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Out of Africa…

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 6, 2009 2 Comments

I just came away from the most prolonged and intense filmic experience of my life at the Pacific Film Archive.

As a part of the African Film Festival, they first screened a short, Coffee Colored Children (Ngozi Onwurah, U.K., 1988). The film traces two siblings who navigate lives as mixed children of a white mother and an absent Nigerian father. Two scenes, one in which a little girl is powdering herself with Vim to become white, and the boy is scrubbing himself almost to the point of bleeding to “cast off” his color, are remarkably difficult to watch.

The main feature, En attendant les hommes (Awaiting for Men) by Katy Lena Ndiaye (Belgium, 2007) is set in Oualata, Mauritania, and traces, through the voices of three remarkable women, what it means to be a woman, a sexual being, in the Sahara. The women’s wall art, realized through viscous blood-red textures and grainy sand, provides a rich textual and artistic backdrop to the film.

The next offering was another short Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Priests) by Jean Rouch (France, 1955). The short captures a West African “possession ritual” of the Hauka sect (formed in 1925). This short left me deeply troubled about issues of representation: the foaming mouths of the men possessed (by the colonial masters, we are told), the dog being eaten raw, the shivering, blood-stained clothes that were all too vibrant in color. What are we seeing? How? The camera never wavers, following the rituals unfolding “faithfully,” and I was strangely fascinated even as the viewing was difficult. The narration added another problematic layer to the representation; Rouch plays multiple roles, as if he is a part of the ritual (in a ciné-trance, as it were), yet it is troublingly also the voice of an Other, speaking to an Other. His final analysis seems to hinge on this idea that the possession ritual has a cathartic effect, and is a means of agentive “purging” of colonial oppression, though I found the film too brief, too short on a broader context for the argument to be entirely convincing. Decide for yourself (embedded below is the original French version. For the English version, click here-part one of three).

Les maîtres fou
Uploaded by zohilof

The final offering was the film Chef! (Chief!) by Jean-Marie Teno (Cameroon, 1999). The slow, languid French offers a sobering commentary on the state of Cameroon. There was a point in the film where vigilantes form a mob and almost kill a young thief over stealing one hen and four chicks, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how familiar the story was. The nuptial laws, inherited exactly from those imposed by the French first in 1804, send women a single message: you belong to the husband; the husband is the chief. Another narrative revolves around a journalist who’s imprisoned for daring to question the President’s health. While the narratives wander, and hopelessness seems to swathe the film in tragedy, Teno ends on an optimistic note: “To me we’re all chiefs.”

What a night.

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2 Responses to “Out of Africa…”

  1. Youki on: 9 February 2009 at 10:48 pm

    trying to decide for myself… but it’s complicated. I agree the film was short and we’re always subject to editing, staging, and perspective biases. Seeing the men smiling at the end, I can’t help but wonder how genuine those smiles are (what we perceive — that they’re smiling at us — is false. They are smiling at a camera, an imagined audience. We are across the world, 54 years later. They are not smiling at “us”).

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 9 February 2009 at 10:56 pm

    The smiles stayed with me too…and with you I wonder what elicited them, and whether they knew what interpretation Rouch would contextualize them with. The smile of catharsis? I am not so sure myself…

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