia Uzeyman) and two young children with whom he is reunited. If Tey cannot help but evoke the oneday-in-the life structure of Borom Sarret, the terms are now wholly inverted: we are dealing with the extended but climactic last day on earth of a young, cultured, middle-class man. The viewer follows Satché as he wanders languidly in a trancelike state through the city, by turns empty and teeming and prone to sudden eruptions of violence, as when he stumbles upon an angry street protest against the high cost of living taking place near Place de l’Indépendance, quickly quelled by riot police. A woman screams out: ‘Voleur! Ça suffit’ (‘Thief! Enough!) and ‘Marre, Marre, Marre!’, the by-word of the ‘Y’en a marre’ (‘We’re fed up’) movement of artists, journalists and students who militated successfully against Wade in the run up to the 2012 presidential election that was eventually won democratically in a run-off by Macky Sall of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS). Made during the last bitter throes of the Wade presidency, Tey captures well the febrile atmosphere of uncertainty and trepidation which Gomis himself directly experienced (he spent a year in Dakar with his family while shooting Tey). Gomis’s Dakar is one of now familiar contrasts: on the one hand, the concrete apartment buildings and towering glass skyscrapers of the central Plateau area, with its middle-class households and former colonial neighbourhoods; on the other, the informal settlements of cinder blocks and corrugated metal as well as anonymous construction sites and unfinished buildings (the film was shot partly in Rufisque, once a distinctive colonial city in its own right, now subsumed by the Dakar sprawl and virtually the only area of the peninsula where new construction is still possible). Yet unlike Sembene and Mambety, Gomis does not capitalize artistically on such oppositions, for the traditional poles of order versus chaos, centre versus periphery, dissolve in the sepia and grey material mass, presented here as at once all-encompassing and decimating. Parts of the urban landscape may be in mid-construction, but these appear already as if in a state of decomposition, for one senses here not a capital city and port in forward



transition but a post-urban space in regression and displacement – like a gaping pit of poverty, confusion, trauma and dread. Gomis presents a virtual netherworld peopled by an urban under-class (including some of Satché’s old male friends and acquaintances) occupying derelict buildings and bunkers. Indeed, Dakar’s fractured body politic matches exactly the subjective limbo and malaise of the film’s fatigued, ailing protagonist. Moreover, Gomis does not particularize Dakar like Mambety, nor does he seek to allegorize it like Sembene, but rather smudges and abstracts it, individualizing it with just enough topographical hints and signs to remind us that we are actually in Dakar (a number 6 bus waiting at a street junction in the far distance en route from Cambérène to the Palais de Justice offers a rare proof of locale). In the process Dakar itself, denied for the most part any precise spatial or geographical coordinates, appears a non-specific urban blur. Where once in Senegalese cinema spatial markers were clearly signposted, plotted and symbolically determined, here all is unplotted and scrambled, as if outside time and space. The city thus feels loosened from its actual moorings. The Hôtel de Ville which Satché enters, for example, is a composite of two local Mairies, one in Grand-Dakar, the other in Médina. The very name ‘Dakar’, or indeed of any of the specific quarters Satché passes through, are never identified (the viewer is informed only in the final credits that the film was shot in part in Parc Lambaye in Pikine Ouest). We could be in any nondescript, deprived, urban wasteland of West Africa. Something similar already took place in Gomis’s earlier L’Afrance (2001), where the brief, shorthand-like impressions of Dakar alternating with those of Paris in the extended incipit were kept deliberately generic and archetypal, including an overhead, high-angle crane shot of downtown street traffic, with the camera

FIGURE 3.3  Satché (Saul Williams) and Sélé (Djolof Mbengue) dissolving into the sepia mass of Dakar’s new urban wastelands in Tey (2012).


moving down halfway to the taxis and buses designating daily life, and odd shots of a mosque with its minarets at Ouakam.13 In Tey, however, all is kept at ground level, reflecting an artistic commitment to honouring the organic activity and diegetic sounds of the streets. The film may be compared in this respect to Sylla’s earlier extended short, Colobane Express (1999), a docudrama complete with reconstructed events, vignettes and semi-improvised dialogues about passengers using one of the city’s cars rapides over the course of a day from dawn to dusk, starting off in the outer suburbs and tracing an itinerary that encompasses Pikine and Parcelles Assainies as well as the inner neighbourhoods of Colobane and HLM. Colobane Express captures the often comic peripeteia of this particular social microcosm, including brawls and cheating, through rapid, well-crafted montage and a rhythmic score of Senegalese music and natural sounds. What is crucial here, as in Tey, is the strict adherence to the horizontal to capture the topsy-turvy of life and daily struggle in Dakar: the heat and crowds engaged in the continuous grind of the tarmac in virtually synonymous urban settings. Key to this is the almost exclusive use of close-ups and medium shots, with virtually no long shots or overhead vistas to provide formal contrast and tension. Indeed, the viewer never arrives in the historic centre of Dakar nor enjoys the benefits of establishing shots, high-angle shots of downtown, still less the extensibility of deep focus – this is the lived reality of the afropolis with no visual escape or formal transcendence. The same with Tey where Dakar appears precisely unframable and ungraspable, beyond cognitive mapping. As Gomis eloquently explains in the quote used as an epigraph for this chapter: ‘The real [Dakar] exists in the gaps between all those pictures’ (my emphasis).14 For Steffan Horowitz, Tey is a film about liminality: the feeling of being inbetween – in between life and death, present and future, being at home and being a stranger, an agent and observer, object and subject. The film’s brilliance, Horowitz suggests, lies in what is not said and in its silences on things that do not need to be spoken. This obliges the viewer to internalize the film on a much deeper emotional level (Horowitz 2013). Certainly, by departicularizing the screened urbanspace Tey succeeds in making the cinematic experience of the city more concrete and immediate – an open, mobile space of impressions and sensations. Indeed, the film has an impressively immersive feel, engaging with the cityscape at an intensively granular level. Yet just as the city’s referential presentness is blanked out in its dense urban frescoes, so, too, the experiential present is blocked. Indeed, any simple celebration of Satché’s urban stroll as a new, postcolonial form of modern flânerie, as claimed by the French film critic Vincent Malausa (Malausa 2013b: 27), is thrown into direct question by the evidence. For while Dakar is a space of continuous encounters for Satché, these are not always positive or assured and can sometimes be deeply disturbing, even shattering, because susceptible to violence. Satché often appears nervous and uncertain, almost discombobulated, in the city, as if cowered by the sensory overload of the streets. At one moment



he faints and falls down to the ground, intimidated both by the large crowd that suddenly appears like a flash mob and encircles him aggressively, and by the signs of social unrest that threaten to erupt into a riot and then disappear in a flash. This is, in fact, an entirely accurate feature of Dakar life, where a random accident or outburst of violence can provoke immediate repercussions and reprisals exacted physically by citizens on the spot, before the scene almost instantly flips back into relative calm. In the same way that Tey itself is not propelled by any obvious ideological momentum or social critique, so, too, its protagonist displays no active presence or agency. Walking in the face of imminent death Satché’s energy and drive appear to have totally dried up and been turned inside out. He barely utters a word and has little of the swagger or poise of Mambety’s cocksure young heroes like Badou Boy. He seems always out of place, out of time and out of sorts, until finally at the end when he is back home with his young children and safe in the arms of his wife. This might suggest a conservative message, that is, Satché must return at the end of the day to the security of domestic space in order to find peace and final reconciliation with his preordained fate. Yet the aesthetic stakes of this film are particular and precise: it is dedicated to exploring the relations between consciousness and the visible realm in the full face of death, rather than to encapsulating contemporary Dakar. Whereas beauty for Mambety was always to be found in the way his characters interact collectively with the landscape they presently inhabit, however grim (we see where they live, how they improvise, where they obtain brief emotional and erotic release), in Tey it becomes both a more personal and ethereal matter: a tumble of individual feelings, sporadic impressions, evanescent smiles and flickers of recognition that relate always to a subjective point of view verging at times on the abstract. Satché’s last glimpse of his wife, which seals the film’s final, very touching and deftly elliptical closing nighttime sequence (one where the children, now magically fully grown, casually walk past their parents and out of the front gate) is a deliberately low-key, subjective point-of-view shot of her warm neck and head in close-up, set against the out-of-focus background blur of a blue wall appearing to throb gently to the rhythms of an electric fan. This half-figurative, half-abstract composition eventually fades to darkness after a brief initial cut to black (Satché’s eyes closing momentarily, then definitively, one assumes). Tey thus ends on a highly introspective note, for we have travelled from the exteriority of the city to the extreme private space of inner visions. Compare this restorative conclusion with the final scene in L’Afrance of the return to Senegal by student protagonist El Hadj (Djolof Mbengue), when safety and refuge are provided in more traditional ways by the sight of a grove of young baobab trees accompanied by African rhythms and singing in French – a powerful reminder that one’s ancestors are always alive and present. The concluding sequence of Tey returns us instead to the very start of the film where, immediately following the prologue accompanied by sounds of waves, a shot of the surface of the ocean is


gradually transformed into a mounting, abstract swirl of developing reddish hues and tones that lead magically to the surface of a human face – a pair of open eyes suddenly become visible in extreme close-up. The next shot is of a hand suspended above the naked chest of a supine male body which the fingers then gently comb, consolidating what is already a subtle play of fragmented details, textures and surfaces. We see how far we have come – or rather not come – since the foundational films of Sembene and Mambety. For in this new, mythical, postmodern landscape, central Dakar is no longer the iconic and ironically circumscribed white space high on the urban horizon, but instead a continually alienating, atomizing, anonymous concrete and iron expanse. For Mambety, the framed city was always a rich source of meaning – it derived and transmitted knowledge and energy in its very unease and vacillation – whereas in Tey meaning must be found despite the city which is now turned into an abstract limbo that one passes through as if in a sleepwalk. This may seem ironic, granted that Tey sometimes recalls Mambety stylistically with its use of handheld camera, elliptical narration, sudden frontal close-ups and eclectic soundtrack (the wide range of songs cited include ‘Vers la ville’ by the actor playing Satché’s old, close buddy Sélé, Djolof Mbengue).15 But crucially Gomis declines Mambety’s method of rapid montage and viscerally raw hyper-realism to limn a by turns impressionist and expressionist zone of urban shadows that pass by at Satché’s own faltering pace, like a protracted, uneven ride through a ghost town. Hence, just as Satché is morbidly beset by memories of a richly lived life, so Dakar’s streets appear engulfed by screen memories of Sembene and Mambety in a kind of generalized haunting, the glorious modernist dreams of post-independence modernity now reversed as the wretched stuff of dystopian visions. Although Satché aims to celebrate the present for as long as he can, what the film does instead is commemorate the past of both this one man and his native city. Tey ultimately plays out as a delicate, solemn fugue, wilfully enshrouding the city and its characters, as well as itself and the viewer, in its vague but alluring mysteries. There can be no tomorrow: Tey will end with Satché (and Dakar) still alive, yet about to die. Tey is emblematic of other contemporary authorial responses to Dakar which represent the city as an uncontrollable, labyrinthine mass, both fascinating and frightening, yet also strangely absent – an ambivalent, indiscernible urbanspace that can never be captured and fixed in the form of a long shot panorama of the cityscape or through the pitched juxtapositions of montage. In another important though less well-known feature film made around the same time, Dakar Trottoirs (Dakar sidewalks) (2012), by the young director Hubert Laba Ndao, a love story of sorts between young adults set to a pounding soundtrack of heady rap music arranged by Didier Awadi, the action takes place largely in Le Plateau presented not as a tightly structured social space and administrative hub during business hours, but as an anonymous, grungy, nocturnal space of dangerous streets and



FIGURE 3.4  Satché (Saul Williams) fainting in the chaos of the afropolis in Tey (2012).

alleyways at once vibrant and squalid, taken over by gangs, drugs, and the roaming marginalized, or what Ndao calls in his ‘Director’s Note’ the area’s ‘nocturnal fauna’. Here, wealthy facades sit cheek by jowl with dingy hovels, basement squats and dive-bars in a relentlessly fluid but disturbing heterogeneous mix.16 Again, there are no clearly delineated spatial coordinates to anchor this recording of urban subculture in the late evening and early hours, since the film is continually projected forwards by largely derivative dramatic action – the Hollywood-inspired idiom of drug-dealers and turf wars (including noted French actor Ériq Ebouaney as the ‘Master’ overlord), rogue police, casual sex, girlfriend rivalries, tough rolling banter, macho posturings and flashy street attitude. Indeed, unlike the almost exclusively daytime shots employed by Sembene and Mambety to capture in full glare the stark disparities of the new postcolonial city, here all becomes generic and vague in a tense, indeterminate zone of moody shadow-play – the privileged habitat for fabulation and masquerade, violence and deals. Moreover, like Tey and Colobane Express, Dakar Trottoirs is determinedly flat and horizontal, expressly embracing the prosaic and non-aesthetic with handheld camera movements for naturalistic effect. The lugubrious portrayal of Le Plateau as a cauldron of violence, delinquency and chaos soaked in lurid, saturated colours is thrown into heightened relief by the odd daytime foray to the coastline of the Cap-Vert peninsula to bury dead ‘brothas’, or a brief sortie by the central couple, Salla and Siirou, to the peaceful, sunny environment of the île de Gorée just off the peninsula, rendered in affirmative close-up and calm medium shots as they enjoy precious time away from the battle lines of downtown. The small artists’ market at Gorée aimed exclusively at tourists sits uneasily with the island’s graveyard and museum of black persecution


and enslavement, yet in Senegalese films set in Dakar Gorée often functions as a kind of safe, positive, ‘other’ space. It may be likened in this respect to the small, provincial and historic city of Saint-Louis 250 kilometres up the coast which, in Saint-Louis Blues (Un transport un commun, 2009), for example, a musical comedy-cum-road movie by Dyana Gaye about men and women of different generations choosing to leave Dakar at the end of summer in a taxi-brousse for more comfortable climes, offers a counter-space to forge a new and spontaneous sense of community and belonging with diverse types of people not so easily achievable in the capital. The particular trope of Gorée as a welcome ailleurs contrasts, however, with its standard role in foreign films as an index of the city’s history in the Atlantic slave trade, especially in films seeking to establish the legacy of forced displacement in the creation of the African diaspora. In the Cameroonian director François Woukoache’s Asientos (1995), for instance, a documentary-style film engaging aesthetically with the ongoing legacy of cultural trauma, and where a young African man takes refuge in his imagination in the sacred places of the slave trade, we view in fictionalized sequences the empty cells of the Maison des Esclaves and the huts of the slaves’ original villages. Similarly, Rachid Bouchareb’s 2001 feature Little Senegal starts with an obligatory visit to Gorée by African-American tourists before moving on to the West African immigrant community of West Harlem in New York where the elderly protagonist Alloune (Sotigui Kouyaté), a custodian at the Maison des Esclaves, reconstitutes his genealogical tree and recounts his diasporic dreams to his first-generation nephew, Hassan (Karim Traoré).17 For the majority of Dakar Trottoirs, the viewer is compelled to inhale the stench of Le Plateau which could ultimately be anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa: only fleeting glimpses of shop signs confirm that this is a Francophone West African city and not, say, Johannesburg. It recalls in this sense Woukoache’s later feature, Fragments de vie (Fragments of Life) (1998), composed of three stories that unfold in the anonymous slums of an unnamed city in Francophone West or Central Africa (the film was shot in Yaoundé). Under cover of night the residents regain a vitality which explodes in the bars to the rhythms of the latest chart hits, yet this is also a time when memories of the past resurface and personal demons take over (in the second part, a young girl transforms herself into an angel of death in order to free herself from a traumatic past). Simone has referred directly to Fragments de vie in his presentation of Yaoundé as an exemplary African city, that is, as a site of darkness, fears, dreads and uncertainties lived in the fragments of daily lives (Simone 2004: 242–3). Another case in point is Andy Amadi Okoroafor’s Relentless (2010), a feature shot on location in Lagos and dealing with corruption and collective post-traumatic stress caused by Nigeria’s involvement in the recent wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Here, even daytime light appears grey, filtered through heavy clouds and affording little relief from the omnipresent darkness. A baleful, moody ode to the streets of Lagos conveyed with a handheld camera that



circles repeatedly around its subjects and records ambient street sounds, Relentless creates a film noir atmosphere of portentous intimacy and guarded mystery. While it may resemble Viva Riva! in its immersive focus on the poverty, violence and corruption fuelling the city’s nightlife, any additional tropical colour and excitement afforded by explicit sex and gangsta cool has been brutally suppressed. Submersion in the particular murky shadows and dregs of a nebulous Dakar is also a feature of other contemporary works set in the city, like L’Absence (2009) by Mama Keïta, a French-Guinean director born in Senegal. This psychological drama cast as a thriller traces a son’s calamitous return to the capital many years after successfully establishing himself as a scientist in Paris. Adama (William Nadylam) discovers his mute sister has been forced into criminal prostitution and exploitation – an alien, twilight underground of villains and outlaws in the city’s tenebrous backstreets of neon and violence, heightened still further by odd shots of the saturnine protagonist driving along the Route de la Corniche-Ouest in daylight. This is the dark face of a city and nation increasingly abandoned and ‘orphaned’ by its departing talented sons and daughters. The moral violence of Adama, portrayed as a selfish, blinded and tormented man, is mirrored exactly by the physical violence and extreme alienation now coursing through the city’s visibly bleeding veins. Such an aesthetic parti pris of sepulchral urban darkness is extended in the opaque and ominous portrait of Dakar in Ramaka’s powerful political documentary And if Latif was right!, bleached of colour to the point that images appear to unfold in a spectral monochrome. The capital is here an anonymous city of tangible fear, terror and persecution for which no one – neither the society nor the state – appears accountable. The murder of lawyer Babacar Sèye is reconstructed at the beginning with shots of armed thugs driving along the Route de la Corniche-Ouest through an eerie, deserted urban landscape.18 In contrast to such politically engaged narratives, Ndao’s concerted wish in Dakar Trottoirs is to create a dense, orgiastic atmosphere for the spectator to feel and experience as authentically as possible the raw, deafening noise, sweat and squalor of contemporary Dakar, free of any implicit or explicit sociopolitical agenda. In this respect it is also very different from Bekolo’s low-budget The Bloodettes, a hyper-stylized, erotic, science-fiction thriller set in the future but shot on the streets of Yaoundé, where the grotesque city shadows, billowing fog and garish, fluorescent day-glo colours of neon constitute the necessary backdrop from which emerge the two emancipated and avenging mevungu women to execute their macabre work as sexual assassins, literally bleeding to death the patriarchs in order to save the moral integrity of Cameroon. Moreover, unlike Mambety’s characters who formed an organic part of the city they also personified, Ndao’s alienated urban fauna appear essentially an egoistic and exotic species apart. What we are really witnessing in Dakar Trottoirs, as in Tey, is how Dakar has become more the idea of a city: the afropolis as an anonymous, frameless site of open danger and disorder, the epicentre of propinquitous isolation and the corruption of modern


life, rather than an identifiable and habitable concrete space. Indeed, although indelibly etched with the palimpsestic traces of an African urban imaginary, the cityscape appears to be floating in an elaborate cinematic void. There are perhaps finally two different and distinct ways of approaching a film like Dakar Trottoirs: as depicting a negative, dark, intractable, lost, urban space of generalized violence and turmoil, one where nothing has changed fundamentally in the last fifty years, or else as proposing a magical, nocturnal, cinematic site of escape and adventure allowing for reinvention and liberation from the parching diurnal heat and omnipresent poverty of a desperately divided and neglected city. Either way, in its sober emphasis on flatness and obscurity, and in its dogged insistence on the horizontal unrelieved by any oppositional play with the vertical, Dakar Trottoirs would appear, like Tey, to mark a formal inversion of Mambety and Sembene in an extreme anxiety of influence and delayed counter-formation. It is as if the current wave of Senegalese directors, working always in the historic shadows of their cinematic forebears and exploiting the technological gains of digital cameras to shoot in very low light,19 were consciously or unconsciously hollowing out and systematically voiding the artistic methods and ideological strategies of the originary, now classic, films about Dakar. This aesthetic ‘fix’ provides them with the potential means to gain poetic traction – new, artificial shades, gradations, tonalities – and so carve a path out of the brutal light of Mambety and Sembene’s formal grid. Indeed, one might consider Dakar Trottoirs an exemplary attempt by Ndao, like Gomis with Tey, to avoid merely reproducing and replotting the urban repertoire of their predecessors (Dakar as a ready-made map of symbolic spatial manoeuvres) in order to formulate original and continuously mobile ways of addressing the exploded urbanscape and the formlessness of the present-day material real, without, at the same time, resorting to rhapsodic overtures in the style of the European city symphony genre (e.g. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930), Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008)). Seen in this more affirmative light, the warped, eviscerated landscapes of Tey and Dakar Trottoirs bespeak an absolute authorial commitment to projecting new imaginary spaces of desire and forging fresh urban rhythms that capture the hallucinatory, shifting light and shadows of the city – a new afropolitan Sublime which takes the paradoxical, abyssal form of abjection and degradation. In other words, these two films may actually constitute a radical ambition to break away from any perception of aesthetic fatalism and inevitability – that is, the sense that nothing progressive or new in postcolonial Senegalese cinema may happen again. For to enter headlong into various degrees of measured abstraction is also to resist the idea that one is doomed as a filmmaker simply to repeat the same. And the aesthetic wager has reaped its rewards, for like Tey Dakar Trottoirs has been critically acclaimed, even garnering the top prize at the Festival de la Création Cinématographique de Guinée in 2016. Yet by the same token, in their resolute attempt not to be derivative, these two defiantly contemporary filmmakers end up all too predictably turning things inside



out and presenting essentially generic representations of the modern African city. In the case of Tey, this artistic ‘syndrome’ bears immediate thematic fruit in the way that it also allows Gomis to focus on male fragility and vulnerability, exposing the viewer to alternative, more contemplative and challenging forms of African masculinity. Satché’s soft, muted sensibility, which relies on his subtle play of eyes, gestures, emotions and physicality beyond language through music and dance, is fully receptive to the sensory world, even if that world seems at times to encroach directly upon his own body and constitute a physical threat. There is also in Tey’s depiction of Dakar as a space of dissent and protest, as well as of community and solidarity, the potential for new types of male collectivity and free, unauthorized community in the abandoned underground spaces occupied by Satché’s old friends, although any irredentist vision of Dakar as home to a burgeoning counterculture remains undeveloped. Yet in the case of Dakar Trottoirs, which plunges the viewer into literal and figurative darkness against the unremitting glare of violence, Ndao appears to be digging a creative hole of intense narrative exertion that denies both the free-play of cinematic space (i.e. space as a play of difference and surprise) and the possibility for indistinct space to acquire the status of place. A misguided, almost Baobab-like obsession with symbolic hidden depths (the film’s penetration of the concealed recesses of Dakar’s dark soul) results ironically in a lack of spatial depth and urban texture. If Mambety aspired to show what made his home city so compellingly unique and arresting, Dakar Trottoirs turns Dakar into an obscure, lacklustre and utterly faceless backcloth in distorting, graphic, abstractifying close-up. The rare, wide, panoramic shot signifies merely desolation, the crowd has become a ghastly haze of detached shapes and figures, and the symbiotic link between character and habitat so powerfully cultivated by Mambety has been severed. The result of this fantasmatic transfiguring of Dakar, which takes the cinematic representation of Dakar to its literal and figurative tipping point, is that the city actually loses existential and poetic depth. Indeed, bereft of social, historical and political filters, space here becomes effectively immaterial. The regressive gloom and penumbra of Dakar Trottoirs translates in the final analysis as a virtual requiem for the city.

Detours, diversions, and dead ends The representations of Dakar in Tey, Dakar Trottoirs and the other films mentioned risk making the screened afropolis appear not merely a generic ur-space of urban blight and catastrophe, but also akin to mainstream Hollywood cinematic representations of the contemporary, African city as a hot-bed of seething, unquenchable violence and potential anarchy. I’m thinking most obviously of films like Zwick’s Blood Diamond which, in portraying Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown as what Danny Hoffman terms a source of ‘irrational violence predetermined


by the nature of the continent and by the savagery endemic to urban Africa’ (Hoffman 2013: 92), repeats the now familiar Western trope of a continent that has reverted to a primitive state of pure violence. Here, blurred camera work and action create a sense of total destruction and cacophony surrounding the camera at 360 degrees. This ‘hopeless’ city is rendered an ‘unstable social fluid’ (Hoffman 2013: 108) – an irremediable space of endemic, irrational violence. Emphasizing the fungibility of screened African spaces, Hoffmann argues that the riotous afropolis is simply part of a larger set of Western fantasies about violence in Africa that entail ‘geoconflations’ of African territory, for within the global imaginary of contemporary African violence the city has become a zone of extreme terrors where ‘the eruption of senseless, total war [is] an unavoidable consequence of urbanism itself ’ (Hoffman 2013: 99). So pervasive is this slanted mindset that even small-scale independent films conform to its ugly mould, for example, the French film Bronx-Barbès (2000) by noted auteur Éliane de Latour which takes place in a ghetto called the ‘Bronx’ in yet another anonymous African capital city. Although based on a serious study of street gangs in Abidjan and San-Pédro in Côte d’Ivoire, this determinedly tough film about honour, blood brothers and apprenticeship into gangsterism revolves around standard myths of an impossible city where the only means of survival and chance of a real life and new identity is by fleeing it altogether. In such representations the specifics of place are not only made irrelevant but also cancelled out by a messianic, apocalyptic vision of urban hell. Pfaff has rightly acknowledged that few exceptions exist in Senegalese cinema to counter the prevailing negative representation of present-day Dakar as a doomed site of fear, disarray and disillusionment (see Pfaff 2004). Certainly, the range of creative options and aesthetic responses to the challenge of filming this particular afropolis would appear oddly restricted in comparison with other African cities. The type of magical realism adopted, for example, by Burkinabe director Dani Kouyaté in the popular, and populist, film comedy Ouaga-Saga (2004) to depict the colour and vitality of Ouagadougou seems a very remote possibility. Ouagadougou is, of course, home to the FESPACO festival, and in this feel-good, rags to riches, communitarian fairy-tale comedy of everyday life revolving around a group of both male and female adolescents living together on the streets, all pictured in close-up and medium shot and each possessing their own personality and private dreams, the city becomes a veritable object of cinematic homage and site of perennial good humour brimming with small gags, whimsical touches of fantasy, and natural displays of music and dance. The action takes place selfreflexively on ‘Planet Cinema’, a utopian ‘society for us all’, with entire sequences lifted from Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) and complemented by references to Borom Sarret and Cissé’s Baara, all serving to promote the power of fiction and the imagination. A spirit of fantasy triumphs over any unwanted violence that might arise, ensuring that individual wishes are ultimately fulfilled (Pelé achieves football success, Shérif owns a cinema, etc.).20



Yet nor does Dakar invite and encourage more lyrical and intimate documentary-style responses presenting the African city as a lieu de mémoire and source of personal nostalgia (intellectual, artistic, collective), of the kind, for example, proposed by Manthia Diawara in his biographically infused, philosophical portrait of present-day Conakry in Conakry Kas (The inhabitants of Conakry) (2003). In this homecoming documentary (Diawara fled Guinea, the land of his birth, with his family in the early 1960s), the director freely records his discussions with the artists, intellectuals, politicians, visiting dignitaries and citizens he encounters about the important challenges now facing the country The same occurs in Bamako Sigi-Kan (2002) when Diawara films Bamako where he was raised, although here he plays more overtly the role of tour guide for his African-American cinematographer Arthur Jafa during insightful urban walks where he meets again his childhood friends.21 In the case of Teno, when he photographs Ouagadougou at the start of Sacred Places he offers a smooth series of impressions of daily life in the capital with an expanded, generous depth of field. If such individual, speculative and/or retrospective auteur approaches were to be attempted within the environs of Dakar, they would almost certainly be rewired through narrative drama to reveal the clandestine horror lurking beneath the surface, as, for example, in Dakar-Clando (1990) by Ousmane William Mbaye, based around a woman’s personal search for her husband missing for three days in the bowels of Dakar, which unfolds as yet another voyage of discovery into Dakar’s dark side. In short, it would seem that Dakar is simply no longer available on screen for new, progressive urban encounters and convergences – as if Senegalese cinema itself were unable or reluctant fully to confront the tumult of such a magnified urban field in its totality, one that is fissiparous, rhizomatic and tentacular like Abidjan, Bamako, Yaoundé and Kinshasa, yet also utterly distinct and uniquely fascinating on its own terms. Lost, too, it would appear, is the potential for celebrating an impressively creole culture or ‘afropolitanism’ – that is, a new form of cosmopolitanism marrying external gains and endogenous production to forge new and evolving modalities of being and sociality, as well as potentially exhilarating forms of urban beauty. Simone, for instance, despite his already noted concerns about the afropolis, has also championed it is a hothouse of opportunity and creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness. He writes glowingly of the highly fluid, provisional, yet coordinated and collective actions generated by African city residents as a micropolitics of alignment, interdependency and exuberance that runs parallel to, and intersects with, a growing proliferation of decentralized local authorities, small-scale enterprises and community associations. These are practices that almost against the odds make African cities ‘work’ (see Simone 2008: 68–90). Referring to cities like Douala, Simone notes new types of ‘arena’ whose definitions are constantly changing – not the church or social club, but rather scores of gatherings and clandestine exchanges of goods which take place in a


wide range of settings across the urban terrain, from markets and abandoned hotel ballrooms to deserted factories and crowded intersections (Simone 2010: 330). He adds: ‘These architectures are not easily mapped out with their ever-shifting topographies of openings, closures, circumventions, retreats, and dissimulation. They are both material and ephemeral, infused with shifting tactics but also a concrete shaping of bodies and places. They are conduits, connectors, spinning out unanticipated by-products and opportunities’ (Simone 2010: 330–1). This may sound a little abstract, but for Simone such conduits, passages and transits all contribute to the globally interconnected everyday life of cities which experience an intertwining of various agendas or ‘meshworks’, from extractions, interventions and infrastructure to individual calculations and livelihood practices (Simone 2010: 306). This is precisely how black urbanisms become new urbanities – a ‘device for engaging the heterogeneous flows of cultural materials, money, ideas and apparatuses across specific materialisations of the urban in Europe, the US, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America’ (Simone 2010: 305) – and it provides the basis for what Mbembe, in a piece co-written with Sarah Nuttall, calls very suggestively the ‘worldliness’ of African modernity. I would like to quote an extract at length from the latter since it powerfully evokes life in the afropolis as a creative process of material transgrafting and transformation. Mbembe writes: The African modern is a specific way of being in the world. As elsewhere in the global South, it has been shaped in the crucible of colonialism and by the labor of race. Worldliness, in this context, has had to do not only with the capacity to generate one’s own cultural forms, institutions, and lifeways, but also the ability to foreground, translate, fragment, and disrupt realities and imaginaries originating elsewhere, and in the process place these forms and processes in the service of one’s own making. This is why modernity and worldliness, here, have been so intrinsically connected to various forms of circulation – of people, capital, finance, and images – and to overlapping spaces and times. (Nuttall and Mbembe 2008: 1) Strangely, while the lived experience of Dakar as a protean urban space and vernacular source of syncretic cosmopolitanisms and hybridic exchange is treated with such ambivalence in current Senegalese cinema, it does not suffer the same fate in other media. Indeed, contemporary writing on Dakar seems able to capture and extol its complex, thrilling contradictions and the dynamic performativity of urban life without the detached irony of a slow pan shot or a moody, angled long shot. The South African actor, playwright and director John Matshikiza, for example, has written eloquently, and with genuine awe, of his experience as a visitor to Dakar. He notes the open, flowing sewers and stench, the ebb and flow of the tide, the terrible overt poverty, the constant barrage of provocation, temptation and hard sell on the street, but also, above all, the strong, gregarious people,



controlled and respectful in their interactions with one another and strangers, blessed with sensuality in the very way they hold themselves with such elegance and poise and in their music and movement – the highest forms of expression – on every street corner (Matshikiza 2008: 229). Matshikiza reminds us that the cityscape is also a soundscape: Dakar is a major hub of West African and world music, from its creation in the early 1970s of the popular dance music of mbalax (a fusion of Western music and dance such as jazz, soul, Latin and rock blended with traditional sabar drumming) to the more recent profusion of forms and trends like African hip-hop. Indeed, for diaspora scholar Tsitsi Ella Jaji who emphasizes Dakar as a cosmopolitan space of new urbanities and compulsive conviviality, the city offers an extraordinary sonic and multiphonic landscape encompassing street music and noise, from the mosque calling the faithful to prayer to street banter in earthy Wolof. She takes the particular example of the city’s significant CapeVerdean diasporic community based around the Rue Félix-Faure in Le Plateau to foreground the city’s simultaneous locality and globality, and the necessarily urban mode of diasporic being this inspires. The Cape-Verdean community has also been celebrated with great affection by the contemporary Senegalese novelist Ken Bugel in her 2005 novel, Rue Félix-Faure, which brings together (among others) Mambety, the singer and actress Aminata Fall, and Cape-Verdean singer Cesaria Evoria, revealing that all residents of this street are transplants in one form or another owing to both national and international migration, including from Saint-Louis.22 New and emerging forms of African metropolitan (post)modernity are also being explored and developed by Dakar’s flourishing community of fashion designers, graffiti artists, art bloggers and dancers. Dakar has always been an important centre for the visual arts, of course, ever since Senghor’s successor as president of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, launched Dak’Art in 1990, an international cultural festival of black artists held every two years. Yet the new generation of young artists regard themselves primarily as agents of change fighting against economic and political burdens, not just in the gallery or museum but also directly in the streets conceived as a free, open and collective artistic space.23 Their increasing influence is measured by the fact that the 2016 edition of the Dak’Art biennial took place in the disused and derelict former Palais de Justice, reflecting the artists’ shared mission to reclaim their city (albeit only temporarily). The visual and plastic arts were also an integral part of the famous ‘Set-Setal’ movement which formed spontaneously at the end of the 1980s after a turbulent period of political, social and economic unrest in Senegal. The two terms set (literally ‘clean’) and setal (‘to clean up’) signified notions of order and ‘moral cleanliness’ in the face of the corrupt ruling class, and it led to one of the most gruellingly congested and neglected cites on the continent being cleaned up from top to bottom. Not only were the city’s public gardens, which had long become sordid public toilets, fixed up, decorated and restored to their original vocation, but the walls of Dakar


and its suburbs, along with those of other Senegalese cities, were transformed by paintings, murals and frescoes. The city was as if recreated in the historical imagination of its youth, resulting in novel forms of artistic expression and a new, self-conscious kind of urban identity.24 In this positive vein, a 2014 documentary entitled 100% Dakar – More Than Art, by the Austrian director Sandra Krampelhuber, comprising largely face-tocamera interviews, provides a vivid glimpse of Dakar’s vibrant, hybridic arts scene, while Market Imaginary (2012), by American academic Joanna Grabski, focuses on the famous Colobane Market and surrounding neighbourhood, a site of both social exchange and recycling where discarded found objects can be reborn as art objects. Such recycling is clearly part of a larger process of adaptation, reappropriation and transformation of (Western) global products in African popular culture, found also in photo novels, comic books, songs and posters (see Krings 2015). Yet Grabski also emphasizes the commercial/social, historical/ spatial, and visual/creative imaginaries circulating around the market, known in Dakar folklore as ‘the place where one can find anything in the world’, and how it is embedded within the broader imagination of the city’s residents, for as much as Colobone represents the convergence of objects, people and possibilities, it is also the point from which these ensembles diverge and take new directions, generating new conceptual elements associated with mobility, urbanization, and connectedness.25 Colobane Market is best viewed, in fact, within the context of urban recycling evoked by Dominique Malaquais, co-director of the Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge (SPARCK), a network-driven, multiple-platform arts and activism project developed with Simone as well as the choreographer Faustin Linyekula. Taking as her casestudy the recent proliferation of colossal, and highly controversial, cannibalized sculptural forms rising up from the streets and urban surfaces of Douala in Cameroon, Malaquais argues that the contemporary African artist seeks now to embrace found things in all their ugliness as part of a new concern with – and commitment to – the intractability of the city. Art objects are now to be rendered from the found material of extreme poverty and the remains of the everyday as part of an exciting African project of new, transformative, urban cosmopolitanisms (see Malaquais 2006). This forms part of a cultural process that Teno was already recording in his 1994 documentary short, Heads in the Clouds (La Tête dans les nuages), where in a voiceover he personally lambasts the regression and corruption of African societies while saluting those artists in Yaoundé recycling the city’s trash to develop an aesthetics of garbage, or ‘Slum Art’. Yet in sharp contrast to Teno’s singular, combative, authorial style, well-meaning films like Market Imaginary and 100% Dakar – More Than Art adopt a highly conventional approach, preferring for commendable reasons simply to let the market people and creators speak for themselves about their craft with minimal artistic interference. Both documentaries steadfastly conform to the established model of the earnest, European/American grass-roots documentary



about contemporary urban life in Africa – one that is more dutifully informative than experimental. Such a flat and restricted documentary mode, the reverse of more lyrical and aestheticized documentaries about the lived experience of rural Africa (works like Makala (2017), a painterly portrait of a coal producer in Congo by French documentary filmmaker Emmanuel Gras), signally fails to transmit the wondrous excitement of Dakar, its surge and pulse, and its unique and multiple contradictions. One ends up with an unfortunate paradox: the most dedicated and affirmative portraits of contemporary Dakar are also the least adventurous and inspiring cinematically. We appear to have reached a formal dead end. Returning again, then, to the original question posed at the start of this chapter, how are filmmakers to convey aesthetically the complex yet compulsive afropolitan experience of urban dynamism and interconnectedness so forcefully evoked by Mbembe, Andrew and Simone? One possible solution proposed by the US-based Ethiopian director and academic, Salem Mekuria, is simply to multiply the amount of screen space. In Ruptures: A Many-Sided Story (2003), Mekuria employs a triptych screen to create a continuous, fluid, multi-perspectival play of recorded sounds and images and sensations of Addis Ababa. The viewer is sutured almost physically into a direct and as if sensurround appreciation of this swarming metropolis and capital located on a highland bordering the Great Rift Valley – a spectatorial position that generates new intercultural links and connections as a form of interpersonal sharing. I wish to focus for the rest of the chapter, however, on a film that explores the particular possibilities of found filmic material as new forms of cultural and textual exchange, and which, by engaging directly with Dakar’s cinematic history, transports the very idea of the urban everyday into new and unchartered film territory. It is the extended forty-five minute short, Mille Soleils, by the young Franco-Senegalese director Mati Diop, awarded the grand prize at the 2013 Marseille International Documentary Film Festival.26 Plugging powerfully into the imaginary of cinema, Mille Soleils is poised between multiple worlds: not only documentary and fiction but also Diop’s own generation and that of her forebears, for she is a French filmmaker based in Paris and heir to a particular African filmmaking inheritance, that of her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety. While Mille Soleils shares familiar African documentary concerns with cultural transmission and heritage as well as with spectatorship as a pluralizing process of complicity – a dual approach pursued most obviously in Teno’s extensive historical and political work – the film reconceives the very nature of the archive in African cinema in order to encourage and expand the interrelated processes of memory and desire in fresh and radical ways. Rather than colonial newsreels, photographs or television footage accumulated and interrogated as historical evidence (the pedagogical model perfected by Teno), it is African narrative fiction film itself that is burst open live on screen in a concrete expression of pure cinema. Mille Soleils marks, in fact, a return to Mambety’s vision of Dakar as a melting pot of new cultural crosscurrents and cross-pollinations, and as a fertile dreamscape


and phantasmagoria – a space of, and for, personal projection and yearning. What transpires, as we shall see, is a sensuous blend of documentary fiction that draws upon and extends the historical impurity of African documentary, in the process opening up new types of aesthetic and political dialogue and (inter)textual exchange beyond standard male lines of cinematic influence and allegiance. Mille Soleils will reveal not simply that in the act of negotiating the representation of Dakar one necessarily negotiates the history of African cinema, but also that sustained, creative experimentation with the city’s visual and iconographic fields generates new urban rhythms and forms of desire, new cosmopolitan hybridities and genealogies, and ultimately powerful, new projections and redefinitions of the afropolitan imaginary.

Rescreening Dakar: Traversing the archives in Mille Soleils The official status of Mille Soleils is a documentary, and the hypnotic power created by its use of found footage, handheld camera effects and long takes in real time seduces the viewer into believing this. Yet Mille Soleils refuses easy categorizations and certainly does not perform like a conventional documentary, African or otherwise. There is no formal introduction, no commanding authorial voice-over, and no explicit articulation of an overarching critical discourse. Instead, the film proceeds as if instinctively by means of impressionist touches, suggestions and evocations. Indeed, the stories, acts and gestures presented as factual start very soon to appear more like legendary fables or parables whose significance will only become clear as the film’s personal, cultural and historical contexts deepen. Already in the continuous long takes of the opening urban frieze, Diop appears to be exploring the very conditions and limits of fabulation. A herd of zebus emerges from the distance in a dusty haze and drifts slowly across the asphalt of a multilane highway in daytime Dakar, shepherded by a tall, elderly man dressed in a starstudded denim shirt and cowboy boots and wielding a stick. As the camera records this African urban cowboy scene, from an initial, gentle, high-angle, panning shot in extreme long shot to medium long shots at ground level, one hears the theme tune from Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 western High Noon by Tex Ritter who warbles in a moody baritone about love, duty, longing, destiny and vengeance. He pleads: ‘Do not forsake me, oh my darling / On this our wedding day / Do not forsake me, oh my darling / Wait, wait along / I do not know what fate awaits me / I only know I must be brave / For I must face a man who hates me / Or die a coward, a craven coward / Or die a coward in my grave.’ Despite such tough and bruising language, the heavy, plaintive undertow of the ballad matches precisely the slow, horizontal movement of cattle right to left across the screen blocking that of the cars now stalled vertically in both directions.



Like the ballad, the way the camera intersects directly with, and intrudes into, the brute, day-to-day reality of Dakar in real time creates a set of startling juxtapositions: between documentary-style footage of the new afropolis and the arcane sentiments of a classic Hollywood western; between ambient street noise and urban grit and the mute vulnerability of animals blocking the traffic; and above all between the generic everyday (the daily commute from Dakar’s suburbs to Le Plateau, the ritual herding of cattle) and the singular and unique (Dakar reborn in the sunlit glow as the high sierra). The sheer heft and heave of this provocative panorama of the Senegalese capital is thrown into heightened relief by the arrival on screen of the explosive, poetic French phrase ‘Mille Soleils’ emblazoned in thick, blue ultramarine lettering over a setting red sun, superseded in slender lowercase by the crisp African female name of its creator, ‘Mati Diop’.27 This extraordinary, magnetic, opening credit sequence is like a controlled rush: a highly charged, giddy, liminal moment of intercrossing where the screen becomes a generative site of flows and contraflows, the cattle seemingly cast adrift yet moving together loosely against the flow of the traffic, presumably on their way to the slaughterhouse. Director of Photography Hélène Louvart’s camerawork harnesses, steadily and unflinchingly, the physical forces of external reality. Contingent on the shifting fabric of the Dakarian everyday, and framed literally by it, this exemplary frontier image – a threshold event in the process of being constructed – dares the viewer to ask how much of what s/he is witnessing is ‘natural’ (i.e. recorded footage of a chance event in Dakar), and how much is staged and composed for the camera. It also conveys an irresistible sense of promise – of opening up new elemental spaces in African cinema somewhere beyond the

FIGURE 3.5  A herd of zebus being steered through daytime Dakar at the start of Mille Soleils (2013).


labile frame and verging potentially on the mythical – just as the documentarylike beginning of High Noon, with its voiceless actors appearing to move in real time, once announced a new form of the western smuggled inside an archetypal Hollywood genre (the film quickly became the familiar tale of a lone individual – town marshal Gary Cooper – forced to confront a gang of killers).28 Before the narrative regions of Mille Soleils are even broached, therefore, these potent images of motion across the shimmering surface of reality appear loaded with the freight of cinematic memory, as if carrying in their wake the sweep of modern Senegalese cinema – a cinema founded precisely on the tensions between tradition and modernity, rural life and the industrializing city, nationalism and pan-Africanism. Indeed, as a bold cinematic gesture and dazzling conceit, they recall inevitably Mambety’s Touki-Bouki, a quasi-road movie with its modernist blend of African street culture and Western popular culture inspired by Easy Rider (1969), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), American blaxploitation films, and the French New Wave. The sight of a solitary, ageing, urban cowherd lost in the Dakar traffic evokes Mory, the rebellious young protagonist of Touki-Bouki, combing the streets of Dakar alone after deciding at the last minute not to embark on the boat bound for France with his girlfriend Anta. Moreover, Touki-Bouki concluded with the same cinéma-vérité-style images with which it began: a boy herder (possibly a retrospective shot of Mory in his youth) leading his cattle from the sahel to the abattoir where, in one shocking scene, they suddenly meet their fate. And wait a moment: look again at the opening sequence in Mille Soleils – it’s the same man! Or at least the same actor, Magaye Niang, now forty years on, as if, like the character he played in Touki-Bouki, he had never left Dakar. And it’s a fact – he didn’t. Like his character Mory, Niang remained in Dakar, a semi-professional actor, featuring notably as the possessive spurned lover Lamine Diop in Ramaka’s Karmen Geï (2001), as well as musician, photographer, even sound engineer (he describes himself in one recent interview as a jack-of-all-trades29). The twists of fate don’t stop there, however, for one soon learns that Magaye’s co-star in Touki-Bouki, Marème Niang (unrelated – Niang is a common last name in Senegal), did like her character escaping the menial fate reserved for Wolof women and left Dakar, though not before starring as the progressive feminist student and defiant daughter Rama in Sembene’s Xala (a film that also features Magaye in a bit role as a pickpocket who charms his way into the corrupt Chamber of Commerce with a freshly acquired dapper suit and cowboy hat to match). Such a fabulous coincidence of destinies would surely have to be made up, yet truth in the cinema can be stranger than fiction. In an escalating vertigo of floating identities, Magaye and Marème in Mille Soleils are both actors playing themselves and the reincarnation of their fictional characters Mory and Anta, although in the case of Marème her voice must stand in for physical presence. But watch out: Magaye may or may not currently own a farm, yet he is certainly not a professional herder as Mille Soleils would have us believe. Hence, the two striking portrayals here of Magaye as Dakar cowboy and



Marème as security guard on an oil rig in Alaska, which are all the more seductive for being so oddly contrasting and extravagant, are pure narrative constructions. It’s on this tightly compressed note of reversible movements and intersecting destinies – and crucially the fantasy that Mory then and Magaye now are one and the same – that Mille Soleils manifests itself into being. This is a film that will consciously work the borderlands between truth and fiction, the real and the constructed, by expanding the formal and thematic implications of the opening images of urban/rural transit and by staging a series of stunning reversals. And it does so precisely because it taps simultaneously into the lure of the everyday and cinema, namely the temptation to believe that what we see and hear unfolding before us is for real.

A family affair At the core of Mille Soleils is the extended scene of a nighttime, open-air screening of Touki-Bouki in a square in downtown Dakar, an invited affair to celebrate the film’s fortieth anniversary but with the general public also looking on. Magaye arrives late and inebriated after drinking in a nearby bar, as if reluctant to attend his second appointment with cinematic destiny after the strange semi-fame of Touki-Bouki. Pictured in close-up sporting the same shirt and boots, gray-haired and rail-thin but still ruggedly handsome, he retains the outlaw cool and hip of Touki-Bouki. We watch from behind the audience as sequences from the latter stages of Mambety’s film are projected on a large screen amid the everyday bustle of Dakar. Following the screening Magaye is asked how his life has changed since making it. Awash in the translucent blue glow of the projector and standing in front of a magnified image of his younger self – the moment when Mory heads out of the port in his millionaire suit, but now deflated and confused – he remains silent and sullen, his lanky frame casting a narrow black shadow on the screen. In apparent denial and delusion about his current unrecognized status, he tries in Wolof to convince a group of young boys that he’s the same man they behold in the film, yet they protest: ‘You’re in a dream, that’s not you!’ Later, Magaye’s old friends, including the artist ‘Joe Wakam’ (real name: Issa Samb), the artist and filmmaker Ben Diogaye Bèye, and Diop’s own father, the celebrated jazz musician Wasis Diop (Mambety’s younger brother), tease and chastise him: ‘“Touki” means to travel and you are stuck! You should have travelled’. Scrounging for money and insisting grumpily ‘Where I’m going, I’m the star!’ while his female partner or assistant berates him, just as Mory’s onscreen aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall) did forty years before, there seems little to separate the nervously shifting and rather louche older man from the young hustler he once played. Mory/Magaye has once again flunked his moment of destiny and the chance to be famous the second time round. Hence, if the beginning of Mille Soleils reimagines Magaye as a western


hero on the urban prairie, he is no Will Kane who in High Noon, after a grand and bloody shoot-out with his rival, triumphantly left town. Instead, a pale avatar of his fictional character, and with what seems a total lack of adventure, he seems visibly haunted by the consequences of never having left Dakar. Exiled in his legendary screen role, he appears doomed to keep paying the price for once being Mory. It is precisely the poetic way Mille Soleils shuttles between, and potentially synthesizes, moments of raw and found footage, constructed and possibly reconstructed images, memory and fantasy, keeping one always in a state of creative and interpretive suspense, that is of most interest for what it reveals of Dakar as a unique cinematic space. What makes this metapoetic process even more complex and fascinating is the biographical fact of Diop’s own relationship to the director of Touki-Bouki, for this is personal history interacting directly with the Big History of cinema. Mille Soleils is implicitly the story of Diop’s own return to Africa during her search for Touki-Bouki. Born in 1982 and brought up as a métisse in Paris by her French mother while her father Wasis toured the world as a jazz musician, she confides in one interview that she never knew her uncle. It was only through her later discovery of his films, and subsequent dialogue about them with her father – who played a small role in Mambety’s early short, Badou Boy, and always remained close to his sibling – that she made links with her own Senegalese origins. Dedicated to Mambety and clearly intended as a personal tribute, Mille Soleils mounts a series of individual reflections on the cinematic legacy of Touki-Bouki viewed against the backdrop of a country’s troubled past, even though Diop herself is never directly seen or heard. Indeed, in a veritable case study of film genealogy and cinematic succession, she uses the story of Magaye Niang to reengage with

FIGURE 3.6  Forever Mory: Magaye Niang adrift in close-up in Mille Soleils (2013).



her family history and negotiate the miraculous event and enigma of Touki-Bouki, which she considers the film where Mambety most revealed himself.30 The freezeframe that ends Touki-Bouki, where the young cowherd is suddenly suspended as he moves out of frame, is effectively reanimated by Diop who releases Mory/ Magaye back into the spectacle of real time in Mille Soleils with his herd of zebus entering the visual field (one notes in passing that ‘The Ballad of High Noon’ which bookends Mille Soleils was one of Mambety’s own favourites). Magaye is arguably already a stand-in for her solitary and mysterious uncle, the infamous ‘poet-dandy’ and vagabond of Dakar, particularly in the handheld camera sequences (many filmed by Diop herself with a digital camera) that follow him drunk in the streets and forever roaming. Diop’s underlying challenge of ensuring the transmission of a shared cultural legacy while also moving decisively out of Mambety’s all-encompassing creative shadow and influence is daunting, given that he was a unique visionary filmmaker who regarded himself as both a griot for his times and an agent of African futurity. The dense, intricate network of filiations and influence activated by Mille Soleils extends further with the knowledge that Diop is also a screen actor who, in her first major role, played the métisse daughter Jo(séphine) in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums, 2008), a story of personal choices and destiny set in an Antillean quarter of northern Paris where her character plans to leave the oneparent family nest lovingly tended by her father Lionel (Alex Descas). 35 Shots of Rum was such a formative cinematic experience for Diop precisely because Jo engineers her own family solution by marrying the boy next door, literally, thus ensuring an enduring proximity with her father. Moreover, its affectionate illustration of blood ties and the stages of life is rooted directly in the shared daily rituals and networks of meaning in a particular community, emphasizing the sustained benefits of immersing oneself in the patterns of the everyday (cooking rice for dinner, driving a taxi, taking the metro to campus). On a formal level, too, Denis’s own intertextual play with the themes and images of Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) performs a synthesis of traditions and styles similar to Wasis Diop’s pioneering fusions of Senegalese folk music with modern pop and jazz.31 Diop has suggested that her experience of 35 Shots of Rum, made around the tenth anniversary of her uncle’s death, lay at the very origins of Mille Soleils: ‘This is when I discovered the thousand stories hiding behind Touki-Bouki’, she states, adding: ‘After having found and affirmed my own cinematographic language, I was ready to make Mille Soleils and look Touki-Bouki straight in the eye.’32 Certainly Denis’s film offers a conceptual model: by deregulating and romancing the paternal instance at pivotal moments, it successfully renegotiates familial structures and social prohibitions. Yet is it enough to say that its harmonious reconfiguring and reconsolidation of father/daughter relations inspired in Diop a wish to reclaim and redeem her uncle’s seminal work, and in the process establish herself as an individual African female auteur in her own right? What exactly is she doing by


incorporating extracts from Touki-Bouki directly into the structuring fiction of Mille Soleils, using sequences that appear to function as found or archival footage, standard markers of authenticity in documentary cinema? What, in short, is taking place aesthetically when inherited images of narrative fiction produced in Dakar are presented as both found and real?

The art of the everyday Touki-Bouki, it should be recalled, was all but ignored in Senegal on its release and not distributed in France for another ten years. Moreover, it was deliberately ‘lost’ by powerful institutional forces within African cinema.33 Like Mory arriving at the port in Touki-Bouki buoyed by dreams of future wealth and fame in Paris (ironically romanticized by the repeated refrain from Josephine Baker’s jaunty ‘Paris, Paris, Paris’ heralding paradise on earth), Mambety had been set to embark on a glorious Senegalese New Wave of African modernism, co-founding with Joe Wakam in 1974 the radical, multidisciplinary art collective ‘Laboratoire Agit’Art’. Ideologically out of favour, however, he could not secure major funding for his own films and, as already noted, was only able to make one additional feature many years later, Hyenas, with a celebrated soundtrack by his brother Wasis. Touki-Bouki thus represents the stupendous promise of something that never quite materialized. What if Mory had taken the ferry with Anta – and what if Magaye had followed the example of his co-actor and left Dakar? The same question applies to Mambety, hailed locally as a ‘trader of dreams’. What if he had been able to pursue his natural destiny as an exceptional, trailblazing artist? Mambety later often talked of his sense of loneliness and exile after eventually leaving Senegal to seek success and solace in Europe, only to find, as his dream quickly disintegrated, that he would never be able to return home. Touki-Bouki may be read therefore already as a film signalling proleptically the impending fate of its director. The restrained melancholy of the opening image of urban drift in Mille Soleils, its existential ache and pull, conveys this shared story of abortive destinies – the regret of dreams deferred and potential unfulfilled – as well as, more generally, the forlorn history and demise of Senegalese cinema, a mirror of the floundering capital itself. Propelled by the same fierce, experimental drive as Touki-Bouki, Mille Soleils is at once similar to, and fundamentally different from, Mambety’s practice of both honouring and (re)making the reality of a specific and unique city. For while Diop trades equally in symbolic images and is a naturally self-reflexive storyteller, she responds more freely to the reverberations of lived reality. In clear emulation of Mambety’s sensory deployment of pulsating sound and colour, Mille Soleils has the Technicolor feel of a kaleidoscope, full of a distilled, poetic caress of reds and blues as well as combinations of green, pink and white, flashes of purple and magenta lights (in the discotheque scenes), and the continual flooding of the image with a



single, saturated, digital colour like blue ultramarine to isolate characters from their settings. By plunging her audience into fully synchronous real time and tracing voluptuously ‘the unfolding rhythms of the day’,34 Diop also stays true to Mambety’s radiant vision of the everyday of Dakar as a site of glaring and surreal juxtapositions – a fluctuating, sometimes volatile, zone of savage beauty. She, too, enters an abattoir, although she withholds the gruesome moment captured by Mambety of the animals’ sudden realization of their fate, preferring instead to focus on the diurnal routine of slaughter. The cascading collage of images and polyphonic clamour directly embedded in the heat of the everyday likewise reveal Dakar as an exceptionally rich palimpsest of interconnecting social, personal and cultural memories. However, while Mambety’s sharp delineations of image ensured that his viewer always understood more or less the limits and parameters of his method of contrast and incongruity – that is, what is ‘real’ diegesis (found documentary or archive footage) and what is fantasy (dream sequence or poetic motif) – Diop effectively blurs and confounds all such binaries. Multiple realities merge together in the same frame on equal terms, to the point that the status of each sound and image becomes a matter of positive doubt and speculation. What might seem authentic, reportage-style footage could be either a remake of previous footage (the abattoir sequence), or the incorporation of classic narrative cinema as found footage (the celluloid ‘reel time’ of Touki-Bouki), or even staged episodes. In the extended taxiride sequence through Dakar, for instance, Magaye encounters the well-rehearsed voice of the new generation of political protest in Senegal: the driver is the real Djily Baghdad, chief rapper of the group ‘5kiem Underground’ and a politically committed activist of the ‘Y’en a marre’ movement already glimpsed in Tey. Hence, where Mambety foregrounded difference and opposition, Diop works in reverse towards equivalence: everyday images are treated in the same fashion as both found and constructed images. Mille Soleils may initially coax the viewer into thinking there is a difference between what is reconstructed reality and what is recorded directly from the convulsions of daily life due to the eminently sequential order of episodes such as Magaye preparing for the event, his taxi ride through Dakar to attend the screening followed by Q&A, and so on. However, the fictional and documentary become uncertain poles and highly elastic concepts, and Mille Soleils resides ambiguously somewhere between the two. As Diop remarks of her synthesis of cultures, traditions and styles transgressing the borders of reality and fiction, dreams and myth, ‘nothing is true and nothing is false’ (Picard 2013). One soon suspects, in fact, that the entire film may be an elaborate fiction, and not just the obviously invented sequence that begins when Magaye speaks in a public phone-shop to a female voice on the end of the line identified as Marème, vowing he will never let her depart again, and is then abruptly transported into a polar landscape across which he strides in vague pursuit, still clad in his denim shirt but now flaunting bare feet that leave footprints in the snow. From out of the mist of a waterfall a naked female figure momentarily appears (an apparition?) and walks


past him. The question of whether Magaye, attracted like all Diop’s protagonists by the nebulous promise of an ailleurs,35 did indeed travel to Alaska to find Marème, or whether, as seems more likely, this is Magaye’s wholly subjective vision of his failure to do so (even though subjective point-of-view shots are rigorously denied by Diop), is left deliberately opaque. Mille Soleils thus increasingly appears to be a fabrication that invokes and repurposes reality in order to underscore and embellish its own facticity, revelling in artifice to guard even more assiduously its own secrets and mysteries. Is it a follow-up to Touki-Bouki with its characters now older and wiser? Or is it a remake that replays certain documentary-like scenes with notable points of difference? Here is Diop’s strong authorial warning about the episode of the phone call: It bears reminding that Mille Soleils is a fiction. The sole element of reality that I kept in my film is that Magaye Niang stayed in Dakar and Marème Niang left for Alaska. From there I took fictional liberties, but the phone conversation that is heard in the film remains quite faithful to the real conversation that I recorded between the two actors. Nothing is true and nothing is false in my film. The friction and two-way shuttling between reality and myth is the main subject of my film. (My emphasis)36 The ambivalent nature of the reconstructed phone call is further highlighted by the knowledge that Diop recorded the original conversation in 2008 by stealth, for which Marème later reproached her (it would take another five years for Diop to regain her trust).37 At every level Mille Soleils may be regarded as akin to an African oral trickster tale, for Diop chooses precisely not to adopt or imitate the stance of a griot venerating the past as tradition (a mark of calabash cinema), but rather, by working with, through and against the enlarged story of Touki-Bouki, frees and disperses it like a ‘cine-nomad’. Enmeshing different kinds of real (documentary, biographical, (film) historical, familial), casually distorting the lines and boundaries of genre, forgoing the formal comforts of obsessive repetition à la Mambety, the film ultimately promotes a disregard for the particular status and source of the diegetic sounds and images on-screen. Indeed, in dissolving notions of identity while luxuriating in fabulation and indirection, Mille Soleils is arguably an exemplary Deleuzian film. As found footage slowly morphs into a series of surrealist-style found objects, the very distinction between the found (the real) and the made (the artwork) evaporates in Diop’s hands. Each image in her cinema, however ‘natural’, is always in the act of being disclosed as constructed and ‘impure’. As in the film’s inaugural encounter in which Dakar slowly bodies forth in real time, the everyday has time here to unfold out of itself poetically. The act of cinematic poiesis reveals, in fact, that these two instances – the made and found – are always already intertwined and part of an ongoing continuum.



What this means is that the everyday real is not some pristine, immaculate experience that can be seized upon intact by the camera, but always multiply generated and composed, and always something else, even imaginary, by the time one gets to see and hear it – whether a replication or reconstruction or reimagining of something anterior, source unknown. Anchored in the real world yet always attuned to its imaginary spheres, Mille Soleils at once indexes and transmutes recorded reality. Indeed, Diop recycles the found narrative images of Touki-Bouki as a formal springboard from which to spin off into the loose, fluid, free-floating regions of fable with romantic fantasies of reunion (the driving fantasy of seeing Mory/Magaye and Anta/Marème finally together). The simultaneous impulse towards fiction and the everyday appears unstoppable in Mille Soleils: the image of the everyday real is already personal or metaphorical or mythical or iconic or legendary, or flush with all things at once. By working the rich seams of the everyday and its live archives – its intersubjective ebbs and flows, its peak times and troughs – Mille Soleils is thus able to foster and sustain the riveting fictions and compulsive fantasies it sets in motion. Moreover, the extended act of collapsing the real and the staged or constructed into single images creates a wholly original and expressive cinematic space, and with it a new form of passionately detached engagement.38 Diop’s sustained aesthetic recycling of Mambety and her kinetic receptivity to the enigmas of the everyday as a site of aesthetic invention and perpetual reenchantment evoke the recycled, corrugated-iron sculptures of female figures in the studio of Satché’s former lover Nella in Tey, and the reinvented art and fashion objects and items displayed in Market Imaginary. Yet it also harks back crucially to the work of another Dakarian director of Mambety’s generation, Samba Félix Ndiaye, who sought almost singlehandedly to reclaim documentary (still a highly discredited colonial form in the mid-1970s when he began filmmaking) by bearing witness to the materiality of daily life. His sixteen low-key yet far-reaching films engage with the politics of everyday life beyond simple didacticism or ideology, exploring how global consumer culture affects the urban ecosystem and the lives of local people and artisans in the emerging afropolis. A prime case in point is his series of five short, simple, but beautifully crafted films from 1989 entitled Trésors des poubelles (Treasures from the trash) about how creative skill can transform and recuperate urban rubbish. The twelve-minute Aqua, composed of static frames with almost no dialogue, is exemplary of his technique of presenting Dakar in a series of fleeting moments as always a mysterious space with its own rhythms and patterns – a living organism, monstrous and dirty due to failing infrastructure and the economic crisis, yet out of which natural flora and fauna – beauty’s grace – gradually emerge. A man catches small fish and cleans and decorates bottles with dried seaweed, pebbles and broken shells for what is only revealed at the end as mini-aquariums. Ndiaye, who always saw a thin boundary between documentary and fiction, is employing what Barlet calls a ‘spiral logic’ that often proceeds


by mazes and side-alleys39 – a circular style taken to extremes in the repetitive, cyclical montage of Mambety. By repurposing the tools of narrative fiction for documentary effect, Ndiaye’s cinematic method turns an ecological consciousness into a powerful and lyrical aesthetic experience.40 In another film of the Trésors des poubelles series entitled Teug, chaudronnerie d’art, the foundry workers of Reubeuss and Colobane recycle the aluminium from old cars and create kitchen utensils in clay moulds, while in Diplomates à la tomate bottles of tomato puree are used to create small red and black briefcases. Similarly, in Les Malles, jerrycans are beaten into trunks to the rhythms of an intricate sound composition. Trash here creates literally a new aesthetics which relies on millennial know-how, with Dakar’s artisans tying their survival to their genius for adapting foreign materials to local tastes, part of an increasingly vital local process of social and cultural resistance. Diop has never directly invoked Ndiaye, but the abundant urban deposits and concentrates of everyday collective fable are likewise revealed in Mille Soleils as lying at the very core of aesthetic experience and a prime site for cinematic invention, transporting the viewer back inexorably to the film’s opening image and its poetic, rolling, criss-crossing of reality and fiction that emphasizes continuity through mutability and rupture. This chiastic movement is already encapsulated in Diop’s statement of her intentions for Mille Soleils: ‘I discovered the unbelievable destiny of the actors of Touki-Bouki who had pursued the same trajectory as their fictional characters. It’s a fiction that had become reality. I wanted to transform this reality into a fable’ (my emphasis).41 If Mille Soleils is a brooding work, etched in the agonies of a nation and its cinema, part of its dynamic force derives precisely from reprojecting into the light the burnish of Mambety’s forgotten masterpiece, suddenly visible again on the very streets that engendered it – an act all the more momentous for the fact that there is currently no Cinémathèque in Dakar, the city’s precious film holdings (formerly housed across institutions like the Institut Français de Dakar) having recently been ‘centralized’, that is, transferred to Paris for safe keeping and archiving as part of the Cinémathèque Afrique. Moreover, the glimpsed sequences of Touki-Bouki have the electroshock force of early primitive cinema – a sudden bolt of energy and sensation released from the vaults as if for the first time to recharge Senegalese cinema. Indeed, Mille Soleils, where ‘soleils’ (suns) must also be understood in the sense of ‘icons’, throbs and vibrates with the fulminant affect triggered by rough-hewn, visceral, ravishing images redeployed in experimental compositions and vistas combining 35 mm and video. Diop speaks of the different temporalities of Mille Soleils produced by the very act of combining different formats and image systems, and she describes herself as wanting to stand at the intersection of different types of motion.42 Her complex quilting of the skeins of the archive re-moods and re-rhythms the images and sounds of ToukiBouki, reinscribing them in new, contemporary urban rhythms in a work of the creative imagination.



