African voices


In Egypt, Youssef Chahine continued as one of the country’s most important directors, with al-Asfour (The Sparrow, 1972), Awdat al ibn al dal (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1976), Hadduta misrija (An Egyptian Story, 1982), al-Massir (Destiny, 1997), and other works. One of the most mysterious and experimental films of the Egyptian cinema in the last several decades is Chadi Abdel Salam’s al-Mummia (The Night of Counting the Years, 1969), a dreamlike narrative centering on the robbery of ancient artifacts from Egyptian tombs. Since then, the Egyptian government has withdrawn state support from filmmaking, but newer directors have still made interesting contributions, such as Daoud Abdel Sayed’s al-Sa Alik (The Bums, 1985), al-Bahths an Al-Sayyid Marzuq (The Search ofSayed Marzouk, 1990), and Kit Kat (1991). A feminist director, Asmaa El-Bakry, shooting her films in French rather than Arabic, has attracted considerable attention with Mendi-ants et orgueilleux (Beggars and Proud Ones, 1991).

In Tunisia, director Moufida Tlatli directed the remarkable feminist historical drama Samt el qusur (The Silences of the Palace, 1994), in which she contrasts the present with flashbacks of Tunisia’s colonial past and reflects upon the subservient status of women in the Arab world.

Idrissa Ouedraogo, born in Burkina Faso in 1954, began a distinguished career after studying film at the African Institute of Cinematography in Ouagadougou, and later in Kiev and Paris. After a number of short films, his feature film Yam Daabo (The Choice, 1986) met with critical acclaim, and his next film, Yaaba (Grandmother, 1989), about two young children who befriend an old woman whom the villagers consider to be a witch, secured his reputation.

Also in Burkina Faso, Gaston Kabor? directed the quietly dramatic Wend Kuuni (God’s Gift, 1982), about a dying boy who is adopted by a passing merchant and nursed back to health, and Zan Boko (1988), in which a native villager, Tinga (Joseph Nikiema), fights against the gradual Westernization of his culture. Souleymane Ciss?s’s films of African social life in his birthplace of Mali, such as Baara (Work, 1978), Finy? (The Wind, 1982), and Yee-len (Brightness, 1987), are carefully detailed examinations of cultural identity. In Mauritania, Med Hondo (born Abid Mohamed Medoun Hondo) made a riveting series of deeply personal films with the documentary Soleil O (1967), the political drama West Indies ou les n?gres marrons de la libert? (West Indies, 1979), and Sarraounia (1986), again critiquing the lingering effects of colonial rule in Africa for the past century.

In Algeria, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina made a highly successful drama of the Algerian revolution, Chronique des ann?es de brais (Chronicle of the Years of Embers, 1975), while Mohamed Bouamari directed El Faham (The Charcoal Maker) in 1973, also concerned with the impact of postcolonial times on a man and his family, as gas begins to supplant the fuel he makes. D?sir? Ecar? made the highly sexually charged drama Visages de femmes (Faces of Women) in the Ivory Coast in 1985, while in Angola, Sarah Maldoror directed the compelling political drama Sambizanga (1972), about a young woman’s search for her imprisoned husband.

Tunisia’s Nouri Bouzid’s Man of Ashes (Rih essed, 1986) is a drama of an approaching wedding day with unexpected ramifications, as sexual molestation incidents from the distant past surface to cause havoc in the lives of a young man and his best friend.

In Morocco, Souheil Ben-Barka’s early film Les Mille et une mains (The Thousand and One Hands, 1972) led to a long career, including the Soviet/Spanish/Italian/Morrocan co-production La Batalla de los Tres Reyes (Drums of Fire, 1990), which he co-directed with the Russian Uchkun Nazarov. A lavish historical spectacle made for international consumption, this epic war film boasts a cast including Claudia Cardinale, Fernando Rey, Harvey Keitel, and F. Murray Abraham, shot on location in Morocco, Spain, and Ukraine. In 2002, Ben-Barka wrote and directed Les Amants de Mogador (The Lovers of Mogador), starring Max von Sydow In nearly all these films, colonialism is the villain, separating wife from husband, children from family, and families from their cultural heritage. The new African cinema’s theme is social and personal independence, as the continent’s citizens shake off the chains of hundreds of years of exploitation, slavery, poverty, and ignorance.

The distribution many of these films receive outside Africa is sparse at best. DVDs are rare, and theatrical screenings are largely confined to film festivals. Nevertheless, funded through a consortium of government grants, complex international distribution deals, and foundation support, the new African cinema is more influential abroad than at home, where local audiences often dismiss thoughtful works in favor of genre videos. Shot cheaply in a few days, such videos have proliferated with the advent of the camcorder, making movie production populist. But only the more cerebral films attract foreign distribution, however limited.

The highly experimental feminist director Safi Faye has been luckier than many in this regard. Born in Dakar, Senegal, of Serer origin, Faye has strong links to her cultural heritage, which she records in Fad’jal (Grand-p?re raconte, 1979), named after the village where Faye’s parents were born. Safi Faye began as a teacher in Dakar. Though she has traveled and studied abroad, she maintains close ties with her family and cultural roots. Faye studied ethnology in France in the 1970s and worked as an actor and model to support her studies. In her early short film La Passante (The Passerby, 1972), Faye plays an African woman living in France who becomes the object of romantic interest from two men, one French, one African, creating a study of the different cultural expectations of women.

Kaddu Beykat is a semi-autobiographical, fictionalized study of a village that suffers economically because its people refuse to go along with colonial demand for single-crop cultivation. Les ?mes au soleil (Souls under the Sun, 1981) documents the difficult conditions that women face living in Africa in times of drought and poor health. Faye’s Selbe et tant d’autres (Selbe: One Among Many, a k a One and So Many Others, 1982) records the lives of women who are left behind in villages when men migrate to the city in search of employment.

In Cameroon, director Bassek Ba Kobhio created a fine film on the lingering effects of French colonialism with Le Grand Blanc de Lambar?n? (The Great White of Lambar?n?, 1995), a not particularly sympathetic view of the paternalistic life and work of Albert Schweitzer in Africa. Schweitzer (Andr? Wilms) and his wife, Helene (Marisa Berenson), run their jungle hospital like a fortress in which Schweitzer’s word is law. We follow his career through the eyes of Koumba (Alex Descas), a young African who grows up working in Schweitzer’s hospital. When independence comes, Schweitzer is unable to make the shift from colonialism to self-government and is rejected by the very people he tried to help, who are tired of his self-imposed godlike status.

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