- Against the “One Cinema System” Idrissa Ouedraogo and the Invention of Contemporary African Films
The occasion of the sudden death of Idrissa Ouedraogo is probably a good moment to review the trajectories and typologies of what is called African cinema. It is not uncommon to watch Nigerian movies on various international flights. It is no longer surprising to come across a film by Alain Gomis or Abderrahmane Sissako on Air France. That has not always been the case, and if these companies can now entertain their customers [End Page 201] with these very limited non-mainstream movies, it means something has happened in the African film industry. Why have African narratives suddenly become “showable”? It may come as a surprise. But while this is simply anecdotal, I do not recall seeing any film by Sembène Ousmane or Med Hondo listed on those flights. That does not mean much, though. So, what happened?
Contemporary African directors, many of whom are relatively young and female, with extremely limited experience of colonialism or of autocratic regimes in their countries, have dedicated their cinematographic career to fun and entertaining narratives in specific genres. Quick examples include Owell Brown (Côte d’Ivoire) with Le Mec ideal (2010) and Boubacar Diallo with a series of detective films, along with the numerous directors who, like Idrissa Ouedraogo with Kadi Jolie, decided to exclusively focus on television series and hence put to rest the reign of the endlessly didactic African film. Differently put, what is happening today, what has become in a way trendy with African entertainment cinema, was outlined long ago, in the strongest terms, by Idrissa Ouedraogo.
At some point, cultural historians will probably need to determine the relationship between the one-party system, autocracy, and the production of what was known as “African cinema,” in its most essentialist and prescriptive nature. For decades, there was an extremely simplistic perception of a monolithic African cinema, aptly illustrated through Férid Boughédir’s definition, which contrasts “African cinema” with its Western counterpart recognized more as:
[...] a cinema of escapism, of evading the real and its problems. This is the opiate cinema, the cinema that lulls you to sleep. 90 percent of commercial films participate in this operation, and that’s why film is universally considered first and foremost a form of entertainment. To entertain also means to distract, to divert from reality, to allow a temporary escape that slows down the raising of awareness.(Boughedir Ferid 1974)
With the release of Ousmane Sembène’s films, the creation of the Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes, and the dogmas of the Algiers Charter, “it became almost impossible for any filmmaker […] not to take a politically engaged position” (Harrow 2007). This political commitment was based on the perception that cinema, like literature, must be a tool for social transformation. According to Mweze Ngangura (1996:60–64), this commitment is one of the principal causes of African cinema’s inability to fully connect with a public in desperate need of entertainment. Ngangura challenges the relevance of narratives that claim to have militancy as the primary aim, to the exclusion of all other forms of cinematic creation. For him, the “evening school” films, such as those directed by Sembène Ousmane, are economic failures because African spectators do not identify with them. This proliferation of auteur films has further alienated [End Page 202] a public already weary of ideological subjugation. This phenomenon is further illustrated in Henri Duparc’s Caramel (2005), a comedy which presents an allegory of African cinema’s relationship to its audience. The film features Fred, a young cinema hall manager who is nearly bankrupted because no one attends his screenings, including those organized during a special African film festival. He tells the manager of the Film Board where he rents movies to be shown in his hall that the most popular films are Indian musical comedies, because spectators are only interested in dreaming. That is precisely the definition of cinema written on his car: “le cinéma c’est le rêve/Cinema is a dream.” In Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Aristotle’s Plot (1997), Essomba Tourneur, one of...