Research in African Literatures 36.2 (2005) 165-166
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We would seem to be at a point in film scholarship in which an increasing number of studies on African cinema are appearing, or are about to appear. Now ten years after Frank Ukadike's broad overview of the field (Black African Cinema, Berkeley: U of California P, 1994), we have the equally broad and magisterial compendium of Oliver Barlet (Les cinémas d'Afrique noire, le regard en question, Paris: L'Harmattan, 1996), recently translated into English; a rash of studies on Djibril Diop Mambéty (Sada Niang's Djibril Diop Mambéty, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2002; Nar Sene's Djibril Diop Mambéty, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2001; and Anny Wynchank's Djibril Diop Mambéty, Ivry-sur-Seine: Ed. A3, 2003). Beti Ellerson has interviewed (in print and on film) African women filmmakers (Sisters of the Screen, Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2000), and Frank Ukadike has published an important volume of interviews (Questioning African Cinema, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002). In addition, Indiana University Press has moved quickly to address the needs of this growing market with Josef Gugler's important sociologically oriented study African Film: Re-imagining a Continent (2003), and finally Melissa Thackaway's Africa Shoots Back (2003). The subtitle of the latter book is "Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film," and it is important in its indication that it is increasingly francophone film that occupies center stage when we are talking about celluloid film, whereas it is anglophone, primarily Nigerian (secondarily Ghanaian) filmmakers who have come to dominate video film production.
The irony, and dilemma, then faced by a plethora of scholars and teachers who are increasingly turning to African film is that the emphasis placed by most of the active scholars is upon celluloid, and not video film (with the notable exceptions of Jonathan Haynes and Carmela Garritano) at a time when the financial and distributional [End Page 162] problems faced in producing celluloid films are almost insurmountable. The expedient solution of turning to video is certainly a harbinger of the future. Yet video films depend upon popular genres, and the scholars who consider themselves and their field "serious" have been slow to grant recognition to the value of studying the melodramatic and fantastical genres that prevail in video (I include myself in this criticism). All these new studies of "serious" African film might well be the studies of a disappearing art, one that has been radically different in appeal and form from the popular culture and its expression in video film.
The present volume under review conforms to this pattern. Diop's African Francophone Cinema does not aspire to achieve the Ukadike or Barlet model of the compendium, and it is not an in-depth study of individual auteurs. Rather, it is a slight overview (in ninety-eight pages) of the dominant themes of a number of filmmakers, most of whom are from francophone Africa. The title "francophone" is strangely deployed here since the actual language of the films is typically not French but an African tongue (with some exceptions). Usually, Sembène's decision to reach out to the local African population (made as early as Mandabi (1968; with the use of Wolof) was emulated by other filmmakers, so that "francophone" is used to convey a geographical region rather than a linguistic marker. Diop refers to the term as indicating films "in which the French language is predominant or has a great influence" (1), and yet many of the films he analyzes have no French at all, and in two cases are from "lusophone" Africa. In fact, the study is organized by themes, all of which are completely familiar ones: history, oral traditions, myth, religion, gender and sexual orientation, modernity, and postcolonialism, etc. The films are briefly discussed following the lines of their plots, resulting in an introductory monograph that relies upon relatively slight engagement with the films.