Africa at Sundance 2014: The Quest for Global Humanity
By Boukary Sawadogo.
Sundance Film Festival is to independent cinema what Hollywood is to mainstream commercial cinema around the world. The best of independent filmmakers’ works compete for awards but also for visibility that could translate into distribution contracts. It is a festival that screens non-U.S. films in different competing categories like World Cinema Documentary Competition and World Cinema Dramatic Competition. In these categories, festivalgoers discover and appreciate works from other parts of the world including Africa. In considering films about Africa at Sundance Film Festival, there are a number of questions that need to be addressed including but not limited to: what does the audience learn about Africa? Do the films represent a particular emerging trend? If yes, what is the scope of that emerging trend and its meaning to the rest of the world?
In an attempt to address these questions, I focus on the corpus of films screened at the 2014 edition of Sundance, knowing in advance that such an approach, like any other, has its limits. For this study, the selected films include Concerning Violence by Göran Hugo Olsson, Finding Fela by Alex Gibney, and Difret by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. The choice of these films is evident as they are all able to capture the richness and challenges of Africa while showing the universal appeal of their subject matter. This article is structured around three main points including brief plot summaries of each film, how the selected films present and question violence, and the films’ portrayals of the quest for global humanity.
Based on previously unseen archival materials from various countries and time periods, Concerning Violence features African struggles for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. Africans used violence in response to the violence perpetrated by colonists. The documentary draws from the 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born French philosopher. In addition to constituting the narrative thread of the film, Fanon’s text contextualizes violence and helps viewers understand neocolonialism.
Finding Fela takes the viewer on a quest to discover the rich and challenging life journey of the Nigerian Afrobeat music star, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, from the 1970s to his death in 1997. Built around scenes from the Broadway musical Fela!, the film showcases how Fela used his music as a weapon to fight for social justice and change in the face of oil corruption, poverty and dictatorship. The musician’s engagement was met with sheer brutality from the military government including arrests, beatings, raids on his Kalkutta compound and the loss of his mother who was his moral support and source of inspiration.
Set in the 2000s in Ethiopia, the feature Difret is a nonfiction account about the traditional practice of abduction for marriage as a form of violence against women. The main character Hurit, a 14-year old girl, is abducted on her way home from school by Tadele and his friends. After being raped and abused, she manages to escape and accidently shoots Tadele as the group pursues her. The film is built around the tireless work of Meaza, from the Andinet Women Lawyers Association, to prove that Hurit acted in self-defense. Such a verdict for a woman has not been returned thus far in Ethiopia.
Irrespective of the genre, all three films deal with violence as either a means to change the sociopolitical order or as the result of a confrontation between asymmetrical forces. This historical look at violence serves mainly as a warning against repeating errors of the past, but also encourages the exploration of human-centered models. Such an approach rejects violence as a way of governance and focuses on the development of the human being in a continually globalizing world with shared responsibilities. This vision empowers individuals and societies to be agents for change within both local and global communities. The quest for a new global humanity, through better socio-economic models and values, emphasizes human welfare. In presenting different perspectives including feminist, activist and literary perspectives, Concerning Violence, Finding Fela and Difret provide viewers with a multifaceted lens through which they may read such a complex and global issue as violence. The films present different and yet complementary approaches to the treatment of violence as aggression, oppression, force or physical and psychological harm.
The encounter between Africa and Europe has been a violent experience for Africans as they struggled under European colonization for over two centuries. Colonialism is marked by military expeditions to claim territories and the use of force to maintain rule over the colonies. Two systems of rule are implemented including the French direct rule or assimilation that aims at replacing native culture with that of the colonizer, and the British indirect rule, which allows coexistence between native and foreign cultures. There is more to colonialism than physical aggression because psychological dimensions are the ones that carry the most damaging and lasting consequences for the locals. Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace (1994), set at the end of French colonial rule in Tunisia, is a good example as it depicts, through the servant Khedija, the psychological trauma that is suffered by oppressed subjects. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth presents a compelling argument about the alienation caused by colonialism. This alienation manifests itself in various ways such as complex of inferiority and identity crises for Africans, as is also evidenced in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952). In both texts, Fanon introduces the reader to a deep analysis of the psychology of the conqueror and the conquered. Other writers such as Albert Memmi have also developed psychological and sociological approaches to the study of colonialism. Regardless of the approach taken in their study, the conclusions invariably place violence at the center of any form of oppression.