In this respect, Mille Soleils actively works against the traditional nature and status of the archive which, as Mbembe reminds us, not only aims ritually to code, classify and institute documents (its material status), but also functions as an instituting imaginary (its religious nature) whereby a montage of fragments creates an illusion of totality and continuity. Moreover, the archive seeks normally to disseminate a community of time and the feeling that ‘we’ are heirs to a time (i.e. the dead time of the past) over which ‘we’ have some kind of collective ownership (see Mbembe 2002). Yet unlike an archivist or historian who dispossesses documents of their originary author in order for them to enter the ‘public domain’ (an abstract, administrative notion), Diop both incarnates Mambety through the reprojection of parts of Touki-Bouki and reincarnates him through her insistence on the physical presence, however uncertain and spectre-like, of Mory/Magaye, figure and potential stand-in for Mambety. Further, this utterly concrete process of reprojection takes place live and raw – materially, sensuously, even violently – first within the real world of Dakar’s streets for the local populace, then as a relayed image for the viewer, such that past and present, real and fictional, merge together, at the risk precisely of fragmentation and dispersal, even confusion. Mille Soleils becomes thus a paean to cinema’s capacities for projection, both real and imaginary, with Diop inviting her audience to take her fictions seriously and project freely onto the characters on-screen. Indeed, her declared artistic project is to restore to Africa its very right to fiction and the imagination in the face of the prevailing, tired, miserabilist clichés of an ailing continent.

New urban transfusions What Diop prizes perhaps above all in Mille Soleils, however, are the numinous poetic fusions and reversals made possible in montage, such as the bone-dry dailiness of Dakar segueing magically into Alaskan ice floes. The more bright and white the screen appears, the more allusive and enshrouded in mystery it becomes. Vertiginous and phosphorescent in its hallucinatory drive, her molten mix of sounds and images proclaims, like Ndiaye’s work, cinematic freedom and a genuinely organic way of accessing and projecting the truth of reality (familial, historical, cinematic, biographical) which she deforms and reforms at will. Yet if one can talk of Diop as a ‘practitioner’ of the everyday in her palpitating poetry of primary colours and primal emotions and drives, it is more in the terms provided by Malcolm Bowie, invoking Freud, of an erotic force field in which the unconscious makes itself heard.43 Impossible to demarcate and fix as separate instances, increasingly porous, the made and the found intersect, bind and unbind, collide and occasionally combust in Mille Soleils in an alchemical process of poetic fission and fizzle: the real is the found is the (re)enacted is the narrative is the poetic is the biographical is the fantasmatic. In this live, incandescent, smouldering


crucible of miscegenation and transformation, every image is a compound alloy, freshly minted and equal in status, glowing in a continuous state of (re)apparition. Paradoxically, it is this absolute poetic commitment that makes Diop’s naturally oneiric and rhapsodic cinema so intensively alive to embodied experience and the material skin of the real, as well as to the persistence of the lived past in the immediate present. Magaye then and now is a face and figure breathing in the polluted fumes and dense particles of the heady Dakar atmosphere. Diop’s fundamental trust in the aesthetic wellsprings of both the everyday and the trans-cinematic imaginary allows her in Mille Soleils beautifully to surrender her preordained encounter with Touki-Bouki to the inexorable figurability of cinema, avoiding a spectacular and lethal showdown of the kind glorified in High Noon or graphically witnessed in the slaughterhouse. Indeed, through a proliferation of micro-events – a thousand suns – that radiate out centrifugally, the film offers a continual defusing of the epic Big Event, letting it stray and dissolve in the creative, intoxicating borderlands of the everyday where the very notion of destiny becomes an object of intertextual play and irony. Further, by reinvesting and reimagining different instances of reality – the communal everyday of Dakar, the unique event of Touki-Bouki – Diop is able to extend the legacy of her benign uncle with a certain Mambetian irreverence and transgression in kind, generously replaying and regrafting Touki-Bouki to claim filiations of style and forge new lines of aesthetic dialogue in an ongoing poetic transfer of forms far beyond the fixed contours and root systems of conceptual Baobab thinking as we have defined it. Such affirmative double movement across the generations is amplified by the presence in ‘real time’ of Djily Baghdad, who was instrumental in mobilizing the massive street rallies to prevent the unconstitutional passing

FIGURE 3.7  The poetics of diffusion: encountering an anonymous figure on the Dakar coastline at sunset in Mille Soleils (2013).



of power from President Wade to his son, in the process ensuring the relatively peaceful continuity of Senegal’s democratic heritage. Thus can Baghdad admonish Magaye and his fellow elders: ‘What have you achieved with your struggles? What have you left us as a legacy?’44 The full implications of Diop’s particular, gendered métissage of forms via Mambety will need to be carefully considered, and we shall return in Chapter 5 to the film’s construction of masculinity in the express context of Touki-Bouki and the gay/queer tendencies and genealogies of African cinema. For the moment it is abundantly clear that no final personal or aesthetic reckoning could possibly round off the interminable play of forms, rhythms and figures in Mille Soleils. Just as there is no ultimate disclosure of the everyday nor final revelation of hidden secrets, and just as Dakar can never be contained or subdued, so, too, there is no simple closure or happy end: Mory/Magaye and Anta/Marème will never be reunited for real, and a graphic lifting of the regret felt by Magaye will always be denied. In the closing sequence of Mille Soleils, where a final extreme closeup of Magaye staring blankly out into the distance is immediately followed by a reverse-field shot of zebus dribbling across the verdant landscape (a shot into which he gradually enters stage-right, viewed from behind and heading towards the horizon), the Ritter ballad returns once more. But it is now, significantly, reset to the uptempo beats and rhythms of contemporary rock in a final riff on Diop’s consummate play of the found as made, and once again in homage to Touki-Bouki which repeated its opening shot of a boy herder not with a light kora flute but with sheets of pounding ‘70s jazz-funk. In this consciously indeterminate yet quietly moving ending, Diop is taking her leave respectfully from both Mambety and Magaye who is now returned to the sanctuary of everyday rural life. Mille Soleils remains to the last as opaque and mysterious as Magaye’s inscrutable, wizened face in the bright sunshine, for there is always a reality to find, (re)make, and transform, and for Diop, as for Mambety, the only free space that truly exists lies in the world of cinema, even if only as a fleeting, high-octane vision on the urban rim. It is perhaps too early to speak of Diop’s cinematic poetry in terms of a project, and information about her forthcoming debut feature – a coming-of-age tale set among the disenchanted female youth of Dakar called La Prochaine fois, le feu (the title is taken directly from James Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time) – remains for the moment sketchy. Yet her rapturous aesthetic commitment in Mille Soleils to shaping an inclusive wide frame open to the simultaneous flows and contraflows of the personal and historical, urban and sub-urban, social and political, together with her absolute refusal to attempt to cleanse cinematic form of its natural impurities and somehow redeem it, will surely inspire new, impassioned experimentation with the archives and their radical diffusion as a creative commons. By always operating formally in-between – transhistorically, transtextually, transgeographically – Mille Soleils jubilantly explodes the iconic influence of Mambety into a thousand suns, replaying and reenergizing the


cinematic record of Dakar in order to create new alignments and convergences in the firmament of African cinema, and, in so doing, forging new, politically informed, afropolitan hybridities. This is what Dakar, as former capital of African cinema and ever-elusive galaxy in the global urban imaginary, makes eminently possible: the chance always to broach new aesthetic thresholds and project lived urban experience as new, open, transformatory realms of beauty and being.





And I – it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature. ROLAND BARTHES

The speaker sows, the listener reaps.


The Babel of the postcolony It is an obvious but crucial fact that the sub-Saharan region of Africa is home to a staggering number of languages and language families that were spoken long before the colonial settlers arrived and, particularly in the case of the French, attempted to impose their own language as universal. The reasons for such profusion include the multitude of ethnic and tribal groups, ancient settlement patterns, religion, trade, nomadism, and the long history of migration. It means, for example, that the seventeen West African sovereign states created during the 1960s and since possess a multitude of national and official languages, among them the former colonial language, as well as a host of lingua francas. For instance, the official language of Mali is French, but the country has thirteen national indigenous languages, of which the most widely spoken is Bambara. The lingua francas are Bambara, French, Fula (or Fulani) (especially in the Mopti region), and Songhai. Other important languages include (classical) Arabic and English. In neighbouring Mauritania, meanwhile, the official language is Standard Arabic, while Wolof, Pulaar and Soninke are recognized as national languages. The Moors

speak Hassaniya Arabic, a dialect that draws most of its grammar from Arabic and uses a vocabulary of both Arabic and Arabized Amazigh (Berber) words. French still remains the common denominator among all the communities, especially in the south of the country due to its frontier with Senegal, although since the late 1980s Arabic has become the primary language of instruction in schools. In Senegal itself, where there are over twenty ethnic groups each with its own cultural identity, history and language (e.g. the Pulaar, Wolof, Serer, Diola (or Jola), Mandinka and Soninke), multilingualism can be defined at a more micro urban level. In the N’Gor neighbourhood of north-central Dakar, for example, multilingualism has evolved around three languages: French, the local Lebu language which is a Wolof dialect, and Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French, Arabic, and even a little English that has contributed to an increasingly de-ethnicized urban identity, comparable to the local dialect of Nushi, a form of street French, heard in Abidjan.1 This general pattern of a constantly evolving multilingualism and translingual drift in West Africa is consolidated in the major cities of the region by geopolitical factors such as globalization, transmigration, and the search for work. As we saw in the previous chapter, the social and cultural topography of cites like Dakar has changed radically over the last twenty to thirty years as they began to acquire the status of an afropolis within a larger demographic map of human movement. The ensuing proliferation of new social and economic networks has been further inflected by the growing presence of the Chinese who playing a key role in the rapid industrialization of the continent. The clear geographic and political boundaries of nation-states have been effectively subverted by the free-flow of multiple languages in play, such that the same language may be heard spoken across many different regions and whole swathes of sub-Saharan Africa. Pidgin English, for instance, although not officially recognized, has over 75 million speakers in Anglophone countries, each with its own variation. The lived reality of translingualism subtends and confounds all official attempts to contain it. In Cameroon, for example, which has an official policy of bilingualism requiring one to write in either English or French (a legacy of the country’s colonial past written into the constitution as a consequence of postcolonial political manoeuvring), there exists an openness to both interlingualism and the many native languages spoken, as well as to different forms of créole such as Pidgin English and Camfranglais.2 In Bekolo’s drama Quartier Mozart, charting the lives of young people in a poor neighbourhood of Yaoundé, one sees and hears new kinds of urban cosmopolitanism and vocabulary that reinvent French words and syntax.3 Such Babelic polyglossia, which complicates any simple notion of national affiliation by mother tongue or of language and orality as the principal markers of cultural difference, is heard in other contemporary sub-Saharan films where the afropolis is revealed as a crucible for fresh, vibrant forms of language. Djo Munga’s


Viva Riva!, a violent gangster thriller about petrol trafficking and bandits, provides a compelling wide-angle view of the potent melting pot that is contemporary Kinshasa and which comprises more than 200 indigenous languages. A continuous hum of languages is heard, from Belgian French (the official language) to Portuguese (the eponymous Riva has returned from time in Angola) and Lingala (literally the ‘river language’), the major Bantu and vernacular language in Kinshasa and one of four national languages spoken along with Kikongo, Swahili and Tshibula. Lingala as currently spoken is, in fact, a typically ‘impure’ African language in that it comprises both complete words and verbal fragments of French. Yet Viva Riva! also underlines that in the Congolese region French itself has now become not merely a vehicular language facilitating exchange and mobility across cultural borders, but also a ‘haven language’, that is, an ethnically neutral lingua franca employed by indigenous ethnic groups, as well as armed factions, to help conceal their cultural ethnicity. Similarly, in Nacro’s The Night of Truth, set in an unspecified contemporary West African state where two (fictitious) warring ethnic tribes, the Nayaks and the Bonandés, are defined by the languages they speak, Dioula and Mooré (both national languages of the director’s home country of Burkina Faso), the possibility of ethnic and religious unity and reconciliation after ten years of savage bloodshed is encouraged by recourse to French as a lingua franca, although, as seen in Chapter 2, this does not ensure lasting peace. We note in passing here the politics of language at work in the very act of naming nation-states: the name ‘Burkina Faso’ (the land of upright men), a felicitous combination of Mooré and Dioula, was purposely invented by Thomas Sankara when he became president of the country (formerly Upper Volta) in 1983. A thorough study of the politics of French as the primary lingua franca in African cinema would need to take into careful account the local conditions and practicalities of film distribution and spectatorship, including the often prohibitive costs of dubbing into the major African languages such as Fula, Swahili and Arabic, plus the fact that African audiences do not usually read subtitles. I wish in this chapter, however, to focus on how the fundamental experience of multilingualism is formally negotiated and articulated in contemporary West African Francophone cinema. That is, I want to take the full measure of language as a shifting set of aesthetic and political concerns related to society, culture, history, ethnicity and religion. For with the pioneering, politically engaged 1960s films by Sembene who championed in particular the right of the socially excluded and illiterate to speak and be heard (social realist works such as Borom Sarret and Black Girl), the function and status of language in black African cinema as a weapon for change has been a central political concern. Indeed, the process of acquiring an authentic subjective voice in a prise de parole (an act of speech or talking back) was deemed a political necessity. Yet it was not, in fact, until 1968 that Sembene, who regarded himself as essentially ‘Africaphone’ as opposed to Francophone, finally achieved



his goal of directing a film in his native Wolof, resulting in two versions of the same work, Mandabi: the original, and Le Mandat dubbed into French. The latter was demanded by his Paris producer Robert de Nesle who thought the film should simultaneously conform to a clear genre, proclaim itself as ‘universal’ by avoiding ‘outdated’ politics, and, above all, be a French movie for a French audience that just happened to be set in Africa. The significance of Mandabi lies not, however, in simply replacing the colonial language with another monolingual soundtrack, since the film also presented French as one of the various languages heard, thereby opening up exciting, new, heterolinguistic possibilities. Indeed, the subsequent proliferation of transregional approaches to language in African films, which are highly garrulous by nature, has generated a new understanding of polyphony and plurilingualism as a unique creative and aesthetic resource in transnational cinema. What is at stake here, however, is not simply the number of languages involved. In his celebration of multilingualism in Introduction à une poétique du Divers, Glissant reminds us of the crucial distinction between polyglottism and what he calls ‘the imaginary of languages’ activated in the processes of translation. One needs, he argues, a consciousness of ‘infinite variance of nuances of the poetics of languages possible’ rather than simply a knowledge of languages (Glissant 1996: 91). This requires, of course, moving firmly beyond any simple binary notion of noise and cacophony versus harmony and melody, whereby melody of speech leads ultimately to the transcendent power of human song. This familiar fixed binary goes back within the Western philosophical tradition to Hegel who, in works such as The Philosophy of History (1837) which presented Africa in deeply racist terms as still rooted in the ‘amoral’ conditions of nature and thus outside history, posited an African verbal economy where language is little more than a discordant din cast adrift from reflexivity – that is, a swarm of noise and energy creating only a void. By adopting both a historical and comparative aesthetic approach, this chapter thus charts first the movement from an engaged politics of linguistic and cultural identification in postcolonial African cinema to the calabash cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, which consistently turned to the past as a source of inspiration and invoked a precolonial era. My focus in the first case will be Sembene since his work is so emblematic of the ideological tendencies of African cinema of the immediate post-independence period, as well as exemplary in its creation of a politics of sound. I will then compare and contrast these two distinctive traditions in subSaharan cinema with new contemporary experiments in language and sound by Sissako, a Mauritanian-born filmmaker who grew up in Mali. His biographically inflected cinema of displacement and exile across the continent, while presenting a nomadic, migratory subject, elaborates, I will argue, a semiotic poetics of the encounter with the Other through the materiality of language and gesture. Finally, I will place Sissako in the context of the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who uses language to contest cultural tradition and the very notion of an ‘eternal


Africa’ as the essential marker of identity. By drawing on recent theoretical work by Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener on cinematic sound as a tactile and haptic, three-dimensional space or sensory ‘envelope’ encompassing all levels (diegetic and non-diegetic), and by paying attention to both the affective and aesthetic qualities of tone, volume, timbre, intonation and accent, I hope to establish the key aesthetic parameters of voice, sound and language in current African, postcolonial art cinema. I wish to suggest ultimately that in films which set out to explore the material and cross-cultural opacity of language by subjecting it to different tensions, the screen itself becomes an echo chamber for a range of forms of sound, from the verbal and musical to gradations of both silence and noise, raising far-reaching questions about materiality and relationality in African cinema that relate also to the visual image. As we shall see, cinema, by working both interlingually through different languages and intralingually through the very otherness of language, can point ethically to new forms of auditory beauty – the beauty of transcultural sound crossing all borders and frames (generic, conceptual, national, ideological, political) in what I shall be calling the wonder of the listening encounter.4

The politics of voice and language In Borom Sarret, his short documentary-style record of a day-in-the-life of a wagoner through the streets of central Dakar, Sembene creates a set of formal paradoxes around sound. For while Modou’s dubbed voice-over (the film was shot without synchronous sound) appears to slot neatly into a tradition of African oral aesthetics and storytelling, including aspects of the praise tradition during his encounter with the griot who sings the praises of his family line, it soon reveals itself as the voice of an unreliable narrator with a number of biases, shortcomings and prejudices. We note the oddity of the narrative style of a cart driver who plays the victim of society yet also holds the position of omniscient narrator, confiding in the audience his superstitions and views of others, notably the griot whose inferred words he mediates and (mis)translates from Wolof into French. Moreover, Modou’s monologue in virtually impeccable French contradicts his status as an uneducated and illiterate labourer. His voice-over is part interior monologue, part Marxist theoretical analysis of alienation, with himself as a constructed social type in a neocolonial African city. Indeed, as Diawara has argued, it sounds at times more like a non-diegetic political commentary.5 The viewer is obliged to reconsider and interrogate the narrator’s class position (intellectual or peasant?), a result of Sembene’s Third Cinema strategies of ‘imperfection’ not simply for unmasking the creative process, but also for giving analytical clarity to a character who would previously have been considered outside both history and discourse.6 Such direct valorizing of African subjectivity was, for Sembene, the crucial first step to opening the door to an authentic representation of an African image by Africans.7



Another key aspect of the soundtrack of Borom Sarret as a site of competing sounds and tensions is the use of traditional Senegalese musical instruments such as the xalam (a three-stringed guitar) in the Médina episodes, ironically counterpointed with the high baroque of ‘Bourrée’ from Handel’s ‘Flute Concerto Op 5, No. 1’ deployed over images of the wealthy and gleaming white, central area of Le Plateau. Samba Diop argues persuasively that Sembene uses music and vocal expression as a form of writing, whereby songs and music render explicit the linguistic and cultural customs of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the Senegalese geographical space.8 Yet Sembene also avoids any exaggerated focus on ethnicity in his search for a new form of modernism – one which stands out from that of Mambety who, in self-consciously avant-garde films like Contras’city, Badou Boy, Touki-Bouki and Hyenas, experimented on the same streets with fragmented, juxtaposed and unexplained extra-diegetic sound. In the case of Touki-Bouki, for instance, Mambety’s extraordinary play with framing and the hors-champ is matched by an intricate, compositional play with disorienting sheets of sound: from the ironically repeated refrains of French chanson (Josephine Baker’s ‘Paris, Paris, Paris’) and African jazz song (by the Senegalese singer and actress, Aminata Fall), to the ‘real’ sounds of a glimpsed abattoir in action, multiple, indeterminate, off-screen noises, random, ambient sounds and whirrings, and accentuated audio close-ups. An elastic soundscape of sonic disturbance is thus created that slides back and forth between French and the highly nasal Wolof, even between the central couple of Anta and Mory, though in comparison with Sembene dialogue is kept here usually to a minimum. Indeed, music and sound are central to the very fabric of Mambety’s work and in continual flux. In Le Franc, Marigo’s landlady (played again by Fall) confiscates his congoma (an accordion that looks like a customized cardboard box) in exchange for unpaid rent money and drives him out of his shack while singing in both English and Wolof a blues tune called ‘In the Morning’, first in a taunting way, then in more melancholic fashion. Music is at once redemptive and resistant here: the film is dedicated to Billy Congoma who popularized the musical style of goumbé (an invention of Dakar-Wolof, both working class and gritty), and the mbalax-inflected register of the congoma propels Marigo forward (mbalax means rhythm in Wolof). In an enlightening article on music and sounds ‘in the key of ordinary folk’ in Le Franc, Mbye Cham shows how during the extended sequence of Marigo’s bus journey across Dakar to the ocean, which juxtaposes multiple waves of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, both live and recorded, we hear a musical display of inter-ethnic stereotypes, jokes and humour, including a chauvinistic Wolof song set to a goumbé tune about food and how to appease different ethnic groups (Serer, Bambara, Jola and Lebanese). Mambety also incorporates melodic and rhythmic recitation, from acoustic griot praise-singing to the chanting of verses from the Qur’an which mingle with the secular sounds of his musician brother, Wasis Diop, known for blending traditional Senegalese folk music with modern pop and jazz. Such distinctive and


eclectic sounds are beautifully orchestrated by Mambety into a thrilling, interlinguistic, sonic landscape that embraces cacophony and dissonance (the grunting and bellowing of cattle, the whistling sounds of the winds of the sahel) – a key part of what Cham proposes as Mambety’s aesthetic of aggression (Mambety: ‘We must aggress and unnerve the audience, make it uncomfortable’) (cited in Cham 2007: 69). This is also, of course, an aesthetics of shock and surprise. In the closing sequence of Le Franc, believing his lottery ticket still to be glued to his bedroom door now cast adrift by the waves of the ocean along with his bowler hat, Marigo suddenly lip-synchs the words of a classic popular morna, a languid, blues-like tune, by Roberto Fonseca. We sense in Le Franc and throughout all Mambety’s work a concerted wish to move beyond a strict politics of language and speech, and indeed beyond any notion of identity politics through language, in order to open up to the materiality of language as process and translation and so gain a heightened awareness of what might be called the ‘contact zones’ of language. That is, to move towards an aesthetics of language as sound, rhythm, cadence and emotion beyond strict lexical meaning and signification. With Mambety one is made alive to what Oscar Wilde once called the ‘strange influence of language’: the guttural sounds of Wolof in its very materiality, the murmurous musicality of certain sounds and phrasings, the shades of tone and volume in calling, chanting and singing, the pulse and waves of musical chords, and the lilt and caress of a xalam melody. In short, we hear the literal, physical tongue (la langue) of the linguistic tongue (la langue) in a sensory appreciation of difference and the range of sonic contrasts that exist across languages – between, for example, the harsh, chopped rhythms of Wolof and the

FIGURE 4.1  Marigo (Dieye Ma Dieye) imagining himself as a magician with his congoma on the streets of Dakar in Le Franc (1994).



sustained length and pitch of Lingala. This induction into the material strangeness of language and sound is itself a matter of beauty, and, as we shall see, it encourages an ethics and aesthetics of receptivity to the strangeness of the Other. The soundtrack of Sembene’s Borom Sarret may not display the same verve or sophistication of Mambety’s provocative modernist mixes that undermine essentialist and nationalist discourses, yet it possesses a similar commitment to formal experimentation, particularly concerning the use of voice-off. Moreover, as a radical sound-image hybrid foregrounding formal questions of control and agency, Borom Sarret served perfectly Sembene’s political purpose, namely to articulate a didactic narrative of nationhood and social revolution for the rural audiences to whom he personally exhibited his films.9 The underlying question of the value and politics of language in the postcolonial context was further elaborated in Sembene’s subsequent work and became a central plank of what I have been calling his conceptual, Baobab thinking. Mandabi, where he first deployed African languages as a new and revolutionary form of representation, was a pointed attack on the political and cultural institutions of Senegal which, under its first president Léopold Sédar Senghor, had adopted French as the official language of education as well as for civil servants and intellectuals. Sembene challenged here not only the limits of francophonie in Africa, but also the notion that only European languages are universal and permit a story to cross state borders and ethnic and cultural boundaries.10 Wolof is presented in Mandabi as the language of the people and, with its proverbs and cultural idioms, a form of belonging to the Muslim community, while French is depicted as an elitist language that can be exploitative and dangerous. The illiterate protagonist Ibrahima Dieng is continually foiled by the bureaucracy of corrupt petty officials as he tries to cash the money order sent from Paris by his street-cleaner nephew. Language thus becomes a means of contestation and identity formation for the characters in the film who apprehend the world in their own image and in their mother tongue.11 Music also forms an integral part of the story from the outset: the short, elliptical, opening credit sequence recording two men being shaved under a baobab tree at an outside barbershop is dictated by the driving rhythms of an uptempo version of a famous West African marching song, ‘Masani Cissé’, employing a traditional kora string lute-bridge and drum. Later, Dieng’s second wife Aram sings to herself a sprightly song in Wolof entitled ‘Sunu mandaa bi’ (left deliberately unsubtitled by Sembene), where she imagines the future happiness that will come from the money order while also emphasizing the basic need for food. The power play of language and sound became a permanent site of ideological struggle and resistance in Sembene’s cinema. In his brilliant political allegory and satire Xala, which begins with the raw, deafening noise of tribal drumming, dancing and chanting in the streets to herald the country’s independence, the doomed protagonist El Hadji’s use of French is depicted as regressive and reactionary, a sign of neocolonial bad faith and corruption linked to his sudden


impotency (xala) on his wedding night. His student daughter Rama’s insistence on speaking Wolof is presented as a mark of her progressive, enlightened politics and integrity, underlined in a key scene in his office where she is framed under a map of Africa, the colours of which correspond to what she is wearing and feed into the film’s general suspicion of Western aesthetics. Another symptom of the decadence and corruption of the newly created and emasculated African elite is presented during El Hadji’s wedding party, where one of the servants wearing a dress is abruptly revealed as transgender (male to female). After serving drinks and cigars to a group of corrupt leaders and businessman, she is asked by one wealthy guest: ‘Friend, how do you say “week-end”?’, to which she replies ‘weekend’. She then turns round and, smiling giddily towards the camera, yells in a low, muffled and drawn-out voice what sounds like ‘S-h-i-t!’. The scene passes in the blink of an eye and is usually overlooked by critics, yet Sembene is clearly drawing an equation here between gender nonconformity (the ‘perversion’ of perceived African sexual norms) and vulgar Western influence (the automatic use of words imported from the former colonial masters). Further, the Afro-Caribbean fusion band music played at the wedding is contrasted negatively with the xalam played by one of the beggars outside who sings a political allegory in Wolof excoriating the bourgeoisie. In the final scene, where the marabout who reimposed the xala on El Hadji for lack of payment submits him to a ritual of spitting by the beggars, the deafening volume of granulating spit, together with the framing of El Hadji’s back scored with thick, white globules, carries a clear warning: stray too far from African languages and culture and you risk turning indigenous language into discord, and with it the male body into an object of disgust. Issues of orality and multilingualism are further explored by Sembene in the larger historical and political context of ethnic, cultural and religious difference in important works like Guelwaar, where the origin of the escalating stand-off between Muslims and Catholics is revealed as a misreading of names due to illiteracy: a Muslim family attempting to bury one of its recently deceased members cannot read French, resulting in a mix-up between bodies and burial grounds. By contrast, the film’s set-piece scene in a stadium – a flashback of Pierre Henri Thioune ‘Guelwaar’ (The Noble One) (Thierno Ndiaye Doss) delivering a long, vociferous, public speech against corruption and foreign aid and dependency (an act for which he will be assassinated by the authorities) – showcases the ritualistic, almost sacred status speech carries within the West African social order as a vehicle of tradition and cultural memory and, increasingly, resistance. The complex relations between orality and literacy are, of course, a key concern of postcolonial African cultures, with literacy often regarded as an imported ‘technology’ and Trojan horse of modernity slaying tradition. Indeed, one of the most hegemonic narratives of African cultural studies asserts that modernization, forced on Africa by its incorporation into a global capitalist system, is erasing indigenous African societies, as exemplified by the death of oral traditions.12



Teno’s Africa, I will fleece you provides a damning historical account of literacy, not only as a vehicle of ruthless colonialism through assimilation and the destruction of linguistic difference but also as a contemporary, neocolonialist means of exclusion and oppression. Critiquing current press censorship and governmentcontrolled publishing in Cameroon through the prism of earlier colonial policies of assimilation, Teno’s essay-cum-memoir attempts formally to counter the lethal processes of homogenization by weaving a dense, rich collage of different types of text and image with varying modes of address (archival newsreels and propaganda, contemporary news reports, photographs, past and present interviews, as well as reconstructions of colonial footage).13 Not all films, however, take such a negative binary approach to the complex interactions between orality and literacy. In The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, for example, about the illiterate and paraplegic young girl Sili Laam selling the newspaper Le Soleil on the streets of Dakar, Mambety rejects dichotomous discourses of tradition versus modernity and orality versus literacy, even of the West versus Africa, and instead, as Ann Elizabeth Willey argues, posits appropriation and the communal redefinition of modern technologies as an important part of Africa’s struggle against neocolonial dependence.14 Indeed, by refusing talismanic representations of orality as the sole bearer of authentic African culture, Mambety opens up the space of African modernity to those normally excluded and marginalized. A key early image of Sili is of her face superimposed over printing presses as she declares to her blind grandmother: ‘Grandmother, I’m going to get a job selling the newspaper because anything boys can do, girls can do too.’ In fact, Sili, whose loud scraping of the ground with her crutches strikes a literal and sustained note of resistance and defiance, engages literacy in the same way she engages the technology of capital and places her faith in newspapers. Literacy thus becomes here ‘a tool that opens up spaces for dreaming new realities’ (Willey 2012: 146), and as such it plays a potential grass-roots role in combating the corruption of African governments tied to modernity’s ‘otherness’ in Africa. As Willey suggests, literacy could ideally be a form of modernity indigenous to Africa, open to outside influences, and responsive to local conditions and needs. Despite his ambiguous portrait of the flattering griot in Borom Sarret, Sembene displayed a profound reverence for the spoken word. Mambety, too, considered himself a griot in the specific sense of a messenger of one’s time and ‘visionary’, transmitting new sounds and images and projecting the future on his own terms. In a short film portrait devoted to him by Bekolo entitled La Grammaire de ma grand-mère (1996) (Grandma’s Grammar), Mambety displayed his abiding interest in word-play and punning, or what might be regarded as verbal strategies of ambivalence revealing the invisible within the visible, when he explained the operative tension at the heart of his work in terms of different types of tradition. ‘My grandmother always tells me to contradict my grammar’, he declared, where ‘grandmother’ (grand-mère) stands for African ancestral wisdom, while grammar


(the homonymous grammaire) refers to the rules and techniques of filmmaking. During the 1980s and early 1990s, however, many filmmakers appeared to engage with language far more unproblematically, and to assume more openly and explicitly the cultural status and role of a screen griot (or griauteur) directly connecting the living world with fiction and history. A primary emphasis on orality was increasingly regarded as the crucial next step in indigenizing cinema and hearing ‘authentic’ African sounds and song. Launched in 1982 by Kaboré’s rural fable God’s Gift, set during the precolonial heyday of the Mossi kingdom, calabash cinema adapted and reworked classic tropes of the rich oral storytelling heritage and its collective imaginary, including the personal voyage of initiation or educational quest where the journey offers the possibility for transformation, both real and symbolic.15 Symbols now began to take hold of the image in the form of gestures, attitudes and rhythms. Constructed in flashback form and interspersed with music and periodic voice-over narration, God’s Gift unfolds as the telling of a legend. At its centre lies inevitably the baobab. The mute, amnesiac young orphan boy Wênd Kûuni (Serge Yanogo) comes across the corpse of a village outcast who has hanged himself from one of the branches of a baobab tree. This shocking discovery prompts him to recall how his own mother died – from sickness and starvation under a baobab. In the very process of finally recovering the past, he thus regains the gift of speech (‘Mother!’, he screams out). This allows him to integrate himself fully within the Mossi family and community which had so freely adopted him, and, just as importantly, to narrate and shape the truth of his own life. Speech, language and identity come together here naturally as one. Thackway has highlighted the many stylistic and structural influences of orature on calabash films like God’s Gift, including narrative layering and circularity, parallel developments, shifts of point of view, the rhythmical repetition of musical and/or visual leitmotifs and song and dance elements, and standardized calland-response formulae that enable the audience to answer the griot’s periodic interjections with set replies.16 A sense of how calabash principles worked in the specific case of sound and speech can be derived by taking two very different yet emblematic examples: Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, a film in French and Mooré, and Souleymane Cissé’s Brightness. Shot on location in a rural village called Tougouzagué in Burkina Faso, Yaaba focuses on a ten-year-old boy Bila (Noufou Ouédraogo) who befriends an old woman, Sana (Fatimata Sanga), considered a witch by others but whom Bila calls ‘yaaba’ (grandmother) and who displays medicinal powers. The film’s inescapable message is that collective order provides moral order, and the copious speech and conversation in the native language is presented explicitly as an instrument of social communication and vehicle of tradition (the ‘hidden god’). Yet while Yaaba invents a fresh, visually rich social realism owing, as Lúcia Nagib has deftly shown, to its presentational qualities and triadic composition (Nagib 2011: 42–51), there is actually little or no formal play here with sound which, as a consequence, appears static and as if frozen in



a vacuum of mythic time. Indeed, language remains ultimately a function of the narrative and is conveyed almost always diegetically, matched by natural sounds within the stunning landscape caressed by warm African background music. In short, language does not enjoy here its own material texture or polyphonic depth, and there is no sustained semiotic investment in a cinematic soundscape. As in the urban setting where, as we saw in the previous chapter, symbolic depth does not guarantee spatial depth, so, too, a Baobab-motivated soundscape does not translate automatically into sonic depth. Brightness, a complex story set in the thirteenth century about the corrupt practices of the Komo cult, an obscure initiation society practising magic, contains even more extraordinary images of natural beauty, accompanied here by contemporary electronic reworkings of traditional African rhythms by the French jazz composer Michel Portal, with the participation of the great Malian singer and musician, Salif Keïta. Typically for a calabash film, everything plays out on a symbolic level, and the Bambara initiation rituals of magic and sacrifice, including chickens burnt alive in real time with real sound, are intended to convey a sense of the eternal in nature and the cosmos. Before the opening credits a set of geometric ideograms appear – manifestations of Bambara mysticism intended as a guide to the hermetic rituals that will follow. Yet as in Yaaba sound is predominantly speech-driven, and its beauty, symbolic of the spirits, serves primarily to add dramatic effect to its narrative of purification. There is a clear underlying fantasy to this use of speech as a means of achieving authenticity, namely that language can be restored as a phenomenon of pure (i.e. precolonial) sound and matter, liberated, if only temporarily, from ideological discourse. Alexander Fisher observes that the musical score serves to remind the viewer of the significance of the magic witnessed within the frame (Fisher 2014b: 43) – another way of saying that exclusively non-diegetic music is effectively redundant in itself. The result is that sound in Brightness is not actually heard for what it is, and is never presented as an intersubjective matter for the viewer. Instead, it becomes merely representative of the natural landscape promoted as a pristine source of primordial harmonies, in which ironically it often seems lost. Contrast this rather hollow striving for formal perfection and aesthetic plenitude with the audiovisual frictions of Sembene and Mambety’s urban works where music always possesses a critical function and edge (the discordant irony of a constantly repeated air, for instance), and where language operates proliferatively and metamorphically as part of a continuous semiotic negotiation of sound and image presupposing a fully engaged auditory viewer. As we noted in Chapter 1, calabash cinema was immediately rejected by Third Cinema critics and social realist filmmakers like Sembene on the grounds that it created a timeless, rural Africa in a deliberate obfuscation of contemporary realities. Yet viewed in retrospect, the real problem with calabash cinema was perhaps not so much its emphasis on a visual aesthetic at the cost of the political,


FIGURE 4.2  Symbolic rebirth: Attu (Aoua Sangare) leaves an ostrich egg in place of a secret tablet (the Wing of Kore), which she transports to her son accompanied by tamtams and electronic chiming in the final sequence of Brightness (1987).

but rather its lack of genuine experimentation with sound design, resulting in a marked aesthetic loss. Auditory beauty lies always, of course, in the ear of the listener, yet nothing in Yaaba or Brightness is allowed to disturb the smooth contours of symbolically encoded language, whether through destabilizing vibrations of sound or through intercrossings of the diegetic and extra-diegetic in montage. What this suggests is that genuine diversity and plurilingualism of sound in cinema is not reflected in how verbal, or linguistically loud and clear, a film is, or even in how many languages are heard, but rather in how language is conveyed and configured formally to create a sustained, sensory, sonic landscape that thrives on the inherent incursions and violations of sound.

The open frame Such cinematic possibilities of sound are explored directly in the more recent personal art cinema of Sissako who is attempting to forge an individual voice and style from an eclectic range of sources and elements at once aesthetic and political, intimate and global. On face value at least, he appears directly focused on the desire for language as a means of transnational communication beyond the requirements of either ideology or authenticity. A key scene in Life on Earth, set in the Malian village of Sokolo where Dramane (Sissako) has come from Paris to visit his father, sets the tone. A young woman called Nana (Nana Baby) finds herself in a post office, doubling up as the local headquarters for Sotelma (Mali’s national phone company), where she attempts to call her friend Baï



outside Sokolo. Yet all communication must be done through an intermediary, and after several unsuccessful attempts the phone operator suggests other options, referring to the process of collationnement (subtitled as cross-transferring). This term is derived from comparing a manuscript with the original, although here it concerns the partial or complete repetition of a message. The phone operator explains cryptically that there are three kinds of cross-transferring: total and compulsory, partial compulsory, or optional – plus also ‘excessive or systematic cross-transferring, which is to be avoided’ (Nana goes for the optional). One witnesses here, as in many of the film’s glimpses of everyday life in Sokolo, both the necessity and difficulty of transmitting a message; radios, phones and cameras barely seem to work and are glimpsed broken in the back of the frame. The switchboard, powered by solar panels, is continually breaking down, and if calls do get through they are often misdirected. Even successful telephone transmission does not ensure reception and reliable communication: the line may suddenly become faint, speakers must repeat themselves, and the connection remains permanently unstable. Indeed, in the image of Dramane/Sissako moving back and forth through the village on his bike, the camera is continually crossing through space in circuits of unarticulated meaning defined by repetition, fragmentation and juxtaposition, with rarely any real or extended conversation. For example, the local, ramshackle FM station, variously called ‘Radio Sokolo’, ‘Radio Colonial’ and ‘La Voix du Riz’ (The Voice of the Ricefields), so fluid are linguistic terms here, puts on air key passages from Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme (1950) that vie for attention with the sounds of millennium celebrations taking place around the world heard on another station, Radio France Internationale (RFI).17 Césaire’s epic 1939 poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a return to my native land), is also cited at the beginning in Dramane/Sissako’s voice-over letter to his father announcing his impending visit to Sokolo, where he puts into question the notion of knowledge as it is understood and acquired abroad (‘Is what I am learning far from you worth what I am forgetting about us?’). Yet it is significant that Sissako’s selective use of Césaire’s poetic meditations about leaving glosses over Césaire’s status as a radical mouthpiece of the people. The cited passage concludes: ‘As I arrive I’ll say to myself: “And above all beware, my body as well as my soul / beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, / for life is not a spectacle, / a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, / a screaming man is not a dancing bear.”’ Such textual selection constitutes a clear artistic parti pris by Sissako, and a template for all his future work, namely to prioritize the sounds and images that lie outside the immediately political and didactic and pertain to the more poetic, open-ended and untranslatable. This means being directly alert to the undertones as much as the overtones of human discourse. Indeed, instead of aiming for an (impossible) clarity of language as the marker of cultural essence, Sissako seeks to open up the possibilities of linguistic hybridity, in the process skirting the very


FIGURE 4.3  The options of cross-transferring being explained to Nana (Nana Baby) in Life on Earth (1998).

boundaries of unreadability, even to the point of silence which can become now powerfully audible. In the case of the relationship in Life on Earth between father and son, nothing is actually said on screen between them – all remains unspoken. When photographed together at odd moments in the same frame, the son writes while his father reads in silent communion the letters sent to him, as if attempting to go beyond spoken language as the sole vehicle and measure of communication. Their relationship is thus maintained in the mode of desire which was Dramane/ Sissako’s express aim from the beginning (‘I’ll try to film that desire to be with you in Sokolo, far away from my life here’). The film ends with the pair moving off together in the fields accompanied by the harmonies of ‘Folon’ (In the past), a recent song from 1995 composed and performed by Salif Keïta in the Malinke dialect of the Mande language. Hence, if the desire to communicate, however difficult and precarious, remains paramount for Sissako, the actual substance of what is communicated is far less important, perhaps even ultimately immaterial. Sissako continued further in this rich, impure vein of poetic documentary realism with his follow-up, Waiting for Happiness, where a young, seventeen-yearold man, Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed), returns to his native coastal town in Mauritania (one assumes the fishing town of Nouadhibou on the Cap Blanc peninsula although it is never stated) to make his final preparations for heading to Europe and bid farewell to his mother (Fatimetou Mint Ahmedou). Nothing much happens in the narrative which documents almost abstractedly Abdallah’s period of waiting in this strange, hybrid locale where sea and desert directly meet. The film’s original title of Heremakono – a word in the local Arabic dialect of Hassaniya meaning ‘waiting for happiness’ – is also the name of the



transit city nearby which is often invoked but, significantly, never visited. Like Sissako himself who speaks only Bambara, Abdallah cannot speak Hassaniya, a language he has now completely forgotten. His experience of his birthplace is thus one of isolation, aimlessness, and a palpable melancholy, as if his only homeland were the very state of migration, and he remains throughout an impenetrable, handsome blank, his precise reasons for emigrating never articulated.18 It is the same for the other motley, misfit characters in the film experiencing their own form of exile, whether internal or external, such as the Chinese expat and merchant Tchu (Santha Leng) who sings elegiac Chinese songs about exile in a karaoke bar while selling or giving away trinkets on the streets; the inept, elderly handyman and ex-sailor Maata (Maata Ould Mohamed Abeid) who acts as a mentor for a young orphan boy Khatra (Khatra Ould Abdel Kader) and attempts to show him how to lay electrical wire even though he cannot make any lights work himself; the young West African migrant Mickaël (Mickaël Onoimweniku) hoping to make it to Europe illegally by boat; and the enigmatic stranger Makan (Makanfing Dabo) who seems to have lost the will to fulfil his longstanding dream of emigration. It is on account of such ethnic diversity that Waiting for Happiness, largely improvised using unscripted dialogue and non-professional actors, is constantly working through different tongues and across linguistic borders. French is the film’s lingua franca, even between Abdallah and his mother. He makes a brief gesture to learn some of the local language with the ever-enterprising Khatra who speaks to him through a small, low, square window in his bedroom wall facing directly on to the street, yet who mischievously plays around with the meanings of sounds. The words Abdallah later reproduces at the tea ceremony arranged by his mother are all slightly inaccurate, and the assembled young Bidhan women openly mock him for his incorrect use of Hassaniya. (Here, as throughout the entire Artificial Eye edition of the film, all speech in whatever language is translated and made accessible to an English-speaking viewer, including even those words in Hassaniya which Abdallah cannot understand.) Khatra himself moves with relative ease between French and Hassaniya when he sings, and in this respect he constitutes the film’s key character and the centre of its auditory possibilities. Indeed, the final stages of Waiting for Happiness focus not on Abdallah but on Khatra, kitted out in his newly acquired blue overalls for his chosen career as an electrician following the sudden death of Maata. With its scenes of linguistic intercrossing and confusion, as well as its many transmedia moments and effects (photographs, video footage, the French television programme ‘Des chiffres et des lettres’ (Numbers and letters) which Abdallah watches on a wide screen in the lounge of his wealthy uncle), the film pushes beyond any simple critique of the disjunction between the rich North and the poor South to raise in playful yet always serious fashion the question of language as a ritual of (mis)communication and (mis)translation. On a formal level, too, Waiting for Happiness employs aural techniques that exacerbate the


FIGURE 4.4  Lost in translation: Khatra (Khatra Ould Abdel Kader) teaching Hassaniya to Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed) through a gap in the wall in Waiting for Happiness (2002).

prevailing sense of rootlessness and displacement. For example, the roving, nomadic, subjective point-of-view shots and elliptical compression of events that alternate with sustained long takes, where time appears as if dilated, are matched by diegetic sounds that bleed and blend into each other across and over the edit into the next shot (often in an entirely different space and time) where they perform non-diegetically. In one instance, karaoke singing inside a bar continues into the following exterior shot of boats. Words and music are thus continually moving through a fluid, open frame, sliding associatively into one another in a moving mosaic of sound and creating new material kinds of ‘borderspace’. Remarking on the liminal spaces and thresholds both thematic and formal in Waiting for Happiness, Alison J. Murray Levine talks eloquently of Sissako’s ‘poetics of in-betweenness’ as suggestive of pure potential and a creative tension between two worlds rather than an agonistic differential of power (Levine 2011: 101). Barlet goes further by arguing that narrative linearity is replaced here by ‘a form of jazz in that it is the physical sensations induced by acoustic or visual experiences which lead to our understanding of the film characters’ position in the world’.19 He adds: ‘The doors, the drapes, the unspoken words and the slit windows suggest uncertainty and doubt: this cinema has neither a ready-made solution nor a didactic message, settling instead for an evocation of the complexity of the state of things at hand, sharpening the gaze in order to favor hearing.’20 Barlet talks of a new kind of oraliture (a term originally proposed by the Martinican writer Raphaël Confiant to describe a creole combination of literariness and orality), suggesting



that this contemporary form of cinema drawing on self-reflexive documentary film resonates in the manner of blues (Barlet 2010b: 224). Such sonic complexity in Waiting for Happiness contrasts directly with both the calabash films and the genre-driven urban film Viva Riva! mentioned earlier which, although attentive to the diversity of sound and language, remain ‘frontally’ audible since they are derived for the most part diegetically from the profilmic event, with little or no engagement with voice-off or the aural hors-champ. Yet even more is at stake structurally in Waiting for Happiness. In a fascinating discussion of sonic and visual reflexivity in Sissako’s cinema, Jaji shows how recursive structures occur at both a visual and audio level. For just as live performance is accorded a prominent diegetic role in his work, so sound becomes a key site of self-reflexivity, with visual cues and shifts in volume levels drawing attention to the mediation of audio technologies (Jaji 2014b: 171). Jaji argues that a dialectical relationship is formed between a song Khatra hums to himself and the performance training of the young girl Mamma Mint Lekbeid which constitutes the majority of the film’s diegetic music. During these extended oral lessons, the apprentice learns by imitating each musical phrase after her teacher, the griotte Néma (Néma Mint Choueikh), who demands ever more faithful repetition. Because the lessons take place outside, neighbours and members of the community listen ‘in stereo’, hearing them as part of the layered sound texture of conversation, foot traffic and sounds of everyday life. The result is a ‘dizzying number of different kinds of listening subjectivities’ (Jaji 2014b: 173) involving also the viewer-listener whose own hearing becomes recursive in turn: the lesson produces an acousmatic mise en abyme whereby we listen to Mamma and Néma who are listening to each other, and, because Mamma is learning to play by ear, we therefore hear each phrase twice. As for Khatra, when he unwinds electrical cord on the city’s rooftops he sings to himself ‘Petit oiseau’, a lyric by the Guadeloupian poet Paul Niger which evokes in its first lines a little bird who sings to the narrator about the love of one’s native land (‘Petit oiseau qui me chantes / l’amour du pays natal’). He will sing this song again when he discovers Maata collapsed on the beach in the half-light of dawn, hoping in the process to goad his guardian into hushing him up as Maata had done previously. The song soon disintegrates into unfinished phrases and anxious breathing as Khatra realizes Maata has passed away, yet this makes powerfully audible Khatra’s deep attachment to Maata and conveys a deep, affective expression and bond.21 For this and the other reasons given, the use of sound in Sissako’s unique, hybrid compounds of fiction and documentary contrasts greatly with that found in other, more conventional African documentaries, such as Teno’s Sacred Places and the Beninese filmmaker Idrissou Mora-Kpai’s Arlit: Deuxième Paris (2004) (Arlit: Second Paris). The former is an exploration of the local subculture and network of cine-clubs in the modest central neighbourhood of Saint Léon in Ouagadougou, which presents community film distribution and exhibition as a privileged, everyday site for dialogue and exchange (cine-clubs also serve as


places of prayer). Focusing on the lives of club manager Bouba, a djembé maker and player named Jules César, and Abbo, a fifty-year-old senior technician, Teno films mainly men in conversation before and after screenings (one young woman states she is sexually harassed whenever she tries to attend). As in all Teno’s work, however, the soundtrack is often taken over by his own soft yet insistent voice-over teasing out ideas and connections, as when he interviews fellow-director Idrissa Ouedraogo (the film invokes the status of the cineaste as griot and closes with dutiful references to Sembene and Mambety). Arlit: Deuxième Paris, structured around to-camera interviews without a synthesizing voice-over narration, offers a case study of environmental racism in the eponymous, once booming uranium town located in the Sahara desert in northern-central Niger. The first and second parts introduce us to the town and its inhabitants (the Tuaregs who live there, the migrants and their transporters passing through), while the final part reveals the effects of illness through radiation suffered by the mineworkers due to unrestricted mining practices. As Petty has shown, both documentaries present oral testimony as an act of social or community affirmation (Petty 2013: 79). Indeed, in the case of Teno, by explicitly honouring African traditions of oral culture in these new cinematic ‘sacred places’ he foregrounds the richness of human conversation and the words that lie at the origin of any meaningful action. Petty argues further that these two very different films ‘reterritorialize’ documentary aesthetics ‘to forge a targeted African cultural space within a global flow of histories, and seek to reconceive postcolonial Africa as a space of intersecting global histories’ (Petty 2013: 72). Yet precisely because of this, I would argue, they also pursue a familiar politics of orality – one where the spoken word is used necessarily as a metaphor for Africa’s ongoing postcolonial struggles. By contrast, Waiting for Happiness, working semiotically at the borders of language and courting linguistic ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the functional clarity of symbol and allegory, actively promotes biolinguistic diversity as an aesthetic process of perpetual, multilingual translation. Indeed, the film’s ludic investment in loose linguistic association and the pleasures of meaning lost in translation is directly opposed to the absolutist regime established by the jihadists in Sissako’s later Timbuktu, where the possibility for misunderstanding due to the many languages heard (including Tamasheq (or Tuareg), Shonghai, French and Arabic) causes tension throughout and carries a potential lethal risk, as during one interrogation scene where the mistranslation between French and Tamasheq becomes quickly evident. As Clive Scott writes in a different context, the act of translation affords the chance to rethink ourselves in relation to other languages: ‘It is about what linguistic thinking is activated in us, and about the quality of that thinking’ (Scott 2017: 106). Scott concludes: ‘We must live Babel as thoroughly as we can, into every linguistic corner’ (Scott 2017: 106). We may link this further to the notion of translation as the ‘language of languages’ proposed by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and recently taken up by the



Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who argues that translation is an open-ended process of negotiation and reciprocity based on a ‘universal of the encounter’ and the principle that the language I speak is one among many. Such a form of relationality, directly inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the ‘lateral universal’, is opposed to the racist presuppositions of the ‘overarching universal’ so prevalent in the Western philosophical tradition.22

Sound as material object: The grain of the other Let us return at this point to the specific question of the materiality of sound, for Waiting for Happiness works directly at the boundary where language as communication and sign is suspended in order to be experienced materially and physically. Indeed, the film embodies a message of being receptive to the sound and grain of the Other, or, better still, to the Other as sound. We share this process intimately with Khatra and progressively with Abdallah who, without the benefit of the local language, has to look and listen ever more acutely to perceive and understand. There is a constant background chatter and babil of sounds heard offscreen through the gap in Abdallah’s room. He – and the viewer-listener – can only see the feet of those passing by, yet he hears them intently, as if magnified, when people occasionally stop to talk, clap and dance. The film’s slow pace ensures that the audience shares in real time his rapt discovery of the sounds and sensations produced by the daily activities of this small city. Sissako is tapping here into the multidirectional capacity of sound to blur the very boundaries between inside and outside, centre and margin. As Elsaesser and Hagener argue, sound ‘covers and uncovers, touches and enfolds even the spectator’s body … it is also fleeting, transparent and diaphanous, it escapes our desire to capture, fixate and freeze it’.23 As in Life on Earth, though here far more intensively, Sissako creates for the viewerlistener an open space of intersection for mutually foreign sounds to traverse each other in a continuous criss-crossing of aural matter. For the aperture of Abdallah’s room becomes a site of close, secret intimacy with the outside, a passoire of random sounds, and an open screen for the free-play of human curiosity and imagination. Although exiled geographically, linguistically and culturally, Abdallah slowly finds himself fascinated by the lives of the inhabitants while always maintaining a studious distance apart (he deigns only once to wear local traditional dress). He may never join in the large social gatherings, including one remarkable concert of singing and dancing led by Néma and Mamma, yet during the latter he responds to what he hears coming over the rooftops in the distance by finally putting down his book and moving his body intuitively to the beat of the music, eventually opening himself up joyfully to its rhythms.


FIGURE 4.5  Abdallah (Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed) swept automatically to his feet by the distant sounds of women’s song in Waiting for Happiness (2002).

Hence, if Waiting for Happiness highlights the fragility and unpredictability of language as a conduit of human communication (the transmission of knowledge is performed here only by physical example), it also insists on the desire to keep negotiating the margins of linguistic vagueness, doubt and error. In the process, language becomes a source of wonderment and beauty in a rich continuum of plurilingual sound and noise that foregrounds the materiality and fluidity of sound as hybridity and difference. This is captured beautifully when, after Maata’s death, Khatra leafs through a notebook (almost certainly left behind by Abdallah) and, because unable to read, marvels at an empire of signs (words, letters, lines, shapes, forms). In this new, expanded filmic soundscape the viewer also becomes alive and receptive to the sensory density and tonalities of sound. We can hear the very ‘rustle of language’, a term proposed by Roland Barthes to suggest a material utopia: a music and ‘breath’ of meaning, a vast auditory fabric, a community of bodies, the sound of ‘plural delectation’ in what he calls the ‘auditory scene’, in contradistinction to the irreversibility of standard speech that is condemned to ‘stammering’.24 In Sissako’s paradoxical cinema of mutual estrangement and material volubility, language is always, as it were, a-shudder. Yet Sissako’s aesthetic investment in the materiality of sound and the pluck of language – in language by word of mouth as a kind of material skin amplified by the moiré ripples and shimmer of linguistic reflexivity – represents only one aspect, albeit the most salient, of an all-encompassing aesthetic celebration of vibrant matter and the materiality of objects, both visual and auditory, presented in Waiting for Happiness as part of a vast, relational and perceptual network. The first sounds we hear in the film’s opening, prelude-like sequence are the whirring



and rustling of the wind as a man (Makan) mysteriously wraps up a radio and buries it in the sand before almost instantly attempting to refind it. The strange mismatch and tension between these two audio elements, and the instinctive desire simultaneously to conceal and reveal the vehicle of sound, provokes immediate reflection on the very possibility and materiality of sound. Seconds later in this highly elliptical sequence of odd, unexplained acts, the viewer discovers what Khatra now observes carried on the breeze like tumbleweed: a thick clump of rolled up vegetal matter, presumably the small scrub bush in the first shot that was slowly being loosened from its roots in the sandstorm. The camera instinctively follows and records the free-flow of matter, creating a further formal tension between the extremely stylized and precise framing of the shots and the fluidity of unhinged objects along with the natural elements (earth, water, air) which impose their own time and narrative. We are thus automatically initiated into the physical world of objects at a granular level and into an understanding of matter as an actant. Further, a relational mode is established through the implied subjective point of view linking earth, sky and ocean (the water over which the title now appears). One senses already that objects can suddenly soar away out of view as easily as language and sound can escape legibility, yet they can also glide inexorably back into the frame in a different form, hence soliciting our constant close attention. The multi-relational play of material things in Waiting for Happiness generates a dynamic aesthetic energy and triggers a sustained fascination with a parade of objects, from lit electric bulbs and torches to spinning tops and trinkets given away or sold, kitchen jars, musical instruments, and feet and shoes espied by Abdallah through the slit in his bedroom wall. Moving balls of matter are seen again much later in the episode where Khatra confirms his uncanny ability to find and retrieve lost or buried objects. This follows the death of Maata who had gone to the beach at twilight on his own with a brightly lit bulb, sat down, and gently passed away, his bulb still dimly lit. Khatra arrives at the scene too late but turns off the bulb, extracts it from Maata’s inert hands, then transports it, although it is not shown where. Now, in the full light of daytime, Khatra sits by the ocean shore and waits, looking out at some of the almost three hundred abandoned and defunct ships strewn on the horizon off Nouadhibou (the area is one of the largest graveyards for ships in the world, used by nations and global companies to dump unwanted vessels). Suddenly a bulb appears on the surface of the water in long shot, as if ejected from the gaping hold of one of the rotting shipwrecks. Is this the same bulb that Khatra took and perhaps cast into the ocean, now magically reappearing in a visual play of repetition and recognition? And is the ball of scrub that now hovers in the air above Khatra after he has successfully waited for the bulb to reach shore the same as the one glimpsed at the start? In truth it doesn’t really matter: all is one and the same, like the lapping waves in a floating world. The radiance of interrelating objects suddenly brought back into the light, accompanied here by gently flowing instrumental music, lifts Khatra and the film away from the scene


of stasis and death (Maata’s passing away, Mickaël’s washed-up corpse) and the pathos and drama of Abdallah’s protracted leaving. Khatra eventually mounts the bulb at home to create a new source of light. Again, the film declines to account for human acts and deliberately refuses to confirm if Khatra took his discovery as a sign of hope, a signal he should now become a real electrician. Instead, it proposes the bulb as a found object of natural beauty that can be transformed in a continuous relay of light – a new process of forms and relations that expands, like Khatra’s toy kaleidoscope, into an elegant play and proliferation of moving colours and patterns (in hushed silence he scans Mamma’s child face multiplied in triplicate in a subjective point-of-view shot through the lens, after which she in turn observes him in an equivalent subjective shot). Such shared, intersubjective immersion in the visuality of pure colour and contrast diffuses the vivid, abstract play of light created earlier by lit bulbs held aloft by Khatra and Maata moving gently though nighttime shadows. The effect is so captivating that later, even without the kaleidoscope, his eyes wide open, Khatra imagines he is seeing the bulb in triplicate. When he does eventually close his eyes, the multiple, mobile miniforms slowly and wondrously acquire new energy and light. So overwhelming and potentially obsessive is this hallucinatory experience that he is soon impelled to rise and extinguish a lit street lamp using a small sling, the sound of smashing glass directly segueing into the mighty din of trains rendered visible full-frame in the next shot – a combined synaesthetic effect of sound, touch and colour. The tracing of such formal relations across the layers of materiality of sound and image, and the understanding it entails of the interrelatedness of things, is central to Khatra’s initiation into material and spiritual life. As Tchouaffe states, such underlining of the human capacity to relate and make connections powerfully contradicts the destructive, even deadly, processes of fantasy and illusion alluded to in the film (assorted media images and Western advertising as well as mirages of European wealth such as the Eiffel Tower backscreen in the photographer’s studio) (Tchouaffe 2017: 99). Yet the process is also part of our own instruction as alert viewer and listener attentive to the materiality of the recorded world binding desert and sea, sound and light, without needing to name, singularize, symbolize and ultimately control the object. For the aesthetic perception of matter, and the creation of a space of and for relational beauty, involves both an acute sensitivity to matter and an appreciation of the aesthetic as itself a material process that undermines and disperses conceptual thinking. Firmly embedded and implicated within the material world, Sissako’s cinema endeavours to keep it other, mysterious and non-human, and thus as a perpetually inviting and potent mystery. Crucially, this dazzling play of forms and process, repetition and reversal, takes place in the very face of the stranded, maritime carcasses with their silent intimations of potential ecological disaster through contamination. Such a purposefully aesthetic approach might appear self-indulgent, even dangerously idle, ecologically speaking. Indeed, the film has little to say or articulate about ecology and the ecosphere in



the wake of globalization, for while it deliberately presents Nouadhibou as devoid of fishing and fishermen it provides no direct facts about ecological peril and avoids making any forensic links between pollution and human loss and waste (the number of drowned migrants, the toxic risk of decaying ships, etc.). And just as there is no clear ecological statement about the horrors of globalization aided and abetted by African neocolonialism (the pollution and uneven distribution of natural resources, the forced displacement of people), so, too, there is no sign here of any local grass-roots action or communal protest – people are preoccupied with just getting by or attempting to move on. Yet does the film’s flagrant disregard for offering an explicit political message and ecological warning, even to the point of continually veering towards the abstract and minimalist, disqualify if from being an ecological film? Or might it be that its formal and aesthetic strategies actually make it a prime site for thinking ethically about nature and our ecological being, precisely by insisting on the materiality and mystery of visual and aural matter, of which death and decomposition are, of course, an intrinsic part? The decrepit ships, which suggest that the desirable destination of Europe is now a place of definitive non-return, form the backdrop against which the flow of life and discovery is recorded by means of Khatra’s evercurious, inquisitive, non-possessive human gaze and ear – a receptive kind of looking and hearing where no essential distinction is made between the human and non-human in the visual or auditory field. Yet the ships themselves also form part of the same inclusive frame and contribute equally to the film’s aesthetic play of reversals. Earlier in the film a small fleet of lit though entirely inactive ships lay perched on the horizon, looming large over the small fishing boats like spectres in formation. It is not just their now abject status that is highlighted, but also their potential to figure cinematically among the interplay of moving objects, shapes and forms where all is linked relationally rather than symbolically. Everything must be taken here together in the round and as part of a totality, since what is revealed here is a kind of impersonal life-force connecting potentially all objects. The cinematic frame, a force field of interrelated objects and movements, has thus become its own ecosystem of indeterminable and indeterminate aesthetic encounters with otherness – one that directly summons the viewer-listener to respect the externality of the geophysical world. Such comfort with the mystery and uncertainty of matter in a kind of Keatsian negative capability is perhaps the key challenge of Sissako’s work here, and it suggests paradoxically that it might sometimes be a more affirmative critical first step to do ‘nothing’ in the direct face of ecological disaster and instead allow things simply to be (as things) aesthetically – that is, not to try to recuperate and redeem matter politically, symbolically, ideologically or philosophically, but instead keep matter flowing freely, loosely, irresolutely and always provisionally as relative potential – part of the general humanist project of thinking critically and reimagining life. It means cultivating an aesthetic relation to the world – one that


displaces and obviates the risk of reterritorializing the aesthetic as a conceptual norm under the guise of ecological thinking. For the non-hierarchical, relational aesthetics of natural and man-made matter in Waiting for Happiness, a form of non-conceptual aesthetic thinking through filmic matter, is prioritized over any essentialization or reification of objects, while the film’s sustained play with visual and auditory form is mobilized as the grounds for an ethico-aesthetic line of resistance to rampant globalization. It is as if the very avoidance of the ‘spectacle’ of ecological action, as well as the cultivation of a non-conceptual aesthetic realm founded on distance and where our ‘ideas’ about things might gently fall away, are what might actually allow for a sharper, more heightened, critical aesthetic attentiveness to – and kinship with – the material mysteries of the biosphere at this crucial geohistorical juncture.25 If, as Joanna Zylinska argues in Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (2014), the ethical human subject is necessarily a relational subject, then our ‘minimal’ ethical task in the new age of the Anthropocene becomes ‘to know how to differentiate between different forms of relationality’ (Zylinska 2014: 73). For Zylinska, this requires that we ‘intuit’ the Anthropocene, and ways of responding to it, rather than rush to theorize it (Zylinska 2014: 43). In Sissako’s cinema, this process translates as the preservation of the free-flow of the aesthetic over any manifesto-like plea for eco-sustainability. Waiting for Happiness ends in virtual silence with increasingly abstract frames of a human figure (Khatra) bounding with bold yet obscure purpose across the desert in extreme long shot towards the camera. He encounters an enormous patch of desert scrub in the foreground, at which point he stops. The next shot is a reverse-field long shot of a figure (we presume still Khatra but typically this cannot be assured) moving off to the right behind a large ridge of sand to become an everdiminishing object in long shot, eventually concealed by the dunes. This replays a little differently the viewer’s last glimpse of Abdallah at the bottom of an immense sand dune that he had failed to climb with his leather shoes and briefcase – a dune that almost fills the entire frame and appears to subsume him. Now, however, there is no human trace left at all in the frame – the only detail is the ridge of scrub in mid-shot. The still-frame is held for around twenty-four seconds before a cut to the final credits. Set within the rolling curves of the dunes, the shrub approximates an enormous tuft of human pubic hair – if we want it to, that is. Yet there is no demand that we interpret it in this way, that is, anthropomorphically, for there is no meaning as such to retrieve symbolically or allegorically. This is a cinema, after all, where creatures and animals do not need mankind to exist as an image and can outlast humans in the frame once the latter have exited the shot (herds of goats and camels are glimpsed on their own at one point in slow panning shots). Instead, the shrub remains an open possibility, a purely subjective matter, part of the film’s relay of material objects and association of forms, as well as the multiple ways of hearing and perceiving matter, that Sissako insists on right to the end.26 Hence, if Waiting for Happiness remains a continually elusive film composed of



multiple elements tied together with only ‘fleeting emotional links’27 and always leaning towards the indecipherable and imperceptible, the poetic and abstract, it also remains stubbornly faithful to the persistence of matter. Indeed, rather than attempt to sublimate the materiality of things organic and non-organic, visible and non-visible, Sissako illuminates their interwoven thingness. The result is a highly tactile, sensual poetics of displacement and relative estrangement propelled by a seemingly irrational logic of allusion, diffuseness and circulation of objects, elements and fragments, from tufts of vegetation that float along across the sand into the sky to inter-passages of material sound discernible in the open frame. Such is the luminous opacity of the aesthetic – as if happiness turns out in the end, ironically, to be already here, in this suspended state of waiting and exile, uncertainty and doubt, which encourages a subtle appreciation of objects and the mobility of both visual and sonic forms.

