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Postcolonial African Cinema. From Political Engagement to Postmodernism.

Postcolonial African Cinema. From Political Engagement to Postmodernism

By Kenneth W. Harrow

Indiana University Press, 2007; xv + 268 pp.; $ 65, hardcover; $ 25.95, paper.

Postcolonial African Cinema. Ten Directors

By David Murphy and Patrick Williams

Manchester University Press, 2007; xi + 239 pp.; $ 79.95, hardcover; $ 27.95, paper.

At a time when world cinema still struggles to establish itself within the Western cinema circuit, it is a welcome development to see the publication, almost simultaneously, of two books that deal with African cinema. After a highly promising early phase, initiated in the West on the basis of Ousmane Sembene's films, African cinema has not quite managed, as the 20th Century went on, to attract a critical status equal to, say, Iranian or Korean cinerna. It certainly does not have recourse to the kind of financial backing that has made Bollywood a global success story (owed to a large degree to its predictable commercialism).

Despite this rather troubling outlook for African film, some recent developments in African cinema are more promising: It is not only the worldwide attention given to Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, the South African award-winning movie about a thug discovering the importance and beauty of familial love, that might very well spark renewed interest in the cinematic output of a continent historically ignored by Western critics beyond its abuse as a provider of "primitive" art. Two new books aim to bolster the still-exclusive discipline of African film studies and to provide a much-needed first orientation for a budding field. They also show that to write about African film does not prevent critics from proving their aptness at using highly complex theoretical cinema studies approaches.

Both books carry the title Postcolonial African Cinema and thereby express the importance of the colonial past for the work of African filmmakers; the choice of title also hints at the books' tendency to privilege cultural studies approaches over cinematic analysis. The subtitles make clear that the authors of the two books have quite different aims: Kenneth Harrow, in Postcolonial African Cinema. From Political Engagement to Postmodernism, situates African cinema in the larger global discussion about the relationship of art and theory in a post-modern age; David Murphy and Patrick Williams, in Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors, aim to introduce a wide range of African filmmakers systematically. Needless to say, the two books complement each other more than they overlap.

Harrow prefaces his densely packed book with an epigraph taken from Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author," already setting the poststructuralist tone for the argument to follow. By applying the approaches of a range of theorists to African films, Harrow aims to take African cinema studies in a new direction. By focusing on "African postmodernism [...] as a function of African cultural responses to globalization" (xv), Harrow's book includes detailed analyses of individual films, placing them in the larger political and aesthetical environment of postcolonial Africa.

Harrow justifies his interest in critical theory by the fact that "as Sembene has become canonized, as decolonized African culture has moved from under the heavy weight of an anti-colonial or anti-neocolonial exigency to one now defined as postcolonial, the controlling frames of historicism and class-based analysis have been increasingly discarded" (20). Rather than seeing African cinema as necessarily dealing with issues such as national identities, Harrow clearly states that his "interest lies in those films that are amenable to the kinds of analysis that are concerned with the ways in which desire and fantasy play decisive roles in the ideological construction of subjectivity and agency" (20).

Accordingly, the first chapter faults early African film criticism (and filmmakers) for focusing on the deep structures of social realist films. In contrast to this approach, Harrow's film analyses are inspired more by the aesthetics of individual films. Applying the work of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Slavoj Zizek, amongst others, Harrow productively (and creatively) deconstructs a wide selection of African films, supporting his arguments with references to a wide range of critical sources, but also to African and Western literature and to World Cinema (not even shying away from Renaissance paintings, as in the chapter on Djibril Diop Mambety's Hyenas).

Harrow consistently shows how African cinema draws both from indigenous traditions of story telling and from Western models of film making, creating in effect a very African but nevertheless highly post-modern pastiche. His close readings of individual scenes of famous and lesser known African films, often illustrated by stills, show Harrow's great familiarity with African cinema of the past 50 years as well as with critical theory. In fact, at times one may wonder whether the concepts by fashionable critics that Harrow employs are included to explain the films, or whether the films serve to corroborate ideas by Lacan and others.

While Harrow's book discusses a wide selection of films, certain scenes resurface in different chapters, leading to moments of deja vu on the side of the reader (creating a feeling that some would call unheimlich). Zizek's use of l'objet a and of Hitchcook's McGuffin shapes a number of chapters, not always contributing in a new way to the understanding of the film scene under discussion. In fact, Harrow's Postcolonial African Cinema is at its best, as in Chapter 7 on Souleyman Cisse's Finye, when the author applies his impressive analytical skills directly to film analysis.