In that regard, the opening of Concerning Violence is very revealing. It shows soldiers shooting cows from a helicopter and then getting off the helicopter to shoot a dead cow at close range. It is an example of sheer violence that echoed the narrator’s comment that “colonialism is violence in its natural state.” Violence permeates the social, economic and political structures that are created to maintain domination over the colonized. Segregation is a systematic separation of the living and working spaces on the basis of race, and the emergence of class barriers exacerbate tensions in a social context that is already experiencing strained relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor. The status quo becomes untenable as it is challenged for the injustice and exploitation that it perpetuates. Concerning Violence shows how a challenge to the system resulted in the emergence of the decolonization movement in African countries such as the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) led by Amilcar Cabral in the 1960s. The film portrays decolonization not only as the reversal of the sociopolitical order that was established by the colonizer, but also as a way to liberate the native’s consciousness. The confrontation seems inevitable as the film points out: “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” So the natives organized themselves into resistance groups or independence fighters in different territories: The Mozambique Liberation Front, The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Algerian Liberation Front, and others. These groups and many others resorted to guerilla tactics in fighting their colonial rulers.
The use of lethal force or intimidation went beyond the periods of colonization and decolonization, which underscores the scope of the damage done to the already shaky indigenous socio-economic structures. That fragility was further tested with the disillusionment that followed during the 1960s and 1970s, the period of independence for most African countries. Hopes for self-governance, prosperity, and, most importantly, the end of violence have quickly vanished as evidenced by the Biafran war and the Congo civil war. The trend of post-independence violence is also noticeable in parts of Asia: the partition of India that led to the creation of Pakistan and the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
In the newly independent countries, the shift in the forms and the perpetrators of violence is noticeable. The conflicts tend to become internal. Opposition to the central government is conducted through unions, rebellions or outspoken individual critics of its policies. Concerning Violence and Finding Fela highlight this continued violence as they show various examples of oppression, injustice, exploitation and corruption. Natural resources continue to be plundered by multinationals while impoverishing local communities. Corrupted leaders have no sense of national interest and suppress any dissenting voices. In this context, Fela’s message of social change has a greater resonance not only with Africans but also with anyone who feels oppressed. The universality of the message resides in the fact that it appeals to our shared humanity in the face of adversity. The shifting nature of violence has also brought new concepts. Human rights and good governance are promoted to fight against the abusive use of force and corruption practices. As a direct correlation of human rights, the physical and moral integrity of the human body is sanctified. Hence, the rejection of and ban on traditional practices that are detrimental to women’s well-being. The film Difret shows how the practice of abduction for marriage is a critical issue for women’s freedom and health in Ethiopia. Importantly, the film is not about gender but rather about the freedom of choice that everyone should have, regardless of geographical boundaries or socio-economic status.
As a whole, the changing nature of violence and its perpetrators has been met with different forms of resistance and the creation of new concepts. This situation attests to the pervasiveness of violence in the public sphere and also raises further questions about the meaning of the use of violence at both individual and systemic levels. As Concerning Violence reveals, violence acts as a cleansing of oneself since the colonized no longer fears the colonizer as the colonized fights to regain self-respect, identity and dignity. At the systemic level, we witness a dialectical dynamics in which each party tries to balance power in their favor. In general, progress is made as a result of competing forces, yet the asymmetrical nature of means puts the (de)colonized at a disadvantage given the economic, political and military power of the ruler. Multinationals and the establishment of foreign military bases in Africa are presented in the film as being at the intersection of colonialism and capitalism. The film Finding Fela takes a different perspective on the meaning of violence at the systemic level, presenting corruption and censorship as the means to an end in the exercise of power by African leaders. It is one-way violence in contrast to that of the colonial and decolonization periods. Given the scale and history of violence, there is a shared perception of its negativity and thus a denunciation of any system or entity that perpetuates its use. This rejection is evident in the message and the aesthetics of Concerning Violence, Finding Fela and Difret.
In the documentaries Concerning Violence and Finding Fela, the tone is direct and not allusive. The narrative in Concerning Violence is structured in nine different sections that allow the viewer to process the constant flow of archival materials. The on-screen texts accompanying the images in the footage are direct quotes from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The effective combination of text and image by the director echoes the rallying calls for action that the audience constantly hears in the voice-over from singer, songwriter and activist Lauryn Hill. It is a call to wake up to a festering situation of a systemic violence that is going nearly unquestioned by citizens of the Western world.
In Finding Fela, the directness of the message lies in the songs and the daily performances of the musician in his club that is known as the “Shrine.” Framed as a journey to (re)discover Fela, the viewer is quickly confronted with numerous acts of violence in the film. Violence appears in three models: personal, like the scars left on Fela’s back from the police beatings; dramatic, with the loss of his mother through police brutality; and systemic, with the widening gap between different socio-economic classes. At the end of the film, the viewer is left with a gruesome and violent picture of what it is like to stand up against oppression. The fight for social change is about empowering individuals and raising political consciousness. For instance, the lyrics of Fela’s hit song “Zombie” show direct criticism of the mob/group mentality:
Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
In addition to the tone, the symbolic significance of the closing scenes of Concerning Violence and Finding Fela reinforce the power of the message. The closing scene of Finding Fela shows Fela in a militant posture with his two arms stretched out towards the sky and his gaze full of passion and determination. This image embodies the musician’s commitment to the fight against corruption and arbitrary rule, thus cementing his historical legacy as an anti-establishment figure. The same fighting spirit is evident in the calls for rejection of the European model that are made in the closing scenes of Concerning Violence.