The shattering of human song Let us turn now finally to Sissako’s subsequent film, Bamako, discussed already in Chapter 2 in the formal terms of montage and the poetics of violence. As I sought to demonstrate there, by putting the words of the World Bank and IMF on trial in the central common courtyard Bamako becomes a hyper-auditory space – a multilingual lieu de passage – that fully exploits the rich, sensurround wrap of voice-over and the hors-champ. Indeed, the film unfolds as a work of both sonic and visual composition built around the constant hum and murmur of the courtyard which functions as a kind of echo chamber – a shared, fluid, open frame for the multilayered, transformative interplay of diegetic and extra-diegetic sound. I wish now to argue further that, by foregrounding the reception of a multilingual cinema within local, national and transnational frameworks, Bamako also reveals the medium of film as a privileged vehicle for the appreciation of linguistic and cultural difference, and the sheer pleasure and excitement of oral exchange and communication (even non-communication) across different languages and dialects. I will focus on a different set-piece sequence that is central to the film from the perspective of language, for it is also the moment when language becomes overwhelmingly opaque and oblique by virtue of being pushed literally to breaking point. Early on in Bamako an uncalled witness called Zegué Bamba, an elderly peasant from the south of Mali, was denied the opportunity to speak by the court usher who serves also as official translator for the trial, although he is clearly not translating everything. Indeed, translation becomes in the usher’s hands a highly approximate, contingent affair. Much later, however, Zegué manages to deliver an impassioned and accusatory heartsong in a language virtually no one present understands: Senufo, spoken by a largely agricultural people in northern


Côte d’Ivoire. Seated at the back of the assembly, unannounced, Zegué suddenly erupts into song, then stands up and moves slowly forwards to face the judge head-on, becoming increasingly animated and possessed like a shaman speaking tongues in a ceremonial ritual while brandishing his fly-swatter like a fetish. The chant is unflagging and irrepressible: it appears to fall silent but then rises again in an ever-inventive howl of rage, all the more scandalous for not being directly comprehensible. Moreover, the words are left deliberately unsubtitled by Sissako, just like the song ‘Naam’ lip-synched at the film’s beginning and end by the nightclub singer Melé (played by the Senegalese-born French actress Aïssa Maïga) – a traditional appeal to a chief originally sung by the late Ghanaian singer Christy Azuma in 1976 with the group Uppers International in her native language of Farefare (also known as Gurune and in colonial times as Frafra). (It is a sonic measure of the estrangement and lack of direct communication between Melé and her husband Chaka that while she loses herself in Farefare, he devotes himself to learning Hebrew expressions through language tapes (notably the phrase for losing a wallet) in the desperate hope that Israel might one day open up an embassy in Bamako.) Zegué’s words will eventually be summarized by the prosecution lawyer Madame Tall-Sall as: ‘Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?’ – questions that underscore the film’s explicit critique of neo-liberal economics and the slow violence that results in environmental degradation and drought. Yet in this case, like that of Melé’s unsubtitled song, what counts above all is the affective power and emotion generated in the absence of lexical meaning. We appreciate Zegué’s chant in another language precisely because we cannot understand literally its political message, even though this can be intuited through the anger and physical vibrations that course through his entire body. Indeed, during its dramatic delivery Zegué’s prolonged, fiery, lament has a shattering trans–lingual effect on all those listening, including the Western viewer, who experience raw and unmediated its guttural, plangent tones, stuttering rhythms, and undulating, repetitive textures. ‘Words seize you in the heart’, Zegué remarked on his first appearance in Bamako, and what is witnessed here is the power of the human voice to ‘penetrate’ us on an immediate level (Žižek 1991: 40),28 even when, and precisely because, the words conveyed do not directly imitate or symbolize anything, and the sound moves beyond the boundaries and binaries of diegesis and extra-diegesis, inside and outside. While the chant passes off without comment, it temporarily reduces to silence and shame the discourse of universal debt and globalization. Indeed, it makes all that immediately follows, including the French lawyer William Bourdon’s noble and rousing speech on behalf of African civil society, appear timid and pretentious. Numerous critics have hailed the searing intensity of Zegué’s intervention for its disruptive power. For Scott Durham, for whom it ‘dramatizes the impasse of aesthetic mediation … as an immediately ethical and political problem’, this ecstatic song ‘calls into affective being an African community and collective which



FIGURE 4.6  Zegué Bamba in full flow and reducing all to silence in Bamako (2006).

cannot rely on any institutions (national or international) to represent it’.29 For Libby Saxton, it ‘thwarts the desire to know, affording instead an experience of pure form and a radically disconcerting encounter with alterity which relocates us from the realm of epistemology into the spheres of ethics and aesthetics’.30 As Saxton notes, by choosing to leave the chant untranslated Sissako reinvents and transforms one of the implicitly racist habits of colonial films which often neglected to provide translations of African languages. Spivak emphasizes also the undecidable position of Zegué’s sung speech as both within and outside the discursive space of the trial and beyond the rhetorical reach of IMF lawyers like Rappaport and other defenders of a liberalized global economy.31 Certainly, generating one’s own space of resistance as Zegué effectively does with his personal interruption of the trial – an act Sissako performs in kind by defiantly declining to subtitle Zegué’s words – may be viewed on one level as a Bourdieusian act of resistance to the increasing encroachments of globalization. I wish to retain and highlight, however, the particular physical and emotional power of Zegué’s performance, for it exemplifies the potential of song as sonic matter to transfix the listener with an unstoppable, ineffable surge and asymbolic sweep.32 In another dynamic example of sacred vocal performance, this time female, in the 2010 documentary Koukan Kourcia ou Le Cri de la tourterelle (The call of the turtledove) by Nigerien director Sani Elhadj Magori, the ageing singer Zabaya Hussey, whose songs in Hausa about leaving once inspired the menfolk in her village in Niger (including the filmmaker’s own father) to depart trance-like to Côte d’Ivoire, now attempts, at Magori’s behest, to bring the men back precisely by harnessing the deep rhythms and quite literally breathtaking control of her still booming voice. As in Waiting for Happiness, this highly staged documentary,


unfolding as if in real time, also proclaims the transmission and free invention of the female oral tradition, for with the pure muscle and potency of her voice-box Hussey possesses the aura of a griotte, although she herself humbly downplays her star power (‘God always has the last word, He decides everything’, she declares). The culmination of her long trip to Abidjan by bus, accompanied by her young granddaughter and apprentice Djamila, is her astonishing live performance at a specially arranged event where she beseeches the men to return (‘Open up wide your ears!’), suggesting they would be ‘cowardly’ if they remained in exile and never returned. As with Zegué in Bamako, the camera is content simply to record the incantatory force of the human voice pushed to its limits and the direct effects and reverberations of the sound waves on the audience. The film ends in mid-performance, leaving unresolved the narrative suspense of whether the menfolk will, in fact, return.33 Yet linguistic and cultural difference is shown here, as in the work of Sissako, to be part of a much larger metapoetic and postrevolutionary experience of sound and harmony beyond immediate cognition and communication – one that generates in its affective energy and heat new sources of aesthetic value and pleasure unbound by ideology or politics.

The language of abstraction: Sound, silence, sensation If the point of departure for Sissako is the basic need for – and permanent difficulty of – speaking to and about the Other, for Haroun it is rarefied silence and indecipherability. It leads to a curious and seemingly contradictory proposition of language as a physical process, for with his six major feature films Haroun heads even further than Sissako down the path of abstraction. This may seem immediately paradoxical for a filmmaker whose intense dramas of personal and family crisis, set against the contemporary background of civil war and social struggle, are depicted in such vivid detail and insist on regional, ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences and variations. Yet Haroun refutes all notions of a ‘pure’ language, just as he resists any essentializing ideas of African culture and ‘Africanness’. He remarks that while in West Africa most people speak national languages, they also incorporate French words that subsequently become part of daily parlance – a ‘bastardizing’ process he views as wholly desirable since the former colonizer’s language is being remade as ‘our’ own.34 In the case of Chad, the official languages are French and Chadian Arabic, a vernacular version of Arabic and the country’s lingua franca, matched by over 120 indigenous languages. In A Screaming Man Chinese voices are also heard at the luxury hotel on the outskirts of N’Djamena along with Chadian Arabic and French which can each sound different according to the character speaking. For example, Adam’s (Youssouf Djaoro) Congolese friend and erstwhile co-worker David (Marius Yelolo) has a slightly varied intonation from Adam himself when



he speaks French, and he will playfully mimic his former hotel boss Madame Wang’s accent when Adam visits him in hospital. As a creative artist Haroun is deeply engaged in the process of translation. He composes his dialogues in French, a process which, he claims, consists of rendering as best as possible the ‘taste’ of his original language.35 Yet while always working through language, Haroun also actively privileges the visual over the discursive by continually pushing towards the realms of the unsaid and unarticulated, in particular regarding masculinity which is associated in his work with male desire and emotion – subjects not usually addressed in African cinema, and which I will explore in detail in the following chapter in terms of a homoerotics of minimalism. For the moment I would like to consider one specific example of his practice of sound and language in his second feature, Abouna (2002) (Our Father). Two young brothers, fifteen-year-old Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and eight-year-old Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid), who are attempting to find their father who has suddenly abandoned them, attend a cinema screening of a black-and-white film. While the first language of the native Chadians glimpsed in the N’Djamena cinema is almost certainly not French, the odd French vowel can nonetheless be heard emanating from the auditorium before the lights go down. The brothers suddenly find themselves captivated by a male figure on-screen resembling their own father who ran off into the sahel in Abouna’s opening long shot to the haunting strains of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar (it is the same actor, the Chadian writer and playwright Koulsy Lamko). The man turns around slowly and smiles down towards the camera, meeting the gaze of Tahir and Amine in the audience with the inviting words ‘Bonjour les enfants!’, just as two very young boys enter the foreground of the film-within-a-film. As the on-screen father implores in French: ‘Look at me!’. Amine exclaims in Arabic to Tahir: ‘Look at his back!’. This dramatizes the seductive, transverse power both of the image and of language transmitted across both the auditorium and cinematic frame and received by the listenerviewer, at once explicit (the audience watching the film-within-a-film) and implicit (the spectator of Abouna). As sound moves back and forth between screen and audience and across languages, a dialogic, transferential, open frame of language is created where the possibility of full communication and identity is not expected and indeed proves impossible – it is precisely the stuff of cinematic projection and fantasy. Hence, the tremor and quiver of language is made a physical object of sensuous play. The visual image will undergo a similar process in the film’s increasing formal play with tableaux, for Abouna culminates with a tribute to the affirmative, life-saving power of human sound. The boys’ mother Achta (Zara Haroun), lying in a comatose state in a hospital bed following the death of Amine, suddenly recovers her voice and consciousness and begins humming a tune. Tahir soon joins her together in song, observed in rapt silence by his unnamed deaf-mute girlfriend (Mounira Khalil). This powerful scene


of human connection through the corporeality of sound can be likened to the imagined father’s storytelling heard earlier in a close and affectionate voice-off, as well as to Uncle Adoum’s (Diego Mustapha N’Garade) ever-warm guitar song that is played live to lift the spirits of the brothers. Haroun will further develop the sensory implications of the materiality of voice and sonic transfer, whereby the said and sung are intimately relayed and felt, in his later film Daratt, where the ageing war criminal Nassera (Djaoro again), reliant on an electrolarynx after having had his throat severed, speaks literally through his wound. Listening to the deep physicality of Nassera’s speech fascinates Atim (Ali Barkai) and generates an unspoken bond of attraction between the two men. Yet we can see already in Abouna that by crossing through different languages, intonations and accents, Haroun’s cinema of aesthetic abstraction refuses explicit allegorical and political meaning. As with Sissako, Haroun’s articulation of language provides an occasion for both the contemplation of racial and ethnic difference and a child-like enchantment with the plurivocal opacity and mystery of language, even when the latter appears at its most minimal. This confirms the possibility of an expanded range of modes and valencies in the aesthetic practice of sound, with both directors insisting on the ultimate untranslatability and intractability of language – that is, on the materiality and alterity of sound as something beyond our immediate cognitive grasp. This pertains even in the documentary mode. In Haroun’s Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, for instance, the excited noise of young children playing off-frame is often audible, yet there are few, if any, visual signs of this. What matters rather is that sound, even when verging on the abstract, must always be heard and respected as part of society’s collective duty to smash open the prison gates of state-enforced silence and secrecy. However, such abstraction does not entail a transcendence of lived reality often associated with aesthetic experience (one is reminded here of Bourdieu’s distrust of the rhetoric of ‘unknowability’ in Les Règles de l’art (1992)), for the subtle workings of beauty in Haroun’s work never take place in a social and cultural void or historical and political vacuum. Sound, like all aesthetic phenomena, is intrinsically relational. Such ethico-aesthetic events of sound may usefully be compared with the performance of contemporary Congolese song, the beauty of which, as Mbembe has shown, can only be understood in relation to the context in which it is produced and made into the object of a listening experience. Focusing on the listening encounter as a ‘sound event’ that reorganizes sensory material and frees the imagination, Mbembe argues that the mixture of sensual delight and cruelty in Congolese music is characteristic of the prevailing social and political regime in the cities of the DRC: ‘Outbursts of frenetic activity and spaces of transfiguration where pain awakens, where jubilation rips out cries of agony’ (Mbembe 2006: 64). During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Mbembe explains, Congolese music ‘as a noise sound and as a musical scream has been endeavouring to account



for the terror, cruelty and dark abyss (the ugly and abject) that created it’ (Mbembe 2006: 75) (original emphasis). Precisely ‘because this society, so accustomed to atrocity, is playing with death, its music is both born out of tragedy and is nurtured by it. So is beauty’ (Mbembe 2006: 93). Hence, ‘beauty is that: that by which human beings are brought to the most profound level of their symbolic faculties’ (Mbembe 2006: 92) (original emphasis). Mbembe, who rightly conceives of the aesthetic task as an attempt to describe the totality of sensations, pleasures and energies provoked by a particular work, concludes persuasively – and on a note that bears out our own findings in this chapter about the material relationality of all aspects of cinematic form – that ‘there is no beauty or ugliness other than in relation to a form of life of which the beautiful (or the ugly) is the manifestation, the celebration or even the contradiction’ (Mbembe 2006: 63) (original emphasis).36

For a plurivocal aesthetics Our analysis has revealed that if contemporary African cinema honours the shared polyphonic world of language, it also insists that total communication and translation are never possible. Rather than attempt to manipulate language as a didactic tool and political weapon of collective self-affirmation in order to capture an authentically ‘African’ voice, as Sembene once proposed, directors are now listening more freely to spoken language and sound as something both strange and unknowable – a living organism of collective beauty and mystery suggestive of new forms of sensory being. We have moved from language as a natural vehicle of identity, social communication and political change, to language as an aesthetic object of fascination and wonder – a decisive shift in focus that gestures towards a new ‘post-postcolonial’ cinema. Those films that have most to say about polyphony and plurilingualism in African cinema are paradoxically those that work against the sheer quantity and volume of existing languages (the basis for merely a polyglot aesthetic that effectively prioritizes linguistic competence and fluency), and focus instead aesthetically on the plurivocal grain of language, in some cases even reducing sound to silence in order to throw into relief the concrete, material textures of the spoken tongue. The former colonizer’s language has never gone away, of course. Indeed, it remains always to be engaged with precisely at the level of the aesthetic. Positioning himself as a ‘passant’ pursuing ‘an aesthetics of existence’ rather than simply as a nomad or exile, Mbembe has stated the following: ‘The function of spoken language is to bring back to life what had been abandoned to the powers of death. Language must open up access to the reserves of life, the deposits of the future. To achieve this, it must become power and beauty. Yet no language is more amenable to this type of operation than the French language’ (my emphasis).37 This looks at first glance like a conservative message of monolingual universalism, as if in


the face of immanent translingualism Mbembe were resorting ultimately to the timeless beauty of the French language. Yet he is suggesting rather that we need, now more than ever, to respond individually to the regenerative force of language in all its different modes and forms. One cannot afford to be deaf to the limitless potential of language as an object of aesthetic investment, as if this were somehow surplus to the requirements of social communication. The lesson of contemporary filmmakers like Sissako and Haroun is that language is an ethical and political – because pre-eminently aesthetic – matter, to be negotiated ardently in the listening encounter and translated in its very rustle and shudder.





For me a film should be a bomb … of emotion, like a rush – not a joy for forgetting reality, but a joy for opening your sweet dream for reality. DJIBRIL DIOP MAMBETY

We have to create a new utopia.


African cinema, chatty by nature, is notoriously reticent and reserved about sexual matters, usually considered private and not for public consumption. It forms part of a more general culture of discretion and silence around sexuality and the sexed body governed by principles and conventions of sexual decorum and self-restraint.1 Indeed, in West African culture the body must generally not be left bare or naked but rather ‘prepared’, whether made-up, ‘denatured’ and excised (as in female genital mutilation), or scarified (e.g. the ceremonial facial scarring of the Hausa people), or else accessorized. As the Togolese director Anne-Laure Folly has remarked succinctly of African culture, ‘To unveil something is to violate it’ (cited in Barlet 2011).2 Hence, despite the everexpanding globalization of images across the continent, it still remains the case in black African cinema that sexual representation is usually never allowed to be too graphic, flagrant or immodest. A film like Cissé’s The Wind, a liminal work of the early 1980s on the cusp of calabash cinema and pitched between radical politics and love, is emblematic of this

norm. A casual, sexually charged, decadent atmosphere is immediately established among the young, dissolute male students pictured semi-naked and framed largely at crotch level, whether high on drugs listening to Western-style music, protesting on the streets against the corrupt Malian government, or rounded up in a prison cell after a brutal police clampdown. At a pivotal moment just over halfway into the film, before the political drama of confrontation takes centre stage, Batrou, the pot-smoking daughter of a military governor, and Bah, a fellow student and the grandson of a traditional chief, find themselves alone and naked in Bah’s communal outside bathroom. As they sprinkle water over each other’s bodies and prepare to bathe together at Batrou’s insistence, all appears fluid and pregnant with possibility. Although Cissé denies the viewer a full, unrestricted view of the proceedings, the spatial axis of their encounter is established unambiguously from the outset, with Bah positioned on the left and Batrou on the right. A sudden extreme close-up of her naked left breast is held for five seconds, classically posited as the object of his gaze at the other end of a straightforward eyeline match. After a cut back to Bah’s excited face in close-up, we see his stretched-out hand fondling hers, yet the axis has been disturbed: his lighter-skinned hand extends from the right where her body was initially located. The next edit highlights and accentuates this breach, for her face is now turned towards the right within the frame, her former position vis-à-vis the camera reversed as if in a mirror. The following shot merely adds to the confusion of spatial logic: it is a reverse shot of Bah’s now bemused face still gazing off to the right, with his body thus retaining its original position within the frame. Batrou and Bah agree to leave it there (‘Enough!’) and meet the next day after school. This fleeting image of hands might appear to inaugurate a new cinematic space (what Nikolaus Perneczky proposes as ‘a true configuration of lovers unbound from the exacting geometry of the preceding shot reverse-shot sequence’ (Perneczky 2012) (original emphasis)), yet the effect of montage here, which impedes the full complementarity of the lovers’ gazes and abstracts the naked body as soon as desire begins to rear its head, is actually to denaturalize the event and draw the viewer away from the sexualized body and any overt, frontal scene of sexual desire. Put differently, stylized cinematic abstraction and a denial of intimacy (even that of a brief two-shot) immediately defuses the potential destabilization generated by naked sexual desire, transforming it into a moment of shared affinities (the simple act of holding hands together sensually like intimate friends). The sexual moment thus becomes a purely symbolic event, with the lovers’ hands falling into the general pattern established in the film of familiar, recurring, symbolic motifs like water and the baobab. The first shot was of a youth pushing floating calabash across still, pure water, and the same boy returns in the final shot to offer the calabash to a pair of hands reaching into frame from off-screen. Ritualistic views of a huge baobab tree are presented throughout as the source of ancestral meaning


and inspiration – one towards which the hoary grandfather–seer and Bambara chief naturally gravitates and will address directly as a sacred ‘Cosmic Tree’ in order to save his grandson and the future of the group. While The Wind encapsulated the formal risks and cultural limitations involved in attempting to represent the sexual act, it nevertheless helped to encourage African cinema towards a more open and direct engagement with both female nakedness and (heterosexual) physical desire. The pioneering Visages de Femmes (1985) (Faces of Women) by Ivorian director Désiré Écaré, a comedy of manners about two women in contemporary Abidjan (one a villager, the other a city dweller) who seek in different ways to assert their independence, became a succès de scandale for promoting a message of female emancipation that embraced the pleasures of transgression. One’s attention is focused on the bodily nature of the sexual acts, in particular during the extended, explicit scene of adulterous lovemaking in the lake. Yet, as Barlet has emphasized in an eloquent celebration of the ‘meaningful body’ in African film, the gaze here is less voyeuristic than ‘contemplative’ in that it ‘conveys emotion and dreams’ (Barlet 2011). In this respect it adheres perfectly to the convention in African cinema – one, he claims, which makes it so original – of relating the body to the world while always respecting the person, and of thus providing the means to understanding his or her place in the universe. This shared core principle accounts for why, together with long takes, minimal editing, and the improvisation of non-professional actors, African directors usually opt for mid-shots showing a character full-length and evolving within the setting of a public space and community. Barlet continues: ‘In a culture where things are left unsaid, the body is all the more meaningful. Gestures, glances and silences gain in evocative force’ (Barlet 2011). Films like The Wind, Visages de Femmes and Safi Faye’s Mossane, which opens with a long shot of the lithe Mossane bathing naked in the sea, are to be championed, according to Barlet, for daring to approach bare skin as what he calls ‘a textual space’ (Barlet 2011). Such ‘natural representation of sensuality and the inscription of desire in the quotidian’ (Barlet 2011) is opposed to reductive, exotic projections of ‘African pseudo-hedonism’ which, he fiercely argues, dematerialize the black body in the very act of idealizing it. Barlet does not mention any names to illustrate the latter tendency, but he doubtlessly has in mind recent films like Bekolo’s The Bloodettes where, as we saw in Chapter 3, two young, sexy, female prostitute-protagonists employ their ultrafeminine wiles and magical powers to tear their way literally through the corrupt, political and business male elite of Cameroon in a mevungu-style purificatory ritual. The extreme, carnal nature of their joint physical performance, propelled by Majolie’s gyrating hips, possesses a clear homoerotic charge, yet the type of voyeuristic male gaze invited here suggests that their excessive acts and gestures are also soft-porn kinks – fantasies of ‘pussy power’ – intended by the director for a (heterosexual) male audience. The effect is not too dissimilar from the depiction of



lesbian desire encountered in Djo Munga’s Viva Riva!, where the direct, rough-andready female seduction scenes featuring a ballsy female military officer, though shot non-voyeuristically, appear little more than a brief, titillating diversion from the male gangster action. As in The Bloodettes, such fleeting moments of female desire are locked within a clearly defined heterosexual framework. Sustained, mutual lesbian desire is, in fact, barely acknowledged in African feature films, with the spectacular exception of Ramaka’s Karmen Geï and its explicit, unbridled portrayal of a bisexual woman who seduces everybody. The île de Gorée off the coast of Dakar becomes the subversive stage for a spectacular modern-day adaptation of Bizet’s opera of the Carmen legend, with a score by David Murray, Julien Jouga and Doudou Ndiaye Rose drawing on elements of pop, jazz and Afro-pop that help create a carnival-like phantasmagoria. The lusty and impulsive Karmen (Djeïnaba Diop Gaï), a dissident inmate in a women’s prison, cannot be contained within the limits of conventional heterosexuality, and with her unrestrained libido and uninhibited dancing she entrances the out-lesbian prison warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle). With Angélique now asleep, Karmen escapes to mainland Dakar where she is caught by a military policeman, Colonel Lamine Diop (Magaye Niang), after insulting factotums of the nation’s military leadership. So begins a tortuous round of sexual seduction with the possessive Lamine becoming hopelessly addicted to the lubricious Karmen, meeting with her and other gang members at the Cap Manuel lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the Dakar peninsula in a smuggling operation. Having allowed Karmen to leave prison, Angélique loses her forever by walking to her death in the moonlit sea, depicted as boundless and as all-enveloping as Karmen herself. There is no winner here: Karmen is eventually murdered by Lamine who in turn sinks into madness. However, Karmen Geï has been justly celebrated by Babacar M’Baye as a radical opening up of new possibilities for variant African sexualities and identities without denying the importance of spirituality and its accompanying traditions (see M’Baye 2011). From the opening scene in the prison featuring a sabar dance performance which quickly becomes a scene of lesbian seduction, Karmen is a rebellious free spirit, able to navigate between different classes and genders and even perform at one point as a griot critiquing the corruption of government officials (her mother’s bar likewise functions as a site of active resistance against the police). One might, of course, counter-argue that Karmen’s inevitable death is not only punishment for transgressing African rules of decorum, but also already preordained on account of her name, a direct reference to the Carmen legend and the malign Western influence of sexual imposture. There is also the troubling fact of Karmen’s breathtaking beauty which for Lamine presents a continual provocation and is impossible for him to leave alone. Yet as Ayo A. Coly has powerfully suggested, what is most crucial in Karmen Geï is how Bizet’s Carmen travels to the African postcolony and gets queered by/in the postcolonial moment


as a result of intrinsic postcolonial modalities of power, resistance and subjectivity. This process effectively reveals the queer to be organic to the postcolonial, ‘an inside job’ (Coly 2016: 399). Reworking Mbembe’s central idea of commandement on the grounds that it dismisses the postcolonized body and grass-roots actions in everyday life practices and gender, Coly argues convincingly that Karmen sets up the commandement for failure through the spontaneous emergence of the film’s ‘dissident corporeality’, that is, its queer assemblage of bodies (Coly 2016: 402) which ‘reroutes flows of desire in the postcolony in order to redistribute affective agency’ (Coly 2016: 401). In Coly’s reading, Karmen is nothing less than a queer saboteur, repeatedly identified in the film with her ancestor, the guardian spirit of the sea and protector of the island, Maam Kumba Castel, known in local legend for seducing men and women. Although Karmen’s subversive actions prove futile in the end, Ramaka, according to Coly, is offering here an affirmative reading of death and envisioning a futurescape – one that allows the film to subvert the denouement of ‘mutual zombification’ prophesied in Mbembe’s fatal plot of the commandement (Coly 2016: 404). Coly’s bold interpretation attests to the radical potency of Karmen Geï and its important ramifications for the critical understanding of postcolonial, Senegalese popular culture and memory. So ingrained, however, is the sexual taboo in Senegal, where homosexuality still remains officially illegal and carries sentences of between one and five years’ imprisonment, that this magnetic film still cannot be publicly screened in the country on account of its ‘controversial scenes’, which include also Angélique’s Christian burial being accompanied by a Muslim dirge.3 Another key aspect of Karmen Geï concerns the very location of desire. Free, polymorphous desire can only occur here outside Dakar proper, and ironically in a self-enclosed, legendary zone set apart (the former Maison des Esclaves). In this exceptional space, bisexual and lesbian desire and love can at least be initiated, even if it is only intermittent. This is to say, life appears paradoxically more progressive outside the modern African city than within it. Certainly, any trace of alternative female sexuality and subjectivity within the geographical confines of Dakar must remain veiled and kept behind closed doors. This is the underlying message also of Marie Kâ’s modest yet exquisite twelve-minute short, L’Autre femme (The other woman) (2013), about undeclared lesbian desire between two women occupying the same domestic space in a ménage à trois. A housewife in her fifties, Madeleine (Awa Sène Sarr), discovers another side of herself when she has to accept her husband’s young second wife into her home in a middle-class area of the city. She becomes fascinated with the thirty-year-old Amayelle (Khady Ndiaye Bijou), and together they share two wings of the house. Spending a day in each other’s company affords Madeleine the chance to rekindle her femininity in an unexpected sensual manner. Such complicity and intimacy, while simply shot and deliberately understated with subtle close-ups, has the potential to blow apart a stable domestic situation, although, since desire remains entirely private here, no



major scene of confrontation or revelation occurs. The carapace of patriarchy rests firmly intact, yet it has shifted just a little in what is a gentle, auspicious remapping of the traditionally gendered contours of family space and sexuality in African cinema. If Karmen Geï and L’Autre femme (and to a lesser extent The Bloodettes) offer a rare affirmation of lesbian sexuality and a potential queering of contemporary social mores,4 African films explicitly proposing alternative, non-normative forms of male sexuality and desire are virtually non-existent. For, although the omnipresent male body, unlike the female body, may be displayed in limited degrees of nakedness and impose itself in striking close-up in African films, even when the man in question is presented as an intellectual (as with the strapping, hairy, muscular torso and chest of Gonaba, played by the imposing French actor of Cameroonian origin, Ériq Ebouaney, in Le Silence de la Forêt (The Silence of the Forest) (2003)), films actually depicting physical relations and acts between men in contemporary popular culture, such as Cheikh A. Ndiaye’s story of traditional male wrestling (laamb) in Dakar entitled Wrestling Grounds (L’Appel des arènes) (2005), endeavour to suppress any hint or whiff of homoeroticism. Populist films may occasionally play with cross-dressing, for example, Moussa Sene Absa’s musical Madame Brouette, where, in the opening sequence, a handsome stud armed with a gun and wearing a bright red dress suddenly bursts into a shanty town house. Such explosive drag cannot be considered progressive, however, for it is played intentionally for laughs and functions merely as a plot device: the man will soon stagger out drunk and riddled with bullets, initiating an extended flashback which quickly reveals he was a corrupt police officer (Naago) killed by his lover (Mati, aka Madame Brouette) for his womanizing and refusal to acknowledge her independence. The irregular situation of a man donning ultra-feminine garb is justified here by context, since the narrative begins on the day of Taajaboon, a ritual celebration during the period of Tamxarit marking the Muslim New Year when men in Senegal are allowed exceptionally to dress like women, and vice versa. The overall effect is really no more affirmative than Sembene’s Xala where, as noted in the previous chapter, ‘transgender’ stands for sexual dysfunction and is equated with the political and moral disarray of neocolonial Dakar. Xala ended on a note of warning with the spectacle of El Hadji’s stripped, naked body presented as a source of disgust. We already observed in the Introduction how the short opening credit sequence of Mandabi, which prioritizes the conceptual over the aesthetic in a major illustration of Sembene’s Baobab thinking, also presents a formalizing of the heterosexual norm initiated under the symbolic ‘head’ of African culture. With this one scene, Sembene effectively established a template and set of stylistic terms and conditions for representing the African male body: it must be held aloft and maintained intact, immaculate and clean, at a respectful, chaste distance, ideally in mid- or long shot, in order to ensure the integrity of African manhood, identified


and verified as heterosexually pure. Masculinity embodies the hopes and dreams of postcolonial African society and must not be tampered with. This translates into an almost phobic reaction towards any suggestion of close intimacy and prolonged, unwarranted proximity between men that might muddy the waters of progress and impede male agency and autonomy, thereby deviating from the fundamental narratives of nationhood and modernity. In fact, non-normative male sexuality constitutes, like the fully exposed male body, one of the great unsayables and unshowables of African cinema, a virtual taboo. Even in Teno’s cinema which consistently tackles the burning issues of censorship and prohibition in Cameroonian society, there is no mention at all of homosexuality, and indeed very little of sexuality tout court. The excessive, unnameable queer body is at once too real and too abject – that is, abjected outside the African cinematic realm of form and symbol. It is thus often left to non-African directors to give gay African men the opportunity to describe their world in their own words. One celebrated example is the 1998 extended short Woubi Chéri about gay life in Côte d’Ivoire by French documentarists Philip Brooks and Laurent Bocahut, which corresponds to the well-established mould of Western directors providing extended, engaged, cinéma-vérité-style accounts of the more marginal areas of indigenous African culture.5 The title derives from the term woubi, meaning a man who plays the role of a wife in a homosexual relationship, and the film features yossis, that is, men who act as husbands to woubis who are often bisexual and in conventional marriages. Members of the gay and transgender community in Abidjan and surrounding areas (for example, Barbara, a male-to-female travesti and exuberant president of the country’s transvestite association) talk in forthright and disarming fashion about their daily situation and hopes for the future. There are also odd examples of diasporic African directors providing progressive portraits of gay life in West Africa. Rag Tag (2006), a feature film by the British-Nigerian female director Adaora Nwandu, is a lyrical tale of love and friendship between two reunited childhood friends – Rag from a West Indian family, Tag from a Nigerian Christian background – that takes place both in London and Nigeria. While sharply focused in its critique of the bigotry and stereotyping of the effeminate ‘batty boy’ encouraged by the lovers’ different communities, Rag Tag is extremely reserved in its presentation of desire, although this did not prevent it from being heavily condemned when it was released in Nigeria. It is no doubt due to the major obstacles and dangers involved in producing work on such themes, including issues of funding and exhibition, that a short, lyrical film like Reluctantly Queer (2016), by the Ghanaian-American female director Akosua Adoma Owusu, about a young gay Ghanaian student coming out to his mother, is set entirely in the United States. It takes the form of a letter by Kwame to his mother back in Ghana which he reads out fearfully in a voice-over (the actor playing Kwame is playing himself, Kwame Edwin Otu, a student at the University of Virginia writing



a PhD called ‘Reluctantly Queer’ about the queer African diasporic experience and trauma of identity). As a film expressly about queer migration and identity, Reluctantly Queer remains, however, an exception to the rule of foreign (white) directors broaching such themes, for example, the confessional-style short Still Burning (2016) by British producer and filmmaker Nick Rowley, which records a young migrant from Guadeloupe on the Paris vogue scene looking after his younger brother as he prepares for his first ball (the title pays homage to Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary about African-American gay drag balls in New York during the 1980s, Paris Is Burning (1990)). The pervasive lack of alternative images and models of masculinity in black African films helps to explain why, although many significant and influential studies have been devoted to the representation of women and female desire in African cinema (Harrow 1999, Thackway 2003, Prabhu 2014, among others), there is a marked absence of critical work exploring in detail the representation of masculinity and masculine desire. Notable exceptions include Prabhu’s short, comparative account of allegories of repressive, ‘heroic’ manhood, with particular reference to Xala and Zézé Gamboa’s The Hero (O Herói) (2004) about a disabled veteran of the Angolan Civil War (Prabhu 2014: 113–32); Langford’s study of the ‘post-colonial cowboy’ in Francophone African film that places the question of masculinity in the context of virility in the former colonies and French colonial fantasies of (re)emasculation (Langford 2009); and Dipio’s close study of Dani Kouyaté’s precolonial fable, Sia, the Myth of the Python (Sia, le rêve du python, 2001) (Dipio 2010).6 There have also been assorted contributions to more general cultural volumes on African masculinities, including Ouzgane and Morrell 2005, Mugambi and Allan 2010, and Ouzgane 2011, a collection emphasizing how masculinity and femininity in Africa reside on a continuum of cultural practices rather than on opposite planes. Otherwise, it is as if African masculinity and manhood on screen simply went without saying. Certainly, until a special issue of Research in African Literatures (47:2) in 2016 devoted to queer African literature and film, there have been no avowedly queer theoretical responses to masculinity in black African cinema, reinforcing the fact that of all the forms of beauty in African cinema and film discourse, that of the male body stands as the most troubling and off-limits, for critics as much as for directors. Yet the issue is also, of course, one of methodology. While queer theory is fundamentally comparative and transnational in its deconstructionist aims and approach, the general field of African studies has largely been defined by national case studies concerned with lived experience and politics. In a probing article in the 2016 issue of GLQ exploring the difficulties inherent in very notion of ‘queer African studies’, Ashley Currier and Thérèse Migraine-George have even suggested that African studies and queer studies constitute an ‘impossible transaction’ between two opposed field formations. If queer African studies presents such a major theoretical challenge, it is, they argue, because it is necessarily ‘positioned at


the loaded intersection of area, race, and sexuality, of postcolonialism and queer theory’ (Currier and Migrane-George 2016: 296). As a way out of the apparent gridlock Currier and Migrane-George propose in Deleuzian terms new queer African ‘reassemblages’ that would open up this complex new field to renewed pan-African/transnational and cross-disciplinary transactions. While the project to formalize queer African studies lies beyond the immediate scope of this chapter, the validity of the core opposition between the global queer and the national for an understanding of masculinity in contemporary black African films needs urgently to be addressed, since it relates to the abiding question of national allegory and symbol. This requires first considering further the material reality of gay life in sub-Saharan Africa.

Queer versus national The dearth of LGBTQ representation in sub-Saharan African cinema directly reflects the general picture of sexual discrimination and persecution of gay people in the region, which would require a long and separate study to document fully. It suffices to say that, according to the 2015 report by the International Gay and Lesbian Association, homosexuality is currently outlawed in thirty-four African countries, and is even punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan and Northern Nigeria. The Human Rights Watch notes that another two countries, Benin and the Central African Republic, do not outlaw homosexuality, but have certain laws which apply differently to heterosexual and homosexual individuals.7 Such widespread, institutionalized homophobia has been aggravated in recent times by the highly polarized and often vicious public debates in many parts of Africa about homosexuality, ignited by homophobic statements from traditionalist political and religious leaders asserting that it is an unnatural Western intrusion and import perverting ‘national integrity’. Yet the current wave of anti-homosexuality laws sweeping across the continent, aided and abetted in Anglophone Africa by American evangelicals, must also be seen as part of a wider political attempt to entrench repressive and undemocratic regimes. Prominent activist scholars like the Cameroonian health anthropologist Patrick Awondo seek to counter this monolithic image of a homophobic Africa with a more nuanced appreciation of the many variations and trajectories in the emergence of homosexuality as a public issue in countries across the region.8 For there is a long and often forgotten history of African tolerance of homosexuality that predates the colonial (Christian) period, such as the relative integration into daily life in Senegal of the transvestite gor-djiguen, a Wolof term meaning ‘man-woman’, ‘womanish’ or ‘effeminate’ (also written as goor-jiggen, goordjiguène, goor-djiguène, gordjinguène or gor-djguène). Moreover, the disparity in treatment of gay men and women across sub-Saharan Africa is often linked to matters of vocabulary. In the Yoruba language, for example,



the word for homosexual is adofuro, a derogatory colloquialism for someone who has anal sex, while in Northern Nigeria yan daudu is a Hausa term of identity usually used neutrally to describe effeminate, ‘passive’ men who are considered ‘wives’ to other men and associated with certain religious cults. Two such men having sex together are yan kiffi, which translates best into English as ‘lesbian males’, suggesting that the very vocabulary of gender in sub-Saharan Africa is fluid and shifting, and that homosexuality describes more an act taking multiple different forms than a psychological drive or predisposition.9 Yet the overall pattern of homosexuality in African societies is generally bleak and oppressive, for even when not inflamed by religious and political claims of African purity the all-pervasive discourse remains one of strict patriarchy, fertility and reproduction. Boys and male adolescents in Senegal, for example, may certainly hold hands together in public as a natural sign of friendship, but any erotic affection or display must remain concealed and well beyond the visible margins of society – the stigma of an outlawed subgroup at permanent risk of both persecution and prosecution. It is entirely symptomatic that public gay activity in Dakar is largely confined to the odd gay cruising ground located in the more leafy, international downtown area populated by embassies. A reminder of just how unpredictable and potentially volatile attitudes to homosexuality can be owing to social conditioning, even in a relatively stable and tolerant country like Senegal, is provided by the young activists of the ‘Y’en a marre’ movement who helped Macky Sall become president in 2012. These exemplary forces of progressive change have since positioned themselves as defenders of national morality and crusaders against the perceived gay agenda of Western neo-imperialism, threatening even to oust Sall from power should he capitulate to international pressure and decriminalize homosexuality. Such cultural and political convergences, together with the daily experience of intimidation and imposed ‘discretion’ endured by gay men and women, do not inspire directors to produce explicit gay-themed material, still less to come out themselves. It is perhaps inevitable that the one known out-gay, black African male director, the French-Gabonese filmmaker and musician Jann Halexander (creator of small, niche independent films like J’aimerais, J’aimerais (2007) and Occident (2008)), has for a long time been based in France.10 Even the possibility of a national discourse and debate about homosexuality and gay rights in West and Central African societies and cultures, of the kind, for example, instigated in North Africa by Abdellah Taïa’s coming-of-age, gay drama L’Armée du salut (2014) (Salvation Army) upon its release in his home country of Morocco (the first Moroccan full-length feature ever to treat the theme of homosexuality openly), seems extremely remote.11 There still remains nothing in West or Central African cinema equivalent to the multidisciplinary Nest Collective in Nairobi responsible for brave and daring works like Stories of Our Lives (2014), a series of short stories and sketches about life for young gay people in Kenya written and directed by Jim Chuchu and rooted in archive testimony (the film was promptly


banned by the Kenyan government for spreading the disease of ‘gayism’ (a common term for homosexuality in East Africa), and its local producer George Gachara arrested and nearly prosecuted for making it). The 2018 film Rafiki (the title in Swahili translates as ‘friend’) made by a close collaborator and producer of Chuchu, Wanuri Kahiu, is the first Kenyan feature about lesbian love, although it was produced in South Africa by ‘Big World Cinema’. An adaptation of a prizewinning short story called Jambula Tree by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, it tells the story of two teenage girls living in a Nairobi housing estate who fall in love. While Kahiu does not stint on the extreme violence meted out to the pair once their relationship becomes known, the scenes of sexual desire and intimacy are kept to a minimum and remain tasteful and restrained. This sober yet never solemn queer drama is simply and powerfully directed, despite the rather forced, ‘straightly’ political subplot in which the girls’ fathers are pitted as local election rivals. Yet like Stories of Our Lives Rafiki immediately fell foul of the Kenyan film censor and was denied release.12 Only in South Africa, where queer politics has long featured on the domestic political agenda post-apartheid, and where homosexuality is fully legal along with same-sex marriage, joint and step-child adoption, and change of legal gender (the country became in 1996 the first jurisdiction in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBTQ people), is there a major presence of out-gay cultural production, including the one gay film festival on the entire African continent called the Johannesburg ‘Queer Film Fest’ (formerly the ‘Out in Africa’ festival). It is a telling sign of South Africa’s predominant status within current African gay scholarship that Neville Hoad’s enlightening 2007 study, African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalisation, which addresses the meaningfulness of basic terms like ‘sexuality’ and ‘homosexuality’ outside Euro-American discourse, and which explores how understanding intimacy might reimagine an African universalism, is concerned almost exclusively with South African history and literature. Equally indicative of the national disparity within African gay studies is the fact that, until very recently, virtually all journal special issues – and most books – on explicitly gay themes have either been published in South Africa, or else have focused almost exclusively on South or Southern Africa. There is one remarkable exception, however, to the particular lack of gay visibility in West and Central African cinema: Dakan (1997) (Destiny), by the established Guinean actor and director Mohamed Camara. Variously described as the first West African film, the first sub-Saharan film, and the first film by a black African, to deal with homosexuality, Dakan is an earnest, sensitive tale of two young, twenty-year-old men, Manga (Aboucar Touré) and Sori (Mamady Mory Camara), in love with each other and coming out to their family in Guinea. It forms part of Camara’s didactic project to confront head-on the taboos of African society (his later 1993 short Denko examines the theme of incest between a mother and her blind, ‘handsome’ son whose sight, according to a local albino healer, can



only be restored by the two having sexual relations together). Starting with what still blazes brightly as one of the most transgressive opening scenes in African cinema, when the camera zooms slowly downwards towards a male couple locked in a clandestine, nighttime embrace in a red sports car, Dakan dares to suggest that homosexuality is entirely common and natural. Indeed, Sori appears to be attractive to several other young men, and his relationship with Manga is accepted by their classmates. Yet Dakan moves with a cautious tread, unfolding at times like a rather clunky issue film. Soon the boys’ single parents – Sori’s father Bakari Kaba (Mohamed Camera) (his mother is never once mentioned) and Manga’s mother Fanta (Koumba Diakité) (his father remains unknown) – forbid them from seeing each other again. Sori marries a village woman and has a child, while Fanta, who declares her son ‘mad’, turns with the help of Manga’s uncle to a traditional village healer to ‘cure’ her son. Manga undergoes unsuccessfully a lengthy form of aversion therapy, yet eventually enters a relationship with a white woman, Oumou (Cécile Bois) (French although she claims to be Guinean), whom he meets through his mother. However, the two young men find themselves irresistibly drawn back to each other, and Manga’s mother will finally give her blessing to the pair. In the closing sequence Sori and Manga find themselves once again in the car and drive off as a gay couple towards an uncertain future. Although Dakan remains entirely chaste and adopts a gentle, nonconfrontational style and mainstream format, including music by the late popular Guinean singer Sori Kandia Kouyaté, it became the immediate target of controversy even during its production. Not only was it marred by angry public protests, but also the Guinean government which had initially backed the film

FIGURE 5.1  Manga (Aboucar Touré) and Sori (Mamady Mory Camara) making out in full view in an open red convertible in the opening sequence of Dakan (1997).


withdrew funding as soon as it discovered the subject matter. Dakan was deemed a provocation and threat to the nation because, it was claimed, the out-gay male body risked defiling the body politic (Camara was obliged to finance the project himself with support from the French television network, La Sept). However, Dakan’s clear status and easy readability as a coming-out gay narrative is also precisely what ensured its enthusiastic reception in the West and its eventual screening in US embassies across Africa as part of an American neo-liberal initiative to bring the ‘Western values’ of humanism and human rights to the continent. The impossible love of Sori and Manga and their psychological pain might – and has been – read as a stand-in for the nation’s long, collective pain in the face of modernization (it was not until 1995, after three decades of economic relations with the Soviet Union in the wake of Independence in 1958 followed by a short period of liberalization, that elections were finally held in Guinea). Yet as Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt have argued in a fascinating discussion of the critical and political reception of Dakan – one that returns us to a core issue of Baobab and post-Baobab thinking – such an allegorical reading merely instrumentalizes homosexuality, reducing and taming homosexual desire to a trope and rhetorical figure representing something of a different order. According to such allegorizing logic, ‘queers have no ontological status’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 135).13 Schoonover and Galt’s response is to propose a more radical, queer use of allegory based on the understanding that by refusing to render visible the boys’ future in the closing scene, Dakan narrates metatextually national allegory’s ‘problem of narrative closure in a situation with no political solution’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 140). I won’t rehearse in detail the many threads of their dense argument that takes into account also Dakan’s cinematic style which, they suggest, reiterates the narrative question of local and global, traditional and modern, and likewise rejects the binary.14 They insist crucially on Sori and Manga’s explicit kissing in the car as a shocking intervention in a semi-public space and a bold envisioning of homosexuality, for ‘Dakan demands not only to educate in the tradition of African political cinema, but also to speak in public about queer sex’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 135–7). If making sexuality (and above all homosexuality) public involves ‘disfiguring’ the image of the nation, then Sori and Manga’s bodies ‘form the center for these crosscurrents of postindependence African culture, not figuring the nation but embodying the queer back and forth between public and private, desire and duty, national and international that weigh on the postcolonial body’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 138). Invoking the work of Rebecca Romanow on queer postcoloniality,15 Schoonover and Galt propose that the vanishing lovers be read instead more as ‘queer postcolonial bodies’, thus enabling a mode of allegory that does not erase homosexuality but rather builds queerness into the dynamics of globality. They conclude powerfully: ‘As material signifiers of actual queers in Guinea, their [the lovers’] disappearance demands that we do imagine their future – an African future for queer couples. It is in the



intersection of these formal modes that the film is able to stage a queer geopolitical critique: only by reading Manga and Sori both as allegory and as direct image of the world can a different geopolitics be imagined – one that has space for queers in its worldview’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 140). The central argument made by Schoonover and Galt for retaining under specific conditions the notion of allegory as part of a queer geopolitical critique is extremely suggestive and persuasive, especially for exploring non-normative sexuality and desire in a branch of world cinema which has for so long been defined by allegories of nationhood. Indeed, if, as I have been arguing so far in this book, political allegory per se is effectively exhausted in African cinema, a new, more enlightened mode of allegory grounded in the male body is also required – one that penetrates the hallowed, protected territory of African manhood and breaches the cordon sanitaire of heterosexuality while insisting on both the material and psychological complexity of masculinity outside the genealogical straightjacket of Baobab thinking premised on the desire for origins, rootedness and purity. Such a move, which, like Jarrod Hayes’s 2009 study of queer roots in Africa, foregrounds movement and displacement (in Hayes’s case, the ‘routes’ of diaspora – see Hayes 2009), is all the more necessary when, for the many reasons given, there is little point in attempting to prospect for positive, gay images in black African cinema as part of a politics of representation and identity, still less for signs of cross-racial (white/black) desire, a model virtually inconceivable in this particular social-cultural context where it would threaten to replicate a colonial pattern of white male desire as exploitation. Schoonover and Galt’s approach inspires us to look again instead more closely at the founding narratives of sub-Saharan African cinema, and to trace abrasions in their seemingly smooth, seamless, heterosexual surfaces and contours. This means prising open their heteronormative locks through odd, rare gaps and openings signalling possible alternative masculinities and desires. Already in Alassane’s Le Retour d’un aventurier a woman formed part of the cowboy posse – an early, seldom acknowledged instance in African cinema of costume as a form of gender performance. Could it even be that the hyper-framed, manifesto-like opening sequence of Sembene’s defining heterosexual work Mandabi might potentially yield something new or latent? For on closer inspection, a strangely loose, casual serialization of men in blue clothes can be noticed: first the barber in near-shot who then recedes into far-shot, then a second, younger barber in close-up – a handsome figure with svelte hands and a winsome smile – who shaves the future protagonist. This knowing formal play with the proximate male body is immediately extended upon completion of the shave by the following reverse-field shot: four women in grands-boubous carrying bowls of water on their heads who become only three when the shot is subsequently cut and the camera views them from behind. The colour scheme has also changed: the left to right order in the first shot (brown, lilac, blue, green) has now been reversed right to left, and the colours have mutated into pink, white and green, supplemented by the


brown of the postman who strays into the shot behind the women from left-frame. This cultivated error in continuity cutting and construction, whereby human figures and colours are swallowed up and partly replaced across the gaping hole of the edit in a (re)grooming of number, series and the cut (in all senses, corporeal and filmic), forms, of course, part of Sembene’s concerted attempt to make the viewer an active agent according to the ideals of Third Cinema with its conscious techniques of distancing and alienation. Yet if all suddenly appears to be formally sliding into provocative doubt and confusion, the Baobab itself remains fixed and secure as an allegorical concept and phallocratic symbol. Indeed, the formal play here serves merely to underline the solidity and force of the Baobab, and the fact again that it remains ‘untouchable’. I wish in what follows to retain and celebrate the floating, wide smile of Sembene’s second barber, at once benign and beguiling, by addressing directly the male body and exploring both thematically and formally the possibility of a dispersive queer gaze in contemporary African cinema. That is, I want to roam freely across the cinematic surface and probe the queer creases of those determinedly heterosexual national narratives where sexuality remains generally understated (and, in the case of homosexuality, emphatically unstated) for odd signs, chance flickerings, intimations, vibrations and reverberations of male beauty and intimacy, even homoeroticism, that might lie hidden or disguised under the radar. I seek to go deep into male space and time, combing the back of the frame to see close-up how male figures disport themselves and who they consort with, venturing if necessary into the reverse field while simultaneously staying close to the filmic surface – this in order to grasp the full panoply of screened, erotic male experience and

FIGURE 5.2  An objective shot of the second anonymous barber in action in the opening credit sequence of Mandabi (1968).



make it count, both aesthetically and theoretically. I will focus specifically on the feature films of Haroun, some of which – Abouna, Daratt, A Screaming Man – we have already encountered in our discussion of language as a form of abstraction between sound and silence in Chapter 4. I will not be including, however, Haroun’s most recent film, A Season in France (Une saison en France, 2017), which is set exceptionally in France and adopts a very different style and register. The story of an interracial relationship between Abbas (Ériq Ebouaney), a widower and refugee from the Central African Republic, and a white woman, Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), who shares her Paris flat with him and his two young children after his request for asylum proves unsuccessful, A Season in France captures in acute detail the reduced horizons and enforced immobility of the migrant condition. For this reason it has little time or space to explore the open territories of masculinity and shared masculine experience that define Haroun’s work, even though it typically includes a male relationship at its core (between Abbas and his brother Étienne (Bibi Tanga), also a migrant). Indeed, a deliberately tight and restrictive cinematic frame continually closes up the visual field, often claustrophobically, thereby curtailing the extensibility and potential for abstraction of material space which, as we shall see, are central to Haroun’s method.16

Haroun: In the void of the father Like his documentary Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy, discussed earlier in the context of the representation of violence and trauma, all of Haroun’s feature films set in Chad take place within a pre-eminently national framework. Yet if he positions himself squarely as a national artist, Haroun also works actively against cultural tradition and what he calls the ‘folklore of the collective’ (Malausa 2010), tied in his view to the notion of an eternal Africa as the fundamental source of identity. He seeks to lay to rest one of the sustaining principles of black African filmmaking sacred to Sembene and others of the first and second generations of African directors, namely pan-Africanism. ‘This movement has now run its course’, he declares, adding: ‘There is no African cinema. There is cinema in each country. We have to create a new utopia’ (Haroun 2013a). At the root of Haroun’s ambitious political project to make Chad ‘exist’ visually to the outside world is an extensive enquiry into masculinity and new modes of homosociality. Starting from the position that dominant masculinity as a pillar of traditional, patriarchal culture is plunged in deep crisis due to the war-torn confusion of the splintered postcolony, Haroun addresses the lost generation of young boys, adolescents and men in a country haunted by civil strife, devastated by AIDS, and increasingly marginalized by rampant globalization – and its obverse, economic stagnation – which destroys fraternal bonds as well as local infrastructures and forms of social organization. His films ask in particular what it is that makes fathers send


their sons to die (Haroun himself was forced into exile at the age of eighteen after being shot during the civil war in Chad). Presenting masculinity in its physical and psychological forms as fractured, disturbed and vulnerable, his films are postOedipal in the literal sense that the blood father is usually either absent or dead, resulting in complex vistas of trauma and mourning, whether acknowledged or repressed. Such fading out of the patriarchal male figure is conveyed most graphically in the opening credit sequence of Abouna where, after a brief panning shot of a man running, the same figure is recaptured in close-up turning around slowly to the camera before fleeing the still-frame. He eventually returns into shot as a tiny figure in the far-background of the sahel. Haroun’s social and political project goes hand in hand paradoxically with his singular approach to the aesthetic, for he refuses the traditional demand in African cinema to read beauty symbolically and allegorically for ideological meaning. Fired by an absolute belief in the individual worth of an authorial cinematic vision, he seeks to create a radically different kind of African image – one that performs a decisive shift in the status and role of beauty from a function of the political to an open vehicle of the aesthetic. The intense dramas of Daratt and A Screaming Man, while pursuing contemporary themes of civil war and social struggle, also explore moments of personal and family crisis and torment in vivid, often lyrical detail. In fact, Haroun is rethinking the very nature and value of beauty in African cinema through the specific prism of masculinity and male desire. Indeed, his films provide for a more liberated mode of cinematic viewing that extends the very notion of the political in African cinema precisely because it turns intensively on the male gaze and the displayed male body. Drawing the spectator into a sensory relationship with the image of the male body which becomes a site of active interpretation of mobile, shifting signs, Haroun allows us to peer into another side of African masculinity – the reverse side of the standard codes, queer in all but name – and to envision new male subjectivities and affectivities based on what I shall be calling an erotics of male abstraction and intimacy. As I will attempt to show, abstract patterns in Haroun are not simply allegorical but also emotional and linked directly to the body, allowing us to read abstraction in a non-allegorical way that sidesteps the familiar fixed binaries of inside/outside, surface/depth, visible/invisible, and so on. For if he starts always from within a national structure Haroun also works against it, calmly but resolutely exceeding the confines of the allegorical to reveal that subjectivity and the body cannot simply be reduced to a conceptual or political model, national or otherwise. In short, he lets the male body breathe and speak for itself spontaneously and informally as desire, and, by positing new intersections of gender and the erotic body while always negotiating the traditional limits of sexual modesty and decency, offers a highly instructive glimpse of possible new thresholds of beauty in contemporary African cinema. Already in his first feature, Bye Bye Africa (1999), the first African art film to be shot on digital video, Haroun confronts the viewer directly with both the scale



of chaos and degradation in Chad and what he calls elsewhere the ‘violence’ of the country’s natural light (Haroun 2011a). This is a highly self-reflexive work of bio-docu-fiction featuring Haroun himself as the filmmaker-protagonist ‘Haroun’ trying to reconnect with his country after ten years in exile (his mother has just died), and mixing fiction and documentary, as well as colour and black-and-white camcorder footage. His sceptical ‘father’ (played by Khayar Oumar Defallah) takes him to task for not making films for Africans, and states there must be a true, personal attachment between a filmmaker and his work to produce any valid connection with his audience (the Godardian riposte of ‘Haroun’ – ‘The cinema creates memories’ – is woefully lacking). The film is also a self-lacerating portrait of heterosexual romantic intrigue, with Haroun portraying himself as a callous lothario and misogynist incapable of contemplating love and, like a colonial-style European exploiter and predator, ultimately betraying the fictitious local actress Isabelle (Aïcha Yelena) who had apparently once played a woman infected with AIDS in one of his films and who paid the price of ostracism even from her own family who believed she had the disease herself (Isabelle: ‘Cinema is stronger than reality’). In one fell swoop, Haroun is getting both raw documentary and crude heterosexual desire out of his system in order to explore new terrains of African masculinity and more ‘impure’, abstract forms of narrative fiction. Convinced that it is impossible to make films in Chad (cinemas have closed and financing is hard to secure), ‘Haroun’ finally leaves the country disenchanted, both personally and politically, while declaring his intention to return in order to re-make the film. It is a despair and alienation out of which Haroun will craft a unique cinematic approach and vision that does not distort or sensationalize, but rather encourages intimacy by formally skirting the borders of the implicit and unavowed.17 Haroun’s detached, minimalist style, which he will continue to develop and refine, is based not only on extreme close-ups but also on meditative long takes and a documentary-like attention to small details. Indeed, his spare, elegant mise en scène and meticulously crafted formal compositions employing ellipsis and modes of incertitude betray the influence of European modernists like Bresson, Rossellini and Antonioni, although Haroun himself prefers to invoke other nonAfrican influences, from Ozu and Kurosawa to Hou Hsiao-hsien and Kiarostami. The rhythm and register of his films are not always continuous or fluid, however: still long takes can be cut short without warning, genuine touches of humour (including visual gags evoking silent cinema) can suddenly break through, and abrupt, stark juxtapositions, in particular between the public and private spheres, create rupture and discontinuity. To take the opening sequence of A Screaming Man, the first printed image is a medium shot of two dark-skinned men of different ages playing together in the dappled water of a pool, their naked torsos gleaming in the sunlight. They indulge in some innocent fun, seeing who can last longest underwater. Reining in their breath they plunge down into the water, causing ripples to mingle with the reflected rays of light on the surface over which the title


appears in white. Fifteen seconds later the surface breaks and the older man shoots up, joined soon after by the other who proclaims himself ‘champion’. They embrace in shared joy and amusement. It is only in the following sequence charting daily life at a luxury tourist hotel on the outskirts of N’Djamena that we discover that the older man is called Adam and the other is his son, Abdel (Diouconda Koma). As Michael Sicinksi has noted, this sustained long take of a lush pool is the virtual antithesis of a dominant topos in African cinema: the sand shot.18 It thus immediately throws into question received aesthetics and confounds cinematic prejudices about what an African film should be and show: cliché images of tribal customs and rural idylls, or – and the two approaches, as we have seen, often go hand in hand – equally cliché images of a bleeding, suffering continent afflicted by famine and civil war and cast precisely outside the realm of beauty. Yet more is at stake here. For this simple yet wonderfully suggestive view of anonymous male pleasure, gently filmed with a mobile handheld camera and temporarily unanchored to any geographical setting, encourages free speculation: are these two handsome, joyful men close friends or perhaps even lovers? A mystery is posited: what lurks within the still waters? How deep do they run? That is, is there a queer ‘inside’ or ‘underside’ to this apparently ‘normal’, external view? Haroun does not force a particular reading here, and, unlike Sembene in Mandabi, deliberately holds off the blade of the editorial cut. Indeed, rather than being obliged to read the image deeply or vertically for preordained symbolic meaning, one is drawn irresistibly by the flat bands of sunlight glinting off the ripples in the pool scene to experience the scene horizontally in the material present. New spaces and forms of visual pleasure are opened up on the surface, not bound by ideology and rich with their own patent mysteries. There is certainly no indication at this pre-stage of the narrative of the anger and despair to come, in which the 55-year-old Adam, once a famous swimmer (champion of Central Africa) and a long-time pool attendant, finds himself, for reasons of poverty and personal resentment, stopping

FIGURE 5.3  Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) and Abdel (Diouconda Koma) together in the pool in the opening sequence of A Screaming Man (2010).



the payments to the army that have thus far spared his son from being drafted to fight in the raging civil war, in the process reclaiming his job from Abdel to whom it was calculatedly passed down by the hotel’s new Chinese management (Abdel could not refuse this opportunity for his Malian girlfriend was pregnant with his child and they needed the money). Our active spectatorship is further encouraged by the title of the film itself which is derived from a key sentence in Aimé Césaire’s epic poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (one much used too by Sissako), about artistic and political agency in the face of suffering: ‘And above all beware, my body as well as my soul / beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, / for life is not a spectacle, / a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, / a screaming man is not a dancing bear.’ The opening shot of A Screaming Man reveals that Haroun’s formal restraint is rooted in a direct, frontal approach towards the male form. Calm on the surface, his cinema of sensory energy shimmers with the aches and strains of male emotion, loss, pain and melancholy. There is an extraordinary sensitivity here to the play of light and colour on the body in motion, the particles of facial and bodily hair, the ripples and folds, muscles and curves of the male body, as well as to the effects on it of ageing, labour and environment. Indeed, Haroun’s exceptional attention to the displayed male figure and gaze, along with the touch and glisten of lambent black skin, is the essential constant in his work. It results in some of the most intensely (homo)erotic images of the male physique and expression in contemporary narrative cinema. While female figures do appear in his work, they are usually consigned to the background like Adam’s wife Mariam, or, like manager Madame Wang (Heling Li) in A Screaming Man, they pass by like phantoms. Grigris brings dynamically to the fore what has thus far been only evoked in Haroun’s work: the male body as pure performance and cynosure of the gaze. Our first sight of the eponymous, 25-year-old Grigris (Souleymane Démé), who by day lives and works with his father-in-law and whose name in French also means a talisman or charm supposed to bring good luck, is as a spectacular dervish figure – a virtual fetish – rolling and swinging his crippled left leg with consummate skill and élan in an N’Djamena nightclub. In his gleaming, open, white dress-shirt he reinvents dance moves from John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) in front of an enraptured mixed audience. Haroun takes us here directly to the beauty and mystery of the male body: the camera lingers on Grigris’s taut, elastic frame and swaying hips as they knot and break in dazzling arabesques in an unashamed celebration of male physicality, grace, rhythm and free movement. This is where beauty is located for Haroun, rather than in the landscape, for example, which only becomes distinctive when highlighted by a male character observing it or moving through it.19 At one point in A Screaming Man, for example, a zoom shot transports the viewer into a face-to-face encounter with Adam and into sharing in extreme close-up his acute physical discomfort at wearing a uniform several sizes too small for him. The following image is a prolonged shot of Adam alone


at home one night performing press-ups. The degree of access to this character, which includes periodically subjective point-of-view shots, is increased still further when he is glimpsed from behind as he looks forlornly in the mirror, or when the camera closes in on him sobbing alone in the pool in total guilt and remorse. There is usually no narrative reason for such extended private shots and artfully lit compositions – images of masculinity under strain as a form of douleur exquise – other than the simple appreciation of the beauty of the mature male body in states of physical exertion and emotional turmoil. This body is continually importuning the viewer to look, and look again. In one interview where he hails Djaoro’s ‘instinctive intelligence’, Haroun also highlights the actor’s special ‘way with gesture’ and ‘particular sensual walk’ (Haroun 2011a). The lure of the male gaze in Haroun is made explicit and self-reflexive in Abouna, where, as we saw in Chapter 4, the two young brothers Tahir and Amine attend a cinema screening of a black-and-white film and suddenly behold, projected supersize on screen, a man who appears the spitting image of their absent father. In what unfolds as a mise en abyme of male spectatorship, they are captivated by this handsome, swarthy, dark-skinned figure who stands half-naked, smoking in the doorway of a house in mid-shot with his back and upraised right hip pointing in the direction of the camera. A woman (presumably his wife) is just visible in the background asking him ‘What’s wrong?’ There is a clear erotic subtext to this image, which has the look and feel of a European art movie, although it is unlike any of the films advertised on the posters outside the cinema (Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger in Paradise (1984)). This magnified figure of glowing male beauty perched on the threshold – an eroticized paternal object – translates formally as a shared subjective image from the brothers’ point of view. As he turns around and smiles down towards the camera as if directly to meet their gaze (‘Bonjour les enfants!’ he exclaims as two much younger boys then enter the intradiegetic frame), he provokes in them an unstoppable spectatorial desire to move closer and capture his image. Literally so, for afterwards they even steal the reels of film used for the screening and cut out the relevant frames – an act of devotion for which they will be punished and sent away to a rural Koranic school for harsh instruction in how to become proper Muslim boys and men. The erotic restaging of father/son relations through an act of spectatorial seduction is central to Haroun’s project, which asks whether the actual disappearance of the emblem of patriarchy can ensure the lifting of the rule of the Father. If so, it might potentially lead to new forms of masculinity and male relations – that is, to new types of male bonding, understanding and close friendship, even love, between men, beyond fear and suspicion. But can the renegotiation and mutual sharing of space both real and symbolic, as in the intimacy of a shared subjective shot, initiate an expanded, open frame of seeing and being? Such is the utopian political hope announced at the start of all Haroun’s films, where every panning



FIGURE 5.4 The on-screen ‘father’ (Koulsy Lamko) watched in wonder by Tahir and Amine in the cinema in Abouna (2002).

shot, tracking or close-up represents an attempt to liberate the destroyed social field and open up new, affirmative kinds of relational space.

