19th New York African Film Festival

Who: Basia Lewandowska Cummings is a writer and film critic who has written for Sight & Sound, Africa is a Country blog The Wire, and Little White Lies. She was also an associate programmer for the Film Africa, an African film festival held annually in London. While attending 2012′s 19th annual New York African Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, she was a panelist for festival special event, “Africa is a Country: Talking Media and Russian Archives”. Moderated by Sean Jacobs, founder of Africa is a Country, Cummings was also joined by Russian filmmaker Alexander Markov — who works with film archives in St. Petersburg, and was preparing a film based on those archives and the relationship between Soviet and African film. The panelists discussed that Soviet-African cinematic relationship dating back to 1960s & ’70s, and its links to liberation movements on the continent aimed at spreading socialism to former-European colonies. Cummings also screened a clip from 1993 short film, October by director Abderrahmane Sissako. Cummings spoke with Camera In The Sun about her take on various influential African filmmakers, the importance of a Soviet influence on their training, evolving trends among African films screening at London’s Film Africa festival, and why the country’s largest cinema chain (Odeon) had embraced Nigerian “Nollywood” cinema.

Opening statement from Talking Media and Russian Archives:

October is a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, who’s a Mauritanian filmmaker who lived for a long time in Mali, and studied in Moscow. I wanted to start with this film, because he deals with the relationship between the Soviet Union and Africa in a very explicit way. He shows an African student in a relationship with a Russian woman. The story is that she gets pregnant and she’s supposed to have an abortion, because she thinks that he will return back to West Africa. But also, the implication is that she doesn’t really want to face the prejudice of having a child with him. So, at the same time as dealing with this relationship quite explicitly, Sissako leaves the consequences of a Socialist friendship between the Soviet Union and Africa quite open, and quite abstract. You can track some affinities between the more aesthetic and thematic links between Soviet and African cinema because of the historical fact of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Africa, which is well-documented, in the support that was provided to liberation movements — mainly the support for Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau — but to see how that historical fact of an interaction actually filters into an aesthetic relation between the two kinds of cinema. And I think what’s kind of customary is to apologize for the bad quality of African films. Often they’re recorded from TV, and they’re passed on between people. And this one [October] was videoed from a TV broadcast back in 1997, then videoed again, then converted to DVD, then put in a library where I had to ask somebody to get the card so I could borrow it to bring it here. But instead of apologizing, I think it’s more interesting to analyze and see the degradation of the film itself as a kind of index of the kinds of journeys that these films take for us to be able to show them now. And as an index as well of the kind of social forces and the political forces that acted upon them when they were being made. And that’s something that Hito Steyerl writes brilliantly about in an essay called, In Defense of the Poor Image.

