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  • African Films and Literature: adapting violence to the screen
  • Françoise Ugochukwu
Lindiwe Dovey, African Films and Literature: adapting violence to the screen. New York NY: Columbia University Press (pb £22.50 – ISBN 978 0 23114 755 2). 2009, 334 pp.

This book, prompted by the perceived lack of research on African film adaptations of literature and based on the author’s experience as both a filmmaker and a lecturer in African film at the School of Oriental and African Studies, is special in several ways. It provides an in-depth, comparative and historical reflection on African film adaptations of literary works from the 1950s onwards, which acknowledges the geo-historical and socio-cultural locatedness of the texts, while ensuring a constant cross-fertilization within each chapter between novels and their adaptations, and between films. In the space of nine chapters (five on South Africa and four on West Africa), the volume explores film representation and critique of colonial and contemporary violence, offering [End Page 336] an unusual point of view on the subject of filmmaking. The avowed aim of the book was ‘to investigate local instances of filmmaking in order to test out possible continental trends, currents and movements’ (p. 4); it ends up proving that ‘what many African films share . . . is, first, an engagement with local, contemporary realities in Africa and a desire to respond to these realities. Second, many African filmmakers make creative use of the past for the sake of contemporary audiences’ (p. 9). The author has not only gathered a vast amount of data but shares them with her readers: she quotes from 160 films, and although focusing on a small number only, produced between 1951 and 2006, she includes 170 carefully selected stills aptly illustrating the various types of violence considered. These films all belong to a genre: that of African screen media engaging with history as a means of reflecting on contemporary issues, approaching literary texts as source and using these to critique past and present violence. One of the highlights of the book is the chapter comparing the two very different adaptations of Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, made respectively in 1951 and 1995, historicizing contemporary black violence at both ends of the apartheid era and showing the continued relevance of the novel’s discourse of restorative justice. Several of the films selected are themselves special: Fools (1997), presented in the second chapter, was the first post-apartheid film by a black director.

In the first five chapters, the author presents diverse aspects of filmmaking in South Africa, emphasizing that, in a country where 75 per cent of people were still illiterate but where films now reached out to rural audiences, cinema could be a way into literature. Chapter 1 highlights the way in which the genealogy of colonial and apartheid violence is mirrored in much of the country’s cinematic history. It presents the South African filmmakers’ struggle with a past history of brutal white violence and a desire to foster a reconciliation and unity through a cinematic reflection on post-apartheid violence, hatred and racism, making those chapters into ‘a plea for a vibrant multiculturalism in South Africa and . . . a critique of South African xenophobia’ (p. 143). The book is a contribution to the engagement of African filmmakers with social issues. Chapter 3, on screening HIV/AIDS, considers the theory that contemporary African film adaptations are making positive, critical interventions in society, and opens a national public discourse around the effects of the film medium in relation to violence, particularly infant rape. The following chapter examines political, racial and domestic violence, colour, race and gender, and their treatment in film and literature, reflecting on the art of adaptation and translation.

The second part of the book (chapters 6–9) considers film production from Francophone West Africa, where film adaptation of literary works started in the 1990s, and the complex ways in which France attempted to create a regional francophone family based on culture and cinema. These chapters pursue the author’s reflection on the weight of history and on pre-colonial and colonial cultures of violence at a time when cinema was seen as a means...


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pp. 336-338
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