Visible shadows, invisible secrets For a filmmaker so committed to confronting the worn presuppositions of tradition and bringing new kinds of masculinity into visibility through the techniques of narrative cinema and identification, much appears, however, to remain in the shadows in Haroun’s work, either merely intimated or else circulating off-frame. There are, in fact, always other inter-male stories and satellite male characters circulating in the margins and loitering around the epicentres of family trauma, hatred, rivalry and revenge that hinge on brutally simple human dilemmas (to kill or not to kill, to betray or not to betray, to sacrifice or not to sacrifice). Halfway into A Screaming Man, for instance, Adam’s Congolese friend David, a chef in the same hotel who has now been laid-off and enjoys no real status or identity, tries to encourage Adam to eat after he has fallen into inconsolable grief. He clasps Adam’s knee tenderly yet firmly in a sustained display of mutual friendship as their conversation becomes more profound about the very nature of life (questions of the kind: ‘Do you think you exist?’). They gaze at each other searchingly and affectionately in their thin white vests – a moving image of two mature men sharing similar feelings of impotence, safe and relaxed in their intimacy. Nothing equivalent occurs between men and women in the film, even during the often close scenes between Adam and Abdel’s girlfriend Djénéba (Djénéba Koné) who


address each other formally as father and daughter. When at one point she breaks into song (an unbearably sad tune left untranslated), the camera soon directs us from her face to a medium shot of Adam watching and listening, framed between reed screens as he stares towards the camera, tears visibly welling up inside. What counts here is the physical effect the song has on him: the scene is abruptly cut before there is any chance of a shot/reverse shot back to Djénéba. In Grigris, meanwhile, the eponymous protagonist rehearsing on stage is watched by an anonymous male character who comes silently into view and casts an open, admiring gaze towards Grigris located left off-frame. Shots of the lingering stranger are intercut three times in the scene which concludes with Grigris himself staring off-frame and walking in the other’s direction right off-screen. This extended, penetrating, off-screen gaze has a deviant, erotic charge precisely due to its tangential angle and casual lack of narrative motivation. Moreover, as the recipient of these apparently disconnected shots, the viewer is impelled to connect the shots together through montage almost like a go-between in an open network of looking. This contrasts directly with Grigris’s relationship with the local smuggler Moussa which is based on control and manipulation (in both directions) and marks a perversion of the reconfigured father/son relation we have been tracing (Moussa refers to Grigris at one point as his ‘child’ yet will seek bloody revenge after Grigris double-crosses him). The most suggestive of Haroun’s odd, indeterminate moments of male togetherness occurs, however, in Daratt where, during a temporary period of official amnesty for all war criminals (a reference perhaps to the amnesty granted in 1990 by Idriss Déby soon after he took over power from Hissène Habré), a sixteen-year-old fatherless boy, Atim, is sent on a mission by his grandfather to kill the man called Nassera who murdered his father. When Atim arrives in N’Djamena and is set upon by two soldiers for urinating in the street, a handsome, lighter-skinned stranger, the smiling, thirtysomething Moussa (Djibril Ibrahim), is on hand to help. The inscrutable Atim is initially suspicious of this mysterious, streetwise, older man hanging loose and wearing a loose open shirt and metal stud in his left ear while speaking to him in French. The avuncular Moussa persists, however (‘Let me talk to you. I like you kid’). When he eventually takes Atim home and introduces him to his aunt absurdly as ‘a friend from America’, she retorts: ‘This is not a hotel!’, indicating perhaps that his act of male benevolence is a regular occurrence. (We note for the record that homosexuality is actually legal in Chad, since no laws against same-sex sexual activity have ever existed in the country.) Atim stays and will assist Moussa, a petty thief, in stealing copper from electric lights. So begins a mutually supportive male friendship and bond, yet one peremptorily dismissed by Harrow as a ‘brief encounter’ (Harrow 2013: 15) in his otherwise sophisticated political reading of Daratt as a rewriting of the postcolonial archive. In this respect Harrow finds himself oddly in bed with those very African film critics he accuses of always looking the other way – that is, in



the standard direction of political meaning and overdetermined allegory. Even an attentive and sensitive film critic like Stefanson refers to Moussa simply as Atim’s ‘unsolicited friend and protector … another war orphan’ (Petty and Stefanson 2014: 309). At one point Moussa and Atim are pictured having a jealous tiff on a busy street, but they soon overcome their differences by hugging and holding hands, then running closely against each other as if chasing their own shadows. What makes this moment possible is the story simultaneously recounted by Moussa on the soundtrack about a man who wants to be rid of his shadow, to which the shadow replies, ‘You’ll only get rid of me the day you achieve your mission.’ These words are prophetic, for the next time the two fall out on the streets it is for good. The exact cause of the break-up is not made known since the farewell scene is conveyed in inaudible long shot; the intense relationship (a platonic bromance?) ends as mysteriously as it began. Yet for as long as it lasted Moussa provided the same stability and generosity of spirit as the benign and affable Uncle Adoum in Abouna, who protects his young nephews with his warm, physical embrace and guitar song always ready to lift their spirits, offering thus a direct alternative to the discredited male model of the ‘irresponsible’ father. Such fleeting, incidental, cruisy episodes of unarticulated male relations – marginal and transverse in nature like the sidecar motorbike Adam drives around town with his son – constitute moments between men when their curiosity is pricked, the pose and carapace of studied indifference slips, and the merely homosocial glides into something more ambiguous and homoerotic. Haroun is allowing us to share in close-up a more free-floating masculinity that escapes easy codification (familial, social, cultural) and welcomes the arbitrary and random

FIGURE 5.5  Atim (Ali Bacha Barkai) and Nassera (Youssouf Djaoro) in a suggestive and fleeting episode of male togetherness in Daratt (2006).


through seeing and touching. This is perhaps what he is really referring to when he talks of his wish ‘to show transgressions, things that aren’t usually found in life’ (Haroun 2011a) (my emphasis), and not merely the fact of capturing male fragility on film, however shocking. I’m thinking, for instance, of his at times gut-wrenching, thirty-minute short Expectations (2008), where another Moussa, a grown man in his mid-fifties (Djaoro again), suddenly breaks down in tears after repeatedly failing in his Sisyphean mission to emigrate across the desert. However, such erotic possibilities have been ignored by critics who are simply not conditioned to look at the male body in this way in African cinema – even when Haroun is virtually instructing us to do so with his singular use of the long take, close-up and zoom, and when, as in A Screaming Man, the precise details of the unfolding civil unrest between ‘patriots’ and ‘rebels’ are left deliberately vague and appear, at least for some critics, frustratingly abstract (the omnipresent helicopters, for instance, are only heard, never seen).20 Indeed, to call Haroun, as Armes does, a subtle and ‘discreet’ director simply on account of the fact that he explores ‘the unspoken ties that bind people and their inner strengths’ (Armes 2006: 165) is entirely to miss the erotic specificity of his cinema of quiet transgression. Abstraction carries a fundamentally positive charge in Haroun’s work precisely because masculinity and male eroticism, however discreet and diffuse, manifest themselves through style and form. Haroun himself talks of his practice of the close-up as a way ‘to touch a form of abstraction. To get close to characters in order to enter their heads. They become then like tableaux, icons.’21 The result is a journey into a new kind of male intimacy thrown into powerful relief by the cool, geometric outlines of Haroun’s framing style.

The erotics of abstraction To take the full measure of Haroun’s discretion, let us consider now in detail the central scenes of intimacy in his work where the physical is pushed to the farthest limits of abstraction. We begin with the moment in Abouna when the young brothers view in rapt contemplation the poster of the beach and ocean, a gift from their father (now in Tangiers) brought by Uncle Adoum and which they have attached to the wall. As the camera slowly tracks forwards in a joint subjective shot from their point of view, it simultaneously animates the image, and, to the sounds of gulls, reveals the boys playing together on the beach. The viewer is a direct witness to the powers of imaginary projection (Tahir exclaims, ‘Isn’t it beautiful!’) and experiences through their eyes the desire to make the image their own by constructing a fantasy around an absent but still attainable father. When the poster is returned seconds later to a still image, there’s a glimpse of Amine’s hand as it moves up from the bottom of the frame and touches the surface, as if reprising a formal composition from Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Hence, the literal extension of form through abstraction, aided here by Abraham Haile Biru’s extraordinary



cinematography,22 embodies in Haroun both the very movement of male desire and a heightened awareness of beauty, thereby confirming the affirmative masculine reach of Uncle Adoum who is directly associated with water and the senses (he takes the boys punting on a lake and possesses precious knowledge of the beauty of the ocean). In fact, Abouna increasingly takes the form of a series of tableaux. In the sequence of Amine’s death, the camera tracks back in silence from the glow of a small outside window set against the blue gloom of the interior, interrupted only by the sounds of wailing. This movement is beautifully reversed during the closing scenes featuring the hospitalized mother (Zara Haroun) who remains in traumatic shock following the sudden loss of her son. The camera now edges forwards gently through the marine blue void towards an open window (a frame within a frame). In this intuitive, intricate play with abstract form and inversion – a salutary lesson in perceptual mobility and the promiscuity of vision – the forward-tracking shot heralds the mother’s return to life, sealed by Tahir’s statement in a voice-off that nothing is more important than freedom. This spatial movement may be linked with the book that Tahir reads aloud to the dying Amine, just as his father used to every night: Le Petit Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In a clear mise en abyme effect, this allegorical and didactic novella of endless displacement, which takes place partly in a not-too-dissimilar desert region, also privileges fantasy, the oneiric and the lyrical, and likewise seeks to transcend the visible world in favour of a more total, profound, interior reality closer to the human heart (‘What’s important is not visible’ (SaintExupéry 1943: 85)). In Haroun’s case, however, the move to the invisible located beyond the sensible and tangible reveals itself precisely as a concerted countermove to the allegorical and conceptual and an opening up to the specifically queer, reverse, underneath side of social reality. For the unseen and unspoken are also the unsaid and unsayable, that is, the regions of non-normative masculinity, and they constitute the world of dreams and unreality on the cinematic screen where erotic masculinity can be glimpsed within the very image and projection of the father.23 In Daratt, the dramatic tension of Atim’s endlessly deferred revenge on Nassera, now rehabilitated as a baker leading a pious Muslim life and distributing free bread rolls to poor talibés, is further increased by the daily rituals in the bakery itself. Making bread is a matter of ‘secrets’ and requires love, Nassera explains, and the viewer duly sees the joys and sweat of their physical work together in the cramped space where the sensuous live substance is stretched and kneaded. The camera pans between both men stripped down to undervests and caked in dough and yeast, drawing them together in horizontal relay. This is a space of brooding tensions and jealousy: when Nassera catches Atim speaking on the phone to another man (Moussa, we wonder), they end up immediately in fisticuffs (one of the film’s commissioned tunes by Wasis Diop is appropriately titled ‘The Bulls in the Arena’). The pressure only drops when Nassera’s girl-bride Aïcha (Aziza Hisseine), heavy with child, diverts the two men with her domestic chores.


An undeclared intimacy is slowly forming between the older and younger man, however, through furtive glances and stares, shared touches and gestures. Nassera is even pictured at one point surreptitiously smelling Atim’s clothes. Nothing prepares the viewer, however, for the moment in Nassera’s adjoining bedroom when Atim, in mid-shot, suddenly looks down towards the ailing Nassera lying prone on the couch. A subjective point-of-view shot of Nassera’s back then tracks slowly in close-up towards his neck and the back of his shaved crown. The explicit reading here is that Atim is sizing up Nassera’s body ready for execution, but the image itself implies something rather different: an erotic interest in the surfaces and contours of Nassera’s flesh and frame. Not only is Haroun encouraging a reading of their conflicted intimacy that is distinctly homoerotic, but also Atim’s roaming gaze is conveyed as if it were utterly natural. Indeed, the degree of physical interest only becomes unwelcome for Nassera when Atim starts massaging his back like dough and the pummelling becomes more aggressive. At one point, Atim actually appears to mount Nassera, whereupon the latter immediately lashes out at him, leading to an angry stand-off as if between two lovers, quickly followed by a return to the routine of moody staring. Soon after, Nassera, drunk and distraught at having been cautioned for a public act of violence, implores Atim not to leave. ‘Do you love me? Not even a little bit?’, he asks. Atim stays a little longer to look after Nassera, the man he was supposed to kill yet who now wishes to claim him as his legal son. When Atim finally leaves, it is with the words ‘It’s over’, like the end of an affair. The lines of abstraction in Daratt culminate in two final scenes. The first takes place on a footbridge in a mysterious, vague, outside setting. With his back to the camera Atim leans out with his pink floral shirt into the darkness and a voice offscreen to his right asks for a cigarette. Responding to what, in another context, might constitute a pick-up line, Atim hands over a cigarette to the source of the voice off-frame.24 A soldier on crutches then brushes past slowly behind him and in front of the camera, moving along the bridge to the left. With a gun he has just acquired by beating a drunken soldier (the same soldier who menaced him with a gun en route to the capital), Atim then simulates Nassera’s execution by pointing towards the camera at a 180° angle in a highly stylized montage of close-ups of Atim’s face. The gun goes off, but so disorienting is the play of angles and positions that it is not clear whether Atim was actually firing in the direction of the soldier (no reverse-field image is provided to prove he has been shot). This geometrical formation is replayed in the film’s climactic set-piece scene of Atim’s mock execution of Nassera where, in a final consummation of form and abstraction, Atim first points his gun directly at the face of Nassera whom he has forced to kneel in submission (the still image on the book’s front cover (a detail), with the gun penetrating the frame from the left, highlights the erotic force of this phallic gesture), then fires two shots into the air gratuitously in front of his blind grandfather. By finally shooting his load, Atim fashions a way out of the vicious



cycle of violence and revenge. He has refused to be the son, grandson or adopted son of any of the three patriarchs who have sought to claim him. In A Screaming Man the initial invitation to male proximity and to water as a source of mutual comfort in the seemingly theatrical setting of the swimming pool reaches poetic fruition in the film’s closing stages when Adam, having secretly rescued his wounded, dying son under cover of night from a far-flung military hospital, respects Abdel’s wish for one last swim. The last steps of the journey to a lake in Adam’s sidecar entwine them ever closer in the glowing rays of sunlight. Haroun is clearly courting the sentimental in this deftly elliptical sequence, complete with orchestral mood music and a tableau-like perspective of Abdel photographed supine from behind next to his upright father in a form of mock-pietà. What is important here, however, is that the concerted desire for aesthetic affect does not carry any fixed symbolic meaning, religious or otherwise. It is significant that Adam addresses Abdel as ‘Abdel’ rather than as his son, and that together they share a joint, subjective point-of-view, forward-tracking shot. Moreover, as Abdel’s dead body floats freely and peacefully on the surface as if transported from below, the pan of gentle release never attains a final resting point. Again, the beauty of the landscape and its gentle liquefaction on screen is disclosed by a scene of male physicality and emotion, heightened by the flicker of chromatic textures and light (from colour to monochrome, then back to colour, and finally chiaroscuro). As Adam vanishes slowly into the liquid darkness, the film returns to the pure abstraction of forms and figures of its opening scene: a play of horizontal ripples and drifts, shifting shades and silhouettes. It offers further evidence – if evidence were still required – that abstraction in Haroun operates not as an agent of defusion and diffusion (as in Cissé’s The Wind where it withholds access to the sexual act and immediately sublimates it as friendship across differences of skin colour, sex and class), but rather as part of an erotics of relationality at the direct, sensual level of the body. Abstract form and emotional expression, two modes that elsewhere might seem incompatible, merge here almost effortlessly. Finally, in Grigris, which plays freely with the thriller genre and film noir, there is a less spectacular but no less hypnotic instance of male physicality when Grigris, now enmeshed in the dangerous world of petrol trafficking between Chad and Cameroon to help pay for his stepfather’s hospital treatment, joins the smugglers swimming under cover of night laden with petrol cans. This highly atmospheric, nocturnal sequence of male camaraderie is punctuated by close-ups of sweat and saliva rolling down swathes of exposed skin gleaming in the moonlight as the men’s bodies graze past each other. The strange, heady mystery of this moment (Haroun has talked of wishing to ‘enlighten’ these muscular bodies in the style of Caravaggio – see Haroun 2013b) contrasts sharply with the prosaic flatness of the frequent twoshots featuring Grigris and his ostensible girlfriend Mimi (Anaïs Monory), where no erotic distance or gap exists to be closed up and filled. Indeed, Mimi, positioned as merely someone in search of a photogenic ‘bright’ face for an audition, is entirely


correct when she laments that she is ‘too beautiful’ while surveying the photographs taken of her by Grigris, an apprentice photographer, in his makeshift studio. She benefits from none of the oblique mystery or subtlety that the great Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, for instance, once bestowed on his sitters with his angled shots and three-quarter, head-and-shoulder compositions – an audacious, empathetic style that marked a break with the colonial, ethnographic tradition of stiff and intrusive full-face shots of the indigenous other. Indeed, whereas Grigris is filmed with an extended depth of field that adds texture to the cinematic surface, from intimate close-ups to long shots of his body in full-flight recalling the work of another celebrated Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (notably Danseur Méringué (1964), a black-and-white image of a dancer in action in a Bamako nightclub), Mimi remains, for all her agency and affirmative strength of character, a bland, one-dimensional, and purely confected cosmetic image, her Afro wig more like a mask for her light-skinned face. In this respect she is not that different from the overtly sexualized and objectified Isabelle in Bye Bye Africa, or from Tahir’s mute girlfriend in Abouna who remains his blood-sister in a gold dress rather than an erotic partner (the one rare kiss between them is clinically cut short by an edit). The sex scene between Mimi and Grigris, when it finally arrives, is more awkward caressing than erotic passion, and, in his final dancing sequence, Grigris performs entirely for himself (and the viewer) on a bridge illuminated dramatically against the night sky in long shot, the poetic extension of cinematic form matching precisely the elevation of his body. In this wholly positive expression of male narcissism, which matches the opening nighttime embrace of Dakan for sheer brazenness, Grigris rediscovers his earlier swagger and poise and reasserts his potency, for so long held in check by the domestic rituals of Mimi’s village – a matriarchal society that can also quickly mobilize to murder any unwelcome outsider, such as the henchman dispatched to kill Grigris. (Compare this lethal form of rural matriarchy with that of Bekolo’s The Bloodettes where, as Harrow

FIGURE 5.6  Grigris (Souleymane Démé) dancing alone and rediscovering his swagger in Grigris (2013).



vividly puts it, the demonic ‘devouring mother’, a ‘monstrous figure located at the site of the void in the real’ (Harrow 2010: 204), actively supplants the evils of patriarchy.25) Again, what is being promoted by Haroun here is not simply the right to one’s own space, or even the performativity of space, but rather the freedom of boys and men to move through a personally chosen space and enjoy it physically in different forms and modes of performance (including even the faking of a ritualized killing). Another way of saying that Haroun’s films are propelled by – and climax with – bodily acts of erotic male self-expression.

Shadows, secrets, talismans We have seen that the intensification of beauty through abstraction contributes directly to the heat of male intimacy and desire in Haroun’s cinema which fully exploits the workings of the scopic drive, spectatorial desire and projection, and taps into the autonomous, erotic power of images subtracted from their immediate context. Moreover, the erotic and poetic lines tracing the unspoken relations between men in Haroun’s cinema reveal possible formal paths out of the parched ‘dry season’ of masculinity scarred by the Oedipal logic of revenge and tradition, but now replenished into something more labile and free-flowing, akin, at times, to chords in musical harmony owing to the care and precision of the films’ facture (Daratt was, in fact, commissioned as part of a programme for a festival in Vienna celebrating Mozart’s 250th birthday entitled ‘New Crowned Hope’). Indeed, the particular combination of formal abstraction, water and shadow play becomes a virtual reflex in Haroun’s work. His dazzling short installation about nighttime urban wandering entitled Ombres (Shadows), part of the Diaspora exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2007–8, created the sensuous effect of three interweaving tableaux of abstract images. It is not insignificant that this selfstyled ‘multi-sensory’ exhibition was co-curated by Claire Denis, a contemporary of Haroun who shares his intense focus on the male body and forges an equally ambiguous homoeroticism.26 Yet if abstraction possesses a distinctly homoerotic valency in Haroun’s work, the question remains how far one should read below the narrative surface to decipher his luminous male images and their secret subtexts, shadows and talismans. In the case of A Screaming Man, for example, should the final stage of the son being delivered back into the water be read in more spiritual terms as a burial rite, with the soul passing through another phase of existence in the eternal passage of life and death? Indeed, ought one also to pursue here, and perhaps even prioritize, more traditional readings in the context of African male rituals of initiation and self-regeneration where water is regarded as the home of powerful spirits and genii? Malidoma Patrice Somé’s 1994 study of the life of an African shaman among the Dagara people of south-west Burkina Faso, Of Water and the Spirit, underlines how


African rites of passage like circumcision, scarification and masquerade constitute rituals and customs of socialization and institutionalization as transformation. As such, they form part of an intrinsically heteronormative tradition ensuring the continuity of social and cultural norms passed down from ancestors and designated elders. It means that while the venerated spiritual gatekeeper in Dagara society may partake of homosexual acts, he is not perceived as gay for he enjoys a life with wife and children and his sexuality is part of his spiritual function to ensure the survival and equilibrium of his people via the portal to the other world. The only sub-Saharan film thus far to explode the unspoken, taboo, homosexual implications of such rites of passage is, perhaps inevitably, by a (white) South African director, John Trengove, whose 2017 feature The Wound explores in detail an annual initiation ritual for adolescent boys entering manhood in the rural Xhosa community of the Eastern Cape. Called ‘ukwaluka’ and comprising the act of circumcision and two weeks of healing during which initiates are assigned an elder to instil the codes of masculinity, the ritual carries a traditional vow of secrecy. Although it cultivates a documentary-style approach and features nonactors (some of whom had personal experience of the ritual), The Wound is a hardedged thriller revolving around a lonely, closeted gay man who was himself once an initiate and is now an elder. It portrays a tense world of repressed sexuality and physical provocation, revealing the fine and dangerous line between homosocial tribal ritual and the homoeroticism of same-sex love and desire. Within the sphere of black African cinema, however, the limits of queer interpretation are at once more blurred, more subtle, and more circumscribed. In the opening episode of a short by the young Burkinabe director Cédric Ido, Invincible (Twaaga, 2013), set in 1985 during a period of revolution, two naked men (one much younger) are glimpsed dousing each other’s bodies in water with joyful abandon in a small enclosed hut. Their ardent demeanour might initially appear a same-sex restaging of the naked bathing scene in The Wind, and certainly the encrypted manner in which the action is presented – at once close-up, immersive and tactile, yet also secretive and off-limits, with misted-up images verging on abstraction – invites erotic speculation. The potential for male intimacy is never developed, however, and the images are promptly revealed as subjective shots from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, Manu, peeping through a gap in the wall at his older brother Albert undergoing a manhood ritual. Compare in this regard Philippe Lacôte’s Run encountered in Chapter 2, which, although focused on the propagation of violence and civil war, also unfolds as a virtual love affair between the camera and the male form. Indeed, the exposed and intermittently naked male figure is always directly within our purview, in contrast to the female characters who are either always fully clothed or, in the case of the sensuous performer ‘Gladys la mangeuse’ (Greedy Gladys) played by Reine Sali Coulibaly, of exceptional, super-plus size (her stage show consists mainly of sitting on a stage and stuffing her face with food provided by locals). In one notable scene,



the eponymous, lusty young patriot and now fugitive ‘Run’ is given a bath by his older dissident friend Assa (Isaach de Bankolé) who provides shelter after he has murdered the prime minister. Yet despite this and other moments of close male contact and touch, any homoerotic desire is unavowed and entirely subliminal. Again, then, how far might one take Haroun’s abstract cinema of unarticulated yet ‘real’, erotic, transverse desire? Can we loop it back, say, to the experimental modernism of Mambety who revelled in inverting some of the cherished tropes and figures of Sembene’s defiantly straight political cinema in knowingly ‘impudent’ genre- and gender-bending films like Badou Boy and Touki-Bouki? In Badou Boy, we recall, the young male hustler and deviant Badou Boy (played by Lamine Bâ) is presented in his paisley shirt as a kind of urban dandy and dreamer tracked down obsessively by a large, menacing policeman nicknamed ‘The Black Dragon’ (Al Demba Ciss). In repeated shots presented in slow motion as personal fantasies of capture to please his superintendent back at the station (voiced by Mambety on the soundtrack) waiting for Badou Boy (‘his man’), ‘The Black Dragon’ presses the full weight of his body (shot from behind) over Badou Boy spread-eagled against a fence in a sexually suggestive manner. Touki-Bouki revolves around the freewheeling young couple of Mory and the boyish, androgynous figure of Anta whose adventures periodically rub up against the large, bumbling, lumbering postman in Touki-Bouki trawling the streets in a silent daze like a misfit vagabond. The film also includes the deliciously camp poolside episode with Charlie (Ousseynou Diop), a middle-aged, wealthy and flamboyantly foppish Senegalese man and self-proclaimed mother hen who inhabits a lushly queer domestic nest stuffed with assorted African and Western knick-knacks and delicate frou-frous like the ‘1900 Fou’ poster. Where masculinity remained at a steadfastly objective distance and all but untouchable for Sembene (in stunning contrast to his richly nuanced and variegated portrayals of independent African women in films like Faat Kiné), Mambety, who draws the viewer into more marginal social spaces, offers more varied, lustrous and endearingly ‘weaker’ kinds of masculinity (for Charlie, Mory is delectable while Anta is simply far too ‘butch’). The whimsical and absent-minded Marigo in Mambety’s later Le Franc dreams of being like the real-life, Robin Hood figure Yaadikoone Ndiaye whose face adorns a poster on his door, yet he ends up in his red boubou rolling and riding the gushing waves of the ocean as he tries frantically to recover his lottery ticket glued to the same door. The ticket becomes stuck to his forehead and is already worthless in this explosion of pure excess and dépense. There are many such exhilarating, uninhibited moments of male bouleversement in Mambety’s work, manifestations of what Greg Thomas refers to paradoxically as his ‘ecstatic politics of pan-African revolution’ (see Thomas 2011). They also allow Mambety to restore to his young men and boys a certain interiority and subjectivity to which the spectator is made directly privy. Even in The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, the young male adolescent Babou (Taïrou M’Baye), who


befriends the girl protagonist Sili and becomes her guardian angel after jumping into the water to retrieve her crutch, is pictured naked from the waist up during the utterly chaste and charming scene they share together and which cements their friendship. When she captures him drying from behind trees and bushes, the camera focuses along with her on his fresh, nubile body and naked torso, slowly panning back and forth in a sensual, erotic movement that produces warm smiles and shared laughter. The way Mambety photographs his roving young men, solitary and suspended in the stillness of the cinematic frame, prefigures, in fact, Haroun’s framing of the male figure in extreme long shot alternating with bold, erotic close-up. Indeed, both directors invite us to enjoy the pure spectacle and radiant mystery of the displayed and at times virtually naked male body. Charlie’s salacious off-screen words in Wolof to Mory while he showers, with Mory stripped to the waist in the bedroom – words which run back and forth between loose talk about another of his young favourites (‘Look at him now! He knows what he wants!’) and direct exhortations (‘Strip off, I’ll rub your back!’, ‘I’m making myself handsome for you’, ‘All you desire will become reality!’) – are ironically replayed as a family narrative for the viewer in Abouna who is directed by the coalescence of voices emanating from the screen and the audience to savour the spectacle of the projected male body (father on-screen: ‘Look at me!’; son in auditorium: ‘Look at his back!’). Murphy and Williams have acknowledged the astonishing range of thematic and aesthetic pleasures offered by Mambety in terms of a possible ‘queer’ aesthetic owing to what they call his ‘exploration and celebration of marginal, noncomformist identities (rather than of homosexuality per se)’.27 They take this fascinating prospect no further, however, though I would argue that the homoerotic male charms and talismans in Haroun’s work hark back directly to – and serve to extend – the gloriously phallic buffalo horns of Mory’s motorbike in Touki-Bouki. Moreover, through his creation of new types of male affinity and kinship, Haroun provides the potential seeds for a queering of the mighty, sacred baobab tree planted so proudly by Sembene in Mandabi as the privileged symbol of social progress, continuity and masculinity, yet defiled beautifully in ToukiBouki by the wild young man – a strange, white, hybrid figure with an Afro – who lives inside a baobab in the bush and steals Mory’s bike before eventually crashing it.28 Such queer scattering of filmic seed raises once again the stakes of Mati Diop’s extensive engagement with Touki-Bouki in Mille Soleils explored in Chapter 3 in the context of new cinematic filiations across gender and generation in the afropolis. By tracing the errance of the lead actor Magaye Niang who stayed in Dakar like the character Mory he played, Diop’s film reworks and revises some of her uncle’s key motifs with explicit reference to the lineage of male talismans. She reconfigures precisely the queer panache and freewheeling vagabondage of Touki-Bouki in subtle, even tangential, aesthetic ways that are not immediately



apparent, for in contrast to Mambety’s frontal, homoerotic images of soft masculine figures and the concrete found objects and gris-gris that provide Mory with multiple identities (not only stolen clothes and buffalo horns but also the Targui Cross adorning his motorbike), Mille Soleils focuses mainly on Mory’s final incarnation at the port as one part of a swanky, bourgeois, heterosexual couple, yet with no real indication of how he was diegetically ‘made’ (Anta herself now sports frilly feminine blouse and large red hat). Missing, therefore, are the sultry images of Mory/Magaye on his own as the carefree street hunk in blue jeans and sliding boots, flirting with Charlie in his villa watched in silence by a fistful of jealous gor-djiguen, or being lassoed off his bike by Anta’s disapproving fellow college students who first hold him down, then string him up with his steer horns on the back of a moving red truck – a sequence of male assault and sacrifice in Touki-Bouki worthy of Pasolini. Even the telephone call between Magaye and the invisible Marème in Mille Soleils possesses little of the immediate erotic charge of the mise en abyme of Charlie’s male-to-male phone encounter in ToukiBouki. I’m referring to the moment immediately following the pool episode when Charlie, after being robbed by his ‘hippy friend’ Mory, places a call to the unseen inspector (Mambety) whom he chides as ‘ingrate’ (ungrateful): ‘You promised to come home and then vanished!’ Charlie complains, adding, ‘Why don’t you come over and take it [a statement] down, honey, I’ve got some first-class whisky! You will? Perfect, see you this evening!’29 The particular use of ‘ingrate’ extends the sexual ambiguities of the word heard moments earlier during the playing of the song ‘Plaisir d'amour’ (The pleasure of love), a classical, French love song written in 1784 performed in this recording by a soprano female voice (Mado Robin), thus lending a strange lesbian twist to the line: ‘The joy of love is only fleeting, / but heartbreak lasts a lifetime, / I’ve given up everything for ungrateful Sylvie’ (‘Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment, / chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie / J’ai tout quitté pour l’ingrate Sylvie’). Mille Soleils may justifiably be said to ‘correct’ Mambety, in the sense that Mory/Magaye restores contact with his former female sweetheart in Alaska and finally leaves Dakar in a purposeful heterosexual realignment of family relations. Is this perhaps what Diop really means when she states that in making Mille Soleils she was finally able to look Touki-Bouki ‘straight in the eye’?30 Either way, it not quite the full story, however, for Mille Soleils also serves to undermine the certainties of fixed gender, not only in its intense and obsessive attention to the male figure in the frame, both visual and conceptual, but also in its intertextual regrafting of a cinematic imaginary defined, like that in Denis’s work which has profoundly influenced Diop (as well as, to a lesser degree, Haroun), in primarily masculine terms. We already noted in Chapter 3 how Diop invokes the opening sequence of High Noon through her use of the Ritter theme song. This is actually an enthralling moment of homoerotic undertones when three outlaw cowboys


meet up ritualistically one after the other on the high sierra in a kind of secret tryst. Putting on their holsters and tying up their leggings and boots, each in the other’s lingering gaze, they then head off in unison. Yet if Mambety spoke about himself in Touki-Bouki through the character of Mory evoking Will Kane, Diop aims instead for something far more multifarious and universal: ‘In Mille Soleils I film all these men at once through Magaye. The theme of High Noon represents in my eyes their interior melody and the invisible thread connecting them’ (my emphasis).31 A potent queer connection and resonance is thus established in Mille Soleils which remains latent and silent in the quotidian images of Dakar until reactivated during Magaye’s phone call with Marème when he suddenly spots a masked young man on the street outside perched on a motorcycle identical to the one he rode as Mory in Touki-Bouki and complete with horns. Their eyes are instantly locked together in an intense gaze as the stranger revs up his engine with an aggressive roar – a random moment rich with seductive power that invites us to imagine Magaye meeting his male double in a reciprocal, homoerotic, Cocteaulike gaze. Yet this hint of a potentially queer encounter passes by before it even has a chance to develop – the anonymous biker hits the road alone, leaving all in a state of suspended promise. The most explicitly queer element of Mille Soleils occurs in the same episode, when Magaye and Marème reflect over the phone on what home really represents. Magaye sums up the unremitting pain of exile with the statement: ‘You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’ These, of course, are the famous words about exile from James Baldwin’s 1956 landmark gay novel Giovanni’s Room, though not identified as such. Such reference to the great, out-gay African-American writer across time and tradition, culture and gender, crystallizes the central underlying theme of exile – internal and physical – in Mille Soleils. It encapsulates not only Marème’s voluntary exile and Magaye’s ongoing solitary fate, but also the sense of exile and yearning felt by Mambety himself who knew of the temptation and dangers of dreaming of other places.32 Diop’s unexpected yet decisive recourse to Baldwin, a further opening out of the film’s dense textual fabric, serves to dislodge and release the weight of its heterosexual narrative, for the iconic homoeroticism and queerness of ToukiBouki is now to be found in the endless displacement and poetic rethreading in Mille Soleils of textual elements, and in the proximate intensity of its plastic textures and surfaces (the sensory, abstract use of sound and colour, the relentless close-ups of the rippled contours of Magaye’s wizened face). In the expanded, reversible, erotic field of the everyday in Mille Soleils encompassing textuality, myth and fiction, Diop may even be said to perform a gendered inversion of familial relations and the idea of succession, giving continuous birth, as it were, to her uncle in an ongoing, transhistorical intimacy of forms while restoring him literally in a new, queer light.33



The right to beauty Let us return one last time to the erotic lines and patterns of Haroun’s talismanic films with a more keen appreciation of what they really are. For not only does his cinema share with Mille Soleils an intrinsic homoeroticism of form, but also it encapsulates a strange paradox of the kind encountered in the feature films of Cocteau, namely that intimate queer moments which may not be recognized as such in the narrative patently exist at the level of style, as if for ‘our’ eyes only. Indeed, like Cocteau, Haroun is obsessed with exclusively male processes of relay and series, shadow play and doubles.34 There is no explicit trace of homosexuality here, but rather an indefinable homoerotic presence or surplus that invites a homoerotic reading for those who are ready and willing to receive it. What is so remarkable in Haroun’s work is that even when, as in the case of A Screaming Man, the precise nature of the male couple is promptly revealed, he allows us to continue enjoying ‘discreetly’ the close proximity and physicality of their relations as if they were a couple. Significantly, what is only implicit in Abouna is made explicit in Haroun’s little-known telefilm for ARTE, Sexe, Gombo et beurre salé (2007) (Sex, Okra, and Salted Butter). Produced for a domestic French audience, this comedy of manners about a large immigrant family in the Bordeaux banlieue, thrown into disarray when the Malian wife and mother abandons her older, more traditional Ivorian husband to pursue an extramarital affair with a young white man, features for the first time in Haroun’s work an out-gay character, the elder son Dani played by Diouconda Koma (Abdel in A Screaming Man). The fact that such an overt presentation of gay sexuality and gender mixité (which nevertheless stops short of explicit sex) would not be possible in Haroun’s films set in Chad is directly acknowledged by the director himself in one interview where he agrees that watching the two gay boys of Sexe, Gombo et beurre salé together on a couch is ‘like’ seeing the two brothers of Abouna.35 Is this truly subversive, however? Is there not a risk of over-reading such moments of close male intimacy for their homoerotic content in films narrating family and civil strife? Moreover, coy shots of young boys together in bed or taking showers, as in Abouna, could be construed in a different context as soft child porn, especially when one takes into account how these films and the DVD/Blu-Ray versions are commercially packaged in the West, adorned with images of alluring African boys and men. A cynical view of Haroun’s method might be that he is deliberately playing on the commodified desires of a Western (gay) audience eager for fresh erotic images. In this wholly negative reading, the opening of A Screaming Man would be nothing more than a knowing tease on Haroun’s part to lure us in, and, as such, a highly ironic, postcolonial variant of the colonial tradition of exoticism and voyeuristic spectacle. Certainly, Haroun’s work lacks the direct counterpunch of the frank or lewd ‘indiscreet look’ as defined by Lindsey Green-Simms in her study of some of the rare ‘out’ African films mentioned earlier like Woubi Chéri where, as she argues, national identities and the exclusionary normativity of patriarchy


can be creatively destabilized and queered in an oppositional manner to create new modes of looking – part of the ongoing general project in postcolonial studies of countering the colonial and racist look that dehumanizes and hypersexualizes black men and women, and a vital first step in remapping a future, heterogeneous nation.36 By contrast, the intense male gaze in Haroun’s films remains always hushed and composed, even when it is returned by other characters as well as the viewer. Yet some of the key features of Green-Simms’s ‘indiscreet look’ prevail also in Haroun where the sliding in and out of erotic abstraction ensures a safe distance from the perils of prescriptive norms and traditional ways of seeing and being. The viewer sees also how his elaboration of an implicit image opens up new corporealities and distinctive kinds of space-time that oscillate continually between the hidden and the visible, and how the formation of a specifically national consciousness allows subjects to become active seers rather than passive objects of the other’s gaze – confirmation of Haroun’s utopian desire to queer the pitch usually marked out between pan-African universalism and nationalism. Hence, Haroun’s rigorous reformulation of postcolonial masculinity in terms of homoerotic space and desire may be said at the very least to redefine and embrace maleness as a shared, sensual and consensual state of beauty and becoming – the basis for a new, more open and generous engagement with the world. To conclude, Haroun’s subtle double strategy of entertaining ambiguity and doubt while crossing the traditional borders of intimacy between men, and of casting traditional codes of masculinity literally adrift into the waters of abstraction, envisages an active, enlightened spectator of whatever race or background who is willing to imagine alternative modes of masculinity available to beauty and eroticism. Such inspired aesthetic commitment to working the rich, queer seams of beauty constitutes an exemplary act of cultural and political resistance and ‘infiltration’ within African cinema, and a possible working model for a new kind of cultural politics that reinvests beauty as a force for change in its own right. Indeed, Haroun’s erotico-aesthetic approach strikes an immediate chord with other contemporary African filmmakers such as Gomis whose graceful and meditative Tey, discussed in Chapter 3 in the context of screen representations of Dakar, demonstrates with rare sensitivity how a fragile and subdued young man can, by fully embracing his suddenly foreshortened existence, review afresh his masculinity and status as a father and appreciate more intimately the small, material, sensory pleasures of life. At a time when LGBTQ people in even relatively stable African countries like Senegal and Cameroon find themselves in regular danger of harassment and imprisonment, sometimes even torture and death, the right to beauty and aesthetic pleasure should be read as a defiant claim for freedom of expression. While it would be highly premature to suggest this new sensibility in black African films heralds a new ‘Queer African Cinema’ (such a grand, universalizing term would need to be carefully broken down and particularized), it is nonetheless clear that the desire for more liberating forms of masculinity, and new, propitious modes of male intimacy, is irresistibly gaining ground.





We must first of all make the journey between ourselves, clear our territory of brush, and learn to see what we have. ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO

Get to Barcelona or die trying!


The 2016 film Those Who Jump (Les Sauteurs) heralds a political and ethical ideal in migration cinema: an African migrant films his own journey to Europe as it is actually taking place. A young, university-educated Malian called Abou Bakar Sidibé documents with a video camera the extreme living conditions experienced by himself and fellow migrants on Mount Gurugu in Morocco. They are part of a community of over a thousand men living hand-by-mouth in illegal, makeshift camps on the foothills as they attempt every day and night to enter the small, neighbouring, Spanish coastal enclave of Melilla (essentially Europe on African soil), cordoned off by a massive police perimeter barrier that runs for eleven kilometres – a six-metre high wall comprising three steel and corrugated-iron fences with razor wire. The viewer witnesses through Abou’s handheld, subjective point-of-view shots their attempts to band together and scale over the barrier – real moments caught also as abstract, anonymous, infrared images by the Spanish

police’s surveillance cameras intercut into his footage. One shares their resignation the morning after as they bandage their wounds, devise new methods and strategies, and prepare to head back to the wall to begin all over again. This dramatic shift in cinematic perspective, whereby the Western viewer sees a migrant’s world subjectively and immersively from the inside, would seem directly to resolve the problem faced by European filmmakers of speaking for and about the subaltern Other. But Those Who Jump is also a fascinating audiovisual exercise in self-representation. We observe the untrained Abou gaining in confidence as a cameraman with a natural eye for the telling and provocative detail. A rudimentary understanding of framing soon kicks in, and Abou, a lively, personable character, begins noticing the world around him in a new artistic and authorial way: ‘I feel I exist when I film’, he declares. His footage provides photographic evidence of a life of poverty, waiting and hope, recording the group rituals that bind the men together according to nationality, including football matches and spontaneous rap sessions. The eighty-minute documentary ends once Abou has finally managed, after fourteen months of trying, to climb the wall and enter Europe (as I write he is currently seeking asylum in Germany). Yet while the rare and at times extraordinary footage is by turns poignant, disturbing and uplifting, Those Who Jump raises more questions than it cares directly to address or answer, in particular regarding the actual status of the material and the particular sequences used for the final cut. Was this a group decision taken by Sidibé along with the two trained European documentary filmmakers, Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, who originally gave him the camera and are listed with Sidibé as co-directors? Was Sidibé directly involved in the editing process (his role in the post-production stage is left unclear in the film)?1 If it is the case that Sidibé simply shot the raw footage (four months’ worth) for his European commissioners then to edit and package successfully for the international festival circuit (the film has now garnered an impressive number of awards and special mentions), one is entitled to ask what criteria were used for leaving out certain scenes while retaining others, such as the arresting, intimate moments of Abou naked, washing himself in collected rainwater, or the suspense of a potentially lethal confrontation between Abou’s group and one in their midst who confesses to having spoken to the Moroccan police. Indeed, in a film where the precise terms of the original deal agreed on the mountain between Sidibé, Siebert and Wagner, which gave rise to the footage in the first place, are never fully stated (although Sidibé is heard in one voice-off insisting on being paid or else he will sell the camera), how much ownership of the project did Sidibé ultimately enjoy? In short, is Those Who Jump enough of his own voice and vision, and at what cost comes the film’s apparent commitment to equal free expression? Is it the case, in fact, that projects like this are always ultimately flawed, however well-meaning, for they correspond, at least in part, to the paternalist colonial stereotype of the primitive African who has to be given the necessary tools and advice by Europeans in order


to advance his situation? Until such production issues have been adequately addressed and answered within the space of the film itself, the cavalier Danish producers ‘Final Cut for Real’ stand accused of personal exploitation. As problematic and compromised as it is, Those Who Jump remains, of course, the stunning exception that proves the rule: African films about migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe are invariably made far from the related events and by those struggling to imagine and visualize the migrant experience and the recent and ongoing catastrophe of mass exodus – one that began in earnest in the summer of 2011 following the Arab Spring, with people attempting to escape North African countries such as Libya. Those Who Jump has the eminent virtue of providing a human face and agency to the dispossessed and stateless migrant travelling without the official status of a refugee or asylum seeker. This is a world away from Deleuze’s exalted idea of the ‘nomad’, or even Žižek’s rather romanticized, rootless migrant proclaiming the need to ‘cut one’s roots’ and forgo all ‘invariables’ as the very condition of renewal and meaningful resistance in the late-capitalist context of violence and despair.2 For the dangerous passage across the continent and/or over sea is usually blocked or truncated, often tragically, most obviously in the Mediterranean basin at the gates of ‘Fortress Europe’ (according to official statistics, 80 per cent of migrants trying to reach Europe come by sea – see Filipovic 2017). There is the constant threat of drowning due to inadequate and overloaded boats capsizing or people-smugglers throwing aboard their human ‘cargo’, and rescue by either humanitarian charities or a massively overstretched local coastguard has been made further hazardous by increasingly inhospitable national policies (including since June 2018 the refusal of entry to certain Italian ports). The attempted illegal crossing into Europe is just one part of an often long and complex journey that takes multiple forms: from the initial project to leave and the practicalities of preparation to various stages of transit across different countries in advance of the crossing, each fraught with danger, even death, from a range of natural and human elements, including unscrupulous human-traffickers who aim to profit by transporting as many people at one time as possible, with the additional risk now in Niger and Libya of kidnapping and extortion through torture and enslavement (including in the case of female migrants sexual slavery) at the hands of criminal gangs, militias and mafias.3 This is followed by the moment of arrival in a new country and processing as an alien seeking sanctuary, leading to either a temporary stay and potential asylum in a host country or the prospect of immediate return through forced deportation. If unsuccessful, the same desperate and terrifying journey may be repeated and re-repeated in a grotesque version of transhumance. As escalating numbers of Africans now flee daily their native countries, whether from civil war and ethnic or political persecution, or from extreme poverty and environmental devastation (what Spivak has called the attempt by the margin – the ‘detritus of globality’ – in the undesirable global South to enter the dominant



in the alluring global North (see Spivak 1999)), migration has become one of the most urgent issues of African narrative and documentary cinema. Yet how should filmmakers engage with this humanitarian crisis? That is, how in these times of extreme migratory upheaval can cinema adequately represent people who are excluded from political representation and remain largely invisible, despite their grim ‘hypervisibility’ in the spotlight of the Western media where they are reduced to either rescued survivors or else the already dead? Images are, of course, an essential part of the political regulation of migration that enforces the categories of legality and illegality and fosters discriminatory stereotypes. Hence, the act of producing images that show or else conceal migrants entails an explicit politics of the image. Feature film directors engaged in advocacy and seeking to mobilize the public must inform the viewer of the brutal reality of the migrants’ ordeal by conveying it in as direct, hard-hitting, and yet paradoxically ‘entertaining’ a way as possible. Just as they might limit themselves to exploring one or some or all of the demarcated phases of the journey, so these filmmakers can draw on techniques of documentary-style reportage and cinéma-vérité to create types of docufiction where the lines between fact and fiction are deliberately blurred.4 In fact, the range of cinematic approaches to mass migration would appear immense: from a commitment to exploring the purely physical dimension of the experience to a focus on its more existential and psychological aspects, for instance, the internal, often traumatic dimensions of exile and dispossession which can begin well before the moment of departure, with the would-be migrant inhabiting an imaginary ‘other’ space (a kind of ‘interior exile’), as if already disconnected from the reality of the immediate present. Another, more expressly political approach would be to chart the bureaucratic elements of the enterprise of moving across ever more policed borders and entering new state territory (the protocols of categorization such as ID cards and X-rays, interviews and detention), although it is the case that no film, African or otherwise, has actually dealt in any sustained detail with the enforced stay in mass holding centres or camps (or what Mbembe calls in Agambenian terms ‘zones of exception’ (Mbembe 2003: 34)). In each instance, there would also be the opportunity to employ a set of familiar tropes and topoi: from the themes of waiting, expectancy and anticipation, mobility and immobility, to the pivotal acts of leave-taking, the search and heroic quest for the promised land or legendary El Dorado, the voyage as initiation and rite of passage with obstacles, trials and different forms of labyrinth, the fate of welcome or rejection, and finally the return home as prolonged odyssey ending in either glory or humiliation, often culminating in a period of personal reflection and evaluation. The sea voyage in particular is freighted with the epic symbolism of the Homeric legend of The Iliad and its many subsequent iterations such as the ‘Inferno’ in Dante’s The Divine Comedy (canto 27), as well as by the transoceanic history of the Middle Passage. This dense topography of universal myths and symbols adds further weight to what is already a vast map of geopolitical movement


and displacement saturated with the history of colonization and racist projections of the black Other in the Western imaginary. The recourse to such cultural tropes, archetypes and paradigms raises necessarily the politics of point of view: is one dealing with African films by Africans for Africans, or, as is more generally the case due to issues of funding, with Euro-African productions by Africans intended for a largely Western audience (I’m excepting for the moment those European films addressing issues of African migration made by Europeans for Europeans)? And within each film, whatever its particular genre, lies the possibility for shifts in perspective according to narrative voice, register and focalization, with individual itineraries subject to contingency (the variables of character, the vicissitudes of chance). A related factor is terminology and nomenclature. In Senegal, for example, the common expression used to describe the attempt to cross illegally into Europe is the largely positive ‘faire l’aventure’, and the young men involved are not statusless migrants but rather self-styled ‘aventuriers’ spreading their winds and becoming ‘real men’. By contrast, the preferred term used by those migrating from the Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts of North Africa is ‘harragas’, from the Algerian Arabic harrāga designating ‘those who burn’ – that is, the action of ‘burning the frontier’, a political act of self-affirmation often accompanied by the literal burning of one’s passport and the erasure of official identity in order to claim asylum upon arrival in Europe.5 Hence, the use of certain vocabulary directly foregrounds the issues of narrative purpose, authorial motivation and intended audience. Whatever particular approach is taken, however, and whether or not it is based on historical fact, such films engaging with the imagery and lexicon of migration raise crucial questions not only about the representation and identity of the migrant and the particular migration routes taken, but also, more generally, about film as a suitable vehicle for capturing the migrant experience if it is not simply to aestheticize the migrant and thus risk evacuating the political. A further element for consideration in migratory cinema is the border itself, for with the surge of new migratory movements and corresponding frontier spaces that surpass the former vertical colonial/postcolonial dynamic, the patrolled and progressively more militarized border has become a major site of contention and conflict (often violent) between who is admitted and who is rejected or expelled like waste. Indeed, with Europe as gatekeeper pursuing push-back policies of detention and deportation to stem an ‘invading’ tide, the continent has been transformed into an enormous ‘borderland’ or constellation of waiting zones.6 This is the border as one vast, gruesome, (in)human ‘spectacle’. Yet the border also functions, of course, as an essential bridge in the constitution of social conditions on a global scale. It is not just that the attempt to cross national borders, legally or illegally, encapsulates issues that relate to transnationalism, broadly defined in this context as the process by which migrants develop and sustain multistranded relationships (familial, economic, social, religions, political) spanning borders and



tying their societies of origin with those of settlement. As Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson reveal in their pioneering 2013 study of the border as less a site than a method, borders (both internal and external) and ‘borderzones’, far from serving merely to block free movement and obstruct the global passages of people, money or objects, have become major devices for their articulation – that is, spaces of connection defined by multiplicity and heterogeneity. They form thus a privileged lens through which to view global capital and the international division of labour (see Mezzadra and Neilson 2013). One of the more documentary moments of Haroun’s Abouna is precisely the presentation of the border between Chad and Cameroon as a permeable border, an anonymous site or no man’s land, in the continual back and forth of dislocated persons with imperceptible identities seeking the chance to work. Hence, the antithetical patterns of border crossing and border reinforcement serve to generate new migratory regimes and a new biopolitical sphere, with the possibility for new subjectivities, intelligibilities and commonalities. Such potential for affirmative human experience has inspired the growing field of border studies and aesthetics based on the idea that, as Avtar Brah already noted in 1996, border spaces constitute a ‘third space’, that is, a conceptual place where change and identity can be continually explored and negotiated, and where chance boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of belonging and otherness, of us and them, may be directly contested (Brah 1996: 209). Or, as the anthropologist Michel Agier suggestively puts it, the border is ‘a place, a situation or a movement that ritualises the relationship to the Other’ (Agier 2016: 7).7 The frontiers between African states, like those in Europe, are also, of course, highly surveilled spaces, marked by a relay of border crossings that generate their own flow of traffic. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for example, which was established in 1975, was intended to guarantee free movement of persons and goods across the region with just a national ID card. Yet the actual experience of crossing state borders is usually one of harassment and bribery, as well as smuggling and racketeering. In Daouda Coulibaly’s 2016 Wùlu, a tough, realist, political action-thriller elevated by its precise, documentarystyle detailing of the drug trade connecting Mali to Senegal, Guinea and North Africa through links with Islamist terrorist operations like al-Qaeda, we see how the illegal trade routes are mapped on to the existing system of major interstate highways (N1, N2, etc.). Anonymous transit points become way stations in an illegal pan-African grid, as dense, complex and dangerous as Bamako’s criminal hierarchy (tied in the film to the military elite with its five-step rites of passage and different levels of dog (wùlu) and lion). This is an almost exclusively male universe, and Wùlu’s ever-aspiring protagonist Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) will eventually blow himself up out of shame and self-disgust at his ill-gained wealth in the final sequence. For women, however, who are simply going about their daily business within the African continent and not seeking either to migrate or to


engage in illegal activities, the process of crossing state borders is always a perilous proposition. The 2017 feature Frontières (Borders) by Burkinabe director Apolline Traore reveals in stark, matter-of-fact fashion the multiple obstacles and dangers, including rape, extortion by customs officers, hijacking and road accidents, faced by four different women (from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire) as they attempt to cross West Africa to Lagos by bus. They survive such brutal threats and jeopardies only by the sudden new friendship and solidarity created by force of circumstance.8 Such consideration of the border and border regimes both within and without the African continent brings to the fore a number of more general critical questions evoked in Those Who Jump relating to the transborder experience. First, what kind of human subject exactly is formed by this transnational navigation and migratory flux, at once physical, political and symbolic, which nullifies any simple binary division between the local and global? Second, what is the existential ‘value’ of the passage? Is one enhanced or diminished by the borders one attempts to cross? Third, does itineracy, even in such parlous circumstances, allow for new nomadic conceptions and a new ‘transborder’ consciousness? If so, how might these be theorized? Such questions translate directly into the cinematic realm, where a multitude of formal contact zones are immediately available (spatial, visual, auditory, haptic). Hamid Naficy, for example, has emphasized transnational states and movements in cinema as the instantiation of a transnational, ‘border consciousness’.9 Yet if, as Angela Dalle Vacche suggests, cinema is fundamentally borderless and therefore has the power to attract multiple elements of visual culture into its textual orbit (see Dalle Vacche 1996: 1–12), and if movement and migration are part of the very ontology of film as moving images (cinema from its very beginnings has been shaped by figures of diaspora and migrancy – see Langford 2013), how might one formulate a cinema of migratory spaces that encompasses both the physical (i.e. geographic borderlands) and the figurative (screen ‘borderspaces’)? This central issue of poetics and the possibility of a new migratory aesthetics touches also on matters of address and the position and role of the spectator who may, or may not, cross over emotionally in such films, in particular those depicting extreme human circumstances in a realist mode. Are ‘we’ meant simply to be enlightened about the migrant’s cause, or rather made fully sympathetic to it? And if an emotional engagement and empathy is at stake, does that ultimately cancel out the prospect of a more politically engaged spectator? In what follows I will not be focusing on the experience of new immigrants in diasporic spaces and the many important ethical and political questions regarding hospitality which centre on the discourse of rights (political, social, civic, cultural) (part of the daily drama of the ‘post-migrant’ aggravated by indigenous nationalism and xenophobia).10 Nor will I be entering the charged political and philosophical debates about transnational citizenship and sovereignty which contest in different



ways the official mechanisms for regulating and policing migration still firmly located within the framework of the nation.11 In the same way, I will not be overly concerned with the question of whether films are offering an explicit critique of the socio-economic consequences of contemporary global migratory flows, a subject already addressed in Chapter 2 with reference to Sissako’s Bamako. Instead, taking into account recent nomadic and migration theory such as Steffen Köhn’s work in visual anthropology, which emphasizes the phenomenological aspects of the migration experience and relations between mobility and mediation in documentary film,12 and bearing in mind how, as Appadurai puts it in his analysis of new ‘ethnoscapes’, a mass-mediated imaginary conspires also to shape contemporary migration,13 I wish to explore how African cinema represents nomadic migration and border crossing, whether legal or illegal, before factors such as the political economy of refugees, integration and diasporic identity come into play – factors which entail the individual negotiation of what Ellerson calls a personal third space between homeland and ‘hostland’ (see Ellerson 2017). Hence, rather than restrict myself to a study of the basic human right to move freely and the portrayal of the migrant as ‘other’ and ‘victim’ in a global politics of open versus closed borders (issues which are, of course, always pertinent in migratory films, even if not always explicit), I will pursue the notion of a ‘cinema of transit’, that is, of cinematically recreated and visualized migratory movements and border crossings, both legitimate and clandestine, which propose transitional zones crossed by migrants now suddenly rendered visible as global ‘agents’, yet whose identity remains temporarily suspended. Seen from this perspective cinema becomes a shifting site of intersubjective borderspaces and border crossings, at once open and porous, beyond the idea of territories defined by the binaries of origin and destination, North and South, legal and illegal, inclusion and exclusion, or of boundaries as fixed demarcations plotted around visibility/invisibility, inside/outside, material/symbolic, so characteristic of Baobab thinking as we have defined it. This process, I will argue, is propitious for new experimental and poetic kinds of transcultural cinematic thinking. Further, by approaching migration cinema as a mise en scène of the transnational subject in a permanent, hybridic process of cultural translation, I will suggest that migrant characters are ultimately to be seen more as shifters in a continuous, asynchronous process of migrancy with important ethical, aesthetic and philosophical implications. I will first map out a concise and selective typology of the five distinct and discrete modalities of migratory experience depicted in African migration cinema: the initial project, the journey across the Atlantic, migration across the African continent, intercontinental migration beyond Africa and Europe, and the return home and its aftermath. This comparative overview, featuring both big-budget features and grass-roots video shorts, covers a broad spectrum of genres and styles, from gritty, naturalistic action narratives (sometimes with only just enough


formal devices to ensure basic identification) to intimate first-person testimonies, itinerant documentary forms and more ambiguous, speculative configurations of fiction and biography. It will also establish a series of thematic and stylistic constants as well as a repertoire of transborder subjectivities. I will then move from this essentially descriptive mode to analyse in close textual detail Sissako’s Life on Earth, whose extraordinary opening sequence we examined already in the introductory chapter for the way it reroutes Baobab-style conceptualization and cognition in favour of an aesthetic totality of perception and the senses. Sissako approaches the theme of migration in reverse by means of a return to the homeland, taking it into new textual territories and opening it up to crucial areas of postcolonial aesthetics such as cosmopolitanism and kinship, materialism and the environment. Indeed, by continually ‘migrating’ transmedially and transgenerically, and by making migration a fundamentally relational matter that continually undermines the boundaries and distinctions required for identityforming practices, Life on Earth, I will argue, reinvents migration cinema as a cinema of radical migrancy and drift. I aim to show ultimately that the film’s sustained grafting of a pan-global, transtextual memory and imaginary (a process of textual transplanting that dissolves the migrant/host binary), along with its continuous shuffling of the aesthetic such that the migratory quest for another life is transformed into a search for new forms of beauty, marks the advent of a new transmigratory consciousness or becoming world.

i. Migration as project: Early in the Morning, Waiting for Happiness, Africa Paradis Early in the Morning (Un matin bonne heure, 2005), by the French-Guinean director Gahité Fofana, provides specific reasons for departure that are not only directly spelt out but also written down and recited. Inspired by a news item and conveyed in a rigorously low-key, objective, documentary style, this is a wholly deromanticized and demythologized tale about the frustrated dreams, loneliness and means of survival of two talented Guinean adolescents in present-day Conakry who yearn for escape. It’s the summer of 1999 and Yaguine (Mamoudou Camara) and Fodé (Kandia Sory Kouyaté) are faced with a period of boredom now that school has closed for the holidays and a three-month rainy season begins, bringing with it family commitments to go to their home villages. The two boys wish dutifully to help their impoverished parents by attempting a variety of menial jobs and schemes, both legal and illegal, yet all they encounter is a lack of opportunities, abuse and corruption (even the schoolmaster is found to be having



an affair with a female pupil). Suspended experientially between childhood and adulthood as much as geographically between the city and the country, they appear a lost generation, depressed and disillusioned. Fixed frame, wide-angle shots of central Conakry capture the slow, monotonous, daily rhythms of the city and its port, emphasizing through the use of shadows, ochre colours and chiaroscuro effects the polluted, aggressive, noisy and dirty aspects of urban life, as well as its undercurrents of violence (as when the police suddenly raid the market and cause the death of the boy’s avuncular friend Mohamed, a former child soldier haunted by memories). Dreaming of a better life elsewhere and the chance for advanced studies in Europe, they devise a secret ‘project’, revealed in the film’s short final section where they risk all by climbing early one morning into the landing gear of a long-haul plane at Conakry airport bound for Brussels. In keeping with the sober, matter-of-fact style of the film, the event is deliberately dedramatized through the use of long shot. We see the plane take off with the two stowaways and deduce almost immediately the tragic outcome due to a voice-over by Fodé who reads out the letter found with their frozen bodies which they were pictured earlier writing together, and in which they articulate their reasons for wanting to leave. Formally addressed to ‘your excellences, the officials of Europe’, the letter is a stirring and eloquent plea for international support ‘on behalf of all young Africans’ whose lives are being sacrificed due to extreme suffering, and who desire to be given a chance to study in order to help end poverty and war in Africa. The letter makes it explicit that it is wholly Europe’s responsibility and fault that Africans like Yaguine and Fodé have to make this kind of appeal about the extreme weakness of their position in Africa.