So Sissako’s films are brilliant. He also made another film called Rostov-Luanda, which I have a VHS copy of. It’s a kind of imagined documentary, but it’s not quite imagined. It’s the search for a friend that Sissako made from Angola when he was in the Soviet Union. The guy’s called Baribanga, and he’s Angolan, and the film travels to parts of Africa, all over Angola, Mozambique, and then he travels to East Germany, and also in Russia. And when he finally finds this friend, the door closes and the film ends. So the idea of what this socialist friendship means, not just between African countries and Russia, but also between different African countries that were brought together by the Socialist friendship, is left really radically open, which is fascinating. Sissako went on to make Bamako, so he’s kind of investigating global relationships through quite specific social interactions. When I first got interested in this relationship between the two cinemas, and almost trying to map a kind of cine-geography to try and find different places of interaction, because it is quite a global thing, it becomes clear that Russia kind of imagined it’s cinema to develop in a way that was seen to be similar to the liberation of cinema from colonialism, to liberation. So in the Soviet Union, the transition from czarism to communism was seen as somehow a parallel with many of the African situations. Then that was shared with [Amílcar] Cabral and [Ousmane] Sembène, and their ideas of cinema — that man is culture, and that that’s a crucial part of an anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist struggle. So in cinema, there’s a shared idea between the Soviet Union and what was at that time mainly West African filmmakers, that cinema was a tool to create a new kind of political constituency. That through visual and sonic means, you could create new political beings, and animate them into an ideological state. But there’s also this great writer called Miron Chernenko. She wrote this really great thing after watching Mandabi, which means “The Money Order.” She said that at the time that particularly West African filmmakers were starting to make films, that cinematography’s genetic code was already instilled and imbued with what was called the “pathos of the Russian revolutionary film art,” along with the poetic realism of the 1930s and the humanism of neo-realism. So already, the arena that many African filmmakers were entering in the 1960s was already colored with aesthetics and thematics that derive from Russian films. Xala by Ousmane Sembène is a great example of one of the kind of core relationships, I’d say, between Russian cinema and African film. For example, in Xala, El Hadji the protagonist is this kind of ludicrous, corrupt, confused character. He’s caught between Sembène’s formulation of what’s traditional and what’s modern. And he’s kind of stuck between the two, and he becomes a metaphor for what Senegal was passing through at that time politically. And that idea of a character included in a narrative only because of their political or social function within society is something that I think you can trace very much back to Sergei Eisenstein — where characters aren’t even called names. They’re just called, “the priest,” “the cook,” “the professor,” the writer.” So there’s an idea that it’s superfluous to have characters that aren’t kind of linked to very specific social roles. But then there’s also I think a relationship, in a more kind of analytical way, between pacing and silence in the two cinemas, and the use of naturalism. But beyond just being naturalistic, a slowness and a quietness, that according to revolutionary maxims is the quietness forces you to think, it forces you to participate in the narrative. And therefore, it leads to action. So a slowness in cinema — according mainly to Sarah Maldoror, but Sembène and many other filmmakers also used it — was a way to kind of galvanize an ideological position amongst the viewer. Sarah Maldoror is actually the first female feature filmmaker in Africa, and she made a film called Sambizanga. It’s this story about a woman, Maria in Angola whose husband, Domingos is seized by the Portuguese authorities because they think that he’s been passing around revolutionary pamphlets. And the whole film he’s being beaten in a camp, and the film follows Maria’s journey to try and save him. But it’s incredibly frustrating, because at every point the Portuguese authorities thwart her, and send her in the wrong direction. So while you’re following her journey, you see her husband’s about to be killed, because he’s being beaten to death. And the slowness and frustration of her journey really creates an affinity between the viewer and the liberation movement that Maldoror was completely embedded in. She was married to Mário de Andrade, who was one of the leaders of the MPLA [Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola], and later became Minister for Culture in Guinea Bissau. As a filmmaker, her involvement in politics is inseparable. And I think that’s something that is very much shared between Russian filmmaking — that films are created within political situations, and that there’s no distinction. They either serve the purpose, or they don’t. And there’s another film by Flora Gomes called Mortu Nega, which is set in Guinea Bissau. Quite a lot of these films focus on women, which is again quite unusual. But this one follows the story of Diminga, who becomes a freedom fighter. And again, it’s a very long, protracted journey. But in that slowness, I think Gomes — who trained in Cuba — is kind of prompting us into action, and prompting us into a political state.

Why did African filmmakers go to Soviet Russia for film training?

African filmmakers started being invited to the Soviet Union in the ’60s — particularly West African filmmakers. The Soviets would send lots of filmmaking equipment and mobile film units to socialist countries like Cuba, and they were really kind of encouraging a national cinema. But somehow in West Africa, the cinema culture was very different. France often wouldn’t take people who wanted to study film. Probably because they didn’t want them to learn. So then the other option was to go to Russia, and that was very much encouraged. Sarah Maldoror was specifically invited to go to Moscow because of her relationship with the MPLA, because they wanted the reclamation of self-representation to be very much tied up with revolutionary nationalism. So they saw film as a way to encourage socialism through film. But they also wanted a certain kind of aesthetic that would fit with the kind of global socialism that they were making. So it starts in the 1960′s when Sembène went, and Sarah Maldoror went, and they studied at the same film school. And then she was, funnily enough, an assistant director on Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Then Souleymane Cissé was another West African filmmaker, and Sissako. There are many more, but those are the biggest ones. And I think you can notice in their films that there are influences. It’s hard to pin down an influence, but it’s easier I think to recognize an affinity. There was some cross-germination, definitely. I think as Communism started to change, it’s relationship with the places that it hoped it could expand to changed too. So it just didn’t have such a committed program toward the development of African cinema. But I think the relationship still exists. I think there’s an affinity, and they see it as being such a political act, that it will continue. But I don’t think that’s specifically through sponsored study and stipends, and things like that. I don’t think that exists so much anymore.

