- African Film: Re-imagining a Continent
Josef Gugler's African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent provides a succinct and thoughtful introduction to seventeen of the most widely known films produced in Africa over the past four decades, including Xala, Keïta, Finzan,and La Vie est belle. This book indicates the prominence achieved by African cinema since the independence era of the 1960s, the role of filmmakers in the postcolonial (re)construction of Africans images of themselves and Africa's image to the extra-African world, as well as the [End Page 124] immense difficulties African cineastes confront in producing their product and (even more importantly) having it shown. Gugler has not sought to provide a comprehensive study of African cinema or its historical development, but rather to introduce the reader to some background for the emergence of African filmmaking and to highlight some elements in recent films that help to define a specifically African film language. Consequently, African Film provides an excellent synopsis of the films it treats while centering on the question of the image of Africa.
Gugler opens with an introduction that emphasizes the fundamental problematic in the construction of images of Africa throughout the twentieth century as well as the significant place of film in that process. He notes that some of the earliest films were made with African references or were actually filmed on the continent in the early years of European colonialism. During the colonial period documentaries about Africa as well as commercial productions emphasized the exoticness of Africa, its peoples, and societies. This served to denigrate or eliminate African cultures and histories, radically "othering" the continent to provide a justificatory space for colonialists' self-proclaimed civilizing missions. Consequently, the dominant image of Africa projected to the extra-African world (there were only very limited opportunities for Africans to view films in the colonial era) was that captured in the Tarzan epics. The image of what Gugler describes as "the white superman in Africa and the white woman he saves" combined with the erasure or stereotyping of the African served as the model that had to be both deconstructed and transcended by African filmmakers when they began to appropriate the genre for their own ends after colonialism. (2)
However, as Gugler explains and the works analyzed in African Film attest the project of (re)constructing a post-colonial image of Africa for Africans and extra-African audiences has been difficult at best. Factors such as the technological deficiencies inherited from the colonial era, bilateral trade accords that favor ex-metropolitan cultural exports and allocate significant control over African film production, and the lack of Africa-based distribution networks have hindered African cineastes in their efforts to develop a truly responsive and representative African cinema. Those difficulties are only compounded by the continued generation of colonial-era images of Africa in Hollywood and elsewhere that garner much larger audiences throughout the world, including in African movie houses. African Film, then, presents the reader with an important introductory synopsis of the genre while also hinting at the significant study of its history and sociotemporal context of possibility still to be done.