FIGURE 6.1  Project terminal: Running for a better life in the final sequence of Early in the Morning (2005).


This powerful and moving letter, and the quietly distressing film as a whole which unfurls to the sad strains of Fodé’s kora, serves as testimony to the boys’ noble wish – at once personal and universal – to advance their lives and that of Guinea and Africa as a whole. The film’s last, more positive word is given to its intermittent narrator, the boys’ fourteen-year-old female friend Khesso, who states simply that they, and other brave young Africans like them, will together change the world. Such utopian thinking stands in sharp contrast to the dominant European perception of young migrants heading to the global North lured by the ‘mirrors of the West’ and risking all in a quest for personal salvation through wealth.14 This notion of Europe as a fantasy of paradise for naïve young Africans is brilliantly turned on its head in Africa Paradis (2007), a comedy about stereotypes, politics and tolerance by French-Beninese director Sylvestre Amoussou. Set in a future where the ‘United States of Africa’ are now the leaders of the global pack, Africa Paradis shows a white French couple of unemployed professionals attempting to leave an increasingly impoverished Europe by entering the continent illegally. They are arrested and placed in a transit camp; although Olivier (Stéphane Roux) escapes and lives a clandestine existence having assumed a stolen identity, Pauline (Charlotte Vermeil), in a replay in reverse of Sembene’s Black Girl, ends up a maid for a bourgeois African family (the husband Modibo (Amoussou) is a politician sponsoring a controversial immigration reform bill to address the flood of economic refugees from Europe). Although executed in rather flat, conventional fashion, this cunning vision of reverse discrimination achieves its main goal, also shared by Early in the Morning, of directly challenging African leaders to take more responsibility for Africa’s future. The only fully completed and definitive act in Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness concerns the young Mickaël, presented as one of the many hundreds of young African men and women who seek each year to cross to Europe from Nouadhibou. We first encounter him posing with friends in front of an obligatory backdrop of the Eiffel Tower in a photographer’s studio, recording his farewell in advance of his planned attempt to reach Europe by boat. Yet just a few weeks later his bloated body is washed up on the beach where it is systematically documented and processed by the local police, his photograph still on his person. This tragic individual story is presented as archetypal, all to begin again in a constant relay, for towards the end of the film we see the same taxi as at the start transporting a new group of men intent on crossing the border. As for the ostensible protagonist Abdallah, he appears in a state of existential limbo and cultural dépaysement, perpetually ‘waiting for happiness’ associated in the film with mobility. Alice Burgin notes that with these and the other rootless characters encountered in the film, any sense of a homogenous, ‘rooted’ Africa is denied (Burgin 2011: 55). Indeed, Waiting for Happiness remains to the last subsumed by absence and exile and the impossibility of any simple resolution of this state by means of a



migratory exodus to the North. In the case of Abdullah who, as Burgin suggests, seems to embody the processes of mass-mediated European acculturation (from his identification with French language and culture to the exclusion of his mother’s heritage), it is hard to know whether he ‘will find the world he is imagining’, or whether, like the travelling itinerant merchant Tchu performing a karaoke song about a man in jail asking ‘When will I be able to return home?’, he will remain part of an ‘imprisoned, deterritorialised diaspora’ (Burgin 2011: 57).15 Like exile, utopia is always an open destination, never a place, and our last glimpse of Abdallah is of him toiling Sisyphus-like up a large, unconquerable sand dune with his suitcase, in slippery leather oxford shoes, his precise destination unknown. Despite this, however, Sissako also chooses for clear political reasons to present the migration journey in more positive, universal terms. In the specific case of the female escort Nana (Nana Diakité), rejected by her French lover when she went to France to inform him of their child’s death (conveyed through a grey, grainy, Super 8 flashback sequence in Perpignan), he states: ‘I wanted to show that the trip to Europe can also be a voyage of love, not only an economic one. It can also be a voyage of sharing; it is time to consider immigration as an enrichment and as a fundamental freedom inscribed in all the world’s constitutions’ (cited in Gabara 2016: 55). Waiting for Happiness employs many of the formal techniques that Naficy attributes to accented filmmakers, such as non-linear storytelling, the mixing of comic and tragic elements, slippage between the fictional and non-fictional, timelessness in a transitional space, and a multiplicity of border crossings both internal and external (see Naficy 2001: 148, 150). Indeed, this is a multilayered transit zone composed of border posts and thresholds at once metaphorical and literal where characters dutifully leave their shoes, and of contact zones where myriad people circulate with unknown aims, motives and projects. The mood of loss, melancholy, and ‘fleeting emotional links’ (Armes 2006: 199) is palpable, yet, as we saw in Chapter 4, this luminous work of veils, filters, screens, partitions, mirages and dust clouds, together with its ‘irrational’ logic of allusion, diffuseness and circulation, also creates a positive poetics of displacement of characters and objects or ideas: from tufts of vegetation that float across the sand to passages of light and colour (the illumination of electric bulbs, lighting a cigarette, point-of-view shots through a kaleidoscopic lens) and the transmission of musical knowledge across the generations. By not allowing exile to become a fixed and permanent geographical space (it is everywhere and nowhere, with and without human figures), Waiting for Happiness revels in its mobile mysteries and multiplicities. In such a blurred, open-ended, indeterminate world of dispersion and redistribution, nothing is fixed or static, making existential exile and migration potentially positive acts of freedom.


ii. Migration as collective adventure: The Pirogue, Le Cri de la mer It is a simple but essential fact that, with the exception of those seeking political asylum who need to act independently to achieve their goal, the physical experience of migration to Europe is invariably collective in nature. The most celebrated African feature film to address directly the actual experience of the voyage is The Pirogue (La Pirogue, 2012) by established Senegalese filmmaker Moussa Touré, with a script by Éric Névé and David Bouchet (based on an original story by Abasse Ndione, Mbëkë Mi: à l’assaut des vagues de l’Atlantique (2008)). A group of thirty-one Africans leave the outskirts of Dakar in a pirogue – a small, brightly painted fishing vessel not built for deep water – to undertake the crossing of the Atlantic to Spain via the Canary Islands – a week-long passage of around 1,500 kilometres at continual risk of treacherous storms. Like the earlier, small-budget, debut drama Frontières (Borders) (2002) by French-Algerian director Mostéfa Djadjam, the first film about African migrants in the hands of smugglers trying to cross illegally into Europe from Senegal via Morocco (first in a pick-up truck, then in the back of fish trucks, before they are summarily dumped and forced to trek by foot),16 The Pirogue is a largely straightforward, linear narrative. It covers the key moments and rituals of the voyage, from initial preparations and leave-taking to the collective harraga of burning passports accompanied by shouts of ‘One must camouflage one’s blood!’, the climactic event of a terrible storm claiming many lives, and the final ignominious return for the survivors (after being picked up by the Spanish Red Cross, they are flown back to Senegal to be met by officials offering a derisory fifteen euros and sandwich, before being taken to a holding centre for basic clothing). The film’s style is largely realistic, carefully detailing the migrants’ physical and psychological hardships and individual reasons and motivations for leaving. These are essentially economic, and in the case of the impoverished fishermen aboard made abundantly clear in the opening minutes: local fishing villages can no longer sustain their age-long industry, not only because foreign trawlers have exhausted the seas off the coast, but also owing to the effects of world trade tariffs and globalization (fishing licences have been gradually sold off to the European Union), meaning that future prospects in this area for the young are virtually nil. This familiar economic predicament has been approached very differently in other forms and media, notably in the interview-led, documentary short Le Cri de la mer (The call of the sea) (2008) by the politically engaged Senegalese filmmaker Aïcha Thiam, who focuses on the struggle of one mother, Yaye Bayam Diouf, living in the Dakar suburb of Thiaroye-sur-mer. She has lost her only son in a pirogue attempting to reach the Canary Islands and now devotes her days to preventing clandestine emigration across the ocean. Deliberately modest and



low-key, content simply to present interviews and record political meetings and fund-raising events from Diouf ’s perspective without recourse to an authorial voice-over narration, Le Cri de la mer provides a comprehensive background to the alarming mortality figures for illegal immigration in Senegal, both locally and nationally.17 The Pirogue also pursues a solidly anti-clandestine migration message and provides grim statistics, stating in an intertitle before the final credits that more than a sixth of the 30,000 West African migrants who attempted to cross the Atlantic between 2005 and 2010 have perished (the film is dedicated to their memory).18 However, this fictional work stakes all on the dramatic, at times even skirting melodrama and symbolic cliché with its stock figures of the rash youngster, the wise man, the captain of valour, and so on. The aim is to present as graphically as possible a struggling community fighting for its very survival, ready to take to the water and pay the ultimate price to achieve a better future. This is also the story of a brave nation: the pirogue is called ‘Goor Fitt’ (‘man of courage’), and Senegal is often referred to in Wolof as ‘Sunu Gaal’ (‘our pirogue’). In fact, The Pirogue’s most salient aesthetic features – its impressive mise en scène with stunning widescreen cinematography by Thomas Letellier and a sinewy score at once lush and louring by Prince Ibrahima Ndour – are not the film’s most essential aspects, for they constitute at most the background and setting for its major themes, starting first with the migratory context. What distinguishes the characters in The Pirogue and in many other African films about migration is that they appear less concerned with building a permanent life for themselves in the diaspora than with meeting specific economic goals and securing funds that can flow back home directly to support families and local communities. Expat migrants are shown here funding local schools, wells and pumps, and the shifty migrant handler Bourbi, now a wealthy village notable, was himself once a migrant. This reflects an increasingly common phenomenon in West African societies: a community attempts collectively to ‘plant’ migrants into Europe in the expectation that money and goods will return. Indeed, great moral pressure is exerted on the aventurier to perform the duty of supporting the community: one must keep up the flow of remittances and exploit the connection established for further labour exchange, or else face humiliation and disgrace at home. As Claudia Hoffmann notes, migrants are effectively made hostage because they cannot return until they have reaped the benefits of the respective country’s supposed prosperity (Hoffmann 2010: 57). Further, the dream of success must be continually stoked by the migrant for the collective imagination back home. The second crucial theme is the heterogeneous mix of migrants: the group of thirty men is broken down ethnically by the migrant ‘recruiter’ Lansana (Laïty Fall), organizer of the crossing and all-round charmer, into the following: eleven Peuls (or Fula) (the main ethnic group in Guinea and identified in the credits as ‘Hal Pulaars’), ten Foutan kobés (the Fouta-Toro group from the northern region of Senegal), and the rest ‘Dakarois’ (Lansana speaks with the Guineans in Pulaar/


Fulfulde, but otherwise all business is conducted in the lingua franca of French). The number increases by one when a young female stowaway Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo) is discovered on board without money. Although the Guineans are initially regarded by the Senegalese as lowly and inferior, this band of different ethnicities and nationalities discovers unexpected unity across different cultures, tribal allegiances, classes, religions, even differences of age and gender. When Abou (Malamine ‘Yalenguen’ Dramé) instinctively swims out to help people stranded on a shipwrecked vessel, beating a terrified retreat when he sees the risks of potential chaos and danger, the older Samba (Balla Diarra) overcomes his initial suspicion of the carefree young joker with an admiring ‘Ça se respecte!’ (Respect!). In the case of Nafy, although she is initially marginalized and even threatened with being thrown overboard, she is never harmed during the crossing and instead made an integral part of the group as cook. Emotionally tough and steadfastly focused on survival (her husband had died while attempting a similar crossing), she is the first to notice a rescue helicopter. Like all the characters here she is sketched out in functional fashion, but enough to create a sense of difference and particularity, for this is a work propelled by the politics of giving an identity to those who are normally faceless. The pirogue is not a ship of innocents, however: Yaya, for example, a Guinean subject to panic attacks who must be tied down and even gagged for his own safety, discovers his hen has been stolen, and there are heated disputes over religion, notably between Islam and animism. This leads directly to the third major theme – that of commonality. While the tall, stoic, experienced boatsman and local fisherman, Baye Laye (Souleymane Sèye Ndiaye), his legs astride at the tiller, certainly strikes the heroic pose of a ‘man of courage’ who will eventually return safely to his wife Kiné and child, no one individual or hero occupies centre stage since everyone is literally in the same boat. Each life here counts. Following the storm, the exhausted survivors lie semicomatose on the drifting, flooded vessel, their hallucinations recorded off-screen, and many will soon die from exposure and lack of food and water, including Lansana following a voice-off in which he bids farewell to ‘the money of dreams’. Yet although the basic codes of human behaviour and civility are placed under the severest strain during the ordeal, prayers and last rites are still observed for the deceased, as in the case of the ‘captain’ Kaba (Babacar Oualy): a dirge in Wolof is sung, and the hen is sacrificed and its blood drunk by some. An unheralded, warm, desperate solidarity is gradually born, as when Nafy cradles a sick fellow passenger. Indeed, throughout the film one witnesses moving displays of human kindness and small acts of generosity based on Islamic principles of hospitality and self-restraint and a humble recognition of shared customs and belief systems – the ceremonial of African life complete with talismans or gris-gris.19 A compassionate eulogy for those who have perished at sea and a wake-up call to the West’s conscience, The Pirogue is above all a powerful celebration of what is already ‘here’ at home in Africa. There is both a recognition of difference and a



FIGURE 6.2  The survivors of the storm saying collective prayers for the perished in The Pirogue (2012).

transcending of difference in the name of an inherently African universalism, for by drawing out the homosocial aspects of this shared, multi-ethnic experience of catastrophe, and by foregrounding the commitment to human dignity and solidarity, the film (re)establishes what still unites Africans and makes them fundamentally free beings and masters of their own destiny. Admittedly, The Pirogue threatens at times to crumble under its own symbolic weight with its projection of pan-African solidarity – as Garane notes, the ‘sturdy yet vulnerable pirogue’ lacking life jackets is both a metaphor for ‘African knowledge, ingenuity and débrouillardise’ (Garane 2014: 180) and a fatal metaphor for Africa itself (Garane 2014: 185).20 It also appears to operate in a kind of social–political vacuum – there is little here, for instance, about the power relations and hierarchies within specific African communities that serve in their own way to perpetuate the North– South divide. On a formal level, the film’s recourse to the spectacular during the nighttime storm sequence is arguably antithetical to its essential ethos of noble fortitude and humility. In short, this is another classic instance of deep and fixated Baobab cinematic thinking – one that never puts itself critically into question and works against the relational free-flow of the aesthetic as we have been defining it. This is made concretely manifest in a fantasy baobab sequence, complete with cowherd and female voices, that is repeated three times in the form of a character’s dream. Yet these are the artistic risks taken and fully assumed by The Pirogue which demands that despite – indeed precisely because of – its narrative arc of disaster and failure, it must be read allegorically as proof and triumph of African survival against all the odds. Petty personal disputes, squabbles and mishaps, even temporary explosions of conflict and discord, do not jeopardize the smooth delivery of this simple and unambiguous political message of African unity, any more than the high production values and occasional audiovisual pyrotechnics which serve to throw into clear relief and underscore the film’s humanist depth.


iii. Intra-continental migration: Voyage vers l’espoir, Koukan Kourcia, La Souffrance est une école de sagesse, Espoir Voyage Every year some 12 million people from West and Central Africa leave their homeland, and more than 75 per cent of this migration takes place within subSaharan Africa: men from landlocked countries like Niger go to the coasts of Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire and work in the ports, others with more to spend go to South Africa where they can earn more (Filipovic 2017). Such internal migration and navigation within the African continent can be just as dangerous as migration to Europe, and not only because of the evident problem of sometimes having to cross through war zones. One of the minor narrative threads in Clando (1996), a rare foray by Teno into narrative fiction though told in a largely documentarystyle, realist idiom, is that of two Tanzanian men on their way to Nigeria who attempt to cross through Cameroon without proper immigration papers and end up sharing a cell with the main protagonist, Anatole Sobgui (Paulin Fodouop), jailed and tortured for political reasons. At the mercy of corrupt guards in this virtual police state, their fate appears even more wretched and uncertain than that of the broken and impotent Anatole who is at least able eventually to leave and enter the ‘lion’s den’ of Germany. Yet such migration journeys, again usually premised on the notion of an eventual return even though they consolidate the widespread phenomenon of African diasporas within Africa itself (see Ellerson 2017: 284–5), are not deemed sufficiently ‘heroic’ in themselves to warrant central attention within the feature film format. This is perhaps due to the fact that trans-African migration is usually undertaken individually by dusty road and dictated by urgent, basic needs of physical survival and escape, notably from hunger and starvation caused by rural drought and desertification. Indeed, African films about migration through and across the continent are for the most part quieter, independent, documentary affairs offering a more intimate, personal take on the established genre in African cinema of the individual quest and journey film (picaresque and often tragic works like L’Exilé (The Exile) (1980) by Nigerien director Oumarou Ganda, based on an African folk tale, where the hero-adventurer achieves his goal of becoming king of a village, even though, to save his family, he accepts to be sacrificed). In the 2013 short Voyage vers l’espoir (Journey towards hope), Thierno Souleymane Diallo, a Guinean student at Saint-Louis University in Senegal, examines by means of direct, face-to-camera interviews the reasons, both economic and political, that inspired a group of men from Conakry to seek safety and a better life in Senegal, yet whose daily lot is now one of isolation, poorly paid manual labour, and subservience. We learn a stark fact about Africa’s internal diasporas: intra-African migrants nearly always feel like strangers and



outsiders in their adopted country and enjoy little or no danbe (dignity) usually conferred by a sense of place and belonging. Indeed, they live in a permanent state of displacement and strangerhood entailing poverty and exclusion, since there is no real possibility here for integration – a situation further aggravated by the recent rise of prominent nativist discourses. They will always feel what Bruce Whitehouse, in his 2012 case study of migrants and emigrants in Brazzaville entitled Migrants and Strangers in an African City: Exile, Dignity, Belonging, aptly calls ‘hollow citizens’.21 We already saw in Chapter 4 during our discussion of Magori’s low-key (yet also highly staged) work of video reportage, Koukan Kourcia, how the emphasis in African diaspora narratives is firmly placed on the existential and spiritual. Here, it was the affective power of song rather than any economic need that originally propelled the Nigerien village menfolk into exile in Côte d’Ivoire. The cruel irony, however, is that these men have now created good businesses in the markets of Abidjan as part of a thriving expat community and are leading a more comfortable life than would ever be possible in Niger. The challenge facing Hussey and her co-singers who agree to make the long, arduous bus trip to Abidjan (conveyed in highly concrete, physical fashion) is to inspire the men to return to the homeland for the sake of their families and their spiritual inner being. In another highly personal account about migration across the continent that has little to do with economic or political reasons, centring instead on a basic psychological need to escape one’s life and background and start anew, La Souffrance est une école de sagesse (Suffering is a school of wisdom) (2014) charts the journey to Benin undertaken by its director Ariane Astrid Atodji to explore why her father left his family and homeland for Cameroon in such a hurry forty years before, never to return. In this emotionally tough and compelling documentary, Atodji confronts in a voice-over her family’s past and her own vulnerabilities, trying carefully to piece together and understand internally her family story while articulating with great candour the related issues of origins, identity and belonging. She will finally meet her paternal family and discover a closeness that ultimately transcends culture and language. Both Koukan Kourcia and La Souffrance est une école de sagesse demonstrate another key feature of documentaries dealing with the difficulties of transAfrican emigration and exile, namely the engaged, first-person mode that is also interventionist in that it causes events to happen. In Espoir Voyage (Journey hope) (2011), the Burkinabe director Michel K. Zongo films his trip from Koudougou (Burkina Faso) to Côte d’Ivoire where his older brother Joanny has just been reported dead. Joanny had left the family home suddenly one morning thirty-two years earlier at the age of fourteen. For Zongo, Joanny’s reasons for wanting to depart for Côte d’Ivoire were not exceptional, since emigration to this particular country has become a virtual rite of passage for young Burkinabes – Abidjan in particular is seen by many West and Central Africans as a more advanced


economic centre and beacon of opportunity. Unusual in this case, however, was the fact that Joanny did not return. The film is thus the story of Zonga’s trip to establish what happened, taking the same route and bus his brother did while also interviewing those who are pursuing the same migratory path today. It prompts him to consider more generally the human motivations for making such an uncertain journey with no idea of what one will find on arrival if successful, or of how long one will remain in a new, foreign land.22

iv. Intercontinental migration: Under the Starry Sky, Teza The theme of bi-continental migration from Africa involving continents other than Europe takes African cinema into potentially more dramatic cinematic territory encompassing multiple geographical locations. The focus is now less on the physical aspects of the journey itself than on the distances experienced between ‘here’ and ‘there’ (not only spatial and cultural but also temporal and imaginary), as well as on the multiple ruptures and discontinuities of migration presented as part of the peripeteia of contemporary life. Under the Starry Sky (Des Étoiles) (2013) is the debut feature by French-Senegalese director Dyana Gaye, where the viewer crosses consistently between Turin, Dakar and New York in an expanding constellation of exile. The film adopts a defiantly low-key, unspectacular, documentary-like style, verging at times on the routine and mundane. However, its gently unfolding, intimate exploration of the interconnected ties, hopes and dreams of its three characters, lost, as it were, in existential transit between three continents and surviving under the skies of three very distinctive urban locations, is emotionally complex and intense. We are taken on a credible journey into the shadowy world of undocumented travel: Sophie (Marème Demba Ly), a young Senegalese bride, leaves Dakar to join her new husband Abdoulaye (Souleymane Sèye N’Diaye) in Turin, where he has travelled without papers to look for work. Yet Abdoulaye has already left for New York through a smugglers’ network, lured by his cousin Serigne (Babacar M’Baye Fall) and the promise of better opportunities. Abdoulaye’s one contact in New York, Sophie’s aunt Aminata, is at the same time en route to Dakar with her son, Thierno (Ralph Amoussou), to bury the husband she left twenty years earlier and, in the process, rediscover her home country. In each case the actual journey between continents is not chronicled and indeed becomes almost immaterial, like the movement back and forth between Douala and Cologne in Clando where clandestine border crossing remains essentially an internal matter of the mind for the depressed Anatole as he attempts to negotiate his marginalized position within the political landscape of Cameroon.23 The three destinies of Under the Starry Sky are united finally by means of the musical



continuity of the song ‘Les étoiles’ by Mélodie Gardot, from which the film’s French title is taken. Gaye’s intricate tapestry of stories and characters, stretched across different regions and time zones linked by history and slavery, with Dakar as its common anchor point, is a finely orchestrated meditation on physical and experiential displacement (Thierno, who grew up in America, is also discovering Senegal for the first time and will visit the Maison des Esclaves on the île de Gorée). We witness at first hand the at once physical and metaphysical experience of disorientation as one tries to carve a place for oneself in the world, in the full knowledge that life is always a form of migrant passage (underscored here formally by the intermittent, fragmented use of music). While it may evoke at times Ethiopian director Haile Gerima’s much celebrated Teza (Morning dew) (2008), a self-styled ‘voyage between present, past and dream’ which jumps back and forth between the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and between Germany, Addis Ababa and the rural regions of Ethiopia to tell the story of a young Ethiopian (Anberber) returning to his home country full of hope and idealism from his medical training in West Germany at the height of the Cold War, the style and register of Under the Starry Sky are wholly different. Teza is a grand, sweeping, historical fresco, and its highly poetic, metaphorical images and stunning tableau effects (romantic long shots of the countryside, a symbolic fire in the bush emphasizing the ritual stages of life) serve instead to instil a universal tone, consolidated at the end by the film’s dedication to ‘all the black people who have been killed for being black’.24 By contrast, Under the Starry Sky remains deliberately slow and measured in its itinerant mode: the viewer continually follows characters walking, wandering or travelling, and discovers each new space at the same time as they do through their alien eyes, thereby creating a permanently mobile point of view and nomadic gaze. Typically the camera first captures figures in close-up and then opens out the scene with wider long shots that place them in a broader context. This serves to foreground important themes such as the fluctuating balance between personal destiny and communal belonging, as well as the relationships between those who decide to stay and those who have left. To build a new life each main character must enact a break: Abdoulaye abandons Sophie (and his cousin); Sophie stops pursuing her husband; and Thierno leaves his life in New York to become a new person. A poetic, polyphonic tale of always just missed rendez-vous, Under the Starry Sky brilliantly dedramatizes and demythologizes the notion of the grand journey and intended return, showing how plans and aspirations can suddenly be derailed and how chance meetings and accidents can change the course of one’s life. Moreover, it offers the time and space necessary to comprehend the everyday experiences of urban exclusion and marginalization lived by ‘irregular’ migrants, capturing with acute precision the anxieties, yet also the new empathies and affinities, generated by trying to negotiate far-flung cultures.25


v. R  eturn and aftermath: Expectations, Atlantiques, Rostov-Luanda The return journey can be a cause of celebration – the trope of the successful voluntary return following the acquisition of wealth in a foreign land – or one of shame and dishonour – the counter-trope of the forced return due to a failed voyage or the collapse of personal dreams. In Haroun’s 2008 fictional video short Expectations, Moussa (Haoua Tantine Abakar) returns to his village after an unsuccessful attempt at migration across the desert and finds himself immediately confronted with the men who loaned him the money for the voyage. Yet he has been so transformed by the harrowing experience that he becomes mysteriously apathetic and uninterested in his old surroundings, even as his creditors grow impatient. Elsewhere, the experience of return provides pause for reflection and contemplation, often many months, even years, after the event. Indeed, films dealing with the extended process of return are usually deeply meditative and philosophical in nature, and engage directly with the theme of personal testimony. One such is Mati Diop’s fifteen-minute fictional short, Atlantiques, which explores the recent experience of young migrants fleeing to Europe but then forced by physical circumstances to turn back. In a series of sensual, elliptical and intense fragments, three young men gather round the sputtering embers of a campfire somewhere in Africa to recount their hazardous experiences on an overcrowded pirogue. The narration of these individual epic tales of real and existential sacrifice and exile was inspired by the real-life experiences of young African men who have made or contemplated such journeys. Barely illuminated against the night sky, Serigne Seck from Dakar (appearing as himself) weighs up the dangers of crossing the sea in a pirogue. Faced with unemployment and hunger at home, he argues that there is no choice left but to leave, even if it means risking one’s life. ‘Forget Europe’, a friend retorts, ‘let’s speak of here, Africa.’ The cinematic style of Atlantiques is at once poetic and lyrical, veering towards abstraction: the ocean is glimpsed only once, under the opening title presumably bearing its name (in the plural), yet its mysterious pull, its promise of both life and death, and its magnetic glimmer at night, remain lodged in the viewer’s imagination due to the soundtrack of crashing waves. Like the close-up shot of the rotating lighthouse lens which concludes the film, the mens’ conversation, sometimes little more than odd voices in the dark, circles around itself with extended discussion of family, sacrifice, even magical transformation from man into fish. The film is bookended by accounts of dreams: the first, recounted in a pre-recorded voiceover, describes a man reaching for his mother, while the second, conveyed by an on-screen text, concerns a man’s feverish desire to throw himself into the ocean. In the film’s middle section which takes place at a cemetery, we learn that Serigne has, in fact, already perished at sea after a second attempted odyssey, and that



his image is thus that of a human spectre or phantom. This matches the status of the characters’ original hopes of a utopian ailleurs, now reduced to a play of immaterial shadows. A woman dabs tears from her eyes then stares in devastating sorrow at the camera in a sustained fixed shot filmed in the cruel light of day. This scene is followed by another nighttime fire, nearly indistinguishable from the first, and Serigne’s ghost-like words are heard wafting across the lo-fi DV images. The overall effect is of a seemingly timeless tone poem about friendship, family, identity, fear, courage, longing and mourning, taking place somewhere between history, fantasy and myth. Yet even as death haunts Diop’s hushed and sombre fever dream, Atlantiques gently but powerfully refutes the idea of finitude with its seductive poetic glances and formal resolve.26 The notion of the return is put under even greater strain in Sissako’s RostovLuanda (1997), labelled a documentary and at first glance a travelogue, though in reality more a form of auotobiographical fiction. Sissako presents himself here explicitly as an ‘aventurier’, yet the adventure in question is very different in mode and direction from the migrant adventures we have witnessed thus far. For in a kind of prologue to the film, Sissako as ‘Dramane’ records his return to his family home and birthplace of Kiffa, a small town in the desert interior of southern Mauritania. Then, just before dawn, his homecoming dutifully achieved, he embarks with his former childhood nanny Touél on a far more uncertain trip to war-torn Angola – a source of tension and controversy with his uncle on account of the evident risks. His aim is to track down an old Angolan friend, Alfonso BariBanga, whom he had known while studying at the Moscow Institute for Cinema (VGIK). Just as the opening cinéma-vérité-style sequence of the extended family presents a carefully rehearsed performance, with Dramane/Sissako acting more as a spectator and observer (there are clear signs that everyone appearing in the film was approached prior to filming), so Sissako plays in enterprising ways with the idea of homeland and the trope of return, to the point that Rostov-Luanda becomes more about his own attempt to recapture his hopes for Africa. For Sissako, as for so many Africans who went to the Soviet Union in the 1980s for political and technical training, Angolan independence in 1974 heralded a new beginning for Africa. Bari-Banga’s revolutionary confidence in his country’s future matched Sissako’s own hopes for the continent, although the intervening years of civil war between Angolan factions, each backed by a global superpower, plus other natural disasters plaguing Africa in general, ultimately destroyed the optimism of Sissako’s generation. However, as Armes notes, no attempt is made here to explain the historical situation or to offer a coherent picture of Angola’s present-day politics and future prospects (Armes 2006: 193). The short transition scene between Kiffa and Angola takes the form of tracking shots from a moving train across a snowbound steppe landscape, over which Dramane/Sissako talks in Russian on the phone to Natalia Lvovna, his and BariBanga’s former teacher. This multidirectional movement establishes a defining


tension in the film which Sissako has formalized elsewhere thus: ‘Rostov-Luanda is a way of projecting myself and of setting up a contradiction with another African country that Mauritanians do not know’ (cited in Gabara 2010: 327). And indeed, Rostov-Luanda constructs itself around an absence, for the ‘subject’ continually drifts from Dramane/Sissako’s introspective and meditative search for the elusive Bari-Banga to his own encounter with the realities of present-day Angola – not only Luanda but also other cities such as Huambo and Humpata. All that currently remains of Bari-Banga is a group photograph in black-and-white featuring the two men together with other foreign students. It functions in the film as a kind of tease, however, for it is deliberately not revealed in its entirety to the viewer but passed around from hand to hand with every person Sissako encounters. The fact that the viewer is denied privileged access to the vital photograph (including also knowledge of which figure in the picture is actually the young student Dramane/ Sissako), and therefore has to try to piece it together with each new partial showing, ensures that we are positioned at the same level as the interviewees who are each invited to participate in the ritual of inspecting the image and drawing a blank (‘No, I don’t know him’). For this very reason, the phantom-like photograph becomes a vehicle of visual and spectatorial desire. Moreover, rather than provide a cool, objective, synthesizing viewpoint (Dramane/Sissako declines the role of presiding voice-over), the film creates instead a rolling series of fleeting, intermittent voiceoffs authored by other figures. In fact, Dramane/Sissako is increasingly motivated in Rostov-Luanda by his own subjective feelings and intuitions: he presents himself squarely as a migrant ‘complying with one’s sensations before abandoning oneself to the fortunes of the road and distances’. Moreover, like the rich, heterogeneous mix of people he encounters (including métisse figures of mixed Portuguese and African heritage), who are all accorded equal time and space to talk in French or Portuguese of their family history, daily lives or time as a soldier, the film combines different styles in a highly distinctive, free-flowing métissage of form. Sometimes the interviewees are reflected in a mirror, resulting in reverse images that ensure a continuous migration of the ostensible central story of BariBanga to other personal stories that are not directly relevant, and which instead intersect in a galloping series of ‘connivences’ anchored only by Dramane/ Sissako’s driver who provides Rostov-Luanda with its one tangible, connecting thread. Indeed, everywhere Dramane/Sissako looks with his gently probing camera while conducting interviews and visiting the known haunts of BariBanga in order to, as he puts it, ‘gather fragments’ and ‘recompose’ Bari-Banga’s ‘image’, he finds evidence of dislocation and loss (‘I’m beginning to lose myself in Alfonso’s homeland’, he confesses). In this continuous shifting and opening up of positions, Dramane/Sissako’s personal search documentary morphs into a loose, unstructured process of divagation where all becomes blurred, including the very features of Bari-Banga. Hence, migration here transforms into migrancy



at every level (thematic, personal, formal). As Adesokan argues, the film’s rich overlay of repeated tracking shots of the townscapes and countryside driven by this ‘nomadic impulse’ provides a poetic countermovement that complements and extends the ambivalence of the intellectual position Sissako occupies here as exile and poet, thus turning Rostov-Luanda into what Adesokan suggestively calls ‘a poetic excursion’.27 On his last day in Angola, Dramane/Sissako learns that Bari-Banga is no longer living there but in the former East Germany. In the concluding scene he meets his old friend in Berlin, but we are afforded only a brief glimpse of Bari-Banga appearing at the entrance of his apartment building captured in long shot from the taxi; otherwise he is simply a voice-off answering the doorbell. Dramane/Sissako enters but the door literally closes on the viewer, although we hear a snippet of the private, off-screen conversation during which Bari-Banga tells Dramane/Sissako in Russian that he, too, will soon return to Angola. Sissako then comments: ‘I heard him pronounce, in the language we learned together in the name of old illusions, the word “return”, just like an accomplishment.’ The final shot of the film is that of the group photograph which begins gradually to fade as soon as it comes into view – as if the whole film were perhaps less about finding one man than about a desire for migratory images, in itself a vital if precarious process of hope, commitment and self-(re)invention.

On the border: Migrant forms in Sissako’s Life on Earth Our extended survey of the key modes and modalities of African migration cinema reveals the remarkable range of cinematic approaches to the theme of migration and related themes of exile, foreignness, estrangement and alienation. There are different points of focus and emphasis, from the raw, physical experience of the journey itself to the more subjective, interior states generated by being in migratory flux. Some films, notably of the return/aftermath type which operate in the gap between the migratory event and the cinematic present, allow for formal enquiry and poetic play with form, while in first-person interventionist films there is a concerted realist drive against aesthetic embellishment. Yet whatever particular style or perspective is adopted, the journey undertaken is presented as always both literal and figurative, temporary and ongoing, revealing migration as fundamentally an existential state of mind and being. Moreover, there is a shared emphasis on the social, material, collective, universal and spiritual aspects of the migratory experience. The result is a compelling demonstration of African principles and values of sociality such as community, hospitality and solidarity, which are variously formulated and negotiated.


It is, in fact, the strong, admonitory focus on the collective and pan-African in works like The Pirogue that distinguishes African films about African migration to Europe from the more conventional, European big-budget films on the subject, which foreground the individual and invariably highlight the violent and sensational. The ironically titled Hope (2014), for instance, the first feature by French documentary filmmaker Boris Lojkine, which pursues an unflinching, exposé style of sociopolitical reportage, is concerned above all with the spectacle of conflict and division, including the atomization of communities. This begins in the opening scene when, during a pit stop in a desert crossing by truck, the androgynous looking Hope (Endurance Newton) is exposed by Léonard (Justin Wang) and his fellow Cameroonians as both a woman and, even worse, a Nigerian, thus doubly ‘other’. She must pay the price for her difference by being summarily raped by soldiers. In a world where safety requires staying with one’s own people, the two forge a precarious bond across languages and cultural lines, yet are continually threatened by the strict laws of difference and outsiderhood, including those of the segregated and rivalrous national enclaves lying like minighettoes on the urban fringes of the Algerian border town of Tamanrasset – a town from which ‘black’ Africans are generally excluded as a virtual subspecies by North African society. The daily experience of suspicion, hostility and violence in a corruption-riddled underworld gets no better when the pair eventually make it to the Takaddoum quarter in Rabat which again features lethal competing groups defined by nationality, race and gender (when Hope, forced into prostitution to fund the couple’s ultimately doomed escape to Europe, falls pregnant and appears physically different from other women, her treatment and enslavement is made even worse).28 Such savage realities and social breakdown are effectively minimized and arguably downplayed by the African migratory films we have encountered, which seek instead to affirm the universal positives of humanity and offer a modicum of hard-won hope and optimism, occasionally even transcendence, even if the desired final stage of crossing borders is seldom accomplished. There always remains in these films the possibility of some type of social exchange and cultural cross-transfer, allowing them crucially to surpass the ‘abject cosmopolitanism’ defined by Peter Nyers, whereby an immigrant is always cast as the object of securitized fears and anxieties (Nyers 2003: 1070). Yet the same African films also highlight that values and qualities such as cosmopolitanism, understood in more positive terms as a morally pluralist way of seeing oneself as part of a world beyond the immediate boundaries of kin, community and country,29 are never fixed or absolute, but rather contingent, floating and provisional. Indeed, in films where mobility is the only absolute aside from death, transborder consciousness is presented as an indeterminate process in perpetual flux, in sharp contrast to many of the obstacles in the migrants’ path (the punctual, dramatic events of natural storms or eruptions of human violence, for example). Put differently, the process of migration is portrayed here as part



of a larger, continuous human condition of migrancy. Moreover, this state of communal being becomes a potential crucible for forging new forms of human understanding and kinship, new affinities and commonalties, even if in most of the films discussed this is presented as well beyond the realm and remit of the aesthetic – as if any serious engagement with aesthetic matters were essentially secondary, if not irrelevant, to the cardinal processes of human connection, solidarity and personal change. Sissako’s work in Waiting for Happiness and Rostov-Luanda stands out as a powerful exception in this regard, since it presents migrancy itself at an explicitly formal level and suggests that film has the capacity to put into circulation new kinds of migratory form that elude fixed binaries and oppositions, whether of traditional Baobab thinking or, more perniciously, of the anti-migrant rhetoric of exclusion. As such, it marks a radical shift in thinking about cinematic form as a mode and motor of migrancy. Let us now explore now in more theoretical terms the potential of cinematic migrancy for understanding transborder consciousness by looking in close detail at another film by Sissako which is biographically inflected, and where the very notion of the border and border crossing must be understood in directly aesthetic terms. Ostensibly the story of Sissako himself as an émigré (again named ‘Dramane’) documenting his visit from Paris where he is currently exiled to the small village of Sokolo in Mali inhabited by his father, Life on Earth continually scrambles the boundaries between fiction and documentary. The entire film is premised on a formal conceit: it purports to show present-day Sokolo on the eve of the new millennium, and the village’s (non-)response to the global millennial celebrations, yet was made and released in 1998, thus staging proleptically a situation that has not yet occurred. Moreover, all the actors in this ‘fiction’ are playing themselves (Sissako’s father Mohamed features as the father, his uncle as the tailor, and so forth). Further, despite its rather portentous title promising a universal account of ‘life on earth’, the film’s perpetually displaced, ironic mode dedramatizes and evacuates the event of migration. For although Dramane/Sissako makes it clear from the outset that this journey is a rare instance of homecoming, the film is so emptied of drama that it has the look and feel of a common, even daily occurrence (his re-entry into Sokolo life is rendered almost casual). Crucially, the film not only reverses the standard direction of the migration narrative we have established thus far (we move here from the North to the South rather than from the South to the North), but also stands on its head and turns inside out the regular, chronological ordering of the operative stages (prospective planning, voyage/adventure, return, aftermath, retrospective contemplation). During the opening ‘post-Baobab’ sequence which crosses between Paris and Sokolo in hypercompressed fashion while acousmatic sound is crossing materially over the border of the visual image, Sissako presents himself implicitly as an itinerant, migrant figure as he crosses between floors on the escalator in a combined effect of forward/reverse motion. Migration as a concept is already becoming formally unhinged from its


traditional moorings, just as the very notion of genre is thrown up into the air. For as the image suddenly cuts to a baobab and the camera zooms slowly towards it, the film appears to have migrated from a European art movie featuring a readily identifiable global ‘auteur’ to something else altogether – perhaps even an African nature documentary. Such mounting ambivalence suggests that migrancy is being conceived here not as a fixed identity but rather as an evolving state and process. This composite transborder sequence – a deconstruction of border spectacle setting up a primary formal tension between sound and image30 – takes us immediately on a voyage into new, unchartered, aesthetic territories of migration. Sissako is clearly not interested here in the narrative of return to ‘pure’ origins (Sokolo is not presented here as a unique, originary homeland). Indeed, since the zoom takes place specifically under the sign of migrancy, one may talk instead justifiably of a ‘migrant zoom’. Moreover, the particular abstract juxtaposition through montage of different landscapes and temporalities creates a space of aesthetic play and difference that insists on the relational. We noted in Chapter 1 that the particular cropping and framing of the baobab here evokes Glissant’s non-binary, non-hierarchical concept of relational poetics where identity is no longer based completely within the root but also ‘in Relation’. We might also add that Dramane/Sissako’s migrant movement in the opening shots embodies ‘rooted errantry’, a concept proposed by Glissant in Poétique de la Relation to convey the transformative mode of Relation in which every voice can be heard and all can be said. Glissant writes there: The tale of errantry [errance] is the tale of Relation … in the poetics of Relation, one who is errant (who is no longer traveler, discoverer, or conqueror) … plunges into the opacities of that part of the world to which he has access. ... The thinking of errantry conceives of totality but willingly renounces any claims to sum it up or to possess it. (Glissant 1997: 20–1) As Glissant’s translator Betsy Wing puts it well in her gloss on this term, since errantry is directed by Relation it is never mere aimless roaming, for ‘one knows at every moment where one is – at every moment in relation to the other’ (Glissant 1997: xvi). Further, as postcolonial theorist Charles Forsdick writes, Glissant’s model of Relation, which privileges diversity, is posited on a ‘right to opacity’ that protects specificity while exploring discontinuous encounters between cultures. By maintaining that the logic of hybridity operates both within and between cultures, Relation thus refuses any sense of pure otherness (Forsdick 2005: 45–6). The relational, aesthetic, migrant mode instantly established in Life on Earth may be likened artistically to that of The Nine Muses (2010) by the BritishGhanaian director John Akomfrah, a similarly poetic, experimental meditation on the journey yet conducted in a very different register. Part-documentary, partpersonal essay, The Nine Muses is a more lyrical and purposively oblique tone



poem and elegy around history and diasporic memory, myth and identity, exile and displacement, journeying and homecoming, and with a much wider compass and timeframe, namely the history and imaginary of post-war migration to the UK. It is also more overtly formalized: the dense compositions of archive material – newsreels, feature films, sound recordings – incorporating immigrants from different corners of the world (in particular the Caribbean and Asian subcontinent) are thrown into dramatic relief by freshly shot, extended video sequences of the stark, wintry landscapes of Alaska where movement by boat matches the dispersion of an anonymous and faceless white male figure, seen largely from behind in far long shot and in variously coloured parkas (yellow, black, blue). As in Life on Earth such stylistic hybridity bespeaks a relational poetics where beauty and ugliness are relative concepts, like black and white – there is no one pure or positive essence. Akomfrah is suggesting here that sublime natural beauty in the Arctic can be as alienating and isolating as the ugliness of post-war poverty and urban decay that greeted post-war immigrants to Britain.31 While Life on Earth does not present the theme of migration so graphically or indeed politically as The Nine Muses, it similarly actualizes in its opening moments the ethical stakes involved in any serious cinematic representation of migration and migratory form – one that, as Jill Bennett puts it in a study of the limitations of identity politics in postcolonial art exhibitions devoted to disenfranchised groups, rather than simply ‘exhibiting’ identity and diversity according to fixed institutional models of multiculturalism, would attempt instead to shift identities into a dynamic set of relationships exploring communality as a process and promoting new ways of understanding intercultural and transnational histories (see Bennett 2012). Adesokan has emphasized that Sissako’s film offers proof of an exiled artistic consciousness and imaginary, since it acknowledges directly the feeling of dislocation connected with exile and the responsibility migrants feel for families back home.32 He is also right to insist that Sissako’s work observes rhetorically an aesthetic procedure in which the making of a work of art is transformed into an implicitly conceptual undertaking (Adesokan 2010: 157). Yet there is another aspect to the project of Life on Earth which Adesokan does not consider and which concerns the very tension between the conceptual and the aesthetic. For the conceptual is only one part of the film’s design, and it is intimately intertwined with the poetic in a form of creative tension that allows Sissako to suspend and undermine his own authorial grasp. In fact, despite a number of compelling accounts of Life on Earth,33 very little attention has yet been paid to the nature and function of the film’s plastic beauty and its intricate fabric of (inter)textual folds and curves – as if the very idea of cinematic facture were a little misplaced, even embarrassing, when dealing with such solemn issues as migration and homecoming. Yet Sissako’s comprehensive investment in montage and abstraction opens up and powerfully extends his stated themes. Indeed, the result of so swiftly deflating the hyper-charged migration narrative in the opening sequence of Life


on Earth is paradoxically to propel multiple border crossings on a formal level that articulate the complexity of the migratory experience, offering in the process one of the most sustained explorations yet in African cinema of an aesthetics of migration as migrancy, or what I shall be proposing here as a transmigration of cinematic form. For if the exilic condition and consciousness can be defined as a moving scale of relative estrangement, Life on Earth will pursue a pre-eminently relational aesthetics whereby the viewer is impelled always to perceive characters and objects in relation and in their very illegibility and unreadability – an indefinite, experimental process that could find itself blocked if it were to be fully represented or symbolized. Indeed, for Sissako, for whom the ethical is always linked to perception and our ways of recording the sounds and images of the immanent world (the basis of aesthetics), it is the non-hierarchical interrelatedness of material entities both organic and non-organic that confers on them their value and place in the world. As we shall see, in a film where the baobab is presented from the outset in simultaneously aesthetic and material terms, the ethical call for human connectedness also encourages a non-possessive engagement with the external world, pointing to different ways of sensing the physical materiality of matter, and ultimately to new transmigratory ways of thinking and being that undo the established order of things.

New migratory settings: Formal adventures in counterpoint The aesthetic ramifications of the quietly momentous relational event of the migrant zoom at the start of Life on Earth become directly apparent in the sequence that immediately follows, where it serves as a springboard for the desymbolizing method of restless formal crossings and ludic inversions that now ensue. The camera moves gently forwards through an interior towards a bed artfully bathed in blue light with a mosquito curtain where a male figure (Dramane/Sissako’s father) sits reading a letter – presumably the letter now heard on the soundtrack beginning ‘Cher père’, intoned by Sissako in quiet, detached and unassuming fashion. In this mobile mise en scène of shade and hue, the camera ploughs a soft forward path towards the yellow light in the background. What then follows is a series of shots presenting in turn the rural landscape at sunset, farmers trying to scare the unwelcome, crop-eating quelea birds referred to in the letter, the arrival of Dramane/Sissako in a red shirt early one morning, the entry on the soundtrack of Salif Keïta’s gentle, plaintive melody ‘Folon’, and an extended quote from Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (‘To leave. My heart was pounding with emphatic generosities. To leave… I would arrive sleek and youthful in this land of mine and I would say to this land whose loam has



infiltrated into my flesh: “I have wandered for a long time and am returning to the deserted hideousness of your sores”’ (‘Partir. Mon coeur bruissait de générosités emphatiques. Partir... j’arriverais lisse et jeune dans ce pays mien et je dirais à ce pays dont le limon entre dans la composition de ma chair: “J’ai longtemps erré et je reviens vers la hideur désertée de vos plaies”’)). The sequence concludes with a still-frame wide-shot of a herd of cattle moving towards the camera, proceeded first by a cyclist’s upside-down image reflected in the river as it flits left to right across the frame, then, almost immediately afterwards in the same shot, by a punt reflected in the water rowed by a young boy moving right to left and carrying a male passenger (Dramane/Sissako) along with his bike. This short but brilliantly staged sequence – a relay of movements, countermovements and mobile reverse reflections triggered by the quietly dynamic forward-zoom towards the baobab – inspires in turn a sustained process of mirror reflections, mirrorings, reversals and relays that play with, and subvert, specular logic. For just as Dramane/Sissako is always on the move in the film, so, too, all the human figures, animals and objects (carts, bikes, cattle, mopeds), as well as the formal details of colour, sound and gesture, are continually in transit, generating eversurprising and indeterminate patterns, geometric shapes, surfaces, textures and forms. In one early long shot that extends the opening exchange of reflections, Dramane/Sissako cycles into the frame from the bottom and exits it at the top; another female rider, soon to be identified as Nana (Nana Baby playing herself), then crosses the screen from the opposite direction. Finally, a few cows and a herd of goats are witnessed taking over the space as they motion slowly towards the camera.

FIGURE 6.3  Dramane (Abderrahmane Sissako) and Nana (Nana Baby) as two foreigners forever crossing paths in Life on Earth (1998).


All roads in Sokolo cross and converge in its central communal space which becomes a formal commons and connective relational field: the site of a series of distinctive, tableau-like long shots where autonomous stories unfold presenting different sides of everyday village life. Indeed, the film’s style is characterized by a continuous, bidirectional movement of multiple variables, with daily activities intersecting in an endless visual back and forth. Such relentless criss-crossing of the same space creates a series of interwoven narrative vignettes comprising chance encounters and repeated visual motifs – a choreography of movements, day-to-day rituals, events relayed in composed frontal shots, slow, lateral tracking shots, and lingering fixed frames which the characters cross through and exit in what appears an eternal cycle of arrivals and departures. Just as Dramane/ Sissako, rather than attempting to (re)plant himself back in his native habitat, seems always to be passing through the village on his bike, pursuing circuits of haphazard, unarticulated meaning characterized by repetition, fragmentation and juxtaposition, so, too, Nana is constantly pictured en route to her friend Baï in a distant village and likewise forever cycling back and forth. The two interact variously with the village barber (Madlaye Traoré), tailor (Fodia Coulibaly) and photographer (Bourama Coulibaly), their paths touching intermittently at the post office and the local radio station, Radio Colon. Such a splintered narrative evokes a constellatory form through which the spectator can discern multiple, half-formed storylines (Dramane/Sissako’s return, Nana’s journey, their inchoate relationship, the quelea invasion) that overlap and interconnect spasmodically. Diawara notes Sissako’s ‘obsessive relation to framing’ here (Diawara 2015), and indeed the film was judged by some as ideologically suspect on account of its exquisite framing and aestheticizing close-ups. It is also perfectly framed in structural terms, beginning with Sissako writing to his father on the voice-over, and closing in a circular fashion as Dramane/Sissako agrees to take back with him to Paris a letter dictated to him by the tailor to his brother exiled in France. The emerging mosaic of opaque formal patterns is intensified by an expanded depth of field. In one dense composite frame, the visual field reaches far out into the sahel with a lake in the middle distance and figures crossing in a cart with cattle in the foreground. The image is thus never static or contained, and the cut becomes a live agent provoking and stimulating further movement and elliptical shifts in distance and perspective. The viewer moves automatically from one long shot of Nana cycling in the distance to a shot of her still on the bike but now in close-up and at eye level. Such work of intensive editing (by the great Tunisian editor Nadia Ben Rachid), and the at times dizzying processes and rhythms it produces, draw us into a direct, sensuous appreciation of abstract form. Indeed, Life on Earth is framed expressly in terms of desire. Dramane/Sissako talks early on of ‘the desire to film Sokolo, the desire also to leave, as the poet says’, and, in his initial firstperson voice-over letter to his father, he states: ‘I’ll try to film that desire to be with you in Sokolo, far away from my life here’ (my emphasis). He follows this up with a



short passage from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal where he replaces the opening phrase ‘Au sortir de l’Europe’ (‘Leaving Europe’) with ‘Loin de l’Europe’ (‘Far from Europe’) in order to produce the following: ‘Far from Europe all convulsed with screams/ the silent currents of desperation/ leaving timid Europe which picks itself up then proudly overrates itself ’ (‘Loin de l’Europe toute révulsée de cris/ les courants silencieux de la désespérance/ au sortir de l’Europe peureuse qui se reprend et fière/ se surestime/’). Sissako is inviting us here into an aesthetic relation that is at once open, contingent and continually evolving, propelling us into an active spectatorial position similar to that advised by Césaire in another citation from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal heard on the soundtrack. Here, Césaire, decrying the way Westerners make a negative spectacle of Africa, proclaims the need to guard against any ‘sterile’ or passive complacency (‘And above all beware, my body as well as my soul / beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator,/ for life is not a spectacle,/ a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium’) (‘Et surtout mon corps aussi bien que mon âme, gardez-vous de vous croiser les bras en l’attitude stérile du spectateur, car la vie n’est pas un spectacle, car une mer de douleurs n’est pas un proscenium’). The passage ends with the famous words ‘a screaming man is not a dancing bear’ (‘un homme qui crie n’est pas un ours qui danse’). Diawara is again right to suggest that spectatorial pleasure in Sissako’s minimalist aesthetics derives precisely from ‘the play of relating … tableaux to one another and to the filmic text as a whole’ (Diawara 2015). Yet what is experienced in Life on Earth is also the pleasure of tracing and recognizing difference and the nimble play of variation. For instance, every time young men are observed whiling away their time drinking tea, one registers that they have had to reposition their chairs to keep up with the moving shade as the day progresses. It is not just that the film’s status is continually blurred and ambiguously poised between the literary and the filmic, the everyday and the fictional, art and lived experience, documentary and self-dramatization, resulting in an uncertain, unclassifiable hybrid of bio-docufiction. There are also a growing number of structural tensions: between two kinds of radio (Radio Colon, which broadcasts local news and pan-African texts, and Radio France Internationale (RFI) which establishes a connection between Mali and Europe, Africa and Asia, with its French newscasts and interviews across the globe); between the father reading and the son writing; between fiction and biographical truth; between subject and object (Sissako films himself as both Sissako and Dramane34); between insider and outsider, refiguring the binary of the visibility of the native versus invisibility of the migrant (Dramane/Sissako in his hypervisible, colourful African garb proclaiming always he is a ‘foreigner’);35 between African music (including some lyrical pieces by Tunisian oud player and composer, Anouar Brahem) and Western classical (Schubert’s ‘String Quintet in C Major’ is heard briefly); between the earnest, elegiac, sometimes stern personal voice-overs/voice-offs and the freedom and continual surprise of the visual image and its formal compositions; between the patriarchal territory of Sokolo (the land


of Dramane/Sissako’s father) and the bold, fluid, female presence of Nana who appears at times to be Dramane/Sissako’s young double or inverted mirror image, perhaps even his alter ego (they are both foreigners in Sekolo and continually ‘doubling’ each other on their bikes in the French sense of ‘doubler’ (to overtake)). In the case of father and son, where all remains unspoken as if in silent communion, it is the father who holds the letter and whose lips mouth the words he keeps reading and rereading as his son articulates them on the soundtrack. Rather teasingly, no conversation between the two is heard in the film, and they are seen together in only three shots, including two parallel panning shots (first from son to father, then from father to son) and the final extended shot of them walking off together in long shot through the fields. Opening up and extending the gap between what is seen and heard, the idea of the letter becomes, like the photograph in RostovLuanda, an intimate object of continuous relational play in three stages: take one, the returning son recites his letters (the first of which corrects his previous letter sent by an intermediary); take two, his father is photographed reading them; take three, Dramane/Sissako transcribes the letter dictated to him by a villager. In fact, Life on Earth appears at times to be leading us on a merry dance in its chiastic proliferation of letters, as if Sissako were troping on the very status of the film- and video-letter form.36 Hence, an entire set of formal and thematic tensions and contradictions is established and placed in counterpoint at mobile points of intersection. This complex, composite process of migratory settings – an oxymoronic term, for sure, but one, as defined by Sudeep Dasgupta, that articulates a variable, relational and inclusive linking between numerous others37 – elaborates the film’s founding structural relation between ‘here’ and ‘there’ formalized by Dramane/Sissako at the start in his first-person voice-over. France and Mali are necessarily related due to past historic ties and present-day migrations – a connection rendered concrete by the sampling of RFI radio broadcasts, the Western magazines perused by the villagers, the letters that travel between the two continents, and the international phone lines, however uncertain the latter prove. Yet the film does not seek to assert and impose fixed oppositions, but rather to stress similarities and equivalences in a revolving process of rotation. For what we witness in this continual shunting back and forth of reversals and tangential connections is precisely the circulation of desire in a formal game of movements and gazes that will never be fully met or satisfied. Following their initial meeting and chat Dramane/Sissako and Nana always just fail to meet, forever cycling past and across each other in a kind of courting ritual or dance. In fact, the film’s ostensibly casual mode and languorous pace, with anonymous passers-by performing repetitive actions and gestures, belies the fact that it is unceasingly restless. As in Waiting for Happiness and Bamako, this process is maintained right until the end in the final sequence of leave-taking, where, as Dramane/Sissako and his father gravitate slowly towards mid-field in an open frame to converse with each other, their dialogue inaudible, Nana cycles



off with a suitcase on her bike to the neighbouring rural commune of Kourouma which she has been trying to reach by phone. As Diawara notes, this last shot creates for the viewer ambivalent feelings of resilience and melancholy, leading some critics even to suggest that by resisting the charms of the flirtatious Dramane/ Sissako, Nana represents symbolically Africa itself pursuing its own ‘Destiny’. Yet like her namesake in Waiting for Happiness Nana remains elusive to the end, and, much like all the characters she and Dramane/Sissako interact fleetingly with and pass by, her motivations are a source of private mystery.38 Indeed, Life on Earth consistently challenges the viewer to put aside any expectations of narrative or symbolic resolution, positively preventing us from making any fixed or clear assumptions, judgements or final interpretations. Part of the reason, of course, for Nana’s inscrutability, and for why her emotional state cannot be easily fathomed, is linked to the question of photography. Nana does not get photographed in the way she wishes and so is unable to control her own self-representation (she is never photographed smiling or with her headscarf as she requests). The irony here is that the photographer recalls the Malian portrait photographer Seydou Keïta who was always more interested in filming women, and who made it his job to let his female sitters become authors of their own image.39 Does Nana’s always ambiguous (self-)image point to an inner sadness? Perhaps. Yet as Hamblin has well shown, Life on Earth returns to the beginnings of cinema precisely to demonstrate the constructed nature of cinematic representation and, by destabilizing the possibility of transparent communication, highlights the problem of authenticity inherent in the medium at its very inception (Hamblin 2012: 16). Moreover, an effect of endless specularity and reflection is created by the use of frames-within-frames involving Nana, the hairdresser and tailor, as well as by formations of shot/reverse shot. In one emblematic example, Nana is framed by the threshold of the tailor’s shop as he looks out at the photographer who is positioned between two wooden poles. The use of a frame-within-a-frame is also picked up and relayed by the omnipresence of mirrors in the film’s mise en scène, with characters often glimpsed in reflection, resulting in a mise en abyme of representation and circuits of reflection that infinitely reproduce the image and throw into relief the process of representation without a fixed foundation (Hamblin 2012: 16). This process is contagious, for it is not just Nana who is caught up in this subtle and intricate visual cross-flow of reverse angles and reflections. When an older woman is later photographed in the photographer’s booth against a blue screen, the image is not conveyed directly but as a reflection of that shot in the mirror behind the hairdresser who is himself fixing his gaze on Nana crossing the square on her bike (Nana is reflected in the background of the mirror, almost as if she were the woman’s double) (Balseiro 2007: 458). The sequence is set to the breezy beat of an oud tune which only increases its irresistible playfulness. Even more startlingly self-reflexive is the moment when a cross-eyed older man in a cone-shaped hat and sporting rich blue attire is having his picture taken: he


chooses to look at the photographer’s (not Sissako’s) camera, while once again the hairdresser looks on (the viewer glimpses the image seen by the latter since it is reflected in the mirror to his left). We note, too, the moment when Nana, while out on her bike, happens upon Dramane/Sissako shaving in an outside shower behind a mud wall: as they engage in conversation his face is visible in the mirror on the left while Nana is photographed looking over the wall towards him. Hence, we see in the mirror what she is looking at. This chess-board game of intersubjective reflections and refractions will immediately be repeated and doubled with a different cast of characters when Dramane cycles past the same shower and hails a man (Danté) who is washing himself (‘Still here?’). Such elegant crafting of difference and variation, displacement and reversal within the mise en scène, which actively solicits the viewer’s gaze while also decentring it, is further extended by the multiple formal processes of montage creating thematic tensions and cascading flows and counterflows. These confirm Life on Earth as a pre-eminently fluid site of metapoetic passage and mutable forms. The dictation scene, for example, becomes a lengthy and involved sequence of parallel editing. The tailor dictates a letter to Dramane/Sissako who is not shown transcribing it. Instead, we simply hear the words spoken on the soundtrack while a succession of assorted images pass: the tailor at work; the post office with Nana by the phone; men marching through the village; images of rural poverty; the tailor again dictating (‘Dear brother … Just do what you can … I know that living in exile...’). The highly staggered, discontinuous nature of this multilayered sequence is thrown into further relief by the pathos of the continuous, non-diegetic playing of Schubert’s ‘String Quartet’. Yet crucially, all

FIGURE 6.4  Another mise en abyme effect involving Dramane (Abderrahmane Sissako) and Nana (Nana Baby) in Life on Earth (1998).



these elements operating together in relational formation are never entirely lost in the flow of poetic montage but rather held in fertile tension, such that they can always be rediscovered and formally recycled, even reversed. Indeed, the same sound can sometimes accompany different images to create new connections, associations and affinities between different people and activities. At one point we are led sonically from the photographer to the barber and back: we think we hear the sound of the former’s shutter, yet it is actually the sound of the barber’s scissors, images of which are cross-cut into the sequence. Such subtle interplay of sound through editorial cutting not only emphasizes the image as construction, but also reveals that all space visualized and heard in the film straddles the position of the in-between. In short, the multiple components put in play are presented as equally valid and integral, a mark of the ethical potential inherent within montage. If one now steps back for a moment, one can see that the initial migrant zoom of Life on Earth has set in train a continuous rhetorical drive to chiastic reversibility: criss-crossing movements and transfers of sound and image back and forth within and across the same frame, and a network of asymmetrical doublings and mirrorings, deviations, bifurcations, reverse loopings and reversefield images. This continuous, self-reflexive, audiovisual activity and multitraffic of moving matter serves ultimately to trope over the general auditory gulf in the film created by the perpetual suspension of telecommunications in Sokolo where, as we observed in Chapter 4, the channels of knowledge and communication remain unreliable (the village has no electricity or lighting, and the only working phone is run by the postmaster Bina (Keïta Bina Gaoussou) at the post office). Indeed, what Sissako is setting up here is a potentially limitless voyage in form with no natural end-point, such that all elements appear in circulation and mid-flow. The complex, non-linear structure of Life on Earth and its lack of simple establishing shots to fix a set of relations, together with its seemingly lackadaisical accumulation of connections established by mutating and overlapping camera angles, reflections and montage effects – in a word, the film’s refusal to construct a narrative that would restrict Africa to a single, reified definition and interpretation (the film never declares: ‘Here is Sokolo!’) – serves to present African national identity as always in the process of being ‘transnationalised’ (Hamblin 2012: 25). The overall effect is of a continual transmigration of sound and image across and through an ever-inclusive frame, to the point that each image becomes a potential site of border crossing and transfer – that is, a transmigratory space intensified by the carrying over of sound within and across shots. This is a consummate and vitally affirmative aesthetic act, for the symbolic freight of the contemporary migration and homecoming narrative has been flipped over and cleared away for a new poetic approach that dispenses with any notion of an originary ‘Africanness’. Every combination of sound and image


constitutes a kind of micro-crossing and formal drift in lieu of the Grand Voyage of migration, thereby rejecting not only the idea of an essential ‘pure image’, but also any nostalgic notion of origins inspired by a return to one’s native land. In fact, it will soon become clear that what is really at stake in Life on Earth is not one epochal, pan-African or transcontinental odyssey, still less the idea of returning to the source and recovering a Baobab sense of completeness in one’s home village,40 but rather a continually evolving formal process of migrancy, (self-)estrangement and transformation through montage and abstraction – one with the potential to generate a new aesthetic and imagination that figures, as Hamblin neatly puts it, the fluidity of African identity as a transnational construct (Hamblin 2012: 22).41 It is precisely the film’s artistic parti pris that makes it so open and available to the Other: we are always moving formally with it, trans, with every shot constituting in itself a potential new aesthetic threshold. In the absence of explanation and justification, the pleasures of motion, difference, and surprise must, in the first instance, simply be experienced as a free journey into form: the deft, graphic, tactile play and imbrication of light, time, movement and sound, and the visual and sonic textures and vibrations of shade and nuance produced through the ‘unnatural’, transverse, rhetorical linkings of montage. For this reason one may talk here concretely of a migratory film where the image is continually migrating and extending self-reflexively to the Other, and where the frame itself becomes an open borderspace located beyond standard migrant poles and binaries such as centre and margin, visible and invisible. We are all now, characters and spectators alike, in the transmigratory position of migrants crossing the borders of relationality in the filmic present.