In the case of people like Sembène or Cissé, they would go to the Soviet Union, train, go back, and then would be funded by the French. Because after Mali and Senegal became independent, one of the ways that the French tried to retain a kind of soft power was to ensure that culture stayed Francophone. So they would then offer to co-produce and distribute films. For example, Sembène’s films would become popular in a European market, even though the reason Sembène became a filmmaker was because he thought it was a more universal art than literature, which he was doing before. So he was writing books, and then he thought not enough people could read, so he changed to cinema. So there’s a kind of irony that many of the filmmakers went and studied with a revolutionary aesthetic, with the idea to go back and show these films to their people, and then they would be co-produced by the French. And there wasn’t really an infrastructure to distribute or screen films in West Africa. There was a handful of cinemas, and really Mozambique was the only country — in a completely different context — that used these mobile film units. They were completely committed to showing everybody film. They wanted everybody to see films, and to see an image of themselves on film. That was the name of a Mozambican film reel, called ‘Kuxa Kanema,’ which means “birth of cinema.” And they would travel to the most rural places. But then, those were a lot more propaganda films, and it was often foreign-made films being shown. So African films have never really been shown to the people that they’re made for. It’s always been somebody else.

I showed clips from October, because Sissako really deals with this relationship between Soviet cinema and African cinema in an interesting way. It’s dealt with explicitly, in that the film features a West African male student in Moscow having a relationship with a Russian woman. But it also leaves the implications of that completely open. It’s not clear whether the Soviet Union and African countries are friends, whether that relationship was ever altruistic, or whether it was always linked to propaganda and a way to expand Socialism. So I think October is a good starting point. But really, I think what’s key in the relationship between Soviet and African filmmaking is that it so explicitly used cinema as a tool for political purposes. That in of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it just imbeds these artistic practices in very political contexts, which I think is very interesting to analyze.

What effect did African students studying in the Soviet Union have on race relations in Russia?

There’s a scene in October where the African student, Idrissa is in a park. It’s a really quite abstract but beautiful scene where he fills his hands with snow and presses it on his face, and then somebody throws a snowball at him. He turns around and it’s a mixed-race child. He doesn’t know who the child is, but she comes up to him and gives him a hat. And he says, “Thank you.” And then she’s shooed away by her white grandmother. And there’s various interpretations of that scene. But I really read it as the possibility of his child being born. I mean, his girlfriend has an abortion, but he’s imagining a future relationship that doesn’t work out. That child is never born. So the relationship between black students in the Soviet Union and Russians breaks down completely, and it doesn’t come to any kind of fulfillment. Many former-Eastern Bloc countries have huge problems with racism. There’s a film that premiered at the Human Rights Watch Festival in London called Family Portrait in Black and White, which is by Julia Ivanova. It’s a documentary about children who were born to Ukrainian women who have had relationships with Ugandan students, and they’ve been abandoned. And there’s this one woman who adopts 23 children who’ve been born this way. And the racism is just unbelievable. The skinhead and fascist movement in many of those countries just takes over. It’s completely freely shown. So I think racism is a big problem.

Who was the audience for Sissako’s early work, like October?

Realistically, those films aren’t seen by many people. They’re seen by academics. They’re seen by film buffs. They wouldn’t have been screened in theaters. Sissako probably screened October for his film school, and to a few people. But the film that really made him is Bamako, which got European distribution, and did really well for a small independent African film. I’m sure he made October to be a filmmaker. But when it comes to African filmmakers, I think the question of distribution is completely different. Like here in America or in Europe, you make a film, and the aim is for it to be seen by as many people as possible, because the distribution infrastructure is in place to make that possible. If you’re making a film about politics or social issues, there will be distributors who will pick it up. Whereas on the African continent, those kinds of distribution channels historically never really existed. They’re beginning to exist now. But really, African films always got picked up by a European market — particularly French for West African films. And then East African films, not really by the British. You’d assume that they would fit with their colonial countries, but no. Nollywood has it’s own form of distribution, but that’s completely different. Those aren’t feature films in the traditional sense, but that’s a whole another interesting question. But in the case of Sissako, I think filmmaking and and who sees it is a different kind of relationship for filmmakers like him. I don’t think it’s like how Steven Spielberg expects his films to be seen.

