Theory Teacher's Blog

Looking for African Movies

In the United States, it’s hard to see movies from Africa.

And this is true despite the fact that Nollywood in Nigeria is one of the largest producers of movies in the world. Only Hollywood and Bollywood produce more. I discovered how hard it was to get movies from Africa a few months ago when I was planning my syllabus for my film class and wanted to do a unit on African film. I was inspired to do this because of my wonderful experience at an international film festival in Ethiopia last summer, which I blogged about at length [here]. As I talked about in that blog post, I read a bunch of books about African cinema and watched some movies, and so then, as I was sketching out the syllabus for my film class this year, I looked to see what my own library had.

Not much.

I was hoping my library would have one of Ousmane Sembene’s great classics, the movie Black Girl, which so brilliantly diagnoses the psychology of colonialism. It’s also a classic of the French 1950s realist style. But getting this movie would cost our library over $200 (over ten times the amount we usually pay for DVDs.) And our library didn’t have anything from Nollywood. And I don’t mean to pick on our library, because last summer I was hoping to get through interlibrary loan some of the classic movies that I had read about, such as Love Brewed in the African Pot, but couldn’t. I still haven’t seen it. All this goes to illustrate the point I made in my previous blog post, which is that one of the most important things affecting both film and the ideology of film is not the intentions of the director, but the infrastructure of production, distribution, and consumption. I’m not saying we don’t have anything. In fact, we have several of Sembene’s movies as well as a few by other directors, but the pickings are slim.

And here’s another thing that I discovered. Almost every single movie that my library had about Africa — whether those movies were made by Americans, Europeans, or Africans — all portrayed the people there as either suffering, corrupt, or screwed up. Or, they represented Africa as a place full of nature and animals. In other words, for the mainstream film industry, Africa is either a disaster or cute animals. And this is pretty much what the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina made fun of in his hilarious satire “How to Write about Africa” in 2005. And this is pretty much what the world-famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie was saying in her well-known TED lecture “The Danger of the Single Story” in 2009.

I was concerned about this. I knew that most of my students — if they knew anything about the many countries of Africa — probably got their information from the American media, which almost always focuses on the negative. In the American media, from stories in the New York Times to blockbuster movies such as Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener, Africa means disaster. Almost always disaster, unless you’re a child, and then it means the cute cartoon animals of movies like Madagascar. (And by the way, see my blog post about animals and nature in Kenya [here].) So, I didn’t want to show my students movies like that, because I thought those movies would just fit the stereotypes my students already had. Instead, I wanted to show them a movie that had characters that I liked — characters like the people from Africa whom I was friends with. People like the people I met during my trips to Kenya in 2009 and Ethiopia in 2010. Where were these people in the movies?

Probably the most famous African film-maker is Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, and he is very smart, but even many of his older movies just repeat the idea of Africa as a place of victims under the racist colonialism of Europe (e.g., the movie Black Girl) or as a place of corruption under neo-colonialism after independence (e.g., the movie Xala.) Now don’t get me wrong, I think Black Girl and Xala are great movies, but both of them are depressing.

So, basically the upshot is this. It seemed I basically had two choices. There were numerous American and European movies that illustrated what I think of as the “conservative” view of Africa, the chauvinist view of Africa in so many American and European movies that implies its culture is basically inferior. Or there were several African movies that illustrated what I think of as the “liberal” postcolonialist view of Africa, the view that suggests Africa is messed up because of European and American imperialism. Both of these ideologies miss it.

The only movie that our library had that I felt I could, in good conscience, show to my film class was one of Ousmane Sembene’s more recent films, Faat Kine, produced in 2001. I really like this movie a lot. It’s about a way-cool woman who raises two kids with the help of her mother and manages a successful business. At the beginning of the movie, her kids are going to find out if they passed their entrance exams for university. We eventually learn that the men who got her pregnant are jerks, but there is the possibility of romance with another man who is a pretty cool guy. She is a Muslim, and he is a Catholic, but this religious difference isn’t an overpowering issue. We see several conversations between her and her various friends. The characters talk frankly and realistically about sex. They crack jokes. Some are successful, some aren’t. These are like the people I know — like the people in the wonderful short stories by the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana. (By the way, you can watch a video of Doreen reading at St. John’s University in Minnesota [here].)

As critics have noticed, Faat Kine has a clever narrative structure, somewhat similar to the classic movie by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. It starts in the morning and ends in the evening, and although the story actually takes place over several days, it feels like a typical day in Kine’s life. It’s a sophisticated movie, with a complex plot and a tight narrative structure, about the modern-day middle class in Senegal.

So, this is the movie I decided to show to my class, because this was the only African movie in my school’s library that had characters whom I actually liked. This was the only movie that I could be sure would challenge the stereotypes I suspected many of my students might have had. And the important thing here is that this is a problem not of production but of distribution. I can only imagine the many movies that are out there that I’d like to see…. I know they exist, and our library does have a few, but I need to learn a whole lot more so that my students can have better access to them…. I’m looking for suggestions if anyone has any.

All that said, aside from the question of distribution and ancillary markets, there is a lot more that one could say about the complex ideological issues and narrative structure of Faat Kine….


March 2, 2011 - Posted by | movies


  1. Well, a lot of these Nollywood availability issues seem to have to do with the nature of that market, right? (Sorry, I’m weighing in again, topic hits home.)

    That “distribution system” basically evolved informally as a home video market (literally, as in, VCD technology) with licensing agreements among local producers and marketers, like the Ejiro/Isoko cartel… Which have always produced very low production quality films and are distributed entirely locally. I don’t think the word cartel is an overstatement. (A lot can also be said about the working conditions and power structure in that industry.) It would be interesting to look at Igbo dominance in the market, the racketeering, and how that structure copes with the (youtube-like) community emerging, and the Yoruba home-grown creativity blowing up outside of Lagos. (There was a documentary at Sundance about Nollywood, last year I think?)

    A friend at Pitt told me about a somewhat sizable Sembene festival in Pittsburgh a few months ago, so I imagine these resources have to be extant and share-able somewhere… I’ve heard of an African movie superstore in the Bronx, as well.

    Most of what I’ve been exposed to is due to a few websites that play pirated Nollywood clips, .rar files, torrents, etc. (Naijapals comes to mind); I watched the Ghanaian Rom-Com “Perfect Picture” entirely online, for free though in piecemeal – decent date movie, by the way.

    I agree, though, that the majority of the films to which I’ve been exposed that are not overtly Afro-pessimistic are closer in resemblance to old school morality plays than naturally occurring narratives.

    It’s (perhaps too) easy to surmise that cinema available to westerners sees “normal Africans” only when they have left Africa, and the majority of available films clearly play to this orientalist perspective. Incidentally… A while ago, I noticed that the few African movies I’ve heard about that were budgeted large enough to have a premier seem to have been premiered in London. (As an off-cuff observation, total conjecture.)

    Not to end things on a dour note, though – I got “Usuofia in London” at Blockbuster…

    Comment by Tim | March 3, 2011 | Reply

  2. I sympathize whole-heartedly. Not only is this lack of availability frustrating, but it also skews our views of what the ‘important’ works are. A work will become relevant just because it’s available, and snowball from there eclipsing an entire corpus within a decade or so. This isn’t limited to films by the way, but extends to print (novels etc…) as well.
    Next time, will you consider going north of the Sahara in your African segment?

    Comment by Ziad | March 4, 2011 | Reply

  3. Any chance you know Dr. James Burns at Clemson University? A film study guru and African specialist. You may want to be in touch with him regarding film availability.

    Comment by lucyslegacy | March 7, 2011 | Reply

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