Transtextual grafting: Césaire/Sissako/ Fanon The dynamic formal processes of migrancy we have been tracing are taken to a yet further poetic level in Life on Earth, for at the core of the film lies Sissako’s direct and extensive engagement with Césaire and his deployment of a transtextual imaginary. Sissako grafts together and recites on the soundtrack not only key moments and passages from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal about race and identity, exile and homecoming (some of which, as we already seen, form part of Dramane/Sissako’s correspondence to his father heard at the start), but also passages from Césaire’s 1950 essay ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’, read on the soundtrack by the late Senegalese actor and composer James Campbell-Badiane from a copy lent intradiegetically by Dramane/Sissako to the announcer Maïga for the on-air library of Radio Sokolo/Colon. This doubling of reading voices (Sissako and Campbell-Badiane) matches the doubling of announcers on Radio Colon:



the French-speaking Mahamane Maïga and the non-French-speaking announcer Madou Mariko who take it in turns at the microphone. The hybrid, organic, textual process whereby Sissako juxtaposes, blends and customizes selected passages from the two Césaire texts to suit his own purposes is so extensive that every sound and word in the film appears a possible (re)transcription. Closer inspection reveals that Sissako extracts five discrete chunks of varying length from the poem (their order reshuffled) once Césaire has hit his stride with the repeated refrain ‘Au bout du petit matin’ (‘At the end of daybreak’), carefully avoiding those parts of the poem that might out of context prove too inaccessible or abstruse in their lexical singularity.42 By then splicing together different forms and styles of Césaire with his own correspondence to his father, along with the dictated passages from a family head to his brother which are already interbraided with Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and create another kind of chiastic inversion at a structural level (i.e. enveloping the letter read to Dramane/Sissako with a passage from Césaire read aloud by Sissako: ‘And behold here I am come home! / Once more this life hobbling before me, or rather not this life, this death, this death with neither sense nor piety, this death which so pathetically falls short of majesty, the dazzling pettiness of this death, this death hobbling from pettiness to pettiness’ (‘Et voici que je suis venu!/ De nouveau, cette vie clopinante devant moi, non pas cette vie, cette mort, cette mort sans sens ni piété, cette mort où la grandeur piteusement échoue, l’éclatante petitesse de cette mort, cette mort qui clopine de petitesses en petitesses’)), Sissako is rethreading authorially Césaire’s textual weave to create his own – one that is fully inclusive and incorporates the resounding verse of the poet and the humble prose of a villager. The result of this rich multiplicity of protean form and identity is the formation of new kinds of poetic dialogue and intersection between different voices and listeners/receivers, including also the third-person ‘voice’ invoked by Césaire in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Sissako speaks through Dramane who speaks through different kinds of Césaire and father). Textuality thus becomes the film’s primary site of generative cultural cross-transfer, or what I am calling transmigratory play. It would take too long to explore in detail every cited passage from Césaire, but it is important to register the different moods and registers of discourse set in motion, from the directly political and polemical prose essay of ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’, with its stinging invective against a Europe powerless to defend or justify itself, to Césaire’s later, more lyrical poetic verse, the latter ranging from a fiery desire to participate (‘My heart bursting with fire and ardour’) to introspective anger, volcanic eruption, and an occasional guilty counter-urge merely to observe (‘the sterile stance of a spectator’). The key passage heard from ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’ about Africa coming into contact with Europe as it fell into the hands of the captains of industry lacking in scruples emphasizes the significance of global capitalism on African experience and highlights the West’s economic motivations for transnational expansion:


The great historical tragedy of Africa has not been so much that it was too late in making contact with the rest of the world, but the manner in which that contact was brought about; that Europe began to ‘propagate’ at a time when it had fallen into the hands of the most unscrupulous financiers and captains of industry; that it was our misfortune to encounter that particular Europe on our path, and that Europe is responsible under the watch of the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history. (Césaire 1955: 13–14)43 The extreme level of agency demanded by Césaire for personal and universal renewal in the colonial situation is spelt out in a central passage from Cahier d’un retour au pays natal recited later in the film by Sissako (though the final lines of the paragraph in question are noticeably cut): Make me the executor of these lofty deeds/ the time has come to gird my loins like a brave man–/ But in doing so, my heart, preserve me from all hatred/ do not make me into that man of hatred for whom/ I feel only hatred/ for entrenched as I am in this unique race/ you still know my tyrannical love/ you know that it is not from hatred of other races/ that I demand of myself to be the digger for this unique race/ that what I want/ is for universal hunger/ for universal thirst. (Césaire 1956: 124–5)44 The Césaire we hear in this self-styled ‘virile prayer’ is finally envisioning a world where diverse cultures live side by side. Disavowing racial hatred represents an expansion of the particular (‘this unique race’) into universalism and universal humanism, and with it a restoration of Césaire’s now humbled personal narrator in dialogue with his no longer divided self which was the source of so much torment in ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’, especially in the essay’s raw and intensely conflicted view of Europe and European colonial history. And crucially within the contemporary political context of this chapter, if we proceed further with Césaire’s tempestive liturgy where opposites are reconciled such that sowing and reaping, creation and destruction, become as if one, the narrator of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal seeks partial self-transformation into a proud pirogue in an epic journey of self-discovery over a tumultuous sea which he survives despite setbacks and multiple divagations: ‘grant me on this changing ocean/ the tenacity of the proud pirogue/ and its marine vigour’ (‘donnez-moi sur cet océan divers/ l’obstination de la fière pirogue/ et sa vigueur marine’). This culminates in a transfiguration whereby the pirogue becomes a slave ship, but one where the former abject and enslaved (la négraille) break their bonds, stand up tall, and become masters of their own collective destiny. This detail is significant because also included in Life on Earth, but this time formally typewritten as verse on the screen (in white over a background that is not simply black but, in keeping with the film as a whole, an abstract, pictorial composition of greyish black flecked by white specks), is a quote



from another visionary poem by Césaire already encountered in Chapter 2 during our discussion of Bamako: ‘My ear against the ground, I heard Tomorrow pass’ (‘l’oreille collée au sol, j’entendis/ passer Demain’). It is the concluding sentence of the poem ‘Les pur-sang’ (The Thoroughbreds), but here, unlike at the end of Bamako, ‘Demain’ is capitalized as intended by Césaire. Hence, just as Bamako plugs into the prophetic spirit and unstoppable flow of Césarian négritude, so in Life on Earth, with an energy and thrust that belies the film’s gentle observations of daily village life, Sissako draws powerfully on Césaire’s poetic reinvestment of the trope of return to elaborate the stakes of his own temporary homecoming and more permanent existential condition of exile and migrancy. The multivalent concentration of Césaire’s work in Life on Earth attests to his major influence on Sissako who has explained elsewhere that the poet will always be present in his cinema, even if not directly visible, for they share a similar vision of the world, including the idea of building the universal from the particular.45 Like Césaire in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, so Sissako in Life on Earth sets up deep oppositions in order to find some form of unity and formal reconciliation, including that between the very recitation of Césaire and the dictation of the letter at the end. And Césaire is made manifestly concrete in the film, in such a way that we are able to appreciate an even larger transtextual mix in progress. In one meticulously composed frame encompassing father and son, Sissako captures an installation of books on a reading table – a visual hymn to the memory and living legacy of Césaire whom we see photographed as a young man on the cover of a journal lying on the right side. On the other side rest two piles of books on top of which, in the case of the smaller, a cover can be seen – not, significantly, of Cahier d’un retour au pays natal or even ‘Discours sur le colonialisme’, but of Césaire’s last collection of poetry, Moi, laminaire (1991). On top of the larger adjoining pile, just visible, is the cover of a Folio edition of Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961). Other items can also be glimpsed: in the centre-foreground is a black portable radio whose antennae, as Jaji has carefully shown, cut a diagonal line to the upper-left corner of the frame where the image of Fanon is visible at eye level (see Jaji 2014b). Visible, too, is a notebook labelled ‘République du Mali’ and, directly below the Fanon cover, the printout of a manuscript, presumably linked to the film we’re watching, entitled ‘L’homme de Sokolo’ (The man from Sokolo). The manuscript is juxtaposed with a newspaper whose headline summons readers to a debate over ‘Une juste mémoire’ (A just memory), which, as Jaji notes, evokes the debate about collective memory very much alive during the film’s production when the truth and reconciliation processes were taking place in Rwanda. Jaji argues persuasively that with such an assemblage of echoes and associations, Sissako is insisting upon the unfinished business of the colonial past and, due to the particular spatial configuration, suggesting that Sokolo’s citizens remain among ‘the wretched of the earth’ of Fanon’s argument. Certainly, in this concerted relational play of difference and variation around writers and their work, where


any simple duplication of what we hear and what we see is denied, and where what counts is not one specific work (une oeuvre) but the entirety of the author’s work (un oeuvre), ‘the image serves to summon those works outside the film’s frame as interpretive clues’ (Jaji 2014b: 165). Sissako as Dramane is situating himself here within an imaginary of writers in and of exile that extends out centrifugally, forming a textual unconscious according to a dialogical principle of cross-cultural exchange where no one text or individual assumes centre stage. Yet why Fanon exactly? Sissako has remarked that Life on Earth was inspired in part by his reading of the short introduction to Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs, and he later acknowledged at the time of Bamako the longstanding influence of its opening phrase: ‘L’explosion n’aura pas lieu aujourd’hui. Il est trop tôt… ou trop tard’ (The explosion will not take place today. It’s too early… or too late). He claims that he even wished to begin October (Octobre, 1993) with this phrase, due to its supposition that revolutionary action was not appropriate for every period and context, and that, as Fanon adds, ‘certain things’ needed to be quietly said rather than shouted (Sissako 2003: 89). Such words also set the tone for Life on Earth where Sissako situates himself within a tradition and imaginary of black writers in and of exile (Césaire, Fanon). Yet the spatial juxtaposition in the shot of Fanon’s text with the radio also evokes Fanon’s essay ‘This Is the Voice of Algeria’ (from L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne (A dying colonialism) (1959)), with its account of the collective auditory struggle to listen to the pirate radio broadcasts of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). What matters most for Fanon here is the work each dispersed listener must do to reassemble a message by sharing the snippets they catch in conversation with their countrymen and

FIGURE 6.5  A dense, transcultural composition combining Sissako with Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon in Life on Earth (1998).



women: ‘Every Algerian … broadcast and transmitted the new language’, he proclaims. Jaji is surely right when she argues that by celebrating the radio format and prioritizing an active orientation to listening, Life on Earth links directly back to Fanon and his insistence on the urgency of harnessing individual attentive listening to initiate a politically engaged and mutually compassionate community (Jaji 2014b: 167). Part of the function of Life on Earth, which distinguishes precisely between transmission and reception, is clearly to contribute to this transnational exchange by bringing the sounds and images of Sokolo to the West, thereby encouraging a more reciprocal, two-way, transcultural traffic. The disembodied, non-terrestrial and transcultural medium of radio is crucial here, for if connectivity by phone is precarious and rare between Sokolo and the rest of the connected world (obsolete phones remain piled up in the post office), radio sets are everywhere and successfully transmitting, bringing global knowledge directly into the villagers’ lives. Together Radio Sokolo/Colon and RFI span the global and local, showing the dynamic transnational interconnections that help forge African identity. In this way radio provides what Appadurai, writing about the global cultural economy, calls a ‘translocal formation’ (see Appadurai 1996: 27–47). Even the name ‘Radio Colon’, which may seem oddly reactionary in the contemporary postcolonial context, is drawing historically on the meaning of ‘colon’ which, as Jaji notes, referred during the colonial period to a farmer engaged in ‘le colonat partiare’, whereby land was rented by paying the landowner a portion of all crop yields (Jaji 2014b: 167). In Life on Earth Radio Colon, or ‘The Voice of the Ricefields’, reveals itself as a channel of resistance and complaint against a government too indifferent to the plight of shareholder rice farmers to address the avian scourge ahead of the global millennial celebrations. Such willed and far-reaching entanglement with Fanon and Césaire in Life on Earth, which draws from the two independently of each other yet also from the correspondence between them, allows Sissako to speculate on the future (the millennium and after) by actively ‘regressing’ to the pre-postcolonial past and addressing the relationship between African history and the African present. It is crucial for Sissako that both writers spoke about mankind without racial prejudice and with reference to ‘Man’s’ universal dimension and condition (see Sissako 2003: 90). In the conclusion to Peau noire, masques blancs, where Fanon denounces the Manichean divisions of the colonial system and rails against the rigid classification of the ‘negro’ as the inferior and alienated ‘other’ (the colonized is the victim above all of the pernicious image of his identity, a fantasized imago propagated and imposed on him by colonial ideology), a new universal persona is projected. Fanon declares, ‘In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself ’ (Fanon 1968: 163), adding: ‘Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?’ (Fanon 1968: 165). As Jane Hiddleston puts it in her fine account of this text, Fanon is calling here for ‘an embodied, affective ethics of contact, acceptance and recognition, operating


viscerally at the level of the skin’ (Hiddleston 2009: 35), and for self and other ‘to coexist in the world and, in meeting, to perceive one another’s inassimilable difference’ (Hiddleston 2009). Moreover, by proposing a total renewal of the very concept of the human, ‘of endless self-creation as opposed to reification and stasis’ (Hiddleston 2009: 28), Fanon is advancing a new way of cosmopolitan thinking, for the affirmation of the freedom of the self requires the recognition of the other’s ability also to recreate himself freely (Hiddleston 2009: 35). There can therefore ‘be no single set of “black values”, since black identity is inevitably mobile and changeable, and the notion of any kind of black specificity entails a determinism that reduces and glosses that variability’ (Hiddleston 2009: 33–4). Fanon’s fundamental argument and ethics here chimes well with Césaire’s vision of négritude as a dynamic movement of reinvention and creativity – that is, of a new ‘alternative ontology, that refuses to allow Being to attain the mastery and stasis of Totality’ (Hiddleston 2009: 35). If Césaire writes of a return to the native land, this is less a movement backwards towards origin and essence than a dynamic process of self-recreation (Hiddleston 2009: 33). The complex, at times paradoxical, processes described by Fanon in essential accord with Césaire bear a close relation to what we have been witnessing in Life on Earth as a whole, and in other films by Sissako where, like Fanon, Sissako engages with ‘the concrete and everyday to create an altered and renewed form of self-consciousness’ (Hiddleston 2009: 34). Indeed, what Fanon called ‘History’ as defined by colonialism, in which the black man is condemned to an overdetermined and overspecified place (Hiddleston 2009), and which he must therefore move beyond by adapting his consciousness of self and by reimagining himself anew, could be replaced by the term ‘globalization’ in the case of Sissako. For in Life on Earth négritude becomes a dynamic identity shaped as much by Europe as by Africa: it refuses fixity and the stasis of stereotypes, including preconceptions of what a film about a return to the homeland and the father, and more generally about migration, should look like. Yet Sissako also knowingly complicates and disturbs any simple notion of négritude as a privileged path to discovery of an authentic self by deliberately uprooting the image of the baobab as an erect and virile tree, a key metaphor of négritude and moral rectitude for Césaire with its deep roots signalling a ‘natural’, essential identity. Turning such expectations gently yet decisively on their head, Sissako promotes instead a project of permanent self-creation and creativity, destroying the idea of a fixed image or frame (and with it imposed splitting) in favour of a more labile mirroring and proliferation of otherness and difference, most notably with his younger female double and co-cycler, Nana, who is likewise always on the move. For Sissako, the best way to beat uniformity, clichés and norms is ‘diversity’ (Sissako 2003: 89), and Life on Earth duly cultivates a dispersed, collective, transtextual imaginary by linking affirmatively European and African cultures, texts and influences.



In the multiweave of Life on Earth which recycles Césaire (and yet which significantly does not cite those moments where Césaire talks specifically about négritude and seeks to define what it is and is not), négritude is effectively enacted on a textual level as a transtextual and non-essentializing kind of cultural métissage, defined as a mixing process of two or more cultures to which a person who has migrated or travelled can be exposed, and which implies a blending of, or dialogue between, these cultures leading to new hybrid cultural forms (Vanderschelden 2014: 121). This is achieved paradoxically by the power of the voice, for many a vector of authenticity, especially in the African context of oral storytelling griot traditions, yet deployed by Sissako here precisely to contest the familiar narrative and straightjacket of African authenticity. Moreover, the sustained intertextual processes in Life on Earth extend the implications of the film’s ambivalent use of photography which likewise exposes as a pure construction the logic of authenticity that haunts African film. As Hamblin again points out, by directly invoking passport photography the film rethinks national identity as an internationally negotiated and heterogeneous concept which shifts inevitably according to the circulating forces of global capital. Indeed, the cinematic image, rather than marking the recovery of an autochthonous echt-Africanity undermined by colonial ideology, becomes a fundamentally ambiguous signifier capable only of an incomplete referentiality. Such ambiguity bespeaks the transnational foundations of identity, whereby Césaire’s négritude is rewritten without recourse to essentialist foundations or totalizing claims to cultural legitimacy – at once ‘referenced by the image but never closed off within it’ (Hamblin 2012: 27). In Sissako’s final citing of Césaire at the end of the film, the voice-over narration no longer simply applies to one particular set of family relations, but crucially opens out to address the audience as nous in a generalizing of kinship. Again, what is important is the movement of form, for in a kind of return to the abstraction of nature encountered at the start with the baobab zoom, the final sequence includes extreme wide-angle shots of the flocks of birds rising in their hundreds up into the air after being disturbed by farmers on the ground. They appear like black specks in the otherwise empty frame – a reverse of the white specks on black used earlier for the strange background of the concluding line from ‘Les pur-sang’, and thrown into relief by a close-up of one of the small, gregarious, red-billed quelea birds (a bird, we note, that is also nomadic over vast ranges). Hence, even these pesky avian creatures, castigated for most of the film, ultimately form part of its abiding commitment to abstraction. We glimpse now the vastness of the landscape in an almost infinite depth of field – an expression of the all-encompassing beauty of the external world. The stirring, oft-cited, crescendo-like words from Césaire recited by Sissako at this point (the last voice-off heard in the film though not the last words of the poem) are concerned precisely with immanent power and the possibility of beauty for all:


And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny now in its enormous fist and the strength not within us but above us, in a voice that drills through the night and its listeners like the penetrance of an apocalyptic wasp. And the voice complains that for centuries Europe has forcefed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence,/ for it is not true that man’s work is done/ that we have no business being on earth/ that we parasite the world/ that all we need to do is walk in step with the world/ whereas man’s work has only begun/ and man must still overcome all the prohibitions lodged in the recesses of his fervour/ and no race holds a monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength/ and there is room for everyone at the rendez-vous of conquest and we know now that the sun revolves around our land lighting the plot designated by our will alone and that every star falls from sky to earth at our limitless command. (Césaire 1956: 83)46 Yet why does Sissako cite Césaire at his most epic at such length here, and again in such a mild, dead-pan voice? I would argue that the gesture is intentionally ambiguous, and that this final instance of the film’s migratory formal drift serves also to deflate and disperse the transumptive grandiloquence and soaring expansion of Césaire’s poetic might in order to create yet another formal tension between sound and image – one that in this case emphasizes precisely that beauty is available to all races and species and that ‘Man’ does not enjoy an ‘omnipotent command’. It is as if, in the very act of opening up Césaire’s work to the viewer, Sissako were moderating the Poet’s ‘pirogue muscles’ and ‘egotism ... beautiful and bold’ and effectively reinventing Cahier d’un retour au pays natal through his own hybrid, multitextual braiding and equivocally soft vocal style.

FIGURE 6.6  Father and son absorbed by nature: One last decentred image in Life on Earth (1998).



Nana is the last human to leave the frame here, and just as she pedals off in evident pleasure to the tune of Keïta’s ‘Folon’ in an extended long take, moving through the shrub into the far distance and out of our spectatorial vision and grasp, so Sissako deliberately refuses to emulate the vertical, ‘virile’ excesses of metaphor (Césaire: ‘Every star falls from sky to earth at our limitless command’) in favour of the horizontal and universal global flow of sounds and images that go beyond any simple Europe versus Africa binary-split in the style of Césaire and Fanon. Put differently, Sissako replaces the pulsating beats and cadences of Césaire (most obviously the repetition of the structuring refrain ‘Au bout du petit matin’) with the rhythms and folds of cinematic montage that generate forms of equivalence not just metaphorically but also metonymically, and insist on reversibility and the play of variation and difference. Such a revisionary ethos is also embodied intertextually in the lyrics of ‘Folon’ which relate the present – a period when ‘we’ are continually required to ‘speak’ and ‘take part’ – directly to the past, the time of the ancestors, when people did not really talk yet nevertheless lived by their word, were fearless, and avoided acts and things that might dishonour them.47 Like the film as a whole which may appear at times whimsical but discloses a precise intertextual agonistics, so Keïta’s lulling song is not simply nostalgic and remains deliberately ambivalent, inviting us to think about the present but always through and with the past. In so doing it calls for new types of convergence and rendezvous – that is, new sets of mutual relations and dialogue with the Other. Keïta, an albino and great defender of pan-Africanism (‘Keïta’ is a noble name descended from the ancient Mali Empire), seals Sissako’s ‘return’ to Césaire and Fanon and their founding of a new, universal black time and consciousness. The combined cinematic effect of abstraction and framing, transtexuality and formal métissage, thereby enacts a permanent transmigration of form that refashions the politics of diaspora and exile as a universal ethics and poetics of migrant being.

Becoming world We see, then, that if Sissako starts out from a claimed position of exile and diaspora, he is always pushing forwards formally towards a state of migrancy, ever on the border in transit. The open, textual borders and multiple relational modes in Life on Earth extend outwards to the Other of abstraction and textuality through a dispersive movement of transgrafting in a continuous transmigration of form and creative friction, revealing space itself as endlessly migratable and reversible in nature, and beyond any fixed notion of origin and identity, destination or return. The aesthetic instance here is not simply a matter of the visible image as an object to be beholden and retrieved, but also of what is perceived and heard and felt inside, around, underneath and beyond. There would appear to be no limit to this ever-expanding, affective process of relational connectedness and


transmigration of form which continually serves to recast and reproject the idea of both the textual and the transnational. Indeed, the remarkable hybridic lightness of Life on Earth attests to the ‘lightness of imaginary being’ posited by Bersani and Dutoit in Forms of Being, where they suggest that every body has a potentially limitless extensibility in space and time, and that such connections are universally immanent. Although Sissako’s new families of transmigratory form remain within the strict Oedipal binds of heteronormative and patrilinear family narratives, the post-conceptual, post-Baobab aesthetic thinking he elaborates formally in Life on Earth and elsewhere in his work may be likened precisely to Bersani and Dutoit’s transformative relational poetics in the way that it foregrounds the ultimate unreadability of the human and non-human worlds, while emphasizing that what is experienced cinematically is an affirmative process of becoming such that all objects participate in the community of being. For this reason, Life on Earth shares much in common with what I have defined elsewhere in Claire Denis’s groundbreaking work, notably Beau Travail (2000) and The Intruder (L’Intrus, 2004), as a ‘transcinema’ of centrifugal drift and dispersal that relies on the conscious grafting of a pan-aesthetic imaginary and the graphic transformation of physical space into aesthetic form, to the extent that filmic space becomes a multidimensional, transitional experience. Sissako’s approach to cinematic space and subjectivity is similarly fluid and open, and his continuous opening up and criss-crossing of boundaries at every level (material, textual, plastic, spectatorial), along with his restless desire for doubling and relay across multiple spaces and times whereby form and theme are organically intertwined and mutually extended, activates new, versatile modes of perception and thinking about human relations. In both cases, a poetic, resolutely ‘post-subjective’ model of human relationality goes hand in hand with a sensual engagement with the totality of matter and a mobile attentiveness to the postcolonial world which defamiliarizes space (both represented and off-screen) and counters narrative logic and fixed, symbolic and ideological structures (revealed explicitly in Denis’s work as fantasmatic and often lethal). The result of this journey into new and unforeseen thresholds of cinematic being is ultimately to reconceive and regraft the very boundaries of human relationality and kinship.48 Yet in more concrete, practical terms, where does Sissako’s transmigratory aesthetic ultimately lead us at the present juncture? Is it enough to say that transcultural opacity and the beauty of new transmigratory forms constitute in themselves an ethical mode of resistance? Is there indeed any immediate, transitive, political ‘value’ to such an extreme minimalist aesthetics during this intense period of migration crisis, especially when viewed against such socially and politically charged narrative dramas as The Pirogue? In short, can Sissako’s practice of displacement at every level, where the fragmented self is perpetually folded over on to the other in a formal process of continuous (self-)estrangement and (self-)textualization, ever be articulated politically?



We have already acknowledged that Sissako’s work, at least up to Timbuktu, defies any simple attempt to define and determine it in conventional political terms. Yet the underlying ideas and principles of Life on Earth resonate strongly with the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau’s most recent book, Frères migrants (2017), a self-conscious and fully assumed ‘poetic’ intervention in the migrant crisis which makes a powerful plea for open borders and concludes with a rousing minimanifesto entitled ‘Déclaration des poètes’. Directly inspired by Glissant’s ‘poetics of Relation’, in particular the transformative nature of the relational imaginary, and always careful to distinguish between relationality as a mere fact of globalization (la mondialistion) and the idea of Relation as a poetics in the fluid, alchemical world of globality (la mondialité), Chamoiseau argues that ‘migrancies’ are ‘one of the powers of Relation’ (Chamoiseau 2017: 96) and that we are all effectively ‘congenital migrants’ (‘Homo sapiens est aussi et surtout un Homo migrator’ (Chamoiseau 2017: 44)). This is intended as more than just a universal truism of the kind one increasingly encounters in political–philosophical discourse, for example, in the work of Bruno Latour who claims that everyone is becoming a disconnected migrant searching for a new horizon (Latour 2017: 14). It is through migratory fluxes and errantry, Chamoiseau suggests, that one experiences true diversity and ‘living in relation’ (‘le vivre en relation’), for the ‘ecosystem of Relation’ (Chamoiseau 2017: 93) is precisely ‘multi-transcultural’. Indeed, the relational, ethical ‘beauties’ of living celebrated throughout Frères migrants are to be found in a ‘vivre-ensemble multi-trans-culturel’ (Chamoiseau 2017: 91) (original emphasis). Hence, the very possibility of welcome and hospitality towards the migrant other, an imperative in countering neo-liberal ‘barbarism’, depends on a poetics of Relation. Such defiant, public invocation of the beautiful as a mode of political resistance provides an elegant and inspiring counter-response to postcolonial critics like Graham Huggan who worry that the language of resistance is irretrievably entangled, whether one likes it or not, in that of commerce, in the same way that the anti-colonial is continually mired in the neocolonial.49 The essential lines of Chamoiseau’s aesthetic argument for migration as a transcultural process of relationality accord closely with Life on Earth’s hybridic open borders of transmigratory form, suggesting a clear ethical congruence between the two works. To go further in this regard, however, and claim a shared politics of resistance, along with other artistic interventions in migratory politics based on the principles of hybridity,50 again risks working counter to the free, independent and essentially intransitive spirit of Sissako’s ethico-aesthetic project. Yet it is with Chamoiseau’s particular notion of a relational ecosystem firmly in mind that I would like to return to an equally crucial and recurring relational nexus in Sissako’s work, that of his abiding interest in the materiality of the external world. We observed in our discussion of Waiting for Happiness in Chapter 4 how Sissako is not an anthropocentric filmmaker and does not insist anthropomorphically on there always being human presence in the frame to


justify the image’s existence – another way of saying that the fixed borders of the human and non-human are effectively dissolved in Sissako’s work. Let us consider again the very title of Life on Earth, which is printed on-screen immediately after the opening baobab episode, and which announces the universal question of the biosphere as the zone of life (purposely left unspecified as either human or nonhuman). It also alludes to the very real matter of survival in the material world, here the increasingly barren, drought-stricken sahel. A theme continually sounded in the film is the fragility of life, and specifically the permanent risk to the rice crops of the quelea birds and the lack of political resolve in the region to engage with the menace. If the harvest is ruined once again, not only the villagers’ livelihoods but also the very sustainability of the village will be threatened. At one point a farming representative from the neighbouring community of Farabougou is sent to discuss the plague of birds on air. The radio host responds: ‘I have heard what you have to say. We’ll work something out.’ Later, during the extended dictation sequence of parallel editing, one observes the sudden arrival of what are doubtlessly farmers marching upright en masse in silence through the village and brimming with purpose and self-respect, inspired into action perhaps by the seething, tempestuous words of Césaire heard simultaneously on the soundtrack (‘And behold here I am come home!’). What we are witnessing here is, if not the sustained promise of communal, grass-roots action, then at least the potential seeds of political solidarity and a commitment by the villagers to addressing the enormity of the problem facing their environment and lives. It is, of course, in the nature of Life on Earth not to present a clear narrative trajectory or political outcome, and the film’s articulation of a radical gesture remains a long way off from being a concerted environmental project of the kind currently being developed by the African Union in parts of the African sahel to restore degraded land by creating communal gardens (the so-called ‘Great Green Wall’) – a response to both desertification (the effects of drought and climate change to which even the indestructible baobab is not immune) and the attraction of migratory flight for unemployed young men. Yet what counts most at this point in the film, when form is performing at its most auspiciously relational through parallel editing, is the possible link, however tentative, between transtextuality and the ethical potential for transformation, transporting us from the apparently passive act of listening to a shared consciousness of resistance. And in the entrancing, all-inclusive, closing sequence of Life on Earth, which incorporates even the quelea flock as a welcome phenomenon of matter, the human and non-human come together in the frame as a multi-thing of beauty (birds, humans, landscape, language, ‘Folon’). Such acute commitment to the primary oneness of things matches eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s concept of the ‘mesh’ to account for the complex interconnectedness of all living and non-living things – at once intimate, strange, and free of fixed identity – creating ‘infinite connections and infinitesimal differences’ (Morton 2010: 30) and fluid boundaries between the human and



non-human. For Morton, our urgent task is to be possessed by a ‘spectral’ sense of our connectedness to everything on the planet. Or, as he suggestively puts it in Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017), where he draws on the force of Kant’s encounter with beauty as a ‘profoundly ambiguous, non-ego experience’ (Morton 2017: 87): ‘Beauty means being haunted by another entity, which might or might not be me, but this is radically undecidable’ (Morton 2017: 89). The spectral strangeness of the final sequence of Life on Earth invites us finally to consider Sissako’s relational, migrant, aesthetic mode of local and planetary consciousness within the context of the recent work by cultural theorist and philosopher Rosi Braidotti, a long-time thinker of nomadism. In The Posthuman (2013), as well as an important related chapter published the same year entitled ‘“Becoming-world”, Braidotti calls for ‘an act of unfolding of the self onto the world and the enfolding within of the world’ (Braidotti 2013b: 23). This new, intermutual ‘being-together-in-the-world’ and affective interdependence is necessary, she argues, because we find ourselves in the process of becoming humanoid hybrids in a post-anthropocentric shift. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of ‘chaosmosis’ as being-one-with the vital processes of transformation alongside a multiplicity of human and non-human others to the point of ‘becoming animal’,51 Braidotti proposes an ethology of forces that can reconnect humans and animals. This is the theory of ‘zoe’: an impersonal force that moves through our bodies and connects us to the other creatures with whom we share the world – part of the ‘mindless’, elemental vitality of generative Life beyond rational control (i.e. the ‘bios’ representing the political, intelligent, discursive side of life). Braidotti is ultimately positing a monistic ethics of affirmation that exemplifies the rhizome (it is beyond binaries and dualisms like self and other, nature and culture) and assumes new forms of intersubjective relationality. She frames this ‘becomingworld’ in terms of resistance to the superficial planetary flows of global capital and neo-liberal individualism, and it leads her to conceive of a new form of cosmopolitanism that trusts in the powers of diversity and enlists affectivity, memory and the imagination to the crucial task of inventing new figurations and new ways of representing the complex subjects we have become (Braidotti 2013b: 24). In fact, Braidotti’s ‘cosmo-politics’ of affective interdependence and being-together-in-the-word pushes cosmopolitanism, with its core ethical goals of individual autonomy, mutual understanding and tolerance, into what she terms a ‘radical mutation’, since it severs its conceptual attachment to liberal individualism and embraces diversity and the immanence of structural relationality in order to account for the atrocities and structural injustices, as well as many benefits, of panhuman perspectives today. Braidotti makes no explicit mention of the aesthetic in The Posthuman, so rooted is her model in the conceptual and philosophical. Her work thus provides no scope for how the conceptual may also be fundamentally put into question and constructively undermined by the workings of the aesthetic, a central thrust


of this book. Yet Braidotti’s galvanizing argument for a radical redefinition of cosmopolitan relational ethics is highly apposite and valuable for understanding Sissako’s ethico-aesthetic project. Indeed, the cinematic method developed by Sissako in Life on Earth, Waiting for Happiness and Bamako has something profoundly in common with Braidotti’s ethical–political model of planetary interaction as relative estrangement, which likewise harnesses the potential of diversity and relationality, memory and the imagination to resist the ravages of the prevailing neo-liberal system. Her new cosmopolitan self transformed by a ‘becoming-world’ manifests itself radiantly in Sissako’s work where one witnesses a sustained encounter and heteropathic identification with the material world unfolding in a kind of post-individual, relational play of lines, shapes and colours – that is, new types of figuration that reformulate the aesthetic relation at both a formal and intersubjective level directly involving the spectator, and posit new textured, transtextual relations that extend the notion of kinship. In both cases the cosmopolitan subject is reimagined in the nomadic mode of ‘collective assemblages’ (Braidotti 2013b: 20) through a recognition of trans-species solidarity – a nonessentialist brand of vitalism resulting in a redefinition of one’s sense of attachment and connection to a shared world (Braidotti 2013b: 23). This has bounteous resonances, too, with the latest phase of Bersani’s relational project in Thoughts and Things (2015), which takes to a further level his evolving meditation on relational connectedness and the relations that unite us in ‘the oneness of being’ by positing a psychic and cosmic interconnectedness that extends our material, embodied present back to the origins of the universe. Referring to current cosmological theory which establishes mankind’s derivation from stellar atoms and invites us to think of ourselves as extending now into a cosmic past, Bersani argues directly for an affinity between the human mind and the non-human – a recognition of the ‘oneness of being in which the subject never ceases to correspond with, and to, the world’ (Bersani 2015: xii). Fanon, we recall, once dynamically stated (in his introduction to Peau noire, masques blancs): ‘Man is a vibrant YES to cosmic harmonies’ (‘L’homme est un OUI vibrant aux harmonies cosmiques’). Life on Earth, by moving so consummately from the representation of migration to the transmigration of cinematic form, proposes a new ethico-aesthetics of transmigratory being rooted in materiality and relationality and characterized by unbounded migrancy. Such an aesthetic of migrant beauty offers a possible working model for a new kind of aesthetic subject in African cinema that is not defined exclusively in terms of kinship between people, but instead participates in the sliding, shifting and provisional relations possible between humans, non-humans and texts in the form of an ongoing, open hospitality towards the transtextual Other. This suggests ultimately that one way for African cinema to do ethico-aesthetic justice to the unfolding global drama of migration in a rapidly changing biosphere is directly to challenge itself by experimenting radically with the still potent tropes and topoi of migration while



also daring to embark on new, original, desublimating adventures of cinematic form. For the risk otherwise is simply to reproduce the same old story of the journey (and/or return) for the same (old) (white) (Western) (male) spectator in need of some reassuring but increasingly impossible certainties in troubled times. By breaching current disciplinary borders and pursuing fresh, migrant lines of aesthetic flight, African cinema has the chance to cross new thresholds of subjectivity and engaged spectatorship and generate, as Life on Earth thrillingly illustrates, new and liberating ways of ethical thinking, seeing and being.



Moving through and across multiple fields and spaces of theoretical enquiry, from the controlled violence of montage to the archives of the everyday in the afropolis, the plurivocal grain of language, the visible shadows of male togetherness, and the transmigrations of cinematic grafting, this book has revealed the possibility for new kinds of beauty in contemporary African cinema: violent, erotic, relational, abstract, migrant, dissonant, queer, resistant. Beauty forms part of a complex, hybrid, multitudinous process of formal experimentation that takes place in the cinematic present and reclaims reality as a live agent of material and aesthetic being. This is the fluid, organic and contingent work of post-Baobab thinking which both reinvents the vested terms of African film aesthetics and reconceives the nature of the political in cinema. It eludes deep-rooted binaries and universalizing definitions while holding the possibility for ethical and political transformation, inspiring new relationalities and affectivities, new intimacies and eroticisms, new forms of commonality and kinship, and new materialisms and forms of cultural resistance. Despite the occasional reference and comparison, the elephant in the room during our discussions has, of course, been Nollywood. As I was completing the manuscript of this book I was resigning myself to offer, in the line of most studies of African film, a final, sober assessment of the state of African art cinema in the face of Nollywood, to which it is often directly opposed in a strict binary opposition. Francophone West and Central African cinema in particular, where the predominant and most prized mode still remains that of the auteur, remains a world away from the low-cost, genre-bound, Anglophone video films coming hot off the production line of Nollywood and its smaller but equally flourishing equivalents in Ghana and Tanzania. These immensely popular films, with storylines plucked directly from newspaper articles or folklore, promote aspirational narratives of fluid, upwardly mobile identities through the acquisition of money and social status, often in the form of urbane, sophisticated comedies of manners, for example Potato Potahto (2017), by Ghanaian director Shirley Frimpong-Manso, about the

trials of divorcees. Yet while Nollywood certainly fetishizes wealth and glamour over substance and reproduces reactionary and oppressive stereotypes, its very lack of a clear agenda or ideology is also what allows it in the hands of veterans like Tunde Kelani, who specializes in promoting Nigerian culture by adapting literary works (films like Arugbá (2008) and Maami (2011)), to offer strong and compelling images of the continent. Indeed, at its best Nollywood responds directly to important currents in popular discourse and, along with other video film and television production from different countries and sub-regions of SubSaharan Africa, contributes to an important African conversation encompassing different languages and cultural traditions (Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, etc.). In the self-sustaining domestic video market of Nollywood, the spectator is conceptualized as actual rather than desired or utopian: video films are shown in local video clubs, not in cinemas or festivals, and are not generally made for export.1 It is precisely this more direct, free and independent commercial format, operating largely outside traditional systems of circulation and censorship, that also allows such works to get away with far more than is usually possible in conventionally produced feature films. Even one of the great unshowables of African cinema, homosexuality, can find a way to be screened. In the essentially unauthorized video film industry of Tanzania, for instance, an avowedly melodramatic, ‘shocking’ aesthetic has developed that actively transgresses local understandings of Islamic morality and challenges the limits of what can be shown – gay-themed video films such as Hissan Muya’s Shoga (2011) (Friend), which features the director as the main actor in drag.2 Something similar occurs in the Christian context of Nollywood, even though homosexuality is invariably presented in a voyeuristic and explicitly homophobic form as a pathology to be wholly castigated. Schoonover and Galt remark of Nollywood’s ‘homosex cycle’ (one of a series of ‘cycles’ concerned with issues such as incest, adultery, abuse and homicide): ‘Nigerian cinema and its audiences are driven to visualise homosexuality, to give space to it in the public sphere, and yet, at the same time, to deny its existence’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 172). The homophobia in question here has a decidedly nationalist tone, since it is being offered as a counter to globalization figured by the perceived Westerninfluenced cosmopolitanism of the homosexual (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 174). Yet as Schoonover and Galt reveal, although homophobic moral judgement may be the motivation for such representation, the homosex cycle also generates paradoxically a persistent homophilia made public in and around the films, starting with its marketing in posters which veers from presenting gay couples as monsters to highlighting figures in romantic scenarios. Such duality is repeated in the films themselves which speak almost obsessively about the crime of gay sex, yet render fully present and public usually invisible desires, in the process inviting against-the-grain readings. This process is extended by another space of potential homophilic reading practice: online trailers, clips, fan videos and mashups on YouTube and other video sharing platforms, which reflect the broadening


and mainstreaming of queer viewing practices and make visible the instabilities of homophobic popular films (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 179). Official online previews for these films may even be said to anticipate queer readings due to the transcoding and online video sharing of scenes of gay passion and desire divorced from their original homophobic context and ripe for remaking as gay romance stories.3 If Nollywood’s ‘sprawling marketplace of representations’ (McCall 2007: 96) contains within it the possibilities for counter-reading, what is now required, as Gallagher rightly notes, is a concerted, broad, pan-African consciousness in the African media that directly encourages ambivalent representations and even instances of counter-discourse across the entire mediascape (Gallagher 2015: 39).4 This would incorporate not only the rapidly emerging videoscapes of nonAnglophone countries like Ethiopia, but also film festivals like FESPACO which, in 2017, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with renewed optimism by adopting a more embracing and less lofty approach (until quite recently FESPACO even refused to screen films made on video). There is a genuine wish now among the festival organizers to participate directly in contemporary dialogues and debates and play a role in shaping a new, transnational, pan-African media project.5 Yet the question remains: how do, and should, African art directors respond to the particular challenges of Nollywood with its populist narratives and cheap production and distribution? In 2006 Sissako filmed Bamako on both 16 mm and digital video, and, as we have seen, made cinematic form and style a primary site of ethico-aesthetic enquiry into the forces of globalization. With almost all African films now shot on digital video, what might today’s new and emerging directors aspire to? One possible answer is to be found in Alain Gomis’s new film Félicité, winner of the Étalon d’or at the 2017 edition of FESPACO. This is the story of a struggling but self-sufficient single mother and bar singer in Kinshasa (the eponymous Félicité played by Véra Tshanda Beya) whose life is thrown into turmoil when her fourteen-year-old son Samo suffers a serious motorbike accident and requires urgent and expensive medical treatment. A full discussion of this exceptional film of human resilience and hope against all the odds will be for another time, yet Félicité stands out immediately as a fresh and illuminating approach to the afropolis. A tumultuous city of bursting, ragged, dynamic streets where, as the film graphically shows, the memorialization of death is paradoxically omnipresent, Kinshasa is conveyed here from an expressly female perspective. In addition, Félicité takes the notion of the hybrid to new levels, most obviously on a sonic level in its ingenious juxtaposing of the dynamic Congotronics of the celebrated musical collective Kasai Allstars (an intense, electric fusion of indigenous and international rock of spiralling guitars, xylophone and buzzy thumb piano) with repeated (and narratively unexplained) sequences featuring the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (the only black African orchestra in Africa) as they



rehearse and adapt three separate, contemplative pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (including an extract from his 1988 choral work, Seven MagnificatAntiphons). On a visual level, the reportage effect of the live musical performances (blue-tinted for the orchestral scenes) is intermixed with fleet, handheld camera sequences charting Félicité’s daily life and struggle in sharp, often brutally realist, cinéma-vérité fashion (the dazzling work of cinematographer Céline Bozon), as well as short, dark, dream-like interludes or reveries (or are they ‘real’ visions?) of nocturnal strolls by the eponymous protagonist into areas of water and woodland. The latter – long takes featuring the visible grain of celluloid (Super 8 or 16 mm) – evoke a sense of the inner life, or what Richard Brody neatly terms the ‘counterlives of idealistic aspirations, private and public’ (see Brody 2017), with Félicité sustaining her own interior world as a form of resistance to her often desperate battle with a corrupt state medical system lacking any kind of social safety net. One such nighttime interlude even includes an encounter with a solitary okapi (also known as ‘zebra giraffe’) which saunters into an empty dance club – as if we had magically landed in a post-Anthropocene world where the very distinction between human and non-human no longer holds. What is so remarkable about the visualization of the invisible here is that it forms an explicit and integral part of the intensive transtextual play at work throughout the film. A voice-off (Félicité herself, one supposes) recites excerpts from ‘Hymns to the night’ – a series of six lyrical romantic prose poems composed by Novalis in 1800 and interspersed with verse in which he celebrates night, or death, as the entry into a higher life and peace with the universe in the presence of God.

FIGURE 7.1  In afropolitan flux: Félicité (Véra Tshanda Beya) being transported through the working-class districts of Kinshasa to the sounds of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in Félicité (2017).


The result of such experimentation is a rich, symphonic dialogue of formal tensions and relations in a polyphonic patchwork of expanding aesthetic connections and resonances. Gomis talks of ‘loopings’ and ‘mixings’ (Gomis 2017b), acknowledging that such intricate cultural métissage reflects his own mixed-race background (a French mother and part-Senegalese, part-BissauGuinean father). Félicité’s labile intermixing of elements, its strange and beguiling mix of live group performance and intimate personal drama, dream and reality, raw footage and poetic construction, and its evocative inchoateness and seductive lack of completion, mean that interiority is always being pushed centrifugally outwards – this is relationality as exteriority.6 Gomis invokes in interviews the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne whom we encountered earlier in our discussion of language as an open-ended process of translation, specifically Diagne’s concept of ‘lateral universality’ (see Gomis 2016). Certainly, Gomis’s complex engagement with aesthetic form may be said to liberate new modes of being and thinking unconstrained by specular or spectral logic, for the film’s poetics of ‘impurity’ leads to new forms of beauty and kinship beyond male rivalry and antagonism. Félicité’s bibulous handyman and quasi-lover Tabu (Papi Mpaki) proves a genuine friend to her traumatized son, and together the three form a loose, nurturing trio. Indeed, Félicité illustrates with searing force and grace that such mutual, interpersonal (self-)creation is a matter of unfolding mystery and beauty – a gently elaborate process that is potent precisely because it remains suggestive and resists universal definition. Félicité’s absolute commitment to remixing across different fields takes even further Sissako’s transtextual model and transmigratory aesthetic owing to its unusual mode of distribution and exhibition which emulates the entrepreneurial spirit of Nollywood and propels African art cinema into a new kind of cinematic network. I am not talking simply of its enterprising list of international co-producers and sponsors from France, Senegal, the DRC, Gabon, Belgium, Germany, Lebanon and other countries (the stock in trade of contemporary transnational cinema). Nor am I alluding to the accompanying double CD with remixes, or even to the 2017 French DVD by Jour2Fête which includes a generous booklet ‘Sur la route de Félicité’ comprising an interview with Gomis and a series of images entitled ‘Influences Artistiques’ by a range of African artists and photographers who have influenced Gomis’s work or been inspired by it. I am referring rather to the website devoted to the film ( which features a virtual multimedia exhibition and a live, interactive, creative platform called Around Félicité mapping out the film’s artistic and musical references and bringing together the work of photographers capturing Kinshasa. The latter includes fragments of dialogues and sound bites taken from the soundtrack, live music events in collaboration with Crammed Disc records, and a number of remix videos, including one by Mati Diop entitled Félicité RMX, which approaches Félicité as a kind of immediate archive, a strategy similar to that pursued in Mille Soleils. The multifarious



programme of Around Félicité encapsulates Gomis’s declared wish to co-create and share an open ‘territory of encounters’ in a dynamic remixing of the film where everything is mutually embedded. There is no gold to be unearthed here, as in the former aesthetic model of Teshome Gabriel, for all parts of Around Félicité can be instantly accessed, freely and equally, via a dashboard of multiple, drop-down menus, and everything can be potentially recycled and repurposed elsewhere. Gomis may be a consummate auteur, but far from coveting a purist notion of film he opens it up joyfully to new forms of spectatorship and mutual engagement in a continuous transmigration of audiovisual forms and fields.7 By plugging into new formats and circuits that evoke yet also transform the Nollywood model of accessible distribution and exhibition, he is redefining the very nature and limits of African auteurism, and, in the process, dissolving the standard (and increasingly unhelpful) opposition between FESPACO art cinema and Nollywood.8 In short, Félicité embodies, and actively encourages, an ambitious, transcultural, African project of expanding the audiovisual medium and creating new forms of film/video platform and media landscape. This, of course, has long been a feature of gallery installation work where cinema is brought directly into the contemporary gallery. We noted earlier Haroun’s work Ombres, part of the Diaspora exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in 2007–8 which also encompassed a multi-screen work by Bekolo entitled Une Africaine dans l’espace (An African Woman in Space). Other proponents of multimedia installation work include the Nigerian video artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, founder of the ‘alt-Nollywood’ artistic movement which uses the narrative, stylistic and visual conventions of the Nollywood film industry for subversive, politically challenging ends. Visual and plastic artists also operate in this cross-over area of gallery video, including the celebrated Cameroonian Pascale Marthine Tayou and South African Dineo Seshee Bopape. It is the Beninese installation artist Meschac Gaba, however, who best illustrates the dynamic possibilities of bringing together gallery art, film and television and opening up new aesthetic spaces. His mammoth touring Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002, which explores the relations between art, space, the everyday and the archive, works from within a designated social, cultural and economic frame in order precisely to undermine it. Each room of his ‘museum’ (including a ‘draft room’, art and religion room, salon, library, music room, game room, ‘humanist’ space, even a ‘Marriage Room’, museum shop and restaurant) has its own ‘inventory’ of hand-made, found and altered objects. This practice of recycling, reclaiming and remaking the ‘real object’ (including ritual artefacts, charms (grisgris), African and Western photographs, discarded waste objects) into the ‘art object’ is one we have already explored in Chapter 3, during our discussion of the recycling of found materials in the urban spaces of the afropolis. The difference here is that the process takes place in the rarefied space of the international art gallery.9 For Mbembe, Gaba’s project represents an occasion to laugh and celebrate because the museum space is reinvented as an interactive multi-space of serious


social play – between everyday life and art, observation and participation – where all becomes blurred and indistinguishable, and where the relationship between viewer, art object and artist needs continually to be reappraised (see Mbembe 2013c). The obvious risk here – and it is fully acknowledged by Gaba – is that in the process the artist becomes over-complicit with the system, even a symptom of it (Gaba’s Museum was recently acquired by Tate Modern in London). Yet by self-consciously mimicking the channels and pathways of global capital in the international art world (the networks of major public and private galleries, auction houses, art journals, etc.), Gaba’s art also infiltrates the museum space and opens it up culturally to new influences. What is ultimately at stake in his work is the framing of new kinds of African space, for this new museum space – at once temporary and mutable, virtual and real, conceptual and physical – is not intended as a model, but rather as a continually provocative open question (see Greenberg 2013). The far-reaching proliferation of new, hybridic, artistic encounters and remixings across different formats and fields witnessed both in Félicité and in Gaba’s reimagining of the Western museum must be viewed not merely within the context of the recent explosion of African digital arts applying the latest technology, but also, more generally, within the continuing evolution of African visual and plastic arts as both an individual and collective process of cultural resistance.10 By that I am referring not to events and happenings like the first Nigerian pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale or, in the same year, Sotheby’s first auction of African contemporary art. Nor do I have in mind the extensive celebration of African art in Paris in the spring of 2017 when, fresh on the heels of the immense survey Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (July 2015–January 2016), the French capital became the stage for an extraordinary two-part exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation entitled ‘Art/Africa, le nouvel atelier’.11 Such events remain, after all, essentially European affairs of culture. I am thinking instead of new initiatives and ventures in African art conducted on the African continent itself, such as the opening in 2014 of West Africa’s first contemporary art museum, the Fondation Zinsou Museum, in the coastal city of Ouidah in southern Benin. Housed in an ex-slavers’ base (the Villa Ajavon) and consolidating a foundation first established in Cotonou in 2005 by Franco-Beninese businessman Lionel Zinsou, the Fondation Zinsou Museum is committed to preserving African culture and provides major artists like Romuald Hazoumé (a native of Benin) a national and international platform. The publicity blurb reads: ‘Keeping contemporary African art in Africa today is a genuine necessity, as African artists flee the continent, where the market for their work is almost non-existent.’ This is a crucial point, since the familiar story of art in Africa is one of little or no state support or commitment (public galleries are badly managed and maintained, even allowed to rot), and the indigenous market for contemporary art has been virtually non-existent. Although the Fondation Zinsou Museum is open to the public and free, there is, of course, a potential danger that



it may not realize its noble aims, for while safe in the guarded enclosure of the traditional museum (a hallowed space devoted to the sanctity of art), the artworks themselves are effectively removed from the flux of social circulation. The same dilemma is posed by the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), built in Cape Town entirely with private funds provided by the German businessman Jochen Zeitz and opened to the public in September 2017. Designed by the British architect Thomas Heatherwick out of a disused and reconverted grain silo on the city’s waterfront, MOCAA is set to become the largest collection of African art in the world. Time will tell how successful this stupendous, state-of-the-art museum is in creating new and fertile interfaces between African artists and the general public. Yet what it and the Fondation Zinsou Museum already prove, just like the extended adventures of Félicité and Gaba’s roving Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002, is that money and art, media and commerce, come together naturally and affirmatively in African culture. Indeed, as we saw in Bamako, they cannot be dissociated, just as there can be no ‘pure’, untainted art premised on essentialist notions and pretensions of authenticity. Within the now exploded field of African visual cultures, the marketplace offers an accessible frame and incentive for the enterprise of art and aesthetic engagement with global matters – that is, a point around which aesthetic practice can move and ‘deal’ in order to negotiate the political. Cinema in particular is in a prime position to infiltrate this global audiovisual sphere from within by innovating the digital means of production and distribution in a continuously selfredefining poetics of experimentation and participation.12 Another key aspect of Gomis’s Félicité project needs emphasizing: its presentness. Not only does it consciously seek to move to the popular, commercial sphere within African film and visual culture (it is not some esoteric, marginalized event for a chosen few), but also it is firmly committed to the material present and allows the everyday to come into aesthetic view in both human and non-human ways. During one taxi ride through Kinshasa we glimpse the city’s playful, androgynous, giant-sized traffic robots, created by female engineers as part of a pioneering urban scheme to ease congestion and gridlock. They are celebrated ironically by Tabu who riffs on the idea of himself one day bestriding the cosmos, yet the film insists that the future is already here aesthetically on Kinshasa’s streets. There is no need therefore to dream of the stars – utopian art is part of the very fabric of the afropolitan everyday. Indeed, in its defiantly lateral creation of the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of the contemporary present, Félicité is directly opposed to the verticality of prospective Afro-futurism as practised by a filmmaker like Bekolo whose hyperstylized films like The Bloodettes are often set in dystopic futures as a way of critiquing dominant ways of conceiving the African present. Important claims have been made for the radicality of Bekolo’s project which also comprises copious critical writings, including Africa for the Future: Sortir un nouveau monde du cinéma (2009) and Le Jour D’Après (The Next Day) (2015), explicitly celebrating


diversity, mixité, le tout-monde, hospitality and integration. Writing about Le Président, which imagines in documentary style the sudden disappearance of a longstanding head of state (left unnamed but clearly Paul Biya, president of Cameroon for over thirty years), Sanogo argues that ‘Bekolo’s overall desire [is] to have his film bear a transformational effect on historical reality. The centrality of the televisual apparatus, the prolonged use of the direct address mode, and the extended looks at the camera translate this interventionist aesthetics at the heart of the film’s politics’ (Sanogo 2015: 148). It is an unfortunate fact, however, that on its own terms Le Président singularly failed: it was immediately banned when released in Cameroon; hence its anticipated transformational effect on reality was cancelled out. One is left with the strange paradox of a film of aesthetic and political potential that remains eternally suspended in its grand conceptual design and blocked in its hypothesis that state power must disappear in order for new futures for Cameroon and Africa to become a reality. Something similar occurs with Bekolo’s Naked Reality (2016), set 150 years from now in a generic afropolis operated by an immortal race and where human beings are losing their powers of imagination and emotion and becoming obsolete. This is a deliberately mannerist film in gleaming black-and-white, adopting a lotech plastic form but with high-art aesthetic nods to Cocteau (viz. the figure of the Poet trying to write about desire) and laced with a rich, multilayered soundtrack. Naked Reality contrives in its short sixty-two minutes a complex tale about releasing energy by engaging with the past of the ‘DIMSI’ – a familiar African idea about the invisible world of noble ancestors. Wanita, a young woman of the new generation, works to break free her mind and fulfil her mission to bring peace according to her DNA instructions, although nothing is assured. Her final words (the last in the film) are: ‘What do you want?’ – a question that does not suppose an answer. Bekolo has promoted Naked Reality as ‘the cinema of the future’, part of a larger production project of the same name. The short concept blurb on the film’s website, which begins in self-consciously throwaway terms (‘a new science-fiction interactive and collaborative cinema concept where we make feature films with a story as usual but take out certain aspects like sets, music, dialogues, costumes’), concludes more auspiciously: ‘Other artists, filmmakers, writers, are invited to join the filling process of the missing elements, creating a body of work around the film. Making a Naked Reality film is about creating a film that will be used as raw material for artists to interact in a collaborative way.’ Such collective aims resemble those of Around Félicité, yet unlike Gomis Bekolo has not yet succeeded in making collaboration a reality.13 In fact, like so much of his work Naked Reality proves stubbornly remote and abstract – that is, abstracted from the messiness and clamour of contemporary reality – as well as ever-virtual, veering at times towards the supernatural and obscuring reality rather than stripping it down.14 However sophisticated and well-executed, Naked Reality remains essentially a static, universalizing concept in the style of traditional Baobab thinking. Indeed, Bekolo’s



engagement with alternative realities appears less a radical and progressive artistic manifesto than the hermetic handiwork of a self-styled shaman or ‘trickster’ of African cinema.15 Bekolo’s academic and rather hollow brand of Afro-futurism has none of the coherency and relevance of some other proponents of Afro-futurism working in different fields, such as the Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr. Sarr’s important and influential essay entitled Afrotopia (2016) attempts to give concrete expression to a future Africa finally freed intellectually from the colonial mind and imagination, yet still fully engaged with African tradition not conceived as a synonym of backwardness or refusal to change. Recognizing that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, Sarr calls for an ‘Afrocontemporanéité’ that resists both nostalgia for a mythical past and pure awe at technological progress and modernity. Unlike Bekolo who in Naked Reality fantasizes flying off straightaway into the future, for Sarr the utopia of ‘Afrotopia’ is rather its topos, that is, an African place, not a copy of the global North, which can – and surely will – appear because there is a continuity between the real and the possible. This is a realistic plea for time pursued in a project of longue durée and implanted in the material present (see Sarr 2016). Such acute reflection on the different types of societies Africans wish to build, and on the type of values that should be placed at the heart of these societies, remains a delicate balancing act – one that is also not immune to the dangers of essentialism (Sarr talks of the need for Africa to be as ‘unique’ and ‘true to itself ’ as it can be).16 What Gomis, Gaba and Sarr emphasize and exemplify in their different ways is that concrete manifestations of the afropolitan present are more urgent and visionary than ideal projections of African futurity, and that new Africas are effectively possible now. Rather than attempting somehow to anticipate the future, African filmmakers and artists have everything to gain from realizing the potential that already exists in the material present – this according to the vital principle of entelechy that guides the development and functioning of living organisms. If films, like other forms of visual art and culture currently produced in Africa, are to be regarded as acts of cultural and political resistance, it is because, as we have consistently seen throughout this study, they serve continually to interrogate the ethical and political terms and conditions of art and beauty, even of resistance itself. The prospect of a new, post-postcolonial African imaginary – one that entertains doubt and uncertainty as well as ambivalence and impurity – is also one of radical beauty in continuous transition: the flowering and diffusion of new spaces and branches, new borders and thresholds, new fusions and admixtures, new kinds of dialogue and exchange, proposed in the luminous form of an open, shared, aesthetic challenge.