These films are also really hard to get a hold of. So in a way, Alexander Markov’s work is interesting because I think the Russian film archive is the place to go. What he’s doing is sort of reconstructing a moment and an attitude towards Africa through images that were produced at that time. And I think that reconstruction sits really interestingly with narrative film. Because it’s the documentary imagery of what people were like from this very closed empire. And then on the other hand, the films that were made because of a diplomatic relationship that was upheld, that then was sort of filtered through into narrative films in much more oblique ways. So I think the relationship between the Russian archives as a place to go and sort of cinematically reconstruct, and then narrative films as a  kind of counterpoint to that, I found really interesting in that particular talk that we had.

What do you think it takes for African films to find success on an international level?

There are moments where films break through, but they’re usually the really lyrical abstract ones which are seen as very arthouse, and they’re kind of exoticized for that. Viva Riva! did well because it was basically just a genre film. It just happened to be Congolese. It was kind of down and dirty, gritty. I’d reckon that any film from any country, if it has that level of sex and violence and glamor, where it fits into that genre so well, would probably do well. But also, there is currently a “cool” African diaspora thing going on — like trendy New Yorkers whose parents come from Sierra Leone, and run DJ nights. This kind of Black hipster thing. And that has sort of prompted an interest in Black issues or Black culture. I think in Britain at least, that can be said to be true. And Viva Riva! really fit into that, because it’s cool, and it makes you feel cool to watch it, regardless of whether it’s Congolese or not. Yet it also taps into this other quite trendy thing at the minute.

How did Odeon Cinemas come to embrace Nollywood films?

In Britain, Odeon Cinemas is one of the biggest cinema companies. And there was this guy named Moses Babatope, who’s from Lagos, and worked as an usher at an Odeon cinema, and convinced his bosses that there would be a market to show Nollywood films. So he rented a screen at 11 PM, after all the other films had shown, and was selling out screenings. And so through doing that a few times, they slowly realized that showing Nollywood films would be a viable economic choice for them. Babatope managed to show Mirror Boy and Anchor Baby, and they were like the 14th and 19th most-watched films at Odeon cinemas last year. So now he’s been promoted to Odeon Cinemas Special Projects Manager for Nollywood, and he’s building this program of Nollywood films in the biggest cinema franchise in Britain, which proves that there is a real audience for it there.

The audience is mainly Ghanaian and Nigerian people, and there is a big community in Britain. Like where I live in Peckham in South London, there is a huge Nigerian community, and there’s loads of video shops full of Nollywood films. It’s always funny when I walk past and see an advert for a film I’ve already seen. And I think in my head, “How surprised would they be if I went in and said, ‘Oh, great film.’” But anyway, it’s for the communities of West Africans who like these films. But they’re a big enough community to make it a viable option for Odeon, which is something they really needed persuading to realize that was a possibility. So, Moses Babatope is a really inspirational character.

What’s your own take on Nollywood cinema?

Film Africa showed The Figurine by Kunle Afolayan, which did really well, and was sold out actually. Here in New York, I saw Relentless the other night. And those to me are Nollywood films, they fulfill that Nollywood trope. I think Nollywood is problematic in many ways. It’s often very chauvinist. That’s why Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work is so interesting, because she’s making what she likes to call “alt-Nollywood” films, and they really challenge all of the tropes of that kind of cinema. Nollywood is also interesting because of distribution, and because of the way it’s just basically bypassed the infrastructure that usually is required of films. It’s done it’s own thing, and has become the third-biggest filmmaking industry after Bollywood and Hollywood. So that for me is an interesting phenomenon of the social practices around filmmaking. That it doesn’t always have to follow that when you make a film, you find a distributor, and if it doesn’t fit their criteria, it doesn’t get distributed. Film distribution is really a very capitalist, cruel industry. So the fact that Nollywood has kind of completely made an informal economy of cinema that uses different kinds of economic structures — it’s all pirated, it’s all bootlegged, basically — whatever the problems with the narrative are, I think that’s formally what I find the most interesting about those kinds of films.

