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close this bookThe Courier N° 153 - Sept - Oct 1995 - Dossier: Southern Africa - Country Reports: Namibia; Djibouti (EC Courier, 1995, 96 p.)
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View the documentBrussels African Film Festival - The rise of the critical age
View the documentA meeting with actress France Zobda, from Martinique
View the documentÆTHIOPIA and the Ethiops The peoples of the Horn of Africa

Brussels African Film Festival - The rise of the critical age

Cinema is 100 years old in 1995. The Brussels African Film Festival is just two years old, but this small event is sure to grow in the future if the success achieved in film's centenary year can be sustained. 16 films, including 10 feature-length offerings, were screened in the week of 16 to 23 June, at the prestigious Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Those attending included all the directors, a number of the actors and various other protagonists of African cinema-the term being taken in the widest sense because, like last year, Caribbean cinema was also represented, not to mention a presence from the Pacific. The festival, which is supported by the ACP Committee of Ambassadors (linked to the EU through the Lomonvention). receives the bulk of its financial support under the cultural cooperation provided for in the Convention. As well as eclectic programming and high quality standards, the Brussels Festival is distinguished by its conviviality, far removed from the protocol and fuss surrounding most film festivals.

Although cinema is in relatively poor health almost everywhere, absorbed from within by 'popular' films, a term often used to conceal its mediocrity, or parasitised by television, film festivals are on the increase. New ones are born every year, at least in Europe and America, and they are always greeted by a frustrated 'And here's another one'. However, as regards African work, the story is truly one of austerity and parsimony. It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of African film festivals worthy of the name. An African film festival in Brussels, a city which played a pioneering role in the creation of cinema and the first foreign city where the Lumiere brothers presented their new invention, is symbolic of the organisers' desire to show that Africa made a very early contribution to the great adventure of cinema. The first time round, the event was favourably received. But this was perhaps something of a pro forma welcome-an attraction based on novelty and on this occasion, therefore, it faced a more decisive test which could determine whether it will survive. 'The results', confided Pape Mbaye Sene, ('Pape' to his film-maker friends), who was President of the organising committee, 'have been beyond all expectations. The Festival began under favourable auspices. It opened on the evening of a public holiday, but we were unsure whether audience numbers could be maintained throughout the week. In fact, the afternoon screenings proved almost as successful as the evening ones. The public just kept on coming'. On the last day, a mock-up of the poster for the 1996 Festival, whose dates have already been fixed, was distributed.

It would be difficult to comment on all the films on offer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, but the selection did have a central theme, the same as that chosen by the first Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (Fespaco 95), namely 'cinema and history'. On the opening night, the curtain-raiser was Guimba by Sheik Oumar Cissoko of Mali. This is a kind of X-ray of a tinpot dictatorship; a study of the appropriation of power in a village. It describes the gloom weighing down on the community, and by analogy on entire countries or continents, and presents an alarming portrayal of the permanent nature of the threat. Positive changes in terms of freedom of speech which have occurred in Africa in recent years are too precious to be taken for granted, and to safeguard them requires patient and ongoing commitment. Rest assured, the director makes use of many more images. His film is, first and foremost, a serenade to Africa and its beauty, the feeling of wonder and the story of the thousand and one days leading to the birth of freedom.

The event and the artists who attended it were well matched. The 'star' participant was probably Idrissa Ouedraogo, the Burkinabe director whose successes have included, in order of appearance, Yaaba, Tilai (the Grand Prix winner at Cannes in 1990), and Samoa Traore, which was awarded the Silver Bear in Berlin in 1993. In Le cri du cœur,screened in Brussels, he gives a portrayal of a character who is fairly unusual in African films and opts for an original treatment of the plot. He describes the joys and disappointments of a fairly well-off African family living in Lyons, who would be perfectly happy were it not for the fact that Africa was indelibly marked on the skin of their child. He is a disturbed character who, in his mind, repeatedly encounters a hyena in the streets of Lyons. This causes despair for his parents for whom a foreigner has to adopt a 'low profile' if he wants to go unnoticed. Can a black child afford psychological problems, those diversions reserved for whites? The parents are obliged to put their child into the care of a psychiatrist, but it turns out to be in vain. Only the understanding of a French neighbour, an artist who is himself somewhat ostracised by society, offers a psychological refuge and last hope for the child. In one fell swoop, he sweeps away many of the common prejudices. The film is an opportunity for the director to make an incursion into French society. There is no ethnographic affectation, and the result is a perspective on Europe-something which sadly is rarely attempted by African film-makers. This approach prompted concerns which were voiced during the post-screening debates. There is a certain 'Africanist' audience, which may be African or European, which sees Ouedraogo's open-mindedness almost as a kind of betrayal or a desertion from some undefined struggle. Such an attitude tends to put film-makers in a creative straitjacket.