Chapter 1 1 This tradition also included the committed ‘ethnofictions’ of Jean Rouch produced in

French West Africa (notably Niger) during the 1940s and 1950s. Rouch claimed to be doing ‘shared anthropology’ and ethnography in reverse, yet he stood accused by certain African directors of turning Africans into insects. For excellent accounts of the evolution and politics of colonial ethnographic cinema, see Slavin 2001 and Bloom 2008.

2 Sembene and his contemporaries viewed ‘straight’ documentary as a minor form,

often invisible in a director’s filmography, even though almost all practised it during the course of their careers – it was something to cut one’s teeth on in advance of the real business of politically engaged narrative cinema. The documentaries in question, commissioned by the state and relatively cheap to produce, sought to foreground sociocultural realities for the citizens of the new nation, yet they were essentially compromised by the official discourse of ‘development’, resulting in formulaic exercises in ideological self-congratulation (long takes alternating with close-ups of interviewees, voice-over commentaries providing the necessary information for reading the images). This is not to say, of course, that documentaries were not produced in the first decades following independence. Sembene’s own first film was L’Empire Songhay (1962), a 16 mm short about the history of the Songhai Empire produced by the government of the Republic of Mali, although it is not clear whether the film was actually completed. Such uncertainty characterizes the other documentaries (at least five) made by Sembene during his career that have resurfaced since his death in 2007. For a solid introduction to Sembene’s project, see Murphy 2002 and the recent wide-ranging collection of essays in Cole and Diop 2016. See also the fine 2015 documentary Sembene! by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman. In choosing here to render the name Sembene without the French accent, I am respecting his own preference.

3 Calabash is the name of an evergreen tropical tree which bears fruit in the form of

large woody gourds, the dried and hollowed-out shells of which can serve as water containers or even tobacco pipes and other objects.

4 For an interesting discussion of this film in terms of the betrayal of independence,

see Gugler 2003: 147–54. For a general account of Gomes’s work, see Adesokan 2011 which emphasizes that the idea of national cinema (here Guinea-Bissau) and Gomes’s political identification with his country remain central in his work. Gomes, Adesokan

claims, is exploring how the agenda of a nationalist cinema may coexist with the transnational imaginary integral to global capital. 5 A mature baobab tree may create its own ecosystem since it supports the life of

countless creatures, not only humans. If burnt or stripped of its bark, it will form new bark and carry on growing. When it does perish, however, it rots from the inside and suddenly collapses, leaving a heap of fibres. For an account of the symbolism of the baobab in West African literature, see Thompson 2003.

6 Keïta! Voice of the griot (Keïta! L’Héritage du griot, 1995) by Burkinabe director Dani

Kouyaté, for example, a retelling of the first third of the thirteenth-century epic Sundjata, announces its connection to the griot oral tradition where the griot serves as a ‘fabulator’ who brings past and possible worlds into coexistence with a present whose ‘reality’ is greatly reduced (Andrew 2000: 236–7). Another key example of calabash cinema is Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s comedy drama The Tyrant (Guimba, 1995), in Bambara with some Fula components. The span of dates of calabash films emphasizes that this tendency in West African cinema represents more a stylistic shift than a generational break. Cissé, for instance, made a conscious decision to make films in the calabash mould in order to attract a domestic audience not guaranteed by his more explicitly political, contemporary works like The Wind (Finye, 1982), however well received critically.

7 Cited in Chernoff 1979: 23. 8 Ferme makes the additional point that within the violence, history and the everyday

in the contemporary landscapes of Sierra Leone with its recent violent and political legacy (including the civil war or ‘war of theft’ that began in 1991), which has resulted in a cultural order of dissimulation, the use of ambiguity has been more productive than the pursuit of social ideals and transparency.

9 For different influential overviews of the evolution of sub-Saharan African cinema, see

Andrew 2000, Gugler 2003, Armes 2006, Murphy 2012, Murphy and Bisschoff 2014, Harrow 1999, Harrow 2007, Frindéthié 2009, Barlet 2000 and 2012b, Givanni 2000, Thackway 2003, Lelièvre 2003, Armes 2006, Murphy and Williams 2007 (includes introductory chapters on Bekolo, Gomes and Ouedraogo, as well as Sembene and Mambety), Rosen 2010, Dovey 2009, Diawara 2010, Tcheuyap 2011, Sawadogo 2013 and Prabhu 2014. For important secondary material on specific national traditions within African cinema, see, for example, Turégano 2004 (on Burkina Faso), Tcheuyap 2005 (on Cameroon) and Pfaff 2010 (on Senegal).

10 Niang, for instance, seeks to reinstate Mambety’s early hybrid shorts like Badou Boy

(1970), a parody of the gangster genre depicting a young cowboy-style hustler, and the more populist work produced in the 1960s and 1970s influenced by Euro-American traditions, for example, that of Moustapha Alassane, Tidiane Aw, Daniel Kamwa, and Alphonse Béni – a list that overlaps with the ‘lost classics’ of African cinema proposed by David Murphy and Lizelle Bisschoff in their archaeology and new genealogies of African filmmaking. See Murphy and Bisschoff 2014.

11 See Tchouaffe 2015: 91–104. Among other significant accounts of this film, see

Harrow 2007: 140–62 and Fisher 2014a.

12 For an informative background to the evolution of African documentary cinema,

see Ukadike 2013. Although West and Central African documentary does not enjoy the type of internal support system found in South Africa with national bodies like the Documentary Filmmakers Association, one can speak justifiably of a burgeoning


documentary community in the region. A large, free, documentary film festival takes place every November in Saint-Louis in Senegal under the umbrella of ‘Africadoc’, a programme founded in 2002 by the Ardèche Images association in Lussas in France (home of the États Généraux du Film Documentaire festival) which now has roots in a number of African countries (including Benin, Burkina Faso and Cameroon), all with the express aim of encouraging documentary production in Africa. In the month before the festival an annual meeting and training programme for scriptwriters takes place in Saint-Louis called ‘Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire Africain’ (or ‘Rencontres Tënk’), an impressive screening platform for tens of young African documentary filmmakers to present their projects to potential partners from France, Morocco and Belgium (up to twenty films are now produced in this way per year). 13 Other key works by Teno include Chef! (1999), about human rights, sexual equality

and the arbitrary nature of Cameroonian justice, Africa, I Will Fleece You (Afrique, je te plumerai, 1992), a critique of press censorship and government-controlled publishing in Cameroon, and The Colonial Misunderstanding (Le malentendu colonial, 2004), about the role of nineteenth-century German missionaries in the colonial conquest of Africa. These are all very male-oriented films, yet his most recent work, Une feuille dans le vent (A leaf in the wind) (2014), where Ernestine Ouandié talks at length about her militant father Ernest Ouandié, a hero of the independence period executed in 1971, is from an expressly female perspective. See Prabhu 2014: 184–215 for a fine introduction to Teno’s project, and Izzo 2015 for an up-to-date account of Teno’s documentary aesthetics in terms of ‘cinematic kinship’.

14 See Ellerson 2015 for an excellent account of this important emerging tradition. 15 For example, as president of Fonds Sud Cinéma, a major funding body in France

for films emanating from Africa, South America and Asia, Haroun is a key player in both African and French cinema and has campaigned successfully for the Chadian government to create a film school of international standard in N’Djamena. He has also played a major role in restoring cinemas in Chad, notably the historic Le Normandie in N’Djamena, run since 2011 by fellow Chadian filmmaker, Issa Serge Coelo. Sissako, meanwhile, is a producer of African films, including of a number of features by Haroun, and his project ‘Cinemas for Africa’ is dedicated to the renovation of aged and disbanded film halls across Africa.

16 Cited in Gabara 2016: 48. 17 Gabara 2016: 47–8. 18 For Glissant, ‘Relation’ is to be understood in all senses (telling, listening, connecting,

and the parallel consciousness of self and surroundings). He defines the ‘poetics of relation’ as both aesthetic and political – a transformative mode of history capable of enunciating and making concrete a French-Caribbean creole reality with a selfdefined past and future while also transforming mentalities. See Glissant 1997.

19 As Niang has well shown, Mambety paid a heavy price for his maverick status within the

African film industry, for his utterly original and idiosyncratic style clashed with the kind of social realist cinema and overtly political, allegorical narratives produced by Sembene and others that was promoted during the first decades after Senegal’s independence by the African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI). Ideologically out of favour, Mambety could not secure major funding and tragically made only one more feature film many years later, Hyenas (Hyènes, 1992), a damning indictment of neoliberalism and consumerism, as well as a small handful of brilliant shorts. See Niang 2014.


20 While funding ensures access to film infrastructure and the festival circuit, it

comes with multiple catches and conditions, including the demand that to be both recognizable and legible for a European audience in the international market, African art cinema must also deal in some way with the pain and misery of the continent – the undeclared genre of, crudely put, poverty porn. The enmeshed relations between art, money and politics in African film culture can be traced back to the immediate post-independence period when French support ensured that Francophone countries were responsible for 80 per cent of all films made in Africa up to the mid-1980s. See Barlet 2000 for a compact account of the common trials and tribulations of funding and production faced by African filmmakers, brought up-to-date specifically with regard to French funding and its continuing ambivalences in Barlet 2012a.

21 See Diawara 2000. The popularity of a film with an African audience will depend,

by contrast, on factors such as the perceived cultural similarities between itself and the filmmaker, the choice of language used, and whether the film deals with issues of urban life. Nevertheless, African audiences still prefer local productions whenever available. Numbers show that popular productions win out over auteur productions, which are seen as too intellectual or too much of a social statement.

22 See De Groof 2012, Langford 2013 and Fisher 2014a for informed analysis of

Aristotle’s Plot.

23 See Barlet 2012a, Genova 2013, Saul and Austen 2010 (an important volume that

includes chapters on Nollywood, Ghanaian popular video movies, and the evolution of Francophone African Cinema and FESPACO in the light of Nollywood), and Garritano 2013. For an up-to-date account of Nollywood and its star system, see Tsika 2015. See also Burgin 2011 for an important study of how funding issues, as well as the transnational context in which African cinema is produced and circulates, shape the forms and styles of African art cinema like that of Sissako. Burgin argues with particular reference to Waiting for Happiness, an ARTE co-production, that Sissako’s work is directly affected by the cultural and economic stronghold of a Franco-Parisian centre and its cultural diversity agenda.

24 Barlet is a delegate for Africa at Cannes Critics Week, a correspondent for Africultures,

editor of the series ‘Images Plurielles’ at L’Harmattan, and long-time member of the African Federation of film critics through the French Afrimages association.

25 In the same dossier, which includes a customary trawl through five decades of African

film, Barlet proposes seven broad and far from fully defining strategies in current African cinema – ‘paths which these filmmakers choose today in order to bear witness to their multiracial, multicultural Africas, to the Africas in the making, those here and there, those they live and try to interpret in their own art’ (Barlet 2010a: 70). These strategies, a response to Western audiences’ demands for authenticity in the form of exoticism (African films must be made on location) and reality (African films must show the continent in states of disintegration) (Barlet 2010a: 67), include depicting the rich complexity of stories, moving decisively beyond autochthonism, capturing the present, focusing on the intimate to disorient and challenge perceptions, privileging similarity over singularity, working self-consciously around themes of memory, and returning in new ways to the tenets of orality, for instance, by maintaining the illusion of the presence of an audience (evoked, for example, by the double gaze of the video camera in Haroun’s Bye Bye Africa).

26 Cited in Petty and Stefanson 2014: 6.


27 Sanogo talks of the changes in filmmaking in the light of Nollywood as well as of

the short-lived private funding agency ‘Africa First’, a genuinely innovative project creating links between African cinema and Hollywood. He adds that the booming video film industry of Nollywood was ‘in part a response to the absence of the state … both in terms of film policy and in terms of its inability to guarantee the personal safety of potential theatregoers. … There was arguably never a complete or fully cooperative presence of the state in the cinema in most countries in Africa’ (Sanogo 2015: 144). Sanogo adds that in some cases the state was involved in the production of films through the establishment of a fund disbursed to selected projects submitted to various national film commissions (the case of Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali). It was also sometimes involved in supporting regional and continental institutions like FEPACI (including Burkina Faso) and festivals like FESPACO and the Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (JCC) (in Burkina Faso and Tunisia respectively), yet the possibilities of state intervention in cinema across Africa in the 1980s and 1990s (and 2000s) were severely curtailed. In Mali in 1990, for example, the big financial institutions forbade the government from subsidizing culture and forced the state to sell off cinemas, with the result that there are now only a small handful (as opposed to forty previously), while the devaluation of the West African CFA franc in 1994 meant that the film exhibition industry became even more untenable since ticket prices had to be raised. In Burkina Faso, the state’s divestment from the field of culture has resulted in a decline in theatrical attendance and thus of national film policy (Sanogo 2015: 145). The ubiquitous process of privatization, Sanogo rightly claims, abets the conversion of cinemas into shops and supermarkets, as well as churches and mosques with the rise of religion. However, Sanogo argues positively that despite its economic fragility, infrastructural challenges, and putative invisibility with audiences, the auteurist tradition remains vibrant and full of promise, citing a potential return of the state in the business of film auteurism, notably in the case of Morocco which now has arguably the highest number of film festivals on the continent, and, with the creation of the state-funded Centre Cinématographique Marocain, has championed co-productions across the continent. More generally across the continent there has been a call in recent years for what Sanogo terms a critical re-examination of the role of the state in the cinema, including the taxation of mobile phone, internet and satellite television services to fund filmmaking.

28 We note that Mbembe is himself the subject of aesthetic debate, for his work, notably

On the Postcolony and its various versions and iterations (including the 1992 article ‘Notes provisoires sur la postcolonie’), straddles, as Cécile Bishop has shown, the borders between social science and aesthetics, or, better, between the aesthetic and the conceptual, creating a complex and fertile set of epistemological uncertainties and ‘disorder’. See Bishop 2014: 79–104.

29 Malaquais argues powerfully that beauty in Africa in the post-independence period

has for too long been synonymous with moral and ethical ideals of order promoted during the colonial era, with its clear-cut, invented distinctions between the formal and informal, use and refuse, art and junk. Heavily influenced by the high modernism of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, African art took for granted the idea of the object’s primacy and the central role of the individual as subject and creator, propelled by the need for boundaries between disciplines, genres, analytical and formal languages, the existence of absolutes, the artist’s creative genius, and the universal nature of beauty. For African artists who aspired to such modernism, it was a process of aesthetics as refinement. Yet as Malaquais persuasively shows, in Douala and elsewhere in Africa


beauty is now becoming radically decentred and contingent (Malaquais 2006: 155) by means of an implicit critique of the very way the North usually engages with Africa (i.e. from the perspective of a traditional art celebrated for formal perfection). 30 Notable works include Donoghue 2003, Hickey 2012, Beckley and Shapiro 1998,

Scarry 1998, Steiner 2001, and Eco 2015 and 2007.

31 The first sub-Saharan African film – the twenty-one minute short Afrique-sur-Seine

made by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra made in Paris in 1955 about the experience of African immigrants in France (he had been denied authorization to shoot in the colonies) – was also concerned with beauty and its opposites. Produced under the patronage of the Comité du film ethnographique du Musée de l’Homme, this unique and pioneering film was gently subversive with its inclusion of a mixed-race couple, reconstructed scenes, juxtapositions of wealthy black students and African beggars, and a voice-over ironically referring to the French colonial assimilation policy (phrases like ‘s’assemble, s’assimile’ (assembles, assimilates)). It opened up important debate about the issues of racism and employment discrimination while seeming to respect colonial rules. Its particular method of mixing documentary and fiction through the use of mise en scène (narrative events are imagined) and mise en situation (the shooting of real people experiencing real-life situations in a natural setting, though its star Marpessa Dawn was, in fact, an African-American actress) would be taken up and developed by subsequent directors.

32 See, for example, Thackway 2003: 147–78 for a comprehensive overview of women in

African cinema, both as represented on screen and as directors creating new images of women (the ‘female gaze’), with particular reference to Nacro, Folly and Faye. See also Ellerson 2000 and 2017, and the excellent special issue of Journal of African Cinemas (2012) 4:2 on the topic. Finally, see Ellerson’s blog for the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema entitled African Women in Cinema/Blog sur les Femmes Africaines: http:​//afr​icanw​omeni​ncine​​ogspo​​uk/20​17/05​/afri​can-w​ omen-​les-f​emmes​-afri​caine​s-au.​html.

33 When citing material I refer to the original films, texts and screenplays, and all

translations from the original French are my own unless otherwise stated.

Chapter 2 1 See, for example, Mhando and Tomaselli 2009, a comparative study of the role of

film in trauma mediation – as cure, shock treatment, witnessing – and as individual/ communal reconciliation in mainly Anglophone or Lusophone Southern African truth and reconciliation films, and Bisschoff and Van de Peer 2013: 3–25, a general introduction to representing the ‘unrepresentable’ of trauma in African art and trauma. See also Hoenig 2014 about visualizing trauma in the enduring context of the colonial museum.

2 Rwafa and Mushore explore the expression of violence through both visual and verbal

representations of HIV and AIDS in the Zimbabwean fiction film Musinsimuke (2001) by Elizabeth Markham, arguing that extreme cinematic representations of disease bodies gloss over the realities and methods of preventing HIV and AIDS. They also conceptualize the violence of representation as metaphorically depicting Zimbabwe as a contaminated nation.


3 The concern with violence in its systemic forms is clear, Mboti argues, in the earliest

films from the continent to the later ones, and he provides a useful wide-ranging summary. Sembene’s Black Girl, for instance, shows the violence of alienation and ‘deprivation’ in the life of a Senegalese maid in France, just as Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s short film Afrique-sur-Seine (1955), often considered the first film directed by a black African, explores the violence inherent in the idea of being an African in France. For Mboti, the concern with appreciating the nature of systemic violence continues from these early decades of African filmmaking to later films such as Mweze Ngangura’s Pièces d’Identité (Identity papers) (1998) where Mani Kongo’s (Gérard Essomba) search for his daughter is anchored in the violence of Belgian colonization, reflected in the use of monochromatic archival footage to punctuate the present. The violence in Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) (co-directed by Thierno Faty Sow) is not so much the massacre by the French military of the defenceless black soldiers as the complete inhumanity underlying it. This is why, according to Mboti, Sembene and Sow sought to show the everyday human simplicity as well as quiet intelligence of Sadiki Bakaba’s character, in contrast to the genocidal aloofness of the French. In other words, violence in its physical form is neither the film’s preoccupation, nor its focus, merely a ‘surplus’. The concern here is the whole structural system of which the massacre is merely a reproduced fragment. This mode of showing violence is in contrast to most Hollywood action films and thrillers which centre on reproducing violence on screen as a suturing mode for purposes of titillation. In Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972), Maria’s (Elisa Andrade) traumatic search for her husband, Domingos Xavier (Domingos de Oliveira), from jail to jail, treats violence through the metaphors of search and prison. The shots of Maria with baby Bastido on her back, or the prisoners bathing in blood from Domingos’s body, are substitutes for physical violence. The drought in Mortu Nega (Death denied) (1988) is Flora Gomes’s parabolic comment about the violence of colonialism, the violence that sought to end colonialism and the violence of the present and future of postcolonial and neocolonial Africa. Violence in Kaboré’s God’s Gift is manifest in Wênd Kûuni’s loss of speech and muteness, while the violence in Xala is largely allegorical. Mambety’s Hyenas (Hyènes, 1992), which Mboti terms a ‘parabolic adaptation of a parable’ dealing with the tragi-comic violence of neocolonialism, culminates in a sequence of collective ritual violence and sacrifice which devours the scapegoat Dramaan Drameh like a pack of hyenas leaving nothing but his clothes. The townspeople, all dressed in old rice bags and humming as they move towards him, obstruct from view the act of killing; it is only as they disperse that we see Dramaan’s heap of clothes and the absence of his body. This fact provides Mboti with a template for the suggestion rather than demonstration of extreme violence, and he claims that it forms part of a cinematic tradition within which Sissako’s Bamako also stands.

4 In Les Damnés de la terre (1961) Frantz Fanon argued that the only way to overthrow

colonial violence was through violent armed struggle and resistance – anything less constituted acquiescence. The revolutionary drama of decolonization and national liberation was presented and idealized by Fanon as a pure, spontaneous, mass action that would result in the rebirth of ‘the whole man’ denied by colonization. In a key lecture delivered in 2003 entitled ‘The African Experience in Politics and Culture: From Monroe’s Doctrine to Nkrumah’s Consciencism’ (http:​//www​.cccb​.org/​rcs_g​ene/ a​li_ma​zrui.​pdf), the influential African Studies scholar Ali Mazrui stated that the postcolonial state in Africa is subject to two pulls, both of which are negative. The first is the ‘pull of tyranny’ which entails ‘centralised violence’. The second is the ‘pull of


anarchy’ which involves ‘decentralised violence’. Furthermore, these pulls are marked characteristics of fragile institutions inherited from the colonial era. See Mboti 2014. 5 Chaudhuri rightly argues that when, in the representation of barbarity, we interpret

solely through the paradigm of trauma, we lose an analysis of why such events happened and their legacy on present-day forms of oppression. Moreover, the inward focus on individual traumatized subjectivity or the inherited trauma of a particular group can obfuscate the political context (she cites the example of Ari Folman’s animated film Waltz with Bashir (2009)). See Chaudhuri 2014: 181.

6 See ‘Narrativity and violence’ in Bersani and Dutoit 1983: 40–56. Bersani and Dutoit

formalize two modes of attention: a narrative vision which organizes forms into the elements of a story, and a more agitated, erratic vision which substitutes related and perpetually shifting bits and pieces for the static integrity and wholeness of being in narrative forms. The constant visual mobility required is such that the spectator is always moving between two forms with a residual impression of the first form and in anticipation of the second. This leads Bersani and Dutoit to propose a desiring fantasy understood as ‘the dislocation of non-narrative representation’, for in establishing continuously dismissed and displaced relational terms, the viewer of the Assyrian palace reliefs experiences a pleasure akin to the always necessarily incomplete pleasures of desire. Such aesthetic pleasure, brought about not by aesthetic objects but by the spaces between their constituent parts, may be defined as an agitated crossing of the intervals which separate forms, offering ultimately what Bersani and Dutoit call persuasively ‘a lesson in interstitial sensuality’.

7 Other notable examples include Sembene’s Ceddo (1977), a film about the violent

takeover of Senegal by Islam in the seventeenth century that was banned in the country for eight years. The tradition has been continued more recently by Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Anger of the Gods (La Colère des dieux, 2003). Compare these serious historical epic dramas with the fake, airbrushed mock-epic Soleils (Suns), a big-budget French/Burkinabe production directed by Olivier Delayahe and Dani Kouyaté that, in the form of an allegorical road movie, traces African history whimsically, taking in the ‘suns’ or icons of African literature, folklore and politics. Sotigui, a wise griot entrusted to cure a young girl Dokamsia of amnesia, informs her and the viewer of the full sweep of African history, from the thirteenth-century Mandingo Empire to the cells of Robben Island.

8 Based on the 2003 book Wade, un opposant au pouvoir: l’alternance piégée by the

journalist Abdou Latif Coulibaly, And if Latif was right! examines the state conspiracy around the assassination in 1993 of the prominent politician and lawyer Babacar Sèye, president of Senegal’s Constitutional Council.

9 See Nganang 2005 which considers Teno’s work expressly in the context of Hannah

Arendt’s thinking on power and violence, including the aesthetic meaning of violence.

10 Dilemme au féminin was promptly attacked by Muslim leaders for its explicitness

– see Thackway 2003: 157. There is an emerging genre of documentaries on gynaecological injury. Femmes, entièrement femmes (Women, entirely women) (2014), a French/Malian documentary comprising individual testimonies directed by Dani Kouyaté and Philippe Baqué about a new procedure created by a French urologist to restore surgically the clitoris and for the first time available in Burkina Faso, though societal taboos make it hard for women to benefit from it. Femmes aux yeux ouverts (Women with eyes open) (1994), by the Togolese director and


international lawyer Anne-Laure Folly and Kadidia Sanogo, deals in a direct, relatively conventional way with women’s issues and the female condition over which women are still given little voice over (female excision, HIV/AIDS, domestic abuse, forced marriage, survival, economics, politics). This film records women from Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal discussing their lives (the opening sequence has a young woman staring into the camera and reciting the poem ‘A good woman should obey her husband at all times,/ A good woman should not know how to read/A good woman’s eyes should not be open’). Folly highlights the paradox whereby women have great responsibility for the survival and welfare of their families but are given little voice in major decisions. See also Senegalese director Moussa Touré’s documentary Nous sommes nombreuses (We are many women) (2003) about the effects of civil war in the Republic of the Congo between 1997 and 1999 on women like Lydie who talk about their experiences of being physically raped. Contrast these various films committed to giving women a voice and control over their bodies with the representation of the Congolese gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege in the Belgian documentary The Man who mends women: The wrath of Hippocrates (L’Homme qui répare les femmes: La colère d’Hippocrate, 2014) by Thierry Michel and Colette Braeckman, where the hero doctor is depicted as a saint stitching up and saving women who have been violently raped, and for this is universally loved in the DRC, Africa and the West. 11 The actress Fatoumata Coulibaly who plays Collé has said that she herself was

circumcised and that, like most victims, she experienced as an adult an absence of sexual pleasure and often pain during sex.

12 The issue of the specifically male point of view in bearing witness to female suffering

is powerfully explored in the disturbing and provocative 2015 short Alma by Cameroonian Christa Eka Assam, which records the story of a woman suffering physical abuse from her husband while the immediate neighbours in the village community can see visibly what is happening but stand by and do nothing until her eventual death. One of these male neighbours is also the film’s narrator who explains how much he liked the woman and provides a commentary of her tragic life. Alma foregrounds the related questions of knowledge, responsibility and duty, and, via the always reasonable words of the narrator, places them firmly in the hands of the spectator. What is at stake is not simply how to stop such domestic tragedies from taking place, but also, in a move that effectively puts the film and cinema in general on trial, how to prevent yet another purely reactive and fatalistic retrospective commentary on the subject.

13 For powerful accounts of Moolaadé, see Dipio 2010 on gender wars around religion

and tradition, and Herndon 2010 on the liberatory influence of technology and mass media for African women.

14 Ezra is, in fact, a relatively rare example of an African film covering both civil war

and national reconciliation. Other examples are the affirmative South African documentary Landscape of Memory (1999), exploring not only the South African situation but also that of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and All about Darfur (2006) by the Sudanese director Taghreed Elsanhouri.

15 See Osagie 2012 on the subject of agency in Ezra and Blood Diamond, Hoffman 2013

on Blood Diamond, and Singer and Dovey 2014 on the representation of childhood in African films about conflict. See also Vambe 2014 which uses Giorgio Agamben’s ideas of the ‘state of exception’ and the ‘paradox of sovereignty’ to demonstrate that


within the narrative topoi of Black Hawk Down and Blood Diamond (produced and directed by white people from the West), the African child soldiers are symbolically constituted as the enemy Other, existing on the margin of ‘bare life’ (Agamben) and whose value is not worth mourning for – it remains simply ‘ungrievable’ (Butler). See Agamben 1998 and Butler 2009. 16 The crime of genocide, as outlined in the 1948 United Nations Convention, concerns

the attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Categorization is thus key to genocide at all stages, first by presenting the target population as homogenous, then by classifying, symbolizing, dehumanizing and polarizing it. See Norridge 2011: 240.

17 Contrast Haroun’s method here with the more straightforward, fly-on-the-wall

approach taken in State of Mind: Healing Trauma (2010), produced and directed by feature filmmaker Djo Munga in South Africa and the DRC, where the facts and proof of lived horror are never cast in doubt. This is explicitly a talking-heads film about a traumatized people: hundreds of thousands of Congolese in trauma and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to war and violence, especially children who are abandoned and left unprotected. Funded by the German government’s international aid agency GTZ and celebrating the work in Kinshasa of the celebrated therapist Albert Pesso (including his training of health care workers, many of whom are themselves survivors of horrendous violence, and his use of psychotherapy to talk about loss, forgiveness and finding new memories to overlay traumatic older ones), the documentary offers a multilayered perspective on national collective trauma, asking if it is even possible for a country so overwhelmed by the legacy of five million deaths ever to heal successfully and move on. Munga, we note, also produced Congo in 4 Acts (2010), a quartet of hard-hitting films dealing in turn with the problems of poverty, pollution, the imploding infrastructure in Kinshasa, and the legacy of rape in the DRC.

18 Cited in Diawara 2010: 283. See Harrow 2013: 220–36 on the deferred obedience of

the son in Daratt and how the film serves to move beyond the warped patriarchal model (or ‘archives’) of male valour and revenge. See also Higgins 2015a for how Daratt reverses or ‘trashes’ the western’s revenge narrative, reducing it to a series of scraps and ghosts of the genre (the protagonist Atim ends up in the final scene defying the patriarchal idea of revenge and crafting an amnesty). We shall return in more detail to Daratt and A Screaming Man in Chapter 5 in the specific context of male intimacy and emotion.

19 Compare Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy with other more concerted kinds of

docufiction that aim to bear witness, like Lewat’s Black Business (Une affaire de nègres, 2008). Employing face-to-face interviews and a highly personal and direct voiceover, the film allows the families of the disappeared to speak and mourn their loved ones while at the same time examining with exemplary patience and urgency the political violence (local and state managed) in Cameroon, specifically the sudden disappearances of people in Douala by the Operational Command Unit. Black Business can be seen for free with subtitles at: http:​//www​.cult​ureun​plugg​​m/doc​ ument​ary/w​atch-​onlin​e/pla​y/602​2/Bla​ck-Bu​sines​s. Lewat’s other films, which similarly enter what has been the largely male territory of tough, militant documentary on violence and political power in the tradition of Teno, include The Forgotten Man (Au-delà de la peine, 2003), about a prisoner who, after being sentenced to four years in jail for a minor offence, is imprisoned for thirty-three years, and, with Hugo


Berkeley, Land Rush (2012), about how China and Saudi Arabia are leasing Mali’s land in order to turn large areas into agribusiness farms at the expense of the livelihoods of local peasant farmers. 20 See Downing 1996 (which discusses Guelwaar in the context also of Sembene’s God of

Thunder and Camp de Thiaroye), Murphy 2010, and Murphy and Williams 2007: 50–70.

21 New and emerging Rwandan filmmakers have recently begun to reclaim the

story of the country’s long-running tensions and divisions between Hutus and Tutsis (culminating in the full-scale genocide of 1994) from big-star, international Hollywood and TV action dramas like Hotel Rwanda (2004) by Terry George, Shooting Dogs (2005) by Michael Caton-Jones, and Sometimes in April (2006), an HBO production directed by Raoul Peck which explores the genocide from the victims’ perspective. I am thinking most notably of Kivu Ruhorahoza’s debut feature Grey Matter (2011) set in Kigali, the first feature-length narrative film by a Rwandan about the genocide and which, as Alexandre Dauge-Roth has shown, breaks away from the constraints of historical realism and employs a polyvocal and highly selfreflexive storyline to explore multiple tensions and friction (see Dauge-Roth 2017). This film inspired in turn Kayambi Musafiri’s 2014 documentary Home Expulsion, following four Rwandans, victims of the mass expulsion of ethnic Rwandans by Tanzania in 2013, as they attempt to resettle and adapt to life in Rwanda (Musafiri’s later short fiction Dark Days (2015) humanizes the violent expulsion of Rwandans living in Tanzania in 2013). These pioneering films may also be linked to A love letter to my country (2006), a mid-length fiction set in post-genocide Rwanda by the young Rwandan filmmaker Thierry Dushimirimana about a young Tutsi and Hutu who see their love doomed by impossibility and intolerance, and We aren’t dead anymore (2000), a video documentary by the established Cameroonian director François Woukoache where a sample of survivors of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda talk about their experience. See Eltringham 2013 and Vambe and Khan 2014 for useful accounts of the spectacle of violence in Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs, and Petty in Bâ and Higbee 2012: 76–8 for a fine study of Sometimes in April, which argues that the film’s back and forth structure and relational mode created by the interplay of characters encourages a Glissant-style approach of diversity and relationality inspired by ‘the imaginary of the past’, whereby the viewer is obliged to participate actively in weighing the relational implications or ‘approximate truth’ advanced by each narrative strand. Petty makes the crucial point that the violence is effectively masked here, and that the viewer is obliged to imagine what the main protagonist Honoré is apparently seeing off-screen (i.e. the bloodbath and reality of violence which previously he had only idealized). As we shall see, despite its profusion of spectacular images of violence, The Night of Truth also edges towards the invisible, but with different strategies and for particular reasons.

22 The Night of Truth has inspired a number of important critical studies, notably

regarding its powerful female characters, even if the peace talks are largely controlled by the men in the film. See, for example, Petty 2012, an account of the film in the context of African theoretical frameworks, Dipio and Diop 2015 on the restorative powers of art in dealing with violence and trauma. Janine Spleth argues that Nacro’s representation of women demonstrates how their role in war has changed since recent engagements have largely been civil conflicts and women are increasingly implicated in the violence with a key role to play in the success of peace. According to Spleth, Nacro’s film reserves a central place for women in the last chapter of the war story,


where the reconciliation process is conveyed also from the perspective of gender. See Spleth 2014. Catherine Webster also approaches the film specifically in terms of gender and female agency, showing how women play here a variety of roles– as chorus, as referent, and as actors who propel a modernized adaptation of a classical sequence of events. She explains that the dead are a familiar presence in everyday life in sub-Saharan Africa, for they interact with the living, watch them and speak to them, and judge their actions and pass on sentences or return blessings. See Webster 2012. Harrow adopts a very different, almost reverse approach and tone, arguing that the men in The Night of Truth are surpassed by women, that the rational Law of the Father has fallen, and that ‘trashy women’ like Edna (a monstrous phallic mother and witch of revenge) have taken over, ushering in a new dawn, that of the ‘Law of the Mother’, despite the best efforts of the president and the teacher Fatou at the end to inculcate a realm of reasonable moral order. Harrow relates the film’s ghoulish realm and Night of the Dead to its televisual aspects and Nollywood-style melodrama which are steadily eclipsing the old, representative regime of cinema epitomized by Sembene. Invoking the terms of Rancière, he concludes that women have now moved on to a new realm through the politics of dissensus. The result is a new kind of visual archive under the name of the Mother peopled by violent, naked, melodramatic and neo-baroque images. See Harrow 2013: 126–58. Strangely, Harrow does not mention the final stages of The Night of Truth regarding the poetic word and faith in difference, and his reading thus remains essentially incomplete. Harrow has elsewhere compared The Night of Truth with Nacro’s thirteen-minute short Un Certain matin (1991) in the context of postmodernism – see Harrow 2007: 208–18. 23 In a study of The Night of Truth in terms of the political project of nation-building,

Bisschoff argues that national identity is formulated in the film through difference, such that cultural and historical specificity becomes crucial (Bisschoff 2013: 218). The film, she claims, promotes the general message that nationhood and national unity have to be built through reconciliation and the acceptance of difference. Although atrocity is certainly universalized, the narrative, Bisschoff argues, is situated in an African worldview and told from an African perspective, that is, negotiated within an African ontology imbued with a mythical and spiritual understanding of the world (including references to the spirit of the dead wandering the blood-stained earth), a highly symbolic and metaphorical use of language, and an emphasis on ritualistic gestures such as drink offerings (Bisschoff 2013: 225). For this and other reasons, Nacro, according to Bisschoff, is challenging conventional preconceptions of the style of films that African directors, especially women, should make. We may add in addition that Nacro has also directed important short films on social issues such as AIDS, including the 1997 fiction Le truc de Konaté about a visit to an AIDS ward (discussed in Thackway 2003: 160–2).

24 I’m thinking here not only of Sembene’s Guelwaar which also explores the relationship

between Africa and Western aid, but also of Mambety’s Hyenas, a biting satire on human greed, materialism and consumer culture featuring Linguère Ramatou ‘as rich as the World Bank’, and, more recently, Haroun’s A Screaming Man, where neo-liberal globalization in the form of a luxury hotel in N’Djamena under Chinese management triggers a tragic competition for work between father and son (an ambivalent male relationship discussed at length in chapter 5).

25 This assertion is borne out by the evidence. According to a recent report entitled

‘Honest Accounts 2017’ by Global Justice Now, the Jubilee Debt Campaign and other


groups including Health Poverty Action, sub-Saharan Africa ‘subsidizes’ the rest of the world. On a yearly average, around 162 billion US dollars goes into Africa while 203 billion dollars leaves it. In 2015, the forty-seven countries in the region were collectively net creditors to the rest of the world by approximately 41.3 billion dollars. In the specific case of aid, the countries together received a total of 19.7 billion dollars but paid back 18 billion dollars in debt repayments. Other factors involved in this systematic neocolonial ‘plunder’ include multinational company profits, extractive industries, Western tax havens, illegal logging, fishing and poaching, and costs associated with climate change. 26 See Sanogo 2015 for a timely account of the endemic structural problems related to

the existence and growth of auteurist cinema on the African continent, and Genova 2013 for a general introduction to the economic development of cinema in West Africa.

27 See Barlet 2000: 225–30 for a compact account of the common trials and tribulations

of funding and production faced by African filmmakers, which is brought up-todate in Barlet 2012 specifically with regard to French funding and its continuing ambivalences.

28 Oscherwitz underlines that the western has signified Hollywood domination since

American westerns first flooded the African market and is thus emblematic of cultural imperialism and oppression in Africa. She argues that unlike ‘Death in Timbuktu’, the trial in Bamako is crucially unenclosed and allows for, and models, the disruption of the systems that have produced it; the ‘actors’ in the trial subvert and reappropriate it, producing a revolutionary violence of dissensus that seeks the liberation of both the filmed image and the global system in which it circulates. See Oscherwitz 2015. For Saër Maty Bâ, the ‘Death in Timbuktu’ sequence, in the very act of exposing Hollywood’s predominance of African screens both small and big (font types typical of western film iconography, Malian desert landscapes that recall US/ European westerns, generic costumes, the very presence of Glover), ‘resignifies’ on the western genre and inserts an extra playful space within Bamako’s condemnation of the IMF and World Bank (Bâ 2012: 43–4). (This forms part of a larger argument put forward by Bâ about placing ‘black’ diasporic discourses in dialogue, for the narrative structures in Sissako (as in Mambety) that use digressions and circularities so characteristic of ‘black’ African oral storytelling means that each must be considered in relation to what Ukadike calls ‘a pan-African cinematic tradition of telling the truth – a truth against the West’, that is, a tradition that is historical and bridges multiple time(s) and space(s).) I will be arguing rather differently that Bamako resists in its entirety the ideological violence of filmic form precisely by creating alternative and pre-eminently cinematic spaces of resistance. It is worth pointing out that ‘Death in Timbuktu’ refers intertextually to Moustapha Alassane’s 1966 short, Le Retour d’un aventurier, an African-style western shot in colour in Niger that specifically critiques African mimicry (a group of buddies quickly spread panic throughout their village by donning cowboy uniform). Finally, while the sheer excess of ‘Death in Timbuktu’ may also be an ironic poke at the ‘aesthetics of poverty’ of Third Cinema, in particular the Brazilian westerns of the 1970s, Sissako, as Tsitsi Jaji well points out, is using the genre conventions and history of political engagement of the spaghetti western (a genre defined by its ironic and often reflexive approach to the classic western with its quest narratives, seriality, landscape) precisely as the screen on which to cast his own shadows. For this film-within-a-film satirizes the formality of the court procedures


(the fur lined robes and strict protocols, etc.) by reducing these international organizations to caricatures (the desert landscape, the horse, the indiscriminate gun violence, the international cast of ‘Death in Timbuktu’). See Jaji 2014. 29 Maingard is a little off the mark when she posits that these final shots ‘create a

deeply existential quality in the form of the interior point-of-view of this young man’ (Maingard 2013: 105), since Sissako short-circuits all standard filmic moves to identification. Indeed, the sequence unfolds precisely as a manifest, albeit unspoken, drama of self-differentiation on Sissako’s part in terms of cinematic method and style, rather than merely, as Anjali Prabhu has suggested, as a potential opportunity for authorial self-implication (see Prabhu 2014: 230).

30 We might link this aesthetic process to Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational art aesthetics

where form is a dynamic directly attuned to both time and space – one that invents potential encounters resulting in new kinds of inter-human relations. As Bourriaud puts it, ‘producing a form is to invent possible encounters; receiving a form is to create the conditions for an exchange’ (Bourriaud 2002: 23).

31 Zegué’s lament is only much later paraphrased by the barrister for the prosecution,

Aïssata Tall Sall, playing herself (she is also a key member of the Senegalese Socialist Party). See Durham 2008, Saxton 2009, Levine 2012 and Spivak 2012 for important studies of this key episode. We shall explore the particular linguistic and affective implications of Zegué’s vocal performance in Chapter 4.

32 Gabara notes that while Sissako’s stylistic openness and lack of resolution create

an ambiguity characteristic of European art cinema, he also replaces art cinema’s investigation of individual psychological reality with explorations of individuals in their historical and political context, thereby reclaiming a first-person voice for Third Cinema. See Gabara 2010: 329–31.

33 Matthias De Groof makes the crucial point that négritude is not the same as calabash

cinema because it is not necessarily essentialist, rather ‘particularistic’ (De Groof 2010: 253). He adds that for Césaire any universalism is based on particularism.

34 Tchouaffe suggests that Sissako is also contrasting the Western concept of credit with

the notion of the gift in Islam, a religion where usury is a sin and loans with interest are prohibited. However, this opposition remains at best only implicit in Bamako which is careful to avoid religious discussion and, as I’m arguing, must be read ultimately in poetic as well as postcolonial terms.

35 See Adesokan 2010. 36 Bamako was once screened within the walls of the World Bank in 2007, and Sissako

even had a conversation with its officials about the future of World Bank policy, although there is no evidence of this producing any potential effects on its operational strategy.

37 See Rancière 2003. 38 Contrast such stylized images of animals being tracked down in full-flight by humans

with the grim portrayal of forced human displacement during a coup d’état in the already mentioned White Material by Denis.

39 Contrast the fanatical draconian interpretation of Sharia law detailed in Timbuktu

with the calm and level-headed justice exercised by more cosmopolitan Tuareg religious authorities (the Cadi) in Niger, well documented by Christian Lelong in Justice à Agadez (2004).


40 See, for example, Thackway 2003: 64–6. 41 We note that Aziz arrived in power in Mauritania through a series of coups before

standing in an election that he ostensibly won in 2009.

42 Nicolas Beau, writing for, was the first to make the accusations,

claiming that Sissako’s cliché-ridden film ‘pamphlet’ was due to working in the hands of a ‘dictator’ who even supplied his own (repressive) military police to play in Timbuktu the role of the Islamist police. Sissako later hit back by claiming that Beau was seeking to hurt him so that he could himself draw on the money of a notable opponent of the regime, the banker Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, a financier of See Taoua 2015 for a fine account of the background to the controversial reception of Timbuktu.

43 For Bersani and Dutoit, who refer back to Freud’s The Ego and the Id, the self is

created through the interiorization of the relational field that is defined for the infant through its sensory interactions with its environment. Subjectivity is thus always a matter of our experience of space (i.e. our exchanges with the world) and the perceptual processes involved. This leads to the fundamental claim, developed throughout all Bersani’s later work, that the aesthetic subject, while it both produces and is produced by works of art, is a mode of relational being that exceeds the cultural province of art and embodies truths of being. In other words, ‘art diagrams universal relationality’ (Bersani 2010b: 142). As he puts it succinctly elsewhere: ‘Questions of identity are inseparable from questions about how we relate to both the human and the inhuman world. Subjectivity is inherently relational. What we are is largely a function of how we connect to the world. The tracing of these connections – perceptual, psychic, communal – is inescapably the tracing of formal mobilities, of the “shape” of how we position ourselves both physically and psychically in the world’ (Bersani 2010a: x).

44 It goes perhaps without saying that there are also many Arab forms of neoliberalism

in the region, including decades of Saudi investment in religious education, or the Islamic transnational NGOs in Chad where the newly oil-rich state is often absent. Indeed, the closer ties with the Muslim world cannot simply be reduced to Islamist terrorism, for the dynamics linked to neoliberalism have facilitated the humanitarian aid and proselytizing activities of the Islamic NGOs from the Arab world who aim, as part of the world-wide community of Muslims or umma, to promote a modernist and Salafi view of Islam and spread the use of the Arabic language and other Arab cultural values and norms (i.e. Arabization). See Africa Today 54:3 (2008) for a valuable special issue on Muslim West Africa in the age of neoliberalism.

Chapter 3 1 Mbembe gives the example of Johannesburg where whole areas are ‘colonized’ by

migrants from the DRC who are slowly turning it into the capital of Congolese music production. See also Trapido 2016 for a richly detailed and up-to-date historical account of Kinshasa as a centre of migration, vibrant culture and political resistance that remains in constant thrall to a small elite while on track to becoming the largest city in Africa with a projected population of 16 million by 2025.


2 One obvious and well-established example of this phenomenon, explored at length

by the historian Mamadou Diouf, is the global Mouride diaspora, based in Senegal’s second largest city, Touba, which presents itself in the mode of a ritual community (the Mouride brotherhood grew into a major Sufi order during the colonial period and positioned itself in religious and cultural resistance to colonialism). Mobility is a central expressive element of the Mouride imaginary, for Mourides pursue the enterprise of modernization through practices sanctioned by an economic success not only compatible with globalization, but also forming an integral part of its process, creating through business new vernacular forms of cosmopolitanism (Diouf 2002: 132).

3 At the time of the 2013 census, the department of Dakar recorded 1,081,222

inhabitants, the metropolitan region of Greater Dakar 3,137,196; in 2014 the overall population of Senegal was estimated to be 13,635,927. Encompassing the city of Dakar and all its suburbs along the peninsula, the department of Dakar is divided administratively into four arrondissements: Almadies, Grand-Dakar, Parcelles Assainies (the most populous), and the historic centre of Plateau/Gorée. It is one of the four departments of the Dakar region, itself one of the eleven regions of Senegal. In 1996 the ‘commune’ of Dakar was created and divided into nineteen communes d’arrondissement (equivalent to a London borough) which belong to either of the four arrondissements of Dakar, each controlled by a sous-préfet. The densest and most populous commune is Médina (136,000) in the arrondissement of Plateau/Gorée, built as a township during the colonial period and now a busy market with many makeshift homes.

4 The fate of film theatres in the city centre was sealed by the closing of the Plaza

followed by the Paris. Eighty theatres figured in Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s original survey of Senegalese cinema in 1973, with 59,560 seats welcoming 4,461,000 viewers (see Vieyra 1975). Most have now been sold. Only sixteen were left in 2000, and they are gradually being converted to covered markets, shopping centres or mosques. The opening in 2018 of a major new, three-screen film centre called (le) Complexe Cinématographique Ousmane Sembene, constructed by property developers Le Groupe Saleh, represents a bold attempt to reverse this trend.

5 Gardies 1989: 44. In the final chapter of his study entitled ‘L’espace retrouvé?’, Gardies

suggests that African films of this period sought to show the social order that fashions the referential real, and thus cinema aimed to participate in the implementing of a new social order across the continent. What mattered most was the ideological criterion of a film’s discursive utility rather than its aesthetic qualities.

6 Pfaff writes of the ‘denunciatory symbolic meanings of such rich/poor urban dualism’

and the ‘ironic and accusatory view of post-independence urban architectural contexts, replete with long-lived icons of the former colonial order’ (Pfaff 2004: 105).

7 See Prabhu 2014: 55–76 for a useful comparative introduction to the history of

strategies of framing the city in Anglophone and Francophone African cinema, with particular focus on the place and status of the viewer. See also Langford 2005 which considers the figuring of space across form, exploring the use of horizontal and vertical figures in Borom Sarret, Black Girl, and the 1997 novel Cinéma by Tierno Monénembo. Langford concludes that the use of the horizontal and the vertical by Sembene and Monénembo can be read as forming a complex engagement with cultures of colonialism, neocolonialism and globalization. See also Langford 2003 for a more general and extended historical account of the interiors and exteriors


of ‘African space’ and Africans laying bodily claim to space and asserting agency and subjectivity with notions of challenging and crossing Western-defined barriers and ‘boundaries’, notably in the work of Sembene (films like Guelwaar) and Cissé (including Baara (1978) and The Wind (Finye, 1982)). 8 Contras’city begins with a montage of low-angle shots looking at European

architecture which towers behind ominous gates. The spectator’s point of view is that of the native and yet also the outsider who has no access. Triumphalist Western music plays non-diegetically, yet the grandiose symphony becomes warped, slowed down, then stops as the camera tilts down to pedestrian level where a black figure enters the white building. The native Senegalese here are filmed at work, cutting each other’s hair, or at worship, and they comprise the majority of the images. Yet in a film where the sound prioritizes France and the French language, they are shown deliberately as having no voice.

9 See Pfaff 2004: 98 for a more detailed examination of the shots in this sequence. 10 Hélène Neveu Kringelbach attributes the increasing social and economic divide

between the poor and wealthy in the capital, along with the impoverishment of the middle class, to a number of national factors: the collapse of the agricultural sector due to soil erosion, periodic drought, few natural resources, the curtailed development of major infrastructures and productive industries on account of the oil crisis in 1973, and the fact that the country relied heavily on borrowed funds and thus suffered even more gravely from the downturn of the last three decades. The economic SAPs commenced in 1981 imposed massive spending cuts on health, education and administration, the very sectors that offered steady employment, thereby pushing the emerging middle classes back into poverty. This contrasts dramatically with the urban expansion and formation of Dakar’s middle classes during the years between 1950 and 1973 – a period of huge national building and development programmes, funded in part by the French, yet soon followed by slum housing and informal settlements created by those with no access to these property schemes and programmes and who remained outside the control of the state (Neveu Kringelbach 2013: 60–6). The situation has steadily worsened since 2006 due to the higher cost of energy, the crisis in the finance sector, and the repercussions of these on inflation and employment. Although the official rates of poverty in Dakar actually decreased from 33.4 per cent to 25 per cent of households between 2001 and 2005, by the late 2000s the prevailing perception in the capital has been of growing inequalities (Neveu Kringelbach 2013). This has been further compounded by the severe housing shortage, for few ordinary citizens can afford to buy new property in the city or its suburbs. Most houses built in the recent construction boom have been paid for by migrants and returnees who regard investment in property and home ownership as the surest sign of social success (Neveu Kringelbach 2013: 65) (according to the latest World Bank figures available in 2017, the money sent back to Senegal by emigrants to Europe now constitutes 13.9 per cent of the country’s entire GDP). Another factor is the widespread corruption in the construction industry, together with the shabby work of contractors and the inflated costs of building materials.

11 See Gugler 2003: 139–46 for an interesting account of Tableau Ferraille. Moussa Sene

Absa also made Ça twiste à Popenguine (1993), a self-consciously nostalgic film set in the early 1960s in the small coastal town of Popenguine about fifty miles south of Dakar, thus proving himself a major commentator of different types of urban and metropolitan landscape in postcolonial Senegal.


12 The Mbeubeuss waste dump, now forty-five years old and located close to the Atlantic,

covers 175 hectares of an old, dried-up lake and is criss-crossed by tracks and roads. It is a malodorous, contaminated world of its own with towering hills of fly-infested waste shrouded in smoke from innumerable fires and its own small town of about 2,500 people who live by sorting, burning and recycling what they can. Mbeubeuss reflects growing consumerism in Senegal, expanding and changing along with the capital. As the country has become wealthier and the waste trade more globalized, what is sent there and exported from it has also changed. Once it was mostly farm and organic household waste; now it is a daily tide of electronics and chemical waste, ranging from old fridges to computers, plastics and paint. From a few thousands tons a year sent there in the 1960s, the giant site now receives 475,000 tons of rubbish per year and rising. Mbeubeuss has even established its own health centre, school, a credit and savings co-op, and religious shrines.

13 Daniela Ricci has offered a detailed close reading of the opening minutes of L’Afrance

and its assorted images of the two cities, complemented by a contrast in domestic interiors, to show how the film goes beyond the traditional limits of space-time. See Ricci 2016: 168–78. Yet L’Afrance also presents the Parisian metropolis as a transnational, palimpsestic space that is at once plural and contradictory. As in Tey, there is little sense of the city’s glimpsed iconic buildings and landmarks forming an active part of a performative urbanspace since, unlike in the films of Adbellatif Kechiche, for instance, these generate no direct textual or cultural engagement. See Williams 2013: 196–7.

14 Cited in Horowitz 2013. 15 In a further line of cinematic filiation Tey begins with images of the ocean like

Mambety’s Le Franc. It even reprises the documentary-style prologue of Mambety’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun, where an enraged ‘crazy’ woman (Oumou Samb), accused of theft on a street in Le Plateau, resists by undressing herself in front of jeering onlookers (she is soon thrown mercilessly into a police station). In Tey an equivalent male figure is filmed chanting and dancing ritualistically on the streets in Le Plateau covered in bank notes, like Marigo cavorting in the sea at the end of Le Franc in an ecstatic dance of self-dispossession.

16 See Malausa 2013a for a highly informative article on Dakar Trottoirs within the

context of cinema funding, production and festivals in Senegal.

17 For Woukoache, the slave trade represents the beginning of globalization, that is, of

oppression and suffering on a global scale, and Asientos (the title of which means ‘something acquired, agreed’– it was in the form of asientos, or licences, that sixteenthcentury Spain entrusted European companies with the organization of the slave trade) marks a journey through memory that goes to the heart of the sorrow and suffering of the history of black people. Poetic shots of the ocean evoke the Atlantic passage, and links are made to Western media representations of the Rwanda genocide currently unfolding on television monitors where journalists routinely intrude into scenes of suffering (Woukoache describes Asientos as ‘not a reconstruction but rather an imagined reality’ (cited in Olinga 2008)). For a fine general account of Asientos, see Akudinobi 2000 and also Thackway 2003: 109–14, which proposes the film as an ‘archaeology of memory’. In the case of Little Senegal, Alioune’s diasporic quest has little in common with the American dream, and the film ultimately exposes the limits of the diaspora as a unifying concept among Africans and African-Americans. As in Asentios, however, the Atlantic eventually becomes a symbol of rebirth: after travelling back to


Dakar to bury his nephew’s corpse, Alioune no longer sees the ocean as synonymous with rupture, but rather as a link between two continents tied by a common history and giving birth to diasporic families spread across the world. 18 And if Latif was right! also makes self-reflexive use of the cinematic apparatus, for

Ramaka himself is portrayed on screen by a double who appears before a large dark screen with footage of Wade in various situations. Ramaka exploits this setup to highlight the scamming activities of the government, the silence around state-committed atrocities, and the general lack of transparency. He also uses the voice-over of one of the people involved in the killing of the journalist. Among the public figures interviewed are Aïssata Tall Sall of the Socialist Party and Mohamadou Mbodj, coordinator of the Civil Forum. Ramaka clearly put himself at risk making the documentary which was released clandestinely well before the approaching presidential elections to cause as much political damage as possible. Many of the names in the final credits are replaced by an ‘X’ since they did not wish to be identified in an atmosphere of violence and threats.

19 In an short but incisive historical study of how the African city has been represented

in African cinema, and how cinema has itself participated in the modernity of African cities, Hélène Gutberlet proposes that the artificial effects produced by new digital technology, such as the blurring of forms, the levelling of picture surface and the objects and substances represented, and ‘a certain sense of somnambulist deceleration’, constitute a new ‘technologically induced image of the city’ where skin colour is no longer relevant, thus leaving behind the ‘multicoloured Africa’ created by directors such as Sembene and Mambety. See Gutberlet 2012: 82.

20 See Langford 2013 for an account of Ouaga-Saga detailing its full range of filmic

and cultural references, including the western, romance, live sports broadcasts, the game show, and certain aspects of Nollywood narrative (‘the intercession of a kind of transformative karmic “juju” transculturated and mediated through the grinning cartoon of the Banania tirailleur sénégalais’ (100)). Langford also emphasizes the images of transport and human kinetics (dance, sport, cycling) central to the narrative, as well as the motifs of displacement and cultural migrancy.

21 In Conakry Kas Diawara meets (among others) the American singer and social activist

Harry Belafonte (who co-founded in 1962 with President Sékou Touré the Djoliba National Ballet), the wife of the former Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, and the African-American actor and producer Danny Glover, while in Bamako Sigi-Kan he encounters a range of artistic and political figures, including the photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, the former Culture Minister and political activist Aminata Traoré, the griots Jali Baba and Bakary Soumano, the musicians Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keïta and Fanga Fing, and the artist Abdoulaye Konaté.

22 See Jaji 2014a: 220–9. 23 See Tissières 2010 for an excellent historical overview of the Dak’Art biennial and

its place in Senegalese culture, a history that begins with Senghor’s famous Premier Festival des Arts Nègres held in Dakar in April 1966, a pan-African cultural festival co-organized by the writer and editor Alioune Diop and which brought together thousands of artists, musicians, performers and writers across Africa and the diaspora. Yet Dak’Art has also sought deliberately to break down artistic barriers, notably through the art of recycling (e.g. dresses made out of gauze and needles exhibited at the 2006 edition). For a general discussion of Senegalese art post-


independence and the École de Dakar, see Grabski 2013, although there is nothing here about urban recycling which does not yet fit into the official story of African modernism. 24 So impressive were the concrete results of the Set/Setal movement that the then mayor

of Dakar, Mamadou Diop, incorporated it into a city-wide participatory trash system that lasted a decade. The movement still stands in the collective memory as a cause of hope for new kinds of social exchange, organization and participation in Senegal. See Diouf 2005 for a comprehensive account of both the artistic and political aspects of Set/Setal. We note that nothing as radical, affirmative and all-embracing occurred during the later 2007 trash riots in Dakar.

25 The film, written, directed, and produced by Grabski in collaboration with Christian

Faur, Jacques Daniel Ly, Fanta Diamanka, El Hadji Sarr and Aïssata Barry, is composed of an introduction and three chapters: the first considers the speculations involved in market business for both buyers and sellers; the second focuses on the history and development of the market and neighbourhood following the displacement of populations during the French colonial era; and the third explores the processes of creativity and reinvention by examining how artists use the material resources and visual possibilities offered by the market and city more broadly. For more information about Market Imaginary, see: http:​//glo​bal.u​nc.ed​u/eve​nt/ma​rket-​ imagi​nary-​film-​scree​ning/​#stha​sh.6L​qmmbY​X.dpu​f.

26 Diop had previously made a number of acclaimed short and medium-length films,

notably Atlantiques (2009) which she directed and shot herself (winner of the Best Short Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival), Snow Canon (2011) and Big in Vietnam (2012), all very different and unorthodox in context, style and theme.

27 Diop states that the title derives from a jingle used in a Dakar radio programme of

the 1970s: ‘L’Afrique, le passé, le présent, le futur … Mille Soleils!’ (see Diop 2014). It carries numerous resonances, from the phrase ‘like a thousand suns’ (comme mille soleils), an expression from a survivor of Hiroshima, to the Indian proverb of eternal hope, ‘Behind every cloud, there are a thousand suns’ (‘Il y a toujours mille soleils à l’envers des nuages’).

28 Mambety would later pastiche Zinnemann’s film in the build-up to the collective

murder of Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf) in Hyenas, a damning indictment of neoliberalism and consumerism.

29 See Rigoulet 2014. 30 Diop’s approach is very different in this respect from that of another contemporary,

biracial, female director, Sarah Bouyain, whose Les Enfants du Blanc (Children of the white man) (2000), a documentary on métissage during the colonial period, also has a clear autobiographical dimension since Bouyain compares here her own mixed French-Burkinabe background with that of her grandmother. The film is based around an interview as a way of bearing witness to, and reconstructing, both a recent and distant past. As a collection of oral testimonies, the film is thus a staging of the word rather than, as in Mille Soleils, of the cinematic medium itself.

31 35 Shots of Rum is presented by Denis as a variation on the theme of her own

grandfather through the prism of Late Spring. For a detailed study of 35 Shots of Rum and Denis’s personal correction and ‘shifting’ of Ozu, see Williams 2009–10.

32 Picard 2013.


33 Touki-Bouki was properly preserved and restored only recently (in 2013) by Martin

Scorsese’s ‘World Cinema Project’, a foundation that is digitizing hundreds of old African films, many ‘lost classics’, in conjunction with UNESCO and the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI). Touki-Bouki is available commercially as part of a Criterion Collection box-set and can currently be accessed via YouTube for free viewing.

34 Sheringham 2006: 71. 35 Genevieve Yue rightly states that ‘these evocations of distant locations … suffuse the

concrete worlds her [Diop’s] characters inhabit so that her films often seem to be in multiple places at once’ (Yue 2014: para 1). The specific flight of migrants to Europe is the subject of Diop’s searing fifteen-minute short, Atlantiques, to be discussed in Chapter 6 in terms of transmigration. Europe remains for the men in this film a dream, just as it was for Magaye Niang, as Vietnam is for Henriette in Big in Vietnam, and the Americas are for Vanina in Snow Canon.

36 Picard 2013. 37 Mandelbaum 2013: para 4 of 7. 38 One is reminded here of the late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman who, by means

of the long take, duration and extreme slowness, radically employed time passing onscreen as a way to transform everyday experience while remaining firmly loyal to it.

39 See Barlet 2000: 175. For a general introduction to Ndiaye’s work, which also

examines his later, more directly political works like Questions à la terre natale (Questions to the home country) (2006), a hard-hitting counter-response to Western media, see Imbert 2007. Ndiaye died in 2009 before he could realize his longstanding project to establish a documentary film school in Dakar.

40 See Sow 2013 for an important account of the ethical aspects of Ndiaye’s eco-aesthetic

method and of how, more generally, global consumer culture affects the lives of African artists and craftsmen in African cities, resulting in forms of local resistance within certain communities. In his feature-length film N’Gor, l’esprit des lieux (N’Gor, the spirit of the places) (1994), Ndiaye filmed his return to his origins in N’Gor, a village on the periphery of the city (on the Pointe des Almadies at the north-western tip of the Cap-Vert peninsula), honouring with a pronounced emphasis on montage the daily labours of the Lebu fishermen and women processing fish. Ndiaye poses here important ethical questions implicitly rather than explicitly, such as how to preserve ‘ethno-spaces’ like N’Gor. Ndiaye’s work may be placed in the larger context of African eco-cinema that includes such films as Tree of Blood (Po di sangui, 1996) by the Guinea-Bissauan director, Flora Gomes. See Adesokan 2011 for a valuable introduction to Gomes’s project, and Brereton 2013 for how similar themes of ecosustainability in Africa are being addressed in Western cinema.

