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Cinema and Development in West Africa: Film as a Vehicle for Liberation

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Cinema and Development in West Africa shows how the film industry in Francophone West African countries played an important role in executing strategies of nation building during the transition from French rule to the early postcolonial period. James E. Genova sees the construction of African identities and economic development as the major themes in the political literature and cultural production of the time. Focusing on film both as industry and aesthetic genre, he demonstrates its unique place in economic development and provides a comprehensive history of filmmaking in the region during the transition from colonies to sovereign states.

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1 The Cinema Industrial Complex in French West Africa to the 1950s

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In 1949, André Lemaire submitted a report to Commission du cinéma d’outremer, a division of the Ministère de la France d’outre-mer (formerly the Ministère des colonies) that addressed matters pertaining to cinema in the French colonies, that signaled the emergence of a new dimension to the cultural politics of empire in French-ruled West Africa. In this report, Lemaire discussed the problem of “raising the level of the Africans,” which he argued had been solved for the elite but not the masses. To further France’s objectives, Lemaire said officials should recognize that “in most cases” they were operating in social contexts in which societies “are organized on traditional bases of oral culture and [are] more open to the concrete thing than the abstract thing.” Consequently, he continued, “it seems that the image is particularly designed to resolve in part the problem here posed.” Lemaire then came to the point of his recommendations. He argued that “in effect, there is by now no doubt that the procedures of visual education, and in particular the cinema, are extremely powerful means of expression and susceptible of rapidly diffusing among the nonevolved population the most diverse [forms of] knowledge. The subtlety of that means of expression enables addressing practically all the problems in adapting the level of the exposé to that of the spectator.” Lemaire concluded that “the use of audiovisual procedures” to generate “reciprocal information” and “to culturally orient the populations in all areas, technical, economic, and social, is liable to ameliorate the human climate and favor a harmonious entente” between Africans and Europeans. He urged the French administrators to study how the Belgians, English, and Americans used film to advance their interests.1

 

2 The Colonialist Regime of Representation, 1945–60

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“Between the public and the screen,” Robert Delavignette observed in 1948, “there is a space for misunderstanding that risks altering the knowledge of the world that the screen projects. It is for this mutual comprehension that the film is an irreplaceable and superior instrument.”1 Delavignette’s concern centered on the potential for the distortion of meaning that the filmic image inherently allowed for. The “real” world captured by the camera somehow had to be “properly” understood by the viewer. The problem, as we have seen, was that the audience always brought to the space of the cinema certain cultural preconceptions, a universe of comprehension that structured the ways in which images were received. Motion pictures could fail if they did not take into consideration those who would be the consumers. Consequently, film was an intrinsically unstable device for transmitting “truth” and eliciting predetermined outcomes—the “space for misunderstanding” that troubled Delavignette. As Adorno notes, “The potential gap between … intentions and their actual effect … is inherent in the medium.”2 The articulation of a comprehensive “film politics” around the cinema industrial complex of the 1950s in French West Africa was, therefore, accompanied by a deep concern over what transpired in the realm of representation. While the materialist aspects of filmmaking were essential to the development projects the French imperial nation-state aimed at its overseas territories, which would also assist the metropole’s postwar reconstruction, officials throughout the imperial hierarchy deemed the images projected to and about Africans to be of equal importance in their universal conceptualization of the cinematic field.

 

3 West African Anticolonial Film Politics, 1950s–60s

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In 1959 at the Second World Congress of Black Writers and Artists, convened in Rome, Italy, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra issued a bold proclamation: “We want a cinema in the service of the people.” For Vieyra, the appropriation and adaptation of the cinema industrial complex in West Africa was crucial for the region’s (and Africa’s) economic and cultural development. “Film, in this domain,” he explained, “has some enormous responsibilities in our land.” Vieyra conceived of the production of African motion pictures as a “motor” for economic progress, a means for allowing “the African people to acquire a more just notion of their own condition” and as a way, through the export of those commodities, “to represent the true face of Africa” with “authentically national films.”1 In other words, Vieyra led the call for Africans to articulate an anticolonial film politics that would transform the region’s emergent cinema industrial complex into an agent for the emancipation of subject peoples and the construction of modern African societies. In the mid-1950s he became one of the founders of West African cinema, and by the late 1960s he had clearly emerged as a central figure in the adumbration of African film practice and theory.

 

4 The Postcolonial African Regime of Representation

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With independence in 1960 France lost its official control of the cinema industrial complex in West Africa. Technically, the era of the Laval decree and the colonial film politics built on its foundation had come to a close. Consequently, aspiring West African filmmakers had the space to create their own image-Africa for the first time as well as the opportunity to seize the existing materialist structure of the film industry in the region and direct it toward the economic development of the newly sovereign countries. The cultural activists from the region who wanted to make films confronted a long-entrenched heritage as they sought to enter the business of making motion pictures. Sembène summarized the regime of representation against which they had to struggle: “From the birth of the cinema, the African countries have been subjected to the image of the Western cinema and to its rhythmic movement. On the screens of black Africa were often projected nothing but the histories of a dull stupidity, foreign to our existence.” Even if Africans had made it into the films, they were often cast “in the role of a servant or of a public entertainer.” “For Africa,” he concluded, “the seventh art was for a long time unilateral in the sense that it did not transport a single portrayal of our universe.”1

 

5 The West African Cinema Industrial Complex, 1960s–70s

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In 1968 Robert Delavignette, the ex-colonial administrator and author of Les paysans noirs, gave his take on the meaning of the end of French rule in West Africa. Commenting on the prospects for the region’s future he wrote, “Decolonization, it is independence. But independence is not real unless it is linked with the economic and social development of the decolonized country.” And, for that development to be realized, he added, “the cooperation of the [newly independent] country with some other countries,” namely, France, was required.1 Several years earlier as a participant in a roundtable conference sponsored by the Association française de science politique he had discussed at length the continued necessity of cooperation between France and the former overseas territories after they attained political sovereignty in order for them to develop appropriately. At the meeting Delavignette said, “The subaltern cadres rapidly assimilate the rudiments of the matters that we would want them to learn; they recognize that they derive from [those lessons] some material benefits, and they aspire to progress in the apprenticeship [and obtain] some [of the] secrets of the White people’s technical prowess.”2 Delavignette’s rhetoric was consistent with France’s reconfigured civilizing mission in the late colonial period, in the formulation of which he had played a major part.

 

Postscript: Francophone West African Cinema to the Present

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This study has argued for the importance of the cinema industrial complex as a site of contestation between French colonial (and postcolonial) officials and West African cultural activists from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s over the shape and nature of African cultural and economic development in the region. In the mid-1970s West African cineastes could point to significant progress in wresting control over the materialist and representational aspects of the cinematic field from France and foreign distribution companies. By the time FEPACI gathered for its second congress in 1975 dozens of filmmakers from the region had picked up the camera and produced remarkable work. From Sembène’s 1963 release of Borom Sarret to Mambety’s Touki-bouki a decade later, Francophone West African cinema had undergone profound growth both qualitatively and quantitatively. Cineastes from the region had produced the first full-length feature, the first color feature film, and the first motion picture primarily in an African language. Moreover, Hondo, Cissé, Mambety, and others had contributed to the articulation of an African cinematographic discourse that was multivalent but that still could be described as specifically “African.” Despite ongoing debates about aesthetics and commercial vs. political film, by the mid-1970s there was an African cinema that did not exist a decade earlier.

 

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