What kinds of evolving movements should people be aware of in African film at the moment?

I’d say experimental filmmaking. This year, the director, Lindiwe Dovey, who is an absolutely phenomenal woman, she was really keen to foreground female filmmakers and experimental filmmakers. So we showed a program of films, and there was  Akosua Adoma Owusu, who made this film called Drexciya and Me Broni Ba, and Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work. Because the prejudice against African filmmakers is so long, I think there’s a tendency for African filmmakers to make these 35-millimeter very beautiful and proper works of cinema to prove that it can be done. And so, experimentation of the form hasn’t really happened so much. There was Djibril Mambéty, who made Touki Bouki in the ’70s, and those films from the ’60s which were quite experimental. But in terms of actual format, they weren’t. They were narrative and visually quite experimental, but not really in terms of form. Whereas Adoma’s work is very much about that. Drexciya is set in this abandoned and degraded swimming pool which was once on the Ghanaian Riviera near Accra. It used to be this beautiful luxurious swimming pool, and it’s now completely left into ruin. And she made this amazing film where the camera is standing in the base of the swimming pool, and it’s all kind of cracked, and all the blue paint is crumbling. But the sound is as if you’re underwater. And she just shows how normal Ghanaians are using it to dry their clothes, and it’s this quite surreal dreamy film about decay and about Ghana’s history. And then she made another film called Me Broni Ba, which is about children playing with white dolls in Ghana that were left over from colonial times. So they’re not narrative films. They’re quite poetic. Something I personally would like to push is for more people to see films that are genuinely quite exciting in the way they’re dealing with African issues, but not in documentary or narrative ways. In some other way.

I’ve been aware of a real push towards female filmmakers. There’s this woman called Wanuri Kahiu, who just made this great science-fiction film called Pumzi. There’s another one by a Zambian director called Rungano Nyoni, who was on the short list for this year’s BAFTA short film competition with Mwansa The Great. And I think the Africa First film fund is powering quite a lot of money into female filmmakers. Then the producer for Viva Riva!,  [Steven Markovitz] just set up this 24-part film series based on an African story from a different country and a different filmmaker to direct it. So they’ve got lots and lots of films coming out by lots of upcoming directors, and I anticipate a lot of new fresh faces being introduced into filmmaking through stuff like that.

Are women like Akosua Adoma Owusu breaking cultural taboos by pursuing a filmmaking career?

The very act of that kind of filmmaking breaks a taboo. It can be bad quality, that can be filmed on a cheap camera, and that’s OK. Because it doesn’t reflect that African filmmakers are technologically backwards. I think it comes from the confidence of having built a cinematic history. And once you know that those things aren’t true, you can then start to play around with them. I mean, Adoma filmed on like a 16-millimeter camera, and it looks bad, but that’s an exciting part of the film. It’s cheaply made. She was at Cal Arts, and I think it was her graduation piece. So I feel like the actual material that’s being used is kind of a taboo. And then I think Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work is addressing many taboos, and contradicting the way that Nollywood deals with taboos. She’s trying to reclaim the female character away from being hyper-sexualized, or evil, or a witch — all of the stock characters that women seem to play in Nollywood films. So I think that’s quite a bold stance for her to take.

Has Film Africa highlighted any films about last year’s “Arab Spring”?

We showed No More Fear, which is an amalgamation of how the Tunisian Revolution started, and it’s a beautiful film. It uses camera phone footage, and it kind of shows how that movement really took off and how that revolution happened. And then we also showed Microphone, which is an Egyptian film which stars Khaled Abol Naga, and which is about the underground music scene in Alexandria as a kind of metaphor for culture in Egypt. It’s really good. Microphone is part-documentary and part-fiction. It plays with it really interestingly. They film real musicians that they meet. But the way in which they’re met, I think, is set up. The musicians are trying to set up a concert in the street, but they’re not allowed, because of rules around public gatherings. So I think it interestingly fused documentary and fiction.