41 Diop 2014: para. 1 of 7. 42 Picard 2013. 43 Cited in Sheringham 2006: 33. 44 See Gueye 2011 for a valuable account of the young generation of poets and rap

artists using the media and power of their voice to ‘speak truth to power’ during the presidential reign of Wade. See also the excellent documentary The Revolution Won’t Be Televised (2016) by Rama Thiaw who joined the grass-roots political action in the run-up to the elections. The film powerfully conveys the rage articulated by the


rappers as they took their message to the streets. Finally, the young activist director Mamadou Khouma Gueye skilfully employs rap and the imagery of public agitation and protest in his films about the reality of life in Dakar, including the documentary short Seni (2009) and One minute say say (2015). Although currently based in Nantes in France, Gueye stands out for his commitment to bringing cinema to the Dakar banlieue.

Chapter 4 1 The Lebus, original inhabitants of the Cap-Vert peninsula, are a mainly fishing

community noted for exorcism dances and rituals, and thus very different from, say, the Diola who predominate in the Casamance region of Senegal and the northern part of Guinea-Bissau.

2 See Lüpke and Stroch 2013 for a compelling account of language use in Cameroon as

repertoire and choice that underlines the different modalities of lived multilingualism.

3 See Barlet 2000: 197–8 for a short list compiled by the writer David Lehn of the film’s

urban lexicon of slang words and expressions.

4 I will confine myself in this chapter to the effects of language and multilingualism

in African cinema, so will not be considering in any detail more general linguistic questions such as how linguistic creolization is always needed for oral communication, or how, in the Lingala language for instance, words always refer to a plurality of references, meaning that the things they designate are multiple and their significations structurally ambivalent. For a fine account of the workings of language with specific reference to the Congo, see Mbembe 2006.

5 Diawara 2010: 25. 6 As Diawara notes, Third Cinema’s aesthetics of poverty attempted to subvert received

film aesthetics and the smooth lines of commercial (Western) cinema. See Diawara 2010: 26.

7 Diawara 2010: 25. 8 See Diop 2009. 9 See Fisher 2012. 10 Diawara 2010: 42. 11 Diawara 2010: 44. 12 See Willey 2012: 134–5. 13 All is held together here, as in almost all of Teno’s films, by his gentle and lilting, yet

always commanding, single voice-over as the unseen narrator who strives, patiently and meticulously, and with gentle humour and often scathing irony, to make the essential links between the personal and political, social and cultural. Yet on a strictly formal level, and despite its many lyrical and provocative qualities, Teno’s selfreflexive, first-person cinema arguably works safely within the familiar parameters of a certain type of pedagogic method and didactic style of political documentary filmmaking, at once straightforward, accessible, and ultimately non-subversive. For he invariably does all the work for the viewer: rarely is one allowed to form one’s own opinion on the evidence provided. The result is a cinema that seldom puts into


question its own truth-function or else skirts the levels of linguistic fluidity, oral uncertainty and mystery that characterize the films by Sissako and Haroun explored in this chapter. 14 See Willey 2012. 15 Diawara identifies in Gift of God elements of three different oral themes: the missing

husband, the wanted son, and the emancipated daughter/female. He argues that by making orality its subject, the film effectively questions the hermetic and conservative structure of tradition in oral literature. See Diawara 1996: 215.

16 See Thackway 2003: 49–92. 17 See Akudinobi 2000 for a probing account of Life on Earth that reveals how its

apparently arbitrary construction and rejection of causal or linear narrative logic are directly crucial to the question of the place of Africa in the millennial celebrations. Sissako, Akudinobi rightly argues, refuses to subordinate his film to Western anxieties and fears of the millennial ‘break’ (it is, after all, simply an artificial rupture in time), and instead, through the shifting, hybrid sounds and voices of the radio station, ‘shows syncretism as a process of interpretation, appropriation, re-invention and recontextualisation which is key to understanding African cultural formations; in other words, the station projects a community negotiating the ostensible chasm between it and the rest of the world’ (Akudinobi 2000: 358). In the process, ‘Sokolo becomes the locus where diverse issues converge, overlap, conflict without cathartic resolutions’ (Akudinobi 2000: 358).

18 Compare Abdallah’s melancholic silence on his personal motivation with that of the

African student Idrissa (Wilson Biyaya) in Sissako’s earlier and equally oblique short, Octobre (1992) (October), about the difficulties of communication between him and his Russian girlfriend Irina (Irina Apeksimova) who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with his child. While one may surmise his reasons for wishing to leave a snowbound Moscow and impossible love and return to Africa, nothing is ever made explicit or articulated.

19 See Barlet 2010b: 224. 20 Barlet 2010b. 21 Jaji makes the important point that the use of ‘Petit oiseau’ refers to a broader

Francophone African film practice, for the same song is used in Absa’s Ça Twiste à Popenguine which starts with the off-screen sounds of a school classroom singing the tune. Recurring throughout the film, the song provides the soundtrack for the picaresque adventures of the young protagonist and beloved son of the village, Bacc, who is as enterprising and adept as Khatra in Waiting for Happiness. Hence, by calling upon its earlier use in Absa’s film, the song foreshadows Khatra’s own coming of age. See Jaji 2014b which also highlights another example of audio ‘seriality’ in Sissako’s work: the young unnamed boy in Life on Earth who spends much of his time at the post office saying little but is heard humming several times ‘Frère Jacques’.

22 See Diagne 2013 and 2017. Diagne links such thinking about the universal in a world

liberated from the assumption of a universal grammar and the narrative of a unique telos to Glissant’s concept of the ‘Chaos-monde’ and ‘le Divers’ (Diagne 2013: 17). For Merleau-Ponty, the ‘lateral universal’ is acquired through ethnological experience by testing transversally one culture by way of the Other, and vice versa. This means starting from one’s own concrete, situated experience and situation and finding commonalities in the experiences of others in different cultures in order to connect


the specific and universal, thereby avoiding the reduction of difference to the One. See Merleau-Ponty 1960. 23 Elsaesser and Hagener 2010: 137. 24 See Barthes 1986: 76–9. 25 The notion of an affirmative, non-conceptual, aesthetic realm founded directly on

distance resonates with the ideas of Timothy Morton in environmental aesthetics premised on the essential idea that ‘nature’ is a normative concept and arbitrary rhetorical construct, empty of independent, genuine existence beyond or behind the texts created about it (Morton 2007: 21–2). Referring to Adorno where the aesthetic helpfully distances us from something we have a tendency to destroy when we get close to it (distance and proximity are aestheticized terms implying a perceiving subject and a perceived object (Morton 2007: 28)), Morton claims that the aesthetic promotes nonviolence towards nature (i.e. it stops us from destroying things) (Morton 2007: 25). Since the aesthetic intertwines with the idea of a surrounding environment or world (Morton 2007: 26), ecocritique, he argues, must always consider the aesthetic dimension (Morton 2007: 24). As he puts it gnomically, ecological truth is irony, and ecological art must have irony. Morton is effectively seeking an aesthetic mode that can account for the differential, paradoxical and non-identificational character of the environment, proposing a materialist method of textual analysis called ‘ambient poetics’ in which artistic texts of all kinds are considered in terms of how they manage the space in which they appear, thereby attuning the sensibilities of their audience to forms of natural representation that contravene the ideological coding of nature as a transcendent principle. He ultimately proposes an ecological artistic practice that imagines future environmental projects in the name of art, based on the idea that experimentation with aesthetic form can liberate modes of thinking not constrained by the specular and spectral logics which he identifies as complicit with environmental devastation.

26 Contrast this with an equivalent image of a pubic-looking tuft in Timbuktu where, as

we saw in Chapter 2, it loses its sensual suggestiveness and becomes simply a symbol of all that is forbidden and ‘evil’ – an object of derision and misogyny for young jihadists who fire in blind disgust at its supposed sexual association.

27 Armes 2006: 199. 28 This is Žižek’s gloss on the ‘acousmatic voice’ proposed by Michel Chion as that which

is ‘rendered’ (rendu).

29 Durham 2008: 7. 30 See Saxton and Downing 2009: 60. 31 Spivak 2012: 479. 32 The unstoppable, affective force of Zegué’s chant may be compared also with another

single performance in a similar public setting in Aduaka’s Ezra. There, during the public hearings for reconciliation, Onitsha, who had her tongue ripped out by rebels including her own child-solider brother Ezra, still manages to make herself heard and bear witness to the atrocities she lived through. In both cases, we appreciate the agency and physical materiality of the human voice, even when mute. Onitsha is, in fact, the name for a populous city in Eastern Nigeria known for its busy market place. Hence, the character hails from a land of the voice.


33 See Mick and Lafay 2014 who approach Koukan Kourcia in terms of performativity

and a ‘communication event’ with reference to linguistic theory, including Todorov, Barthes, and Genette. Compare the trance-like power of singing on display both here and in Bamako with the violent ‘trance’ (or ndëpp as practised by the Lebu people) during the final party scene in Sembene’s Faat Kiné. There the eldest son Djib confronts and condemns his two delinquent (and uninvited) fathers in a ritualized, generational, coming-of-age encounter and verbal exchange that allows the past (i.e. the absence of the father) to be publicly exorcized. The guests form a circular space symbolizing the earth and the infinite – a space of the possible – and intervene at key moments to support Djib who transmits his thoughts (see Tissières 2013: 54–5). In each case, the performance of language represents an appropriation of space, visible also in Faat Kiné’s own bawdy prise de parole when she employs coarse and vulgar language to talk explicitly with her friends about male impotency and sexuality (Tissières 2013: 48–52). Compare both films in this regard to Mambety’s Parlons Grand-mère (1988), a short about the production of Ouedraogo’s Yaaba which, with its continuous praise-singing and musical accompaniment in the final seven minutes, unfolds as an intricate homage to the actress Fatimata Sanga who is portrayed slipping in and out of her role as actor in the film. As Harrow notes in his account of the film’s acousmatic qualities, Mambety’s ‘homage to this “grandmother” is effected in the end by voice, music and image’, and ‘becomes a way of “rendering” reality in a physical, acoustic, visual way that rides above the logic of the symbolic code or the imaginary mimesis or simulacrum’ (Harrow 2007: 224).

34 See Haroun 2006. 35 Haroun 2006. 36 Mbembe writes very suggestively of how the musical work is linked to the world of

sensation evoked by sound forces and experienced through different organs. For if Congolese artists ‘use noise to modify sound understood as pure form’ (Mbembe 2006: 76), Congolese rhythm itself ‘draws on the rhythms of poetry, religious song and prayer, and autochthonous dance’ (Mbembe 2006). What is expressed thus celebrates the flesh: ‘The body is absolute flux and music is invested with the power to enter it’ (Mbembe 2006: 81) (original emphasis). Mbembe highlights the central role of orality and voice in Congolese musical culture where no strict division exists between music, dance and theatre, and where in each art form multiple languages are used: ‘[Oral communication] takes place in the context of plural languages and a reciprocal interpenetration between different artistic genres and improvisational practices’ (Mbembe 2006: 71).

37 Mbembe 2013b.

Chapter 5 1 Martin P. Botha makes the important point that sexual activity in West Africa is

generally considered private and not characteristic or defining of one’s personality and identity. Provided one applies ‘discretion’ in one’s sexual behaviour, homoerotic or otherwise, there is, he boldly asserts, usually no issue. See Botha 2014. For an insightful account of how discretion works in practice in the case of Ghana, see Nyeck and Epprecht 2013, in particular Serena Owusua Dankwa’s ‘“The One Who First Says


I Love You”: Love, Seniority, and Relational Gender in Postcolonial Ghana’ (170–87), and Kathleen O’Mara’s ‘LGBTI Community and Gender in Postcolonial Ghana’ (188– 207). Both chapters provide a critique of Western presuppositions about identity and sexual expression, emphasizing that the Western discourse of ‘coming out’ (based on self-naming and the individualistic notion of an authentic self) has little in common with non-normative sexual communities in Ghana and elsewhere in Western Africa which prioritize lived experience with a partner. See also Ekine and Abbas 2013, an enterprising Queer African Reader. Finally, for an up-to-date study specifically of sex and religion, see Love and Sex in Islamic Africa, a special 2015 issue (61:4) of Africa Today. 2 See Biaya 2002 for an excellent account of female eroticism in Senegal and the

pioneering photography of Ousmane Ndiaye Dago which features contemporary and created images of ‘goor-djigen yi’ as lesbian desire, and which attempts to make the (almost) naked female body sensual, often with multiple coats of paint and clay, whether it is the mature full-figured ‘drianké’ or the young, slender ‘diskette’. Biaya’s understanding of the stakes of eroticism in West African culture informs directly my approach to eroticism in this chapter.

3 For other important discussions of the particular sexual implications of Karmen

Geï, see Harrow 2013: 107–26, Dovey 2009: 218–51 (including discussion of the film’s hybrid aesthetic), and Bâ and Taylor-Jones 2012 which explores the disruptive qualities of Karmen’s dancing body. For a short but useful article on eroticism in general in Francophone African cinema and its rare bold and explicit instances, including Bekolo’s Quartier Mozart and Écaré’s Visages de Femmes, see Tcheuyap 2003 (themes further developed in Tcheuyap 2011).

4 Although I will not be focusing directly in this chapter on female desire and sexuality,

the representations of lesbian desire briefly discussed may usefully be compared with the rare and tender, if short-lived, moment of explicit interracial desire between the white French woman Tango (Marie-Josée Croze) and her African girlfriend Olga (Sara Martins) in Éliane de Latour’s French feature, Après l’océan (Birds of Heaven) (2006). The scene is at once tasteful and corny since the image of a map of Africa is projected on their bodies as they make love. Ironically, yet almost inevitably, it takes place not in the African sections of the film but in Paris. Similarly, the new kinds of affectivity between men and women celebrated in the film, specifically between Tango and the male protagonist and migrant Shad (Fraser James) whom she meets in London and calls her ‘soul brother’, are not replicated in the scenes set in his home country of Côte d’Ivoire.

5 Another example of this particular cinematic form is de Latour’s engaging 2015

documentary Little Go Girls about the young female prostitutes or ‘go girls’ working in the ghettoes of Abidjan, filmed close-up with great respect and sensitivity. De Latour used the profits of an exhibition of photographic images of these women to create a space in Abidjan called La Casa devoted to helping those who wished to escape their existence and discover their own identity.

6 For a general comparative overview of homosexuality and masculinity in African

cinema, see Botha 2014, which includes discussion of Woubi Chéri; Ouzgane and Morrell 2005, which features an interview with Mohamed Camara (61–73); Mugambi and Allan 2010 (including the chapter ‘Penetrating Xala’ by Bernth Lindfors (130–4)); and Sawadogo 2013: 93–129, which discusses Woubi Chéri, along with Karmen Geï


and Mohamed Camara’s Dakan (to be discussed shortly), in the context of marginality and ‘disturbing alterity’. 7 Homosexual activity between adults has never been criminalized in Burkina Faso,

Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger and Rwanda. Although many African leaders claim that it was brought into the continent from other parts of the world and is essentially a Western export from colonial times, in West Africa there is extensive historical evidence of homosexuality. For example, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Asante courts (modern-day Ghana) male slaves served as concubines: they dressed like women and were killed when their masters died. In the kingdom of Dahomey, eunuchs were known as royal wives and played an important role at court, while the Dagaaba people, living in what is now Burkina Faso, believed that homosexual men were able to mediate between the spirit and human worlds. Marriage between women has also been a feature of some West African societies, including Dahomey, where a woman can become a ‘man’ and take several wives. African traditional religions were – and still are – integrated into the people’s holistic and everyday existence because they were intricately tied to their culture, including sexuality. Yet with the arrival of new Abrahamic religions (particularly Christianity and Islam), many sexual practices acceptable in precolonial, pre-Islamic and pre-Christian Africa were encoded with the tags of ‘deviant’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘criminal’ through the process of proselytization and acculturation. Hence, it is not homosexuality as such that is ‘un-African’, rather the laws that criminalized such relations. Indeed, what is alien to the continent is legalized and regulatory homophobia, exported to Africa by the imperialists where there had been indifference to, and even tolerance of, same-sex relations. In Uganda such laws were introduced by the British and have been part of penal law since the late nineteenth century. For an excellent general background to the history of homosexual practice in West Africa, see Nii Ajen’s chapter ‘West African Homoeroticism: West African Men Who Have Sex with Men’ in Murray and Roscoe 1998: 129–38; Marc Epprecht’s contribution to Nyeck and Epprecht 2013 entitled ‘The Making of “African Sexuality”: Early Sources, Current Debates’ (54–66); Christophe Broqua’s chapter in the same collection (‘Male Homosexuality in Bamako: A Cross-Cultural and Cross-Historical Comparative Perspective’ (208–24)), a case study which argues against any globalizing approach towards homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa and proposes plural models that emphasize local and cultural particularities; and Homosexualités en Afrique (2013), a special issue (96) of Africultures edited by Anne Crémieux featuring a wide range of articles including ‘Homo-mobilités, du Cameroun vers la France’ by Awondo and Fred Eboko (188–201). See also M’Baye 2013 which traces the specific history of homosexual and transgender behaviour in Senegal and the roots of Senegalese homophobia, showing clearly how gay and transgender people have continually been constructed as scapegoats, first of the French colonial mission civilisatrice, then of Senegalese political and Islamic backlashes. A persistent binary is revealed opposing Africa and the West and denigrating sexual and gender variances and subcultures in Senegal as pathological imports. M’Baye notes with reference to Mbembe’s On the Postcolony that the use of the term gor-djiguen is ‘also a gesture of phallocentrism – an assertion of masculinity and authority that is evident most prominently in the “unrestrained license of government leaders to do as they please” and the association of “sovereignty” with “absolute, unrestrained, and unhindered pleasure”’ (M’Baye


2013: 113) (i.e. anal penetration, apparently committed by ‘les Grands’ as a sublime form of subjection, notably in Cameroon and Gabon). M’Baye concludes that colonial homophobia produced the denial of the Africanness of homosexuality seen in contemporary Senegal which erases and silences the important contributions homosexual and transgender subcultures have made to the nation’s history (M’Baye 2013: 124). Finally, see Gaudio 2009 for a detailed study of how homophobia has flourished with the explicit or tacit support of Muslim clerics, taking as a prime example the history of ‘sexual outlaws’ in the city of Kano in northern Nigeria. 8 Awondo, Geschiere and Reid 2012 explores the different and sometimes contradictory

political situations of Cameroon, Senegal, Uganda and South Africa regarding homophobia, noting, for example, how in Senegal the government actually intervened against violent homophobic actions committed in 2008 and 2009. Senegal was also the first country in Francophone Africa to implement health programmes that targeted men who have sex with men, thus allowing for greater public acceptance of this minority. What underlies Awondo’s subtle thinking about the reasons for the escalating debate over whether homosexuality in Africa came from the West is an acknowledgement not only of the colonial-era laws against homosexual activities, but also of the establishment of groups in Africa opposing discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people and proposing new forms of gay self-identification and gay activism. See Harvey 2012 for an important account of transnational HIV/ AIDS educational films, notably the extensive series entitled Steps for the Future chronicling varied issues such as HIV denialism in countries across Southern Africa.

9 Harrow makes the important point that the gor-djiguen originally enjoyed a certain

status and stature approximating court singers and entertainers at the homes of the wealthy in Saint-Louis, but with the decline of Saint-Louis society and their appearances elsewhere in Senegal they gradually lost their original stature while still retaining the ambiguous status of ‘hommes-femmes’. See Harrow 2001. See also Zabus 2013 for an enlightening account of the many forms of same-sex desire in sub-Saharan culture, which include, for example, the female sangoma (healer) in South Africa who is compelled by her male ancestor to sleep with another woman (a case of traditional spirit possession being used to explain lesbianism), and the ‘female husband’ in Nigeria who, as a widow seeking to protect her husband’s lineage, takes on a ‘wife’, that is, a younger woman who can procreate and have relationships with another man, with any resulting children becoming the property of the ‘husband’ (the sexualizing ceremonies preceding their relationship include the ‘wife’ crawling on all fours between her ‘husband’s legs).

10 See Williams 2010: 205 where I discuss Halexander’s hyperstylized and mannered

work, including also Stratross le magnifique (2000), a morbid and bloody, if highly erotic, multi-ethnic, neo-Gothic fantasy set outside space and time.

11 This film was based on Taïa’s own biographically inspired 2006 novel of the

same name. For a fine background critical account of the history and condition of homosexuality in North Africa, which reflects in part its different status and importance within the French colonial imaginary (for instance, the legacy of the harem and free, illicit sexuality for Europeans), see Massad 2007 and Hayes 2000.

12 Wanuri filed a lawsuit against the Kenya Film Classification Board and the ban was

temporarily lifted for one week in September 2018 so that Rafiki could be eligible for consideration as the country’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards (in the end an uncontroversial film, Supa Modo, was selected).


13 Even a more sophisticated version of this approach, like that proposed by Thérèse

Migraine-George who argues that Dakan must be studied in both the global context of international homophobia and the local context of African same-sex histories and practices, inevitably returns to the structure of national allegory. See MigraineGeorge 2003. Schoonover and Galt take care to foreground the economic plot in Dakan which often goes unnoticed and yet which ties together issues of modernity, sexuality and economics. Sori’s father is a businessman who intends for Sori to go to college and ultimately run his fish farming business, while Sori wishes to return to his village to look after family livestock. Sori thus disappoints, ironically, by being overly traditional, non-Western, and wanting a peasant rather than capitalist relation to livestock. Yet to reject one’s family in favour of individual desires is at the same time perceived as modern and un-African. If Sori’s ‘enlightened’ but still oppressive father is more concerned about the effects on the business and Sori’s place in society than his actual homosexuality, Manga’s mother, who is encoded as traditional in dress and manner, by contrast, refuses to accept Manga’s homosexuality as even a possibility.

14 The style of Dakan promotes, Schoonover and Galt claim, an allegorical reading in its

visual and narrative patterning and its antirealist tableau compositions, including the paralleling of scenes and incidents and symmetrical compositions at the level of both dialogue and mise en scène. Such patterns are markers of allegory, signals of another meaning visible beyond direct representation (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 138) and which refer the film to both Western compositions of art cinema and the formalized structures of repetition in West African griot storytelling (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 138). Hence, at the level of form, the viewer shuttles ‘between African and European representational modes as a necessity for figuring the relationships between queer desire, Guinean identity and economic globalisation’ (Schoonover and Galt 2016: 140).

15 See Romanow 2006 which, focusing on diasporic authors from Africa and Southeast

Asia like Hanif Kureishi who was based in London from the mid-1960s through to 1990, reads both postcolonial lands and subjects as ‘queer counterproductive space’, showing how the bodies depicted in these texts are located in – and perform – queer space and time.

16 A Season in France has a clear and specific political agenda: to denounce the French

State’s callous and inhuman treatment of illegal ‘foreigners’ and those who dare to help them (an action that risks imprisonment under article L622-1 of France’s immigration law) (the film ends with the shocked gaze of Carole (herself formerly an immigrant from Poland) on the razed site of what was once the Jungle camp in Calais). Haroun’s shorts explore largely male themes and subjects, including the portrait Sotigui Kouyaté, a Modern Griot (1996), video documentaries for the Global Dialogue Trust such as L’Essentiel (2003) dealing with AIDS, and Kalala (2005), an intimate and deeply felt journal about Haroun’s close friend and collaborator, the Congolese producer Kalala Hissein Djibrine who died of AIDS in N’Djamena in 2003. Djibrine was producer for Abouna and production manager for Bye Bye Africa in which he played a cameo role as a casting announcer. Haroun acknowledges that with Djibrine’s passing, a part of him disappeared too.

17 See Oscherwitz 2012 for an astute reading of the many layers of mise en abyme and

self-reflexivity in Bye Bye Africa which puts into play distinct sets of images (fictive and documentary, colour and black-and-white, internal and external), foregrounds in a voice-over Haroun’s meditations about the nature of cinema in Africa during


ethnographic-style sequences framed in a disconnected, impersonal gaze, and features real-life filmmakers like Issa Serge Coelo as the friend ‘Serge’, although the similarities between real people and characters are never sufficient to establish a clear identification between the two. Oscherwitz argues convincingly that with its double camera and multiple hybridity of genre, its temporality and narrative structure that is neither wholly linear nor wholly fragmented, the film initiates a new, liminal cinema or Third Space (as opposed to Third Cinema with its direct political agenda) characterized by an aesthetics of the in-between (257). 18 See Sicinski 2011. 19 Haroun has explained that the genesis of Grigris was his sudden chance encounter

with Souleymane Démé dancing professionally on stage. The handicapped Démé possessed something ‘supernatural’ which completely seduced him (Haroun 2013c: 5).

20 See, for example, Sicinski 2011. 21 See Haroun 2010. 22 Biru was expertly complemented by designer Laurent Cavero and Chadian painter

Kader Badawi. The score of Abouna was by Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

23 Haroun himself states that he is searching for a ‘sacred’ dimension and harmony in

Abouna and for everything in the frame to possess significance (cited in Ouédraogo 2010: 162). Amadou Ouédraogo has teased out in fine detail the mise en abyme effects created by the film’s use of Le Petit Prince, though his related claim that Amine allows himself to die so that Tahir may assume his full (read: heterosexual) identity with his young girlfriend is not substantiated. See Ouédraogo 2010.

24 A similar ambiguity surrounds the moment in the final part of Sissako’s Waiting for

Happiness where Abdallah, sitting at the bottom of a sand hill with his briefcase, is suddenly hailed by an anonymous man who walks towards him and from whom he immediately requests a light for a cigarette. The man, whose face remains hidden from the camera, obliges while Abdallah stares in a subjective point-of-view shot at his feet and sandals which recall those worn by the strangely languorous male doctor lost in his own thoughts earlier in the film. Over the sandals an undone belt dangles loosely from within the man’s robe. Abdallah then watches intently as the stranger heads off over the dune (an objective point-of-view shot). Is this fleeting non-encounter (there is no mutual looking in each other’s eyes, despite the intrigue in Abdallah’s gaze) another comic example of missed human contact and communication in the film, or instead the potential sign of a more serious assignation encouraged by the poetic displacement and relay of male objects? No answer is forthcoming since this is our last sighting of Abdallah.

25 Harrow argues persuasively that the character Mévoungou, who occupies the

ambiguous place of both Mother and Other, celebrates the clitoris and female power (see Harrow 2010: 202). Not all cinematic manifestations of female homosociality are so charged or dangerous, of course. Consider the gentle and captivating documentary Awaiting for Men (En Attendant les hommes, 2007) by the Senegalese director Katy Léna Ndiaye, which records the daily lives of women in Oualata, a ‘red’ town and little island at the extreme east of the Mauritanian desert, where they are left on their own with their children for long periods while their menfolk are away working, and who fill the time and cope with separation by creating patterned murals daubed on the city walls. In what is a largely conventional documentary format (face-to-camera interviews alternating with still-frame shots of the walls), the visual image becomes


a source of creative fantasy and wonderment, allowing us to speculate how duration and desire inspire such beautiful visual patterns. Ndiaye’s first film Traces, Empreintes de Femmes (2003) (Traces, Women’s Imprints) was centred on a similar theme of natural sisterhood, bringing together three Kassena grandmothers in Burkina Faso, near the Ghanaian border, and their granddaughter whom they initiate into their exclusively female art of mural paintings of great colour harmony, raising questions of education, transmission and memory. 26 I have analysed the issues of male kinship and homoeroticism in films such as

Chocolat (1988), Beau Travail (2000) and The Intruder (L’Intrus, 2004) as part of Denis’s rearticulation of the masculine screen and her ‘trans-cinema’ of intertextual grafting. See Williams 2013: 233–84.

27 See Murphy and Williams 2007: 100–2. 28 We note, too, that the outside barber scene in Mambety’s first short Contras’city also

takes place under a baobab tree in a one-minute sequence that begins, exactly like the start of Mandabi, with a panning shot from the crown of branches down towards ground level. As one might expect, Mambety reworks Sembene by spending more time in the close company of the barbers and clients, providing a high-angle closeup of a head being shaved and reflections of faces in a cracked mirror. We are thus allowed to savour the men’s proximity, physical gestures and intent gazes undisturbed by any financial transaction and accompanied by the gentle tune of a kora.

29 One might speculate whether the inspector is perhaps Mambety’s alter ego and

constitutes an implicit and revelatory sign of Mambety’s own identity, not only as an alcoholic (a universally known fact) but also as gay or bisexual. Mambety was always referred to by friends and relatives as a mysterious and dissolute figure on account of his ‘sensitivity’ and ‘wanderings’, and while he died in 1998 officially of lung cancer in a Paris hospital, some websites report he may actually have died of AIDS. Yet there is no available record or proof of Mambety (father of the rapper Teemour Diop Mambéty) as being either gay or bisexual. If this were the case, however, he would belong to the accepted norm of the closeted and undisclosed gay black African director. Whether the mise en abyme of Charlie’s phone call to the inspector in ToukiBouki is what Diop really means when she refers to his film as possessing ‘a thousand stories’, and as ‘where Djibril reveals himself the most’ (Diop 2015), remains an open question, since nothing is explicitly stated or revealed in Mille Soleils. Yet even if Mambety is not Diop’s lost and now reclaimed gay uncle, for the formal and stylistic reasons given he may justifiably be viewed in retrospect as a ‘queer uncle’ of African modernism.

30 Diop states in Picard 2013 of her experience of starring in Denis’s 35 Rhums: ‘This

is when I discovered the thousand stories hiding behind Touki-Bouki. … After having found and affirmed my own cinematographic language, I was ready to make Mille Soleils and look Touki-Bouki straight in the eye.’ Harrow has explored how, although homosexuality in Touki-Bouki seems at first to figure social exclusion while heterosexuality appears to be consonant with the prevailing forces of power in post-Independence Senegalese culture, this impression cannot be taken for granted due to the film’s more unsettling sexual and cinematic disruptions. He suggests in Harrow 2001 that although Mambety’s use of sexually ambiguous characters is a way of ‘causing the unconventional male gaze to lose its moorings’, the particular satire of Charlie results in a familiar trope of gayness as unnatural, and even worse as reflective of the corrupt elements in the society and government. There are thus two


marginalities, two forms of abjection in Touki-Bouki – one positive (heterosexual: Mory and Anta), the other negative (Charlie and his retinue) – and Charlie’s function is precisely to set off a heterosexual economy as the norm, in this case a somewhat repressed norm that emerges in the marginal characters of Anta and Mory who define themselves in rebellion against the hegemonic forces governing Dakarian society (Harrow 2001: 77). Yet Charlie’s marginality ‘cannot be sustained as pure difference or otherness in a world in which the natural and the normal have been subjected to the violence of the abattoir, and especially to the abattoir of French neo-colonialism’ (Harrow 2001: 89). Hence, Mambety may subvert the moral foundations of the hegemonic order, but he leaves in place its heterosexual economy and remains extremely ambiguous towards his gay or queered figures (Harrow 2001: 78). Moreover, the supreme insouciance of Anta and Mory and their form of revolt and marginality are turned back against the gay community gathered at Charlie’s pool: ‘The camera sports, as it were, with perversion, by bathing in its waters, while still assuming its own privileged sites of judgment’ (Harrow 2001: 82). Harrow concludes that the voracity of the scavengers, the time of the hyenas (bouki), ultimately displaces the film’s perverse figuration of queerness (Harrow 2001: 90). Harrow is unduly pessimistic and negative here, in part because he doesn’t appreciate the workings of the queer except when it performs overtly as camp in the form of Charlie. Indeed, he forces a normative reading of Charlie approached through an almost generic use of Foucault and Kristeva, and without paying any attention to the film’s queerly self-ironic self-reflexivities, notably the ‘Mambety’ phone scene which further queers Charlie’s voice-over during the shower scene, and where Mambety appears to implicate himself directly in his own queer mise en scène. Finally, Harrow over-reads Touki-Bouki through Hyenas which is a far bleaker film ending in murder and where the hyenas have truly taken over. By contrast, as we have seen in Chapter 3, ToukiBouki remains to the end a work of continuous poetic substitution and displacements, with the final repeated images of a boy cowherd and cattle now moving to the tune of ‘70s jazz-funk. It might be conjectured that although his fetishized motorbike has been broken, Mory decides to stay in Dakar not so much because he is discouraged by the sight of the other African passengers on the boat looking and behaving like the French, but precisely because he refuses the false promise of heterosexual normalcy and coupledom in France with Anta and is attracted instead to queer spaces and possibilities closer to home. 31 Diop 2014 (para 3 of 7). 32 Mambety once declared: ‘When I begin to dream of other places, to be obsessed by

them to the point of becoming a stranger in my own country like Mory and Anta in Touki-Bouki, my natural instinct is to refuse the temptation’ (cited in Ukadike 1999: 153).

33 Other instances of Diop’s queer sensibility and interests include the intense

relationship drawn between the adolescent Vanina and her alluring older American babysitter in Snow Canon, and her own acting role in Benjamin Crotty’s 2015 Fort Buchanan as one of the group of heterosexual woman obsessing about the naïve Roger (Andy Gillet) who remains stubbornly faithful to his Djibouti-stationed husband Frank (David Baiot), pressuring him to join their club through different forms of sexual gamesmanship.

34 I have explored at length the homoerotic relations and desires circulating between

men and objects in Cocteau, often in reverse motion, in Williams 2006: 157–85.


35 See Haroun 2009. 36 See Green-Simms 2011. Green-Simms suggests further that the postcolonial nation

must actively invent a strategy for countering the colonial and racist look that dehumanizes and hypersexualizes black men and women in order to move beyond the (neo)colonial structures of looking exposed by Frantz Fanon in his classic 1952 study, Peau noire, masques blancs.

Chapter 6 1 In one interview in February 2016 where Siebert and Wagner explain that they

initially supplied ideas for scenes (only some of which Sidibé filmed) and later recorded Sidibé’s voice-overs in Madrid in the days following his successful crossing of the border into Europe, they also admit they eventually ‘took over the film’ during the editing process. See Siebert and Wagner 2016. For Sidibé’s own particular account of the process, see Sidibé 2016.

2 Žižek is referring specifically to the final sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of

Men (2006) where the (white) male hero floats at sea with a pregnant (white) woman in a small rowing boat (functioning for Žižek as both metaphor and solution) towards a larger vessel named ‘Tomorrow’. See his ‘Comments’ on the 2007 Universal DVD edition of Children of Men.

3 See Napoleoni 2017 for a comprehensive account of the evolution of ‘refugee

pipelines’ (human trafficking and slavery) operated in the Sahara by al-Qaeda and its North African affiliates to fund terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq. A similar picture of the Sahara as a crossroads of arms, mafia groups, drugs and human trafficking is provided in Boccolini and Postiglione 2017 which examines specifically the activities of the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi organization attempting to end Moroccan presence in Western Sahara.

4 See Hoffmann 2010 for a useful general introduction to the specific genre of

international films about undocumented clandestine West African migration approached as a form of ‘subaltern migrancy and transnational locality’. The study addresses the representation of contested, complex, transient spaces through which undocumented migrants navigate during their journey into and through a European ‘subaltern exile’, focusing on deserts, beaches, bodies of water, fields and cities. For a basic introduction to black African diasporic cinemas and identity, see Ricci 2015. For a background to narratives of return in African cinema, with specific reference to Sembene and Mambety, see Guha 2015. See also Higbee 2007 for an account of diasporic Francophone cinema within the North African context. For more general discussion of the issues of migration, diaspora, transnationalism and identity in European and world cinema, see Ponzanesi and Merolla 2005, Loshitzky 2010, Berghahn and Sternberg 2010, Ďurovičová and Newman 2010, and Ezra and Rowden 2005. For a fine multi-perspective introduction to the language and representation of trans-African migration, see the collection Canut and Mazauric 2014. For more theoretical and philosophical work on black diasporic identity and expressivity after decolonization, see Mbembe 2010b and 2013a, and Petty 2008 (including material on Hondo and Peck).


5 Harragas (2009), for example, a low-budget Franco-Algerian feature by the Algerian

director Merzak Allouache, imagines in sweeping, monumental tones mixed with documentary-style footage the (failed) clandestine crossing of the treacherous Strait of Gibraltar by a group of ten, mainly Arab, migrants from Mostaganem, on the Algerian coast, seeking a better life in Spain. See Higbee 2014 for a useful comparative study of this film and its subtexts in the context of neo-liberal globalization. See Mazauric 2012 for an excellent overview of the harragas and other archetypes and tropes of the African migrant ‘adventure’ to Europe, approached here in the specific context of contemporary literature. See also Lydie 2011 for a comprehensive, detailed sociological account of the background to this new and growing phenomenon, including extensive personal testimony from ‘harragas’. See finally Abderrezak 2016 for a fine account of clandestine migration across the Mediterranean and the ‘burning the sea’ phenomenon as depicted in Francophone Moroccan literature (56–88), and in Maghrebi cinema (including Harragas) (145–82).

6 See Malik 2018 for an astute political analysis of the history of ‘Fortress Europe’,

which emphasizes that the recent rise in hostility towards migrants and the closing of national borders are part of a calculated and longstanding European project of promoting fear of the Other.

7 For an excellent introduction to the expanding field of border studies, see Schimanski

and Wolfe 2017. See Agier 2016 and Jones 2016 for general accounts of the contemporary border and borderland. For volumes devoted specifically to the politics and anatomy of borders in migration to Europe, see De Genova 2017 and Rinelli 2015.

8 Compare with Touré’s earlier TGV (1997), where the TGV in question is not the

famous French high-speed train but the rickety and colourful express bus service between Dakar and Conakry operated by the enterprising Rambo and his assistant, Dembo. The road crosses the territory of the Bassari who are carrying out a violent revolt at the Guinea border, leading to an exodus of refugees from their villages. During the course of the arduous journey, all the passengers (ranging from a disgraced government minister and his wife to a petty criminal, a clutch of holy men, and a pair of French anthropologists) reveal their particular motivation for making the trip. Yet TGV works specifically as a fable about the need to keep the transport and modern channels of communication working and always open, despite corruption and the pressures of local and ethnic tradition.

9 See Naficy 2001, which foregrounds the position of the diasporic filmmaker and his/

her liminal, interstitial location in society in order to formalize a multifocal, ‘accented’ cinema of exilic liminality, cultural ambivalence, and deterritorialization.

10 See, for example, Rosello 2001. 11 I’m thinking in particular of Étienne Balibar’s work in political philosophy which

posits a new ‘global apartheid’ – both social and political – within the abstraction of Fortress Europe, in which migrant populations are systematically deprived of the rights of citizenship, but also made available for economic exploitation. This prompts Balibar to propose a new set of social practices and ultimately a new European model of transnational citizenship. See Balibar 2004.

12 Köhn 2016 also considers the related themes of the visual economy of surveillance,

mediated memories, and cinema beyond representation, including synaesthesia and haptic visuality, notably in the work of Lebanese filmmaker and artist Mona Hatoum.


For a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary introduction to migration theory, see Brettell and Hollifeld 2015. 13 Appadurai defines ‘ethnoscapes’ as assortments of continually shifting peoples

brought together in the global flows of the new world economy by forces other than ethnicity, such as money and opportunities (Appadurai 1996: 226). See Appadurai 1996 which shows how films, images, scripts, models and media narratives about migration are released back into the global flow of images that inform those in the South about the North (and vice versa) and foster new migratory imaginations.

14 See the important documentary Paris My Paradise (2011) by Burkinabe director

Éléonore Yaméogo which focuses specifically on migrants to Paris and explores in sober detail their largely economic reasons and fantasies for leaving Africa, including their views on what it means to be African, and the place occupied by the African nation-state in their ongoing dramas and hopes of a better life.

15 In her important study of acculturation and imagination as social practice in Waiting

for Happiness, Burgin argues persuasively that one cannot divorce Sissako’s work from the transnational context in which West African cinema is produced and circulates, nor his particular status within the Paris-based context of African art cinema and funding. This means that ‘whilst on the level of the text Waiting for Happiness provides a critical response to the unequal processes of acculturation in an era of globalisation, its own context of production and reception are at risk of producing a contradictory meta-narrative that inevitably eschews the issues it raises’ (Burgin 2011: 61). Burgin states critically: ‘The notion of stasis, poverty, the domination of the child’s perspective in the narrative of Waiting for Happiness, and even the presence of the global disjunctures between North and South, also work to reproduce certain stereotypes that are connected to Sissako’s own creation of an “invented homeland” … as part of a deterritorialized imagination, as well as a response to perceived European expectations of their imagined Africa, namely poor, static, childlike – thus justifying the cultural diversity agenda promoted by European investors’ (Burgin 2011: 60–1). For this reason, Burgin concludes, films like Waiting for Happiness ‘may inadvertently perpetuate certain zones of identification that are themselves targeted towards a European imagination – ironically undermining the cultural diversity project itself ’ (Burgin 2011: 61).

16 On reaching Tangiers in the final third of the film, and despite the mutual solidarity

that has been created between them, the ‘invisible’ travellers (six men and one woman) go their separate ways and prepare to attempt their own perilous crossing to Spain.

17 Diouf ’s public role as an activist is to spearhead community action and force the State

to become more constructively involved in stopping this lethal exodus. The film was produced as part of the ‘Femmes Battantes’ series with joint funding from Senegal and Belgium. For a short but valuable discussion of the political strategies of this and other locally produced documentaries and videos on the subject (also available on YouTube), see Rofheart 2014: 119–36.

18 This is in sharp contrast to Ndione’s original novel which traces the course of a

partially ‘successful’ migration, for although many of the migrants die, some are rescued by the Red Cross and make it to Europe. The reporting of the numbers of those who have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean is now a commonplace of feature films of this genre, notably at the end of Harragas referred to above.


19 Among the rituals and superstitions recorded are when Baye Laye places several

talismans around his biceps and waist for protection, and his wife pours a line of water in front of the threshold for him to step over, the freshness of the water symbolizing peace. Baye Laye also breaks an egg and steps over it.

20 For Touré the pirogue symbolizes African economic and political instability and

ethnic strife, as well as a kind of hopeful little raft that will make it safely through with the right captain and leader (cited in Garane 2014: 180).

21 Whitehouse weaves together the multiple themes of strangerhood, transnational

kinship, displacement and hybridity, with particular focus on the lives of West Africans in Brazzaville. He emphasizes that the reasons for their alien status have little to do with problems of language and communication, since most Malians, for example, already speak two or three languages before emigrating and make every effort to learn Lingala when they arrive in order to interact with the Congolese.

22 See Mick and Lafay 2014 for a fine comparative discussion of Koukan Kourcia and

Espoir Voyage.

23 The very notion of travel as dangerous and potentially lethal in Clando is defined

within Cameroon itself. Unable to progress and rise in Douala society (in his previous profession as a computer specialist he was involved in the student resistance movement, imprisoned and tortured), Anatole Sobgui feels permanently immobilized and paralysed, literally so when the prison guards injure his feet to make him talk. The trope of being illegal, secret, and on the periphery starts already therefore in the home country, long before he enters the diaspora of Cologne, and in both places he must keep his identity hidden. What Anatole seeks above all when he drives his blue car in Douala as an unlicensed (i.e. clandestine) taxi (clando) is a place to rest and heal away from persecution and state-controlled violence. The last shot of him is in a car, presumably back to his life as a clando and his familiar condition of restricted mobility, though now with a clear determination not to wait for things simply to improve, but actively to resist. See Hoffmann 2010: 139–46 for a valuable discussion of the different kinds of migration and clandestinity portrayed in Clando.

24 Fourteen years in the making and clearly informed by Gerima’s own experience of

leaving Ethiopia for the United States at exactly the same period as his protagonist, Teza is set first in 1970s Ethiopia then under the brutal sway of the communist military junta (or Derg) of Mengistu Haile Mariam which governed the country from 1974 to 1987 (Mariam would later become president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1987 to 1991). Working in a health institution Anberber witnesses a harrowing murder and finds himself at odds with the ruling country. He is ordered by the regime to take up a post in East Germany where he will remain until the Berlin Wall falls in 1989 and Ethiopia’s military regime is overthrown. He finally returns to his home village of Minzero in rural Gondar where he is reunited with his mother, but where, haunted by his own and his country’s past glimpsed in extended and violent flashbacks, he also feels marginalized, disillusioned and alienated from those around him. For an excellent comprehensive account of Teza and its background, including an interview with Gerima, see the extensive dossier ‘Toward a Close-Up on Teza’ in Black Camera 4:2 (2013), introduced by Greg Thomas (see Thomas 2013).

25 Under the Starry Sky contrasts sharply in this respect with another example of the

intercontinental migration genre, Birds of Heaven by Éliane de Latour, already encountered in Chapter 5. Shot in majestic Scope, this over-dramatic, picaresque


feature film moves restlessly between Côte d’Ivoire and Europe. Beginning with a highly stylized evocation of the African folk hero-warrior Kanta set against poetic shots of waves and animated images of the desert, the film charts the mixed fortunes of a small group of friends from Abidjan who try their luck in Europe as modern-day ‘warriors’ in a quest for opportunity, success and heroic return. For Otho (Djédjé Apali), the journey is short-lived as he is almost immediately captured by the authorities in Spain in the opening section and sent back humiliatingly to Abidjan to face his family and friends who treat him as an outcast and pariah. We now focus largely on Shad (Fraser James), a self-styled ‘warrior of the ghetto’ as he makes his way across Europe to London and then, upon meeting there by chance Tango who becomes his ‘little white sister’, moving to Paris where he enters inexorably a life marked by ugly racism and seething family rivalries culminating in the murder of Tango by her own brother and his gang. Shad will eventually make it back with money to Abijdan where he is hailed by his family and friends. Birds of Heaven often strains the limits of credibility and succumbs at times to pure melodrama and forced gestures and statements of the kind: ‘I [Shad] want out of the darkness.’ Moreover, the specificity of locale is often lost in the relentless tide of action and random events, to the point that the three main cities meld into an undifferentiated, generic ghetto of illegal deals and business. At its best the film provokes a bold reflection on the dangers of (self-)fictionalization, a theme articulated by the constantly conflicted Otho who comes to realize that the very notion of the return, and the false expectations it sets up, constitutes an illusion. Shad, he claims at the end, is ‘blinded by Europe and ashamed by Africa’, and indeed Shad spends much of the film naively declaring, ‘It’s paradise here’, even though he finds himself continually in the crossfire of inter-ethnic tensions and disputes, whether with West Indians in London or Africans defending their turf in Paris – there is no simple or ‘given’ black solidarity. The only way for Otho to be himself is to start over somewhere else in Africa on his own terms, rather than attempt again the epic voyage over the sea to Europe (the film’s final image is of him pulling away in a goods train, destination unknown). 26 Atlantiques may be compared with Scrap Yard (Casse, 2013), a more conventional

documentary by the young white French director Nadège Trebal employing a naturalistic and objective format which records the views of a group of largely middle-aged West African men who emigrated to France and who gather regularly in a car junkyard in the Paris suburb of Athis-Mons near Orly. While sorting through and retrieving broken car body parts, they casually speak about their lives and work, including problems of social integration, and retrieve memories from their past: the countries they left behind, and the sometimes nightmarish journeys that took them to France.

27 See Adesokan 2010: 148–53, where Adesokan also considers the existential and

political implications of Sissako’s voice-over meditations (at least six in all) on the viability of his search for Bari-Banga. Sissako called the film during pre-production ‘a personal history’ about ‘internal exile’.

28 In the film’s final, agonizing and emotionally inflated moments, Léonard expires in the

boat almost as soon as it has struck the water, leaving Hope to face a very uncertain future. The inevitability of human violence also lies at the core of Mediterranea (2015) by the young Italian/African-American director Jonas Carpignano, which, following a journey by two young Burkinabe men (Abas and Ayiva) across the Sahara by foot from Algeria to Libya and their death-defying sea-crossing involving Arab bandits


and storms, takes place in the Calabrian commune of Rosarno, scene of a spontaneous rampage in 2010 by hundreds of migrant workers. Despite odd, intermittent displays of cross-cultural unity, including embarrassed scenes of mixed gratitude and annoyance when a senior do-gooder, providing free meals for the migrants, makes everyone take off their hats and call her ‘Mama Africa’, social tensions and cultural differences intensify, aggravated by low-paid work and exploitation (migrants are given only three months by the authorities to find contracted work prior to applying for documented status). Indeed, it is virtually preordained that this tag-along, documentary-style film will end up re-enacting Rosarno’s historic events, with antagonism turning into street violence between the migrant community led by Abas (Alassane Sy), the police force, and some rabble-rousing locals looking for a fight. Such an excess of violence may possibly be vindicated by a directorial desire to give back to migrants their agency and human capacity for violence, so that they may escape their conventional positioning as helpless victims and objects of pity reacting passively to events and waiting for rescue by those more fortunate and privileged. However, a potentially laudable stance misfires here due to the unsubtle clichés in place and the escalation of entirely generic acts of violence met with bloody reprisals. Compare Mediterranea and Hope with Where the Earth Freezes (Waalo Fendo, 1997) by the Switzerland-based Algerian director Mohammed Soudani, a film narrated retrospectively about two Senegalese brothers which both portrays the immigrant experience of undocumented workers in Senegal and Italy and recreates a migration narrative. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Yaro now working in Italy, Demba takes the train from his rural village in Senegal to Dakar where he is told by local fisherman that the fishing industry has almost dried up due to trade agreements and quotas (the same situation related in The Pirogue and Le Cri de la mer). Such details highlight the fact that fantasies of the global North are based on a collective imagination of Europe as above all a space of economic opportunity. Yet, as Hoffmann writes, the characters never really arrive anywhere because they can never take root – the trope of the disappearing subaltern migrant (Hoffmann 2010: 56). Again, fostering and sustaining an illusion is paramount: Yaro to Demba: ‘This land [Europe] is called the Great Land. When we write to our families we never tell the truth.’ Europeanmade dramas about current migration across the Mediterranean often focus more on the moral and ethical questions raised by how present-day Europeans directly view and receive the migrant other. Examples include Color of the Ocean (2011), by the German writer and director Maggie Peren, and Terraferma (2011), written and directed by the Italian Emanuele Crialese. In the first, a moving, muscular, yet also at times melodramatic thriller about two African refugees, Zola (Hubert Koundé) and his young son, Mamadou (Dami Adeeri), arrive one day on the beaches of the Canary Islands. Zola’s immediate predicament is to convince the border patrolman José (Alex Gonzalez) that he and his son are Congolese and thus entitled to political asylum; if they are Senegalese, policy dictates that they be deported immediately. In the second, an Italian fisherman and his family become caught between the law of the land and the law of the sea when he helps a group of illegal immigrants stranded on an overburdened raft. On Linosa, fishermen are punished for saving illegal immigrants from the sea and, once back on shore, letting them go, because this amounts to facilitating illegal immigration. The twenty-year-old local Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) does not therefore allow them on his boat, but after several die he changes his mind about the matter, helping a family to leave for the Italian mainland. The overarching theme of an island paradise as a sad place of struggle and survival is overdone, but,


along with a strings-heavy soundtrack and the evocative sounds of open water, it serves to hold together the multiple opposed characters and forces. Terraferma may be compared with the 2016 art documentary Fuocammare (Fire at Sea) by Gianfranco Rosi, which records daily life on Lampedusa where the inhabitants live in the constant shadow of the arrival and processing of immigrants off and on its shores (we see real and often brutal footage of the rescue of African migrants). Eschewing a controlling voice-over commentary, it focuses in particular on a twelve-year-old local boy, Samuele, who, like so many of the adults, appears to be oblivious and impervious to – even in casual denial of – the momentous events of death and survival constantly taking place (the only direct link in the film between these two worlds is the doctor). A common charge levelled against Fuocammare is that its artefactual silence and acute attention to the mysterious, poetic beauty of the natural landscape (small, oblique details like sea jetsam) drain the situation of its political reality, yet the film succeeds admirably in its deliberate aim of not pretending to speak on behalf of the subaltern. A similar, though perhaps more dubious, self-consciously aesthetic approach and motivation propels the lyrical, twelve-minute fictional video short Sea of Ash by South African director Michael MacGarry. This loose, poetic reimagining of Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice features a young West African immigrant making his away from the Alpine mountains of Italy to the Venice Lido before ultimately embarking on a doomed voyage home. 29 It is precisely because the cosmopolitan remains inaccessible through standard

perceptual models that it constitutes a unique and potent source of the imagination. See Moore 2013 for a valuable anthropologically based account of the ‘fantasies of cosmopolitanism’, which also emphasizes that since imagination is always historically situated, cosmopolitanism is necessarily a project of ‘world-making’ rather than a universally valid prescriptive ideal. As Moore rightly observes, there is always a tension between the abstract prescriptive demands of cosmopolitanism in its neo-Kantian form and the descriptive given of nationalism and fear and suspicion towards others. See Held 2010 for a defence of Kant’s moral and universalistic, albeit hegemonic and abstract, cosmopolitan approach, for if cosmopolitanism is rooted and situated, it also implies some form of transcendence of the local.

30 Premising her argument on the fact that such an acousmatic event of sound (the start

of what she describes as an extended process of visual and sonic rivalry in the film) is actually a common occurrence in radio, Marissa Moorman argues suggestively that Life on Earth is effectively ‘remediating’ radio which has the capacity, like other media, to open up the possibility of ‘new cinematic dialects’. See Moorman 2017: 103–9.

31 Akomfrah’s point is precisely that these two radically different regimes of images are

ultimately equivalent, at least on a poetic level, and that we should look hard for the sudden flashes of affective beauty in each – for example, in footage of young Asian girls playing in grim tenements and smiling to the camera. Such a bold, extreme, formalistic push into new aesthetic territory, sustained by the enmeshed processes of memory and creative forgetfulness (see Symons and De Groof 2015), projects fresh lines, affinities and relationalities into the imaginary of transmigration with its trauma of mass exodus and diasporic memory. Inspired by Telemachus’s search for his father Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad and divided into chapters dedicated to the ancient Greek muses, The Nine Muses also features a striking sound design by Akomfrah’s fellow Black Audio founder, Trevor Mathison, which meshes Arvo Pärt liturgical pieces with African-American spirituals and Indian courtly music juxtaposed with a collage of


quotations and extracts from classic recordings of canonical Western literary texts (Milton, Dante, Beckett, Joyce, Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, to name just a few). In the absence of a guiding or overarching voice-over, the effect is one of unstoppable flow and play of poetic figures and metaphors. See Banning 2015 for a study of the film as a visual recalibration of migratory aesthetics due to the way it frames ‘real’ pasts, overlapping archived moments with mixed modalities such as stilled images or tableaux that reanimate the very ‘idea’ of movement, in the process suggesting how these varied forms might elicit or renew affective imaginaries for post-postcolonial futures. See also Verbeeck 2015 for an enlightening discussion of the politics of the rear-view figure and trope in this and other films by Akomfrah. Adopting a more explicitly political approach, Akomfrah’s 2010 Mnemosyne also exposed the experience of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism. Compare with Akomfrah’s most recent work, Vertigo Sea (2015), a triptych video installation juxtaposing images of Barbados and Greece and dealing with the various horrors of the whaling industry, slavery, and modern-day migration (it is based around Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’s epic poem Whale Nation (1988)). 32 See Adesokan 2010. 33 A notable example is Levine 2011 which, positing cinema’s ‘interstitial/liminal

status as (fictional) mediator between (real) filmmaker and (real) audience’ (104), approaches Sissako’s hybrid narrative forms of documentary fiction in Life on Earth and Bamako as one element of a ‘poetics of liminality’ in which real and metaphorical liminal space signifies broadly for the transformational power of the in-between. She argues that liminal spaces and the thresholds that separate them permeate Sissako’s work both formally and thematically. In Life on Earth the visual and spatial economy is organized in and around liminal spaces: the streets are in-between spaces (spaces of movement, not of arrival), while our attention is always being directed to framing and framed images. Levine presents this double process in highly positive terms: ‘Because liminality contains both the idea of a threshold or separation, and the idea of a space or time that is suspended between two others, a liminal relationship opens possibilities. Liminality suggests a creative tension between two worlds rather than an agonistic differential of power’ (Levine 2011: 103) (original emphasis). This incisive and entirely uncontroversial reading of Life on Earth and Sissako’s general project is very persuasive, yet fails to address many of this film’s other key formal and thematic issues.

34 Isabel Balseiro even suggests that the entire return is imagined by Sissako, for there

is no real trace in Life on Earth of an actual journey or arrival: Dramane/Sissako suddenly appears in the African savannah after the supermarket sequence and is not shown being greeted or welcomed home by relatives or friends (the same also applies, of course, to Abdallah in Waiting for Happiness). See Balseiro 2007: 449.

35 Sissako had originally intended to centre the film around his father, but he soon felt it

was more appropriate to include himself, to the point that his father was no longer in the foreground at all: ‘Il fallait que je sois moi-même objet’ (I had myself to become the object) (Sissako 2003: 90). Sissako has talked of the filmmaking process in terms of understanding himself better through encountering his filmic subjects: ‘I find what I’m lacking in the Other, and tap into it. I can see myself in the Other, and can accept myself more. I think this is what is vital in the gaze’ (cited in Jaji 2014b: 163).


36 One such example of the genre is Haroun’s fourteen-minute short Letter from New

York (2001), a video letter suspended between Africa and New York. The fictitious diary centres on Taja, a young Chadian newly arrived in New York.

37 Dasgupta proposes the term in his enlightening theoretical account of Marc Isaacs’s

2003 film documentary Calais: The Last Border, which revolves around the disbanded Sangatte refugee camp in Calais and draws lines of connection and disconnection between evicted refugees from the South, immigrants from the UK, and British visitors visiting to buy cheap alcohol. Staging a dialogue between Derrida’s fraught ethical relation to the Other, in which his/her visibility is tantamount to his/her conditional identification (cf. Of Hospitality (2000)), and Rancière’s political aesthetic which seeks to redistribute the relationship between what is, and is not, perceivable in a given sociocultural context, Dasgupta argues that the film’s attention to everyday details ‘produces forms of visibility that generate a differentiated figuration of the migrant in relation to others within a replotted social space’ (Dasgupta 2008: 190). He adds that the film’s ‘disjunctive threading of dialogue and imagery, both specific to the medium, has a political stake in that it disturbs the meaning of the designation “migrant” by both pluralising the term across different individuals, and by establishing relationships between them and us through its configuring of space and time into alternative constellations’ (Dasgupta 2008). For Dasgupta, the aesthetics of filmmaking and film viewing can thus enable a disturbance in the demarcation of space between us and them, making visible the heterogeneity ‘that constitutes the untraceable object “immigrant”’ (Dasgupta 2008: 121). The result is a politics of intersection, of connections and disconnections, since Isaacs’s film gives a particular specificity to the Absolute Other and, by linking through difference, and by making relations between numerous others in the space of the border, suggests the thinking of a politics of ‘beingtogether’ rather than the aporetic ethics of the unnameable Other (Dasgupta 2008: 192). Here, ‘the question of the Other is not the question of absolute ethical alterity, but of an inclusive political articulation’ (Dasgupta 2008). For this reason, the film produces ultimately ‘an inclusive relationship between Self and Other, through its plotting of the place of the migrant in a shifting manner through the resources of filmmaking’ (191). Further, by concretely dis-articulating the existing political partitioning of social space, Calais: The Last Border makes visible what ‘waiting-in-the-border’ means: ‘It does not deny difference, since all subjects of the film experience the ‘waiting-in-the-border’ differently; yet it establishes an embodiment of their being-together in the space of the border’ (Dasgupta 2008: 192). Crucially, the viewer is placed in a different position in the film, ‘no longer as the paranoid subject who gazes at Calais as Sangatte, as camp, as the inevitable place of the Other, but as a “migratory setting”’ (Dasgupta 2008). Such forging of connections through the concrete sensuality of the film entails, as in Life on Earth, an embodiment of thought as relational analysis and speculative critique that hinges on the disjunctive relations between specific words and images.

38 Sissako claims Nana ‘had something secret’ beyond her evident beauty, and that he

wished to respect her reticence: ‘I wanted to construct a whole mystery about her. … What is hidden in people, that’s what is the most magnificent and strongest’ (cited in Armes 2006: 195).

39 Hamblin asserts that the photographer’s box camera, which Sissako’s cinematography

insists on (the voice-over often directs our attention to the camera even if it is in the background), also recalls those used by street photographers in Mali during the postIndependence period when the need for passport photos was high. For a valuable introduction to Keïta’s Bamako portraits, see Harrow 2007: 200–4.


40 Compare Dramane/Sissako’s insider/outsider position here with that of Teno in

Holiday Back Home, where he uses a trip back to places he knew as a schoolboy in Yaoundé in 1965, and also to his hometown of Bandjoun further west, to explore education, local administration and village democracy. The notion of ‘return’ here refers not simply to a return to one’s origins and ‘authentic’ roots, for Teno’s observing camera juxtaposes his childhood memories with present-day realities along the milestones of his journey as his subjective voice-over narrative questions, explores, challenges and denounces the failed promises and impasses of this exogenous modernity, notably its inability to provide even basic infrastructures (for example, the decline of the annual Development Congress set up locally in the 1970s). Sissako does not offer this type of overt critical commentary in Life on Earth, where much remains implicit and is more formally generated and sustained.

41 For Hamblin, the fact that the photographs taken in the film resemble passport photos

shows that they are concerned with the global communication of images, since it is a function of passport photos (where state portraiture designates the nationality of its bearer) to enable migration across borders. The incomplete referentiality of the image in Life on Earth thus corresponds to an understanding of identity as generated by transnationalism, whose forces are complex, shifting and non-totalizable, and characterized by multi-local affiliations and circular flows, such that identity is now reconceived as the negotiation of a complex network of international influences beyond the boundaries of the nation-state (Hamblin 2012: 22).

42 The short section early in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal about Christmas in

Martinique, and the fleeting, all-too-brief respite from the grimness of shack life which it affords due to its ‘tingling of desires’ (‘a thirst for new tenderness, a burgeoning of vague dreams’), corresponds arguably to the referencing of Christmas in Life on Earth’s opening sequence. Yet the latter is of course already justified diegetically by its turn-of-the-new-millennium theme.

43 le grand drame historique de l’Afrique a moins été sa mise en contact trop tardive avec

le reste du monde, que la manière dont ce contact a été opéré; que c’est au moment où l’Europe est tombée entre les mains des financiers et des capitaines d’industrie les plus dénués de scrupules que l’Europe s’est ‘propagée’; que notre malchance a voulu que ce soit cette Europe-là que nous ayons rencontrée sur notre route et que l’Europe est comptable devant la communauté humaine du plus haut tas de cadavres de l’histoire.

44 Faites de moi l’exécuteur de ces oeuvres hautes/ voici le temps de se ceindre les reins

comme un vaillant homme–/ Mais les faisant, mon coeur, préservez-moi de toute haine/ne faites point de moi cet homme de haine pour qui je n’ai que haine/ car pour me cantonner en cette unique race/ vous savez pourtant mon amour tyrannique/ vous savez que ce n’est point par haine des autres races/ que je m’exige bêcheur de cette unique race/ que ce que je veux/ c’est pour la faim universelle/ pour la soif universelle.

45 Sissako 2003: 89. 46 Et nous sommes debout maintenant, mon pays et moi, les cheveux dans le vent, ma

main petite maintenant dans son poing énorme et la force n’est pas en nous, mais au-d