Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2018
Olivier Barlet Contemporary African Cinema African Humanities and the Arts. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016. 466 pp. Paperback $39.95 (9781611862119)

Olivier Barlet’s 2016 English translation of Les Cinémas d’Afrique des années 2000 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012) offers scholars and students an impressive and comprehensive study of African film made and produced specifically from 1996 to the early 2000s. The four-hundred-plus-page work focuses on the questions and polemics in filmmakers’ work as well as the criticism that dictates the theoretical framework through which scholars understand African cinema. Barlet seeks to couch his study in the transnational contexts of the current trials and turmoil of our time to which African filmmakers are responding. “Africa today,” he writes, does not exist “in isolation from the fraught public debates on migration,” nor does “the tragedy of undocumented immigrants and all those who lose their lives trying to scale walls and cross seas” (x). African filmmakers are equally concerned with “Euro-African history, the Rwandan genocide, and other tragedies that have taken place on the continent” (xi). Cineastes engage with the realities in which they live. They depict in their films “what the crisis of capitalism is doing to Africa and the rest of the planet” (xi). From the preface forward, Barlet demonstrates the necessity of film as a medium through which to take stock of the past and present of the African continent. One of his main objectives is to formulate new foundations for African film criticism at a moment in history in which we are witnessing massive sociopolitical upheavals in the Arab world (which includes North Africa) and enormous population migrations as never seen before. A key challenge facing filmmakers is “how, today, to nurture an imagination of globalization in a world where most people cannot circulate without risking their lives” (7).

Barlet is interested in ferreting out how African film relates to a world in crisis as well as how critics view film as a socially and politically viable tool for changing mentalities and political will in countries as diverse as Morocco and South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.  At the core of his hypothesis about contemporary African film is how its criticism will be altered to accommodate new films whose themes extend beyond colonial and postcolonial frameworks. Recent films tackle larger humanist challenges that are pertinent to all of humankind. Filmmakers today seek “to discover the world, for it indeed confronts us with our ignorance. . . . At a time when our world is moving further and further away from the human. . . . It is necessary to return to the fundamentals” (4).

From the dawn of postcolonialism to the present, the sociopolitical engagement inherent in African film is one such fundamental component that keeps filmmakers producing work on the continent. For example, David-Pierre Fila’s L’Eau, la forêt, la terre/Water, Forest, Earth (2002, Congo) and Didier Ouenangaré’s Le Silence de la forêt/The Silence of the Forest (2003, Cameroon) draw attention to the fragility of exhausted natural resources in Africa. The pain of those who suffer loss of family and community when they are forced to live in exile in Paris and other parts of Europe is exposed in films such as Monique Mbeka Phoba’s Sorcière, la vie!/A Bewitched Life (2006, Democratic Republic of Congo) (31). The violence that millions are forced to experience every day across the continent—north and south, east and west—is revealed in many films such as Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono/Waiting for Happiness (2002, Mauritania) and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Expectations (2008, Chad) (31).

However, filmmakers do not just depict the negative, foreboding topics of climate change, civil war, and famine, they also use humor to respond to “tragedy, oppression, racism, and contempt” (149). Filmmakers often use humor to take on dictatorships and political adversity. In Don’t Fuck with Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters (2004), South African Dumisani Phakathi sets out to show audiences a “lively people” who, although brutalized for many years, have managed to find levity on a daily basis (149–50). Algerian Lyès Salem’s Masquerades/Mascarades (2007) focuses on an Algerian village community finding its sense of joy after over a decade of civil war in the 1990s (150).

African filmmakers’ political engagement leads film critics to ask the question: “How should contemporary film criticism written in the West accommodate the millennial themes of African cinema? Barlet contends that much depends on how critics work with filmmakers and producers to “develop specific spaces to improve [the] visibility” of African-specific issues. For Barlet, this is key to instigating an “organized resistance” to the Western global capitalist markets that often elide the promotion of film from the continent (39).  Barlet cites many famous filmmakers to make his points about the importance of global visibility and how filmmakers and critics working together across the continent and, indeed, the globe insures the continued vibrancy of African film. As Haroun notes, the cinema industry on the continent “will advance if we propose new paths” (40). Filmmaker Gaston Kaboré also affirms that “the worst blockages [for the distribution of film from Africa] are those that prevent us from opening up to others” (40).

Barlet’s formidable study comprises a preface and six long chapters: The Question of Criticism; Thematic Continuities and Ruptures; Postcolonial Clichés; Memory and Reconciliation; Styles and Strategies; and Economic Perspectives. The work also includes a significant index and a comprehensive filmography listing African filmmakers and films. His direct engagement with filmmakers, the result of years of interviews and meetings at film festivals, is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Unfortunately, although these chapters contain interesting and comprehensive information about African films, it is difficult to decipher how they are linked and why certain polemics and themes were chosen. The translation of the original work is accurate, but the structure reads like a dense French doctoral thesis. It is difficult to discern how we should understand the transitions from main chapter titles to the numerous subtitled sections of each chapter. For example, “Chapter Two: Thematic Continuities and Ruptures” immediately begins with the subheading “2.1. The Five Decades of African film.” This subsection only contains a two-line quote. We then progress to what seem to be other randomly titled subheadings such as “2.1.1.: The 1960s: Mandatory Commitment,” which is followed by others with titles “2.4.4. A Moral Relationship to the Sacred” and “2.4.5. Uncertainty” (107–77). Readers are left wondering why the book’s editor did not suggest a more palatable restructuring in order to ensure a clear progression of thoughts and ideas from the beginning to the end of each chapter. Navigating the transitions of disconnected subheadings is off-putting, and we are left wondering how they are interrelated and why Barlet considers them important.

However, despite the cumbersome structure of the work, this book makes a monumental contribution to the contemporary study of African cinema.  It is a valuable resource for any student or scholar interested in African film studies. The questions Barlet raises with respect to how filmmakers are making their art as they confront daunting trials and tribulations every day due to sociocultural and political challenges across the continent and to what extent global forces dictate how their films are marketed across the globe are salient. He deftly reveals the conundrums faced by well-established African institutions that have, since the end of colonialism, sustained the well-being of African film. Barlet explores how FEPACI (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes) founded in 1969 to promote dialogue and common interests among African filmmakers and FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou), the most important African film festival on the continent launched in 1966, are important institutions for sustaining African film. These two organizations have had to find new ways to accommodate the changing systems and networks in which filmmakers are forced to operate in the new millennium. Barlet concludes his study with several very urgent questions and issues pertaining to the production of African films and the institutions that will ensure their vitality for decades to come. Particularly, he discusses the roles these almost fifty-year-old institutions will play in helping the African cinema industry in the context of shifting twenty-first-century-global-capitalist markets of distribution and technological innovation. On a more philosophical level, Barlet asks us to consider how these institutions will continue “to support an auteur cinema that addresses both the world and Africa” (353). For example, FESPACO, entrenched in classical and traditional ways of viewing and promoting film, must change its business practices if it is to remain helpful to filmmakers and their work in the decades to come. It is faced with addressing the increasing challenges of fewer cinemas in the large cities of the continent, fewer moviegoers, the influence of digital technology, and filmmakers constant confrontations “with state control” (355). These material challenges, like the ever-growing stresses of a world in crisis, influence the choices a filmmaker makes with respect to how a film is made and how the work, in turn, is transmitted to audiences. 

Valérie K. Orlando
Professor, Department of French and Italian, University of Maryland