In the competitive but lucrative US market, African films are still on the margins. New York-based Kino International and California Newsreel in San Francisco are two rare American companies struggling to fill this gap by distributing African videos and DVDs in the US. Recently, Kino released three African films, YEELEN (1987), HYENAS (1992) and GENESIS (1999) on DVD as a part of the company's tradition of distributing classics and foreign language art films. (HYENAS was released in association with the California Newsreel's Library of African Cinema, the largest library of African films and videos in the country.)
As the three DVDs arrive in American video stores, one might be tempted to ask how well these DVDs will do with American audiences. Will they face the same difficulty other African films have had finding broader audiences in the US? And why are African videos and DVDs so absent from the American market? There are no quick or simple answers to these questions.
Nonetheless, we can say that the absence of African videos and DVDs in the US market is tied to the specific challenges facing African films throughout the international market. Film producers in Africa lack strong commercial organizations to help them distribute and exhibit their films, both in Africa and abroad. As a result, the distribution of African films is carried out individually by African filmmakers themselves, with the support of European and American companies, a situation which looks like that of independent filmmakers anywhere -- although the difficulties faced by independent filmmakers in more affluent countries pale in comparison to the ordeals experienced by African filmmakers.
Made by three major Francophone African directors, YEELEN, HYENAS and GENESIS have already gained unique significance in universities and risen to a special place in world cinema because of their highly stylized and metaphorical representations of contemporary Africa. All three films use allegory to tell their stories about Africa's descent into political chaos and economic poverty at the end of the 20th century. These fin de siècle fables describe the betrayal of the dreams of development and progress that followed an enthusiastic independence era in post-World-War II Africa.
YELEEN is the fourth feature by Malian Souleymane Cissé, a pioneer and leading figure of African cinema (along with Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène). In 1987, YEELEN won both the Grand Jury Prize of the International Film Festival at Cannes and the Golden Prize of the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. Since then, the film has earned critical acclaim around the world.
Loosely based on the oral epic of ancient Mali, YEELEN is set in an unspecified time in a Bambara kingdom in pre-colonial West Africa. The film mixes legend and history to recount the struggle for power and knowledge between Nianankoro, a son with a Promethean complex, and his father Soma, who is a sorcerer and the high priest of a secret society known as the Komo. Nianankoro -- a newly initiated Bambara warrior with supernatural powers --wants to end the Bambara's abuse of power and secret knowledge. Considered a dangerous threat to the privileges of the Komo Order, he is banned and persecuted. The secret order mandates that one of its members - the warrior's father, Soma -- find and punish Nianankoro. This clash between Nianankoro and the members of the Komo order is seen in Africa as a metaphor for young people's rebellion against autocratic regimes in Mali and Africa during the 1980s.
HYENAS was the last feature by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, who died in Paris in July 1998. During a "career" that spanned almost three decades, Mambéty was a non-conformist who completed only two features and a few short films. His second feature HYENAS was made almost twenty years after his first feature, TOUKI BOUKI, or THE JOURNEY OF THE HYENA. The 1973 TOUKI BOUKI, considered a classic of African cinema, is an avant-garde film about disillusioned youth -- their existentialist search for meaning in independent 1960s Senegal, and their ironic fascination with France, the old colonial power. Like TOUKI BOUKI, HYENAS is a tour de force in symbolic storytelling and a centerpiece in Mambety's obsessive quest for an African style of cinema.
Based on Swiss playwright Frederich Dürrenmatt's "The Visit of the Old Woman" (which was made into a movie with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in 1964), HYENAS is a dark satire on human greed and a nightmarish tale of how things have gone astray in present-day Africa. Mambety's version of "The Visit" is set in contemporary Senegal. Linguère Ramatou, a rich old woman, returns to her native neighborhood of Colobane on the outskirt of Dakar to unleash bittersweet revenge against her former lover, Draman Drameh. Years before, Draman Drameh betrayed and abandoned Ramatou after she became pregnant to marry a wealthy woman. Driven out of Colobane, Ramatou was forced into prostitution, and miraculously, she became very rich. Now that she is "richer than the World Bank," according to the praise songs of musicians in Colobane, billionaire Ramatou promises her riches to the townspeople (and all the glitters of consumer society), but only if they will kill her former lover Draman Drameh.
The film provides a hypnotic and sarcastic account of this Faustian bargain between the desperate townspeople and the unforgiving Ramatou, offering a metaphor for the present-day impoverishment and plunder of Africa by corrupt local leaders and institutions like the Word Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Cheick Oumar Sissoko's GENESIS is another ambitious end-of-the-century allegory by a member of the second generation of African filmmakers. Written by French screenwriter Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux, the film is a revisionist adaptation of GENESIS, the biblical story about fratricidal strife in the house of Abraham, set now in a West African context. Drawing from the Old Testament, the film chronicles the internecine conflict among three clans: the hunter-gatherers led by Isaac's elder son Esau (played by famous Malian singer and pop star Salif Keïta), his younger brother Jacob's clan of monotheistic nomadic herdsmen, and their cousin Hamor's Canaanite clan of sedentary farmers who still practice polytheism.
The plot of GENESIS, which seems convoluted to many, is driven by a series of events that lead to a deadly conflict amongst the three clans. As Esau roams the mythic space of the story, he plots a merciless revenge against his younger brother Jacob, who has tricked him out of his birthright. Jacob, on the other hand, has become a recluse as symbolic self-punishment for his own actions that led to the selling into slavery of his favorite son Joseph by his own envious brothers. Harmor the Canaanite is drawn into the conflict when his son Sechem abducts Jacob's simple-minded daughter Dinah. The pacifist Hamor proposes intermarriage as a possible solution to their differences, and he even allows the two youngsters to marry, but not before he has been forced by Jacob's sons to accept a condition that all the Canaanite males must be circumcised. Following the circumcision, Jacob's clan led by his sons raids the compound of the Canaanites and slaughters all the males. Their deceitful act further propels the cycle of violence in this story of hatred and revenge.
Like his previous film GUIMBA, THE TYRANT, which is itself an allegory about dictatorship in contemporary Africa, Sissoko's GENESIS symbolically delves into the current drama of civil wars and conflicts in Africa and around the world. Sagot-Duvauroux and Sissoko's bold revision of this archetypal story of madness and vengeance not only gives the biblical story a genuine African perspective, it also infuses the historical experience of Africa with universal understanding.
From the early 1980s onward, allegory as a means of social criticism has become a widespread practice in African cinema, and has helped filmmakers develop an aesthetic of resistance in countries that have become increasingly totalitarian. Ultimately, all three of these films symbolically explore the fate of Africa, as the continent struggles with both real and imaginary forces: internal and external, economic and political, social and cultural.
* This article first appeared in “Really Good Films” online magazine, and it is republished here with a kind permission of the author. Hamidou Soumah is an independent film scholar who lives and teaches in Los Angeles.
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