The film Difret is constructed around a suspenseful narrative with lots of long shots. In this way, the director emphasizes the psychological aspect of trauma. Emotions or states of mind are conveyed by long silences and flashbacks. The once cheerful Hirut has now withdrawn into herself, highlighting her internal struggle with the oppressive external world. Depicting the psychological drama of female protagonists through silence has a long tradition in African filmmaking, as in Ousmane Sembene’s 1966 Black Girl or Khady Sylla’s The Silent Monologue that was released in 2008. The subject matter of violence against women is generally approached through a binary paradigm in African cinemas. Difret showcases that binary distinction by contrasting customary law with modern law and opposing the traditional practice of abduction for marriage to women’s freedom of choice. Such an approach invariably leads to the characterization of what is good or bad, which here manifests itself in the rejection of abduction for marriage.
If violence is a common thread in Concerning Violence, Finding Fela and Difret, the question is how is its treatment relevant to the rest of the world. In other words, how are examples of violence in Africa of particular importance to the world today?
These three films seek to sound the alarm against oppressive practices and to introduce to the world African figures whose sociopolitical engagement has universal resonance. Given the lessons learned from the past, there is a call for new human(ity)-centered model and for concepts and socio-economic practices that promote a different vision of global humanity and collaboration. Examples from the history of Africa show just how acts of violence can be degrading to the individual and handicapping to the development of the society. Amidst these development efforts, the ultimate focus should be on the advancement of a new human being by rejecting the various forms of oppression that have always marked human relationships at the individual and systemic levels. Fanon’s work thus stands at a critical juncture today, helping to examine violence in colonial and postcolonial settings and presenting a perspective on the kind of humanity that we should strive for.
Concerning Violence examines that violence from both sides in colonial Africa and emphasizes that colonists were disproportionately violent and motivated by an ideology of domination. Colonial history shows, according to the documentary, that Europe is not an ideal model (just look at the violent history of a country like the US that has aped Europe). So, “let us try to create the whole human being, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth. For Europe, for ourselves, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new human being.” This call by the voice-over narrator is intended for all, and particularly the citizens of the Western countries because they need to realize that their governments will perpetuate the use of violence if they do nothing. It is a call for a commitment to foster global collaboration and reject all “negations of humanity.”
The quest for a new human being is also at the core of Fela’s determination to bring about significant changes to people’s lives in Nigeria. His engagement never wavered throughout his career as he continued to be the voice of the voiceless in an oppressive system. These are the types of battles that many unknown heroes have fought during the Arab Spring, or continue to engage in other places like Brazil’s favelas. Everyone should be able to enjoy their rights, including the physical and moral integrity of their person as evidenced in Difret.
The history of colonial and postcolonial violence, the story of Fela’s sociopolitical engagement, and traditional customs manifested as violence against women are all things that Africans know very well about their continent. Fela’s musical legacy is still vibrant today with Femi and Seun Kuti who followed in the footsteps of their father. As for European colonialism in Africa, it is taught in schools and is also the subject of films like Camp de Thiaroye (1988) or The Battle of Algiers (1966). So Concerning Violence, Finding Fela and Difret are meant for a non-African audience, to demonstrate the familiarity of Africans with these subject matters. In that context, these films are mostly aimed at making a global audience discover a quest for a more humane world.
Finally, casting an eye back on the quest for global humanity points to the ways in which there is a constant negotiation between contextualization of violence and the projection of the universality of the human condition. By choosing to engage with various forms of violence in colonial and postcolonial Africa, Concerning Violence, Finding Fela and Difret demonstrate how these attacks on our humanness concerns us all. Victims and perpetrators of violence stand to lose their humanity, which is a call to revisit models and notions about how we interact at the local and global levels. Like this year with Concerning Violence on colonial and postcolonial Africa, it would also be very enlightening to see at future editions of the Sundance Film Festival works by independent filmmakers that engage with violence in pre-colonial Africa.
Boukary Sawadogo is Assistant Professor of African cinemas and French at Marlboro College, USA.
Fanon, Frantz (1963), The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
__ (1991), White Masks, Black Skin, New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Memmi, Albert (1965), The Colonizer and the Colonized, New York: Orion Press.
 A Tunisian-born French writer and essayist whose best-known book is The Colonizer and the Colonized that was published in 1957.
 The Biafran war (1967-70) began when the Ibos decided to secede from Nigeria because they felt marginalized. In terms of geographical distribution, the Haussa are up North, the Yoruba down South and the Ibo in the middle. But the social reality is that there is more integration than the ethnic divide might suggest.