Posts Tagged ‘film’

Elections in Gondwana

September 7, 2019

Journeys by bus take long in this part of the world. Not just because of the hours wasted crossing borders – each border on average takes hours – but simply because of the distances. Bamako to Cotonou is doable but will take a few days, require visas for each country I traverse (three or four, depending on the route) and fingers crossed that the border crossings don’t take three or four hours each. (Travelling on smaller vehicles will also help.)

Invariably, during these long trips we are treated to video. Yes, these are modern buses (made in China, thank you very much) with airconditioning set to an ungodly 17-18 degrees Celsius or less and retractable television screens, usually two.

Yep, these are the ones. Pic from Africa Tours Trans Facebook page. Taken in Bamako, before the Independence Monument.

When the screens come down from the ceiling, expect to be treated to any of the following:

  1. Video clips by popular artists. These can range from excellent to appalling. But that’s alright, usually the music bounces along happily and the journey gets a little less boring.
  2. Concert clips by big names, ranging from Oumou Sangaré to Salif Keita and many many more, with a surprisingly large number of clips from the inimitable Afrikafestival in the Dutch village of Hertme, which has a YouTube channel. (I’m preparing a radio story about this festival, coming up shortly…)
  3. Long, meandering slow-moving films, in one of the many languages spoken here and usually revolving around some village intrigue or other. A lot of these come from Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea. You also have the Nollywood variety, faster-paced and in English, a language most passengers between Bamako, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Dakar and Lomé do not understand, a fact that bothers precisely nobody.
  4. Other stuff. Thankfully, there has been a marked decline in the formerly ubiquitous US World Wrestling Federation (or whatever it’s called) with it fake stage “wrestling matches”, just as there has been an equally welcome decline in the formerly ubiquitous presence of the inexplicably popular Céline Dion on the buses stereo systems, which tend to come on as soon as a clip/film/other thing ends.

We now get Nigerian pop (confusingly called Afrobeats but otherwise very welcome with its laid-back flair), coupé-décalé (noisy and chaotic, a reflection of the place and time it comes from), plenty of classics and a lot of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety that gets mass-produced everywhere in the world with the added annoyance that people’s singing voices get mangled by some software that seems to be deliberately designed to piss off as many music lovers as possible…

And then, occasionally, there’s a surprise. On a recent trip I was treated to a film called Bienvenue au Gondwana.

This may ring a bell for some of you. If you listen to RFI (Radio France Internationale) in the morning on weekdays, which I do regularly, you are likely to come across the voice of Mamane, a humorist/satirist from Niger. This voice, I will readily admit, is an acquired taste. It does not work for me; on the contrary: I find his vocal mannerism hugely annoying. He is better on the stage where he has a bunch of pretty good routines.

His tales revolve around an African country he invented, Gondwana. It has been run since forever and will forever be run by a figure who is only known as Président-Fondateur. You don’t have to look very far for models – think Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his more-or-less benign autocracy in Côte d’Ivoire, or the rapacious reign of Zaïrean kleptocrat Mobutu or indeed the recently departed Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his fear-based rule. The Président-Fondateur is a combination of these elements – we get copious amounts of posters with his face on it plastered all over the capital and we get scenes with opposition members who have been locked up. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; like a Big Brother his presence hovers over the nation but his is also a disembodied presence. He communicates to his subjects through a television station that is required to relay his message verbatim. Such as the announcement of an election date.

Mamane populates Gondwana with a merry cast of other characters and the inspiration for his radio talks usually comes from current affairs: some useless conference somewhere, talk of some head of state or other planning to rule for the rest of his life, a doctored election, a protest movement, sports events, you name it. (Yes, I sometimes do make it to the end of his mannered speeches…)

Gondwana virtually begged for cinematographic treatment and this happened a few years ago. I don’t think the finished product made it to many cinemas, which I think is a shame, having seen it now. I sat up as the bus rumbled along, hoping that we would not be interrupted by another corrupt control post and hoping that the apprentice, who runs the entertainment program, would not decide that he was bored halfway through and switch to another program. My prayers were heard; neither happened and I settled in for what was to be quite interesting and satisfying. Here’s the trailer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUCacy3ooQU

 

Gondwana: The Movie, shot in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro and Paris, is a series of stories cleverly woven into each other. A French (of course) politician/lobbyist/businessman sends one of the younger employees in his company to Gondwana, to be part of a very hollow ritual: the international observer mission to a national election. The elderly Frenchman will also be part of the delegation, not to observe, mind you, but to get his Gondwanean counterpart to buy the asparagus that are grown in his  constituency back home. There are other members in the delegation, including an earnest looking white woman – the European Union has an endless supply of them – and one black man who on arrival is separated from the rest of the delegation by two very rude policemen who simply do not believe that he is, also, an observer. Mamane gently inserts a good jab about internalised racism here.

Cut to another scene: the pointless ritual known as The Press Conference. The delegation has met the government and they have decided on what set of platitudes to deliver to the hacks in the hall. This time though, it does not go entirely according to plan, as a young activist stands up and delivers a speech denouncing the farce about to unfold. She manages to make her point before being hauled away by security and beguile the young Frenchman who starts to suspect that something rotten may be happening in the state of Gondwana. The elderly Frenchman wants nothing of it. After all, he’s not here to observe this circus, he’s here to sell asparagus.

Our young Frenchman finds his way to the underground protest movement, where we see cameo performances of two artists with a long reputation for their outspokenness: Senegalese rap master Awadi and reggae’s uncompromising Tiken Jah Fakoly. Then the protest concert is violently broken up by the police. Our Frenchman gets temporarily lost, manages to get himself rescued and on arrival back at the très très chic hotel where the delegation is being housed (of course) he is berated by the slightly sinister duo that was hired to not only lead the delegation quite voluntarily up the garden path but also pay and/or intimidate opposition politicians into going along with the game of the Président-Fondateur.

Oh and thank Heavens, or rather, Mamane: our Frenchyoungster and the extremely pretty activist do not fall in love; he clearly is besotted but she has her own love life, thank you very much.

Our young French would-be hero gets a little dressing-down from his minders. (Pic from the film review on the website 20minutes.fr)

Most of the characters remain fairly one-dimensional but together they give us Mamane’s mildly cynical view of how elections are run in a depressingly large number of countries; there is growing doubt, and in my mind correctly so, about the merits of the multi-party democracy formula that was essentially rammed down everybody’s throat when the Cold War ended and the West discovered the merits of “democracy” in its former colonies. Mali is an excellent example of this. The film also adds a few more examples of what I have previously called “white lifeforms” on the African continent. Because yes of course, the Frenchman gets to sell his blooming asparagus and of course the election-farce returns Président-Fondateur to power for another term. If you have a chance, go and watch it: a light-hearted look at a serious matter.

Ouaga in a hurry

June 17, 2015

In Holland there is a saying, that, roughly – and badly – translated goes like this: ‘That one? Too funny. He’s got the laughs hanging off his arse.’ Or, as the case may be – and it is today – He is a She from Burkina Faso.

Roukiata Ouédraogo’s the name. Grew up in Burkina Faso, left for France, worked in fashion, theatre (combining both for a while) – and film. A while ago I had the great pleasure of seeing her in action, alone on stage at the French Institute (yes, they still have them) in Ouagadougou. The show is called Ouaga pressé, Ouaga in a hurry. First presented in 2012, this is a whirlwind tour – aka the life of a young woman growing up, going to school, getting about, dancing to lots of music and travelling (cue the inevitable and interminable negotiations between African women and any airline about the amount of excess luggage allowed).

Ouédraogo does not need many props, just a few suitcases, a box here and there. The lady is centre stage, in a red robe, draped around her generous physique, which she uses to great effect. After all, is her nickname not Petit Modèle…?

We follow her in the family home with the usual copious amounts of intrigue and backstabbing and then in Paris, where she visits the institution that to a lot of women is what the pub used to be for men: that extra living room when your own is getting too small. We are (of course!) in a salon de coiffure, or hairdressing saloon, where you can spend many hours immersed in gossip and self-indulgence. But then another visitor arrives, clearly not from Chateau Rouge, where – naturally – the saloon is located. Nope. This new client is white.

‘You lost here?’ the owner asks innocently.

Ah, no, the Frenchwoman wants something from the saloon. Which she gets, at a massively inflated price. We all have to live, right?

In another scene Roukiata takes us back to her school days when she manages to escape from home and her strict, education-obsessed father (there always have to be one, right?) and manages to get out on high heels and dressed to the nines, with a girlfriend, on a borrowed “moto”, those ubiquitous small Chinese motorbikes that convert most Burkinabè, gentle-spirited and quite relaxed most of the time, into instant kamikaze pilots.

En route, the two get stopped by the police who want to know who the owner is. Embarrassment follows plus a rather triumphant phonecall from one of the policemen, ready to convert the fine (made up and settled on the spot of course) into an order of two fine cold beers. The two make it to the great occasion on time: the school party.

Pic: artistebf.org

Pic: artistebf.org

On her way back, our young heroine needs a taxi, since Girlfriend has disappeared with a boyfriend and the “moto”. Not easy at this time of night. Taxis are scarce and crammed. One stops. With red robe undulating from one side to the other, Roukiata worms her way past the other passengers on the backseat.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me. Pardon.’

‘Keep your hands off Africa’s treasures!!’ (or words to that effect)

‘Pardon. Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me.’

Comedy gold.

But it’s not over yet. The driver has taken a liking to her and will bring her “a little black plastic bag”, which means: something to eat, wrapped in, indeed a small black plastic bag. She brushes him off but then has to face going back into the house…

Roukiata Ouédraogo is currently on tour in West Africa. Keep a lookout for Ouaga pressé. Definitely recommended.

Dreams and elegant perseverance

October 12, 2014

Recently, news reached me of the death, last month, of Simon Pierre Bell, filmmaker, film festival organiser, eternal optimist and a friend.

‘Drop everything and make sure you get here.’ It was not exactly in those terms that he invited me to the first edition of “Images en Live”, a documentary festival that he and his friends had organised in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé but sure enough that is what he meant.

We had met two years previously at a jazz festival in the Senegalese town of Saint Louis and had kept in touch. Bell (which is how he signed off his emails and how everyone called him) was immersed in arts. Film especially, but his curiosity ensured he enjoyed many art forms, including music, hence the jazz festival meeting. And fashion, he had a marvellous knack for sartorial elegance.

“Images en Live” was his idea. ‘We are inundated by work about us, but not by us,’ he told me. ‘We have countless foreign filmmakers coming here to put together documentaries – about us. I think it would be ideal for us Africans to realise our own images.’

There were more layers to his initiative. Not only were these locally made films (including his own); they were also meant to showcase what the young of his city, his country were capable of. ‘People should have some confidence in us. We do what we say,’ he told me on the opening night of the first “Images en Live”. Was that the mildest of rebukes to a political class that talked a lot and had achieved next to nothing? Could be.

Because here’s another layer: creating your own images and showing them to the world is liberating in and of itself. But, insisted Bell, it also does something else: ‘As documentary makers we ask difficult questions to the society we live in and try to change people’s mentalities. You don’t achieve this by importing images.’ The first festival featured at times confrontational but also humoristic insights into life in what everyone (who doesn’t live there) thinks is a dangerous slum, government-mandated house demolitions, adoption, living with polio, story telling, changes in rural Cameroon and much more…

Donors were not that interested, initially. But that did not deter him, in two ways. First off, he, his family and friends managed to finance the entire first edition of “Images en Live” from their own pockets. It took place in December 2009. But second, he coolly went back to the donor community after the success of that first edition and found them more open to his ideas. Lesser mortals like myself would have told them to get lost forever but resentment versus healthy pragmatism? No contest.

Opening night, first "Images en Live", Yaoundé, 8 December 2009

Opening night, first “Images en Live”, Yaoundé, 8 December 2009. Picture by this blogger. 

Films about here, made here, by filmmakers from here required an audience from here. That posed a problem because the number of cinemas that could be used for that purpose in Yaoundé had dwindled to…zero. They had been turned into places of worship, supermarkets, warehouses. Was there a solution? Always.

The two foreign cultural centres in town, French and German, offered their projection halls. Fine for the expats and the local bon chic bon genre who frequent these places. ‘We cannot do without them,’ Bell insisted. ‘But we also have a traveling cinema. We are bringing film to the people! If we don’t do this they will think that film is just for the elites and that’s not true. They should be able to see these images as well, ask questions and contribute to the evolution of this society.’ It was not easy.

One night, behind a parking lot and watched by some disinterested shop owners, the organisers and a dwindling crowd of spectators waited until the crew showed up – hours late – with the projector and the mobile screen. The next night though, revenge was sweet as a much larger crowd of people showed up, watched the films, stayed on and discussed until late in the evening. Luckily, this was within walking distance of his own home, which he had generously converted into a B&B. For me.

 

page-0

The festivals continued, every year, in December. I received an invitation for the second edition and never made it. Flying from Dakar to Yaoundé is insanely expensive and I was unable to cover even less than a quarter of the airfare. After “Images en Live” Second Edition, Bell sent me an email and said this time it had exceeded all expectations: full houses everywhere, projections all over town that had pulled large crowds. So, a visit to number three then? That was on the cards but the one airline that made this connection without taking me halfway around the world folded that year, 2011, thanks to the Ivorian political crisis. We stayed in touch through the internet, on the phone occasionally and kept on mentioning meeting up again, for his graduation earlier this year, for the next festival…

At the opening night of the very first “Images en Live”, I asked him where we would be in five years’ time. He was characteristically optimistic and predicted a festival in full bloom, a window on a centre of excellence in documentary making. None of us had the faintest idea that this next edition of “Images en Live”, five years after our conversation, would happen without him. It will be a tribute, it must be. Here’s to you, Simon Pierre Bell, to your life, your work and your dreams. They will surely live on and you will surely be part of them.

If anyone reading this is in Yaoundé, there is a special evening in his honour on October 14, at the Institut Français.

Film hunger

December 10, 2009

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.