At other times in the book, Harrow offers detailed plot summaries, as for Dominique Loreau's Divine Carcasse (107-11): by thus alternating between more abstract and very concrete approaches to film, Harrow's book never allows its readers to foresee where the argument will go next. By performing post-modernism's belief in the necessarily palimpsestic nature of writing, Harrow implicitly argues for the need to read African film as an expression of the continent's own post-modernity.

In the last chapter of his book, on work by Fanta Nacro and Djibril Diop Mambety, he concludes that "the west does not own post-modernism any more than it owns cinema" (199). Taking issue with Fredric Jameson's notion of the post-modern, Harrow shows that African film often counters the Eurocentric view of post-modernism and that it actively subverts cinematic traditions (similar to the ideas of "counter-cinema," one could add). In particular, Harrow notes the role of capitalism and its related use of commodity objects Harrow as deeply Western concepts that should not be applied directly to a discussion of African post-modernism. Instead, he suggests that readers look for moments when the suppressed Lacanian real surfaces through uniquely African symbols and images.

Murphy and Williams place their Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors in a somewhat similar context. They, too, take an interdisciplinary approach that relies on a range of theoretical models. However, their book, as the subtitle indicates, moves along a more auteur-oriented trajectory, analysing the work of individual directors in separate chapters.

After introducing individual directors and their cultural backgrounds, the chapters aim "to situate African cinema in relation to important critical and theoretical debates" (l). In their introduction, Murphy and Williams succinctly address the major critical debates relating to African cinema, including questions about its relationship to post-colonial studies, nationalism, the "African-ness" of African film and its criticism, as well as the status of African film as a popular art form. The authors also express their conviction that an appropriate response to African cinema has to include stylistic and aesthetic considerations (19). The individual chapters on the ten directors cover African cinema from the 1950s into the 21st Century. In terms of geography, the authors do not limit themselves to discussing filmmakers from Anglophone and Francophone countries; instead, their selection of directors represents pretty much all of Africa.

Each chapter begins with a biographical section that focuses on the growth of the artist. After outlining the historical, social, and cultural context of the filmmaker, the authors go on to discuss individual films, placing the greatest emphasis on plot and theme while leaving cinematic technique somewhat to the background, thereby potentially disappointing some of their readers. By discussing, in each chapter, the major themes that shape the work of the director under discussion, the authors complement the more encyclopedic introductory sections.

In the final part of each chapter, Murphy and Williams discuss the films in the context of various postcolonial studies questions: Fredric Jameson's notion of the national allegory (with respect to films by Youssef Chahine), Third Cinema and Marxism (Ousmane Sembene), Frantz Fanon's psychological criticism (Med Hondo), the debate between the (post)modern and post-colonial (Djibril Diop Mambety), the post-colonial exotic (Souleymane Cisse), Amilcar Cabral's thinking on tradition (Flora Gomes), the role of popular culture for African Cinema (Idrissa Ouedraogo), corporeality (Moufida Tlatli), the borders of African cinema (Jean-Pierre Bekolo), and the force of liberalism (Darrell James Roodt).

The strength of Ten Directors clearly lies with its wide coverage of filmmakers and with its very systematic approach. The chapters are highly usable for classroom situations, offering students a wonderful first orientation to a specific filmmaker within the historical and cultural context of the films, along with well-chosen theoretical concepts for further discussion. These last two parts of each chapter should prove to be particularly valuable due to their skilled introduction of controversial ideas. The supposed separation into film discussion and thematic analysis shows the authors" expertise both in the fields of film studies and critical theory: it also shows their ability to combine film criticism with cultural theories.

In fact, their chapters provide just the kind of insightful use of theory that applies ideas productively while at the same time challenging readers to start their own thought processes. Because the book introduces theoretical terms and concepts very carefully, it should be particularly useful as a set text in courses on postcolonial studies that also include a significant proportion of film analysis.

Apart from the radically different approach that the authors take to the field of African cinema (and even to film studies per se), the list of canonical African filmmakers these two books consider seems to be a matter for debate. So while Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Membety, and Jean-Pierre Bekolo feature strongly in both books, other important filmmakers, like Jean-Marie Teno and Youssef Chahine, only appear in one study, respectively; yet others, like Kwaw Painstil Ansah, are noticeably absent from both publications. That the vast subject of African film can only be treated selectively in a single-volume study goes without saying, and no doubt future books on the topic will fill gaps in the treatment of these two pioneering works. In fact, the complementary nature of the two books implicitly emphasizes the need for further research in African film. Read side by side they offer a wonderful starting point for future research into African cinema.
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Title Annotation:Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors
Author:Bayer, Gerd
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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