Another Festival success was Keita de bouche reille by Dani Kouyate (Burkina Faso). Burkina has certainly made film-making one of the raw materials of its development. This is a superb story which begins with 'Pay attention and listen carefully. Everything began with the trials and tribulations of a poor antelope. One day, the antelope was having trouble finding a source of water to quench its thirst, when it came across a great hunter and fortune-teller'. With this introduction, you enter into the mysterious world of a griot (witch-doctor cum minstrel) and his family. The viewer is captivated right up to the end (or non-end!) of a story which transcends time and eternity.

Another film which might, on account of its original approach, be compared with Cri du cœur is Jit by the Zimbabwean film-maker Michael Raeburn, who relies on comedy. lt would be wrong to describe this as a film without pretension, buts its pretension is unusual in seeking to offer amusement. This is something which is frequently lacking in African cinema which has become so involved in the tribulations of the continent that it sometimes forgets the overriding joviality and absence of morosity that prevails, despite all the problems. The film was presented as a musical story. The music is quite good and the story very good but ultimately, it is not a musical story.

It is widely believed that artists are attracted to festivals because of the prizes. Brussels does not hand out awards. Pape Sene is against their introduction because he believes that competition would encourage superficial courtesy between professionals and would detract from the convivial nature of the event. To be fair to the artists, many of those who were in Brussels came because they enjoy the rare opportunity to meet one another in such an easy-going atmosphere. This explains why the organisers invite some directors and actors even when their films are not on the bill. Contacts are important of course. In Brussels, Bamba Bacary, the male lead in Bal Poussiere (by the Ivoirian film-maker Henry Duparc), met with Idrissa Ouedraogo who promptly hired him for La traversee du jour to be made in Southern Africa.

This was just one of the 'successes' cited by Pape Sene, the driving force behind the festival. As he looks forward to future developments, the only 'problem' we hope he might encounter is having to deal with an influx of film professionals hoping to land contracts in Brussels. H.G.

A meeting with actress France Zobda, from Martinique

France Zobda, the Martiniquan actress, has enjoyed an international career in Europe, the United States and Latin America. With 'L'exil de Behanzin' by Guy Deslauriers-a milestone in West Indian cinema-she returns to the cinema of her own country. Previously, she says, her involvement in the film sector of her region had been limited to stereotype roles as a pretty mulatto girl. She was mentioned in the 1992 Guinness Book of Records, after being featured on French TV, on account of the many shades of colour in her eyes-seven in the left and four in the right.

This publicity obviously did little to lessen the superficial image of her as a sex symbol. In 'L'exil de Behanzin' the role of the female lead could have been specially written for hen She portrays a multi-faceted character and is Martinique in essence-the long-forgotten or ungrateful daughter of Africa whom historical chance has brought face-to-face with her past personified in the Dahomean king, Behanzin, who was exiled in the Caribbean at the end of the last century. The small island encounters its 'Alma Mater' when the distracted gaze of the King meets the pale eyes of a beautiful washerwoman

We took advantage of the screening of the film at the Brussels Festival to find out more, together with France Zobda, about the cinema in Martinique and Guadeloupe. It is currently in the doldrums even if production is substantially increasing. Could the relative successes of the region's four major exponents of film- Euzhan Palcy, Julius Amede Laou, Christian Lara and Guy Deslauriers-be obscuring a host of less publicised problems ?

-We are aware of the problems that a West Indian encounters in this business. We are just happy, when there are films like Behanzin and Rue Case Negre, and others that people have liked, to be able to say that there are some films which make headway and enjoy a degree of success at festivals or in cinemas.

· What are the current main strengths and weaknesses of West Indian cinema ?

-Well, you could say that a film is made now every three to four years instead of every 10 years, which was the case in the Lara era. This means that we have more productions and more directors. We do have a problem with the National Film Centre (CNC) relating to advances on ticket sales and subsidies. The French West Indies do not have access to Cooperation Ministries nor do we really enjoy the same advantages as French film makers. Compared with the cinema in Africa or Quebec for example, you will see that we have very specific problems which are related to the legislation that applies. As long as the situation remains unresolved, we will not make any great leaps forward. All that we can do is stumble along.

· There was a law passed recently which expanded the scope of application of the TSA-the supplementary tax which forms the basis for aid to the cinema-to the Antilles. Am I right in thinking that you are sceptical about this ?

-We wanted this law to be applied so that we could be incorporated into the CNC's cinematographic circuit. But the tax paid by the Antilles will not go back to them. It will go to support French cinema managed from Paris. Once again we will find ourselves financing films by Berry or Miller because they direct bigger films, with better known actors, and takings are expected to be higher than ours. The money will not be allocated to films like Behanzin or Simeon.

The person in charge of the Elize circuit, the only film distributor in the West Indies, French Guyana (and Haiti), opposed the tax. He thought it was better to help the local film industry with direct financial contributions. But now that he has to pay the tax, he is not going to provide any more funds. This means that, under the current situation, the film sector in the Antilles loses out both ways.

Another problem in the Antilles cinema is that we are criticised for being inward-looking despite the very small size of our audience. A film which is a major success may attract 60 000 cinema-goers across the three French departments