Film hunger

This is why I’m here: got re-acquainted with an old friend I knew from a jazz festival in Saint Louis du Sénégal, a few years ago. Simon Pierre Bell, artist, filmmaker, just sent me a mail telling me he had organised a documentary festival in his town. He was paying part of the festival cost out of his own pocket and as a result lived like a hermit.

Intrigued? I was. So I checked my bank account, got myself a ridiculously expensive air ticket to Yaoundé (but that’s a rant for another day) et me voila içi. This is a huge place, built on hills (seven, like Roma and Lisbon), which means the roads twist and turn and double back on themselves. Add to that the usual anarchic traffic and you have a paradise for…taxi drivers. They pretty much have the place to themselves and so you may find yourself waiting endlessly until one of them deigns to take you with him. You either have the wrong destination or you don’t offer them enough fare. Destination and proposed fare are both shouted through the open car windows up front and then the driver either beeps his consent (rare) or thumbs his nose, puts on an expression of deep miserable contempt for the would-be passenger – and presses the accelerator (frequently).

 So, on to the festival, Image En Live, as Bell calls it. Now first off, here in Yaoundé, like everywhere else in Africa, movie theatres have been converted to supermarkets, churches, offices or warehouses. So where do you put on a documentary film festival? In the only places that still have a screen: the French and German cultural centres. But my good friend has plans a tad more ambitious: he wants the films shown in the outlying areas of this vast town. We’ll see if that succeeds, the logistics are pretty daunting.

Image en live has put together a pretty big program, some 50 films are shown in a matter of days. Most have the signature of an African filmmaker. A big plus as I found out to my pleasant surprise. Why is that?

 OK. First, they are not handicapped by a Western mindset. So the idea that a film, or a report, or a documentary, must be made to show some kind of suffering in order to get help to these poor folks, is mercifully absent. The films I have seen so far also remain equally mercifully free of the usual desire to moralise and pass judgement.

What you see, therefore, is what you get. A portrait of a notorious Yaoundé neighbourhood (called: My Eldorado). Trucks getting stuck en route in the DR Congo. A portrait of a builder of musical instruments.

And one that I particularly liked: a personal story of a young woman who lived through a series of in-family adoptions. This is a common practice in many parts of Africa (the film was shot in Mali) and Awa Traoré puts her own experience, a mixture of good and bad, in context. She talks to mothers who have been adopting children, she talks to those who have been adopted. Some of them have had happy times, others have had experiences so dreadful that they have decided to live on the street. She goes back to her old village and talks to an old griot (the singer/storyteller who is the repository of tradition), who explains why this practice exists.

Once again and crucially, she does something most Westerners coming to these shores are unable to do: she leaves you to make up your own mind. No development agenda, no dogma (religious, environmentalist, feminist or otherwise), no moral panic button: just show how things are, don’t tell anyone how and what to think.

These are the kind of films that could only be made here. And they will increasingly be made here. Simon Pierre Bell has opened up a rich seam here and we have something to celebrate.

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