A Book Review by Cecilia A. Zoppelletto.
Charting the recent film industry of an entire continent is an unimaginable task and, even if that could be done, the result would be an encyclopaedic creation of hundreds of pages satisfying merely the need for lists and facts. But is it actually possible to quickly understand the “atmosphere” of different parts of this vast continent forcibly transpiring in the work of the filmmakers without promoting the usual generalisations? The series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture from Rutgers University Press (2017) wants to do just that with its latest release New African Cinema. Valerie K. Orlando’s full immersion into the world of African cinema lets us sense the significance of its themes and periods from the first years of independence to today. We are guided to look into the continent chronologically and foremost realize the existence of different industries and appreciate their common threads which are finally explained in the wider experience of being an African.
Befitting the task is the preparation and previous works of Orlando. Professor of French & Francophone Literatures in the Department of French & Italian at the University of Maryland, she is known for numerous articles on Francophone women’s writing from the African diaspora and African Cinema and is the author of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society (Ohio UP, 2011), Francophone Voices of the ‘New Morocco’ in Film and Print: (Re)presenting a Society in Transition (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), Of Suffocated Hearts and Tortured Souls: Seeking Subjecthood Through Madness in Francophone Women’s Writing of Africa and the Caribbean (Lexington Books, 2003) and Nomadic Voices of Exile: Feminine Identity in Francophone Literature of the Maghreb, (Ohio University Press, 1999) and The Algerian New Novel: The Poetics of a Modern Nation, 1950-1979 (University of Virginia Press, 2017).
Professor Orlando’s extensive knowledge of literature in the continent seems to be an input also for New African Cinema as the strong relationship between literature and cinema, and its impact on the writers and practitioners of the diaspora, returns as a major determinant of the cultural production of the continent. This constant engagement is explored in most geographical areas of the continent to explain much of African cinema’s inspiration, as with a discussion of Le silence de la forêt (The Forest, 2003), a Central African Republic production directed Bassek Ba Kobhio and Didier Ouenangare and based on Colin Turnbull’s 1961 novel, The Forest People.
The key to this book is in the title “New African Cinema,” as it delves into identifying the new aspects of a cinema that has evolved out of a search for identity, economic struggle, political upheaval, and technical and other difficulties specific to the medium. In discursive fashion, Orlando analyses the context and themes of African cinema with an objective synthesis that engages with the most important books written on the subject and the major philosophical approaches to the topic. From the works of Fanon to Armes and then Laqueret and Mbembe, the vision is comprehensive when exploring ideas and approaches of both Francophone and Anglophone film and cultural studies.
The author begins by giving an informed contextual basis for the focus and ambitions of post-independence cinema in Africa. This is then followed by what is happening now and how this might be in conflict with external expectations of African cinema. Orlando brings the reader out of the stereotypes and comfort zone of previous narratives. The West as a term of reference has now been eliminated as the new African filmmakers are not working on that relationship anymore. The interest does not lie on the anti/post/because-of the West images of the past as the generations are now deeply concerned instead on independently participating in the world and the continent at large.
Through discussion of a series of poignant films expanding from the Maghreb to Sub-Saharan Africa it is elucidated how filmmakers are dealing with new questions, from interrogating the urban environment to exploring gender assumptions and sexual orientation. The picture becomes clear that Africa is interested in itself and the inspirations come from within. Orlando explores the Africanization of universal themes, where self-perception is the driving force of narrative, and demonstrates its strength through a range of contemporary works, some of international fame and others of equal importance but perhaps lesser known.
The book calls attention in this regard to a theme usually overlooked by studies of African cinema: the environment. The great catastrophe of our time is present in African storytelling, it exists as a concern and its consequences are narrated through displaced populations in Algerian and Senegalese films but also exemplary by the ecocritics from Cameroon and the Central African Republic Ba Khobio and Ouenangare. This is Africanization of “new awakenings and new realities”.
New African Cinema shows us a filmmaking on the continent as the honest voice that can give us a transparent and documented understanding of Africa whilst at the same time it has been able to create and bolster a cultural dynamism which we are witnessing in different regions such as West Africa with the so-called Nollywood and Gollywood industries. As distribution in Africa has its own discontinuous patterns, these cultures are necessary to bring forward the need for accessibility to film which seldom happens in a theatre, thus creating more possibilities and relevance for the films produced for television. This opens a space for the reconciliation of high and low art, where low art in Africa is in a privileged position to reach higher complex narratives that challenge ideas of morality, gender and modernity.
The book explores how film throughout the continent has changed in content and in delivery, providing a rich variety of form in the different industries looked at by Orlando, such as the polars of Morocco, soap operas of South Africa and the Nigerian blockbusters.
The strength of this work is evident in the way it is able to make meaningful links between the different film industries of such an extensive territory and provide a basis for which we can appreciate both the singularity of their work and the common ground of the African experience. This interwoven approach to the new African narrative makes this quick take not just a well-researched and fascinating account of the industry but also a very engaging read, for one should be prepared to go through it with pen and paper as the list of ‘must watch’ films will be augmented even for African film connoisseurs. Orlando gives an approachable understanding of the major literature written on African cinema with an overview of the most significant thinkers on the topic, reinforced by her own perspectives and I recommend this title to all researchers interested in African film, as well as to those who are starting to read about modern African culture.
Cecilia A. Zoppelletto has over ten years’ experience in TV production, having worked for the TV newtork Antenna Tre Nordest and the London Bureau of RAI, the Italian State broadcaster. Cecilia is currently researching the film archives of the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the PhD research at the University of Westminster. Her directorial debut, the feature documentary La Belle at The Movies (2016) investigates the disappearance of cinemas and the film industry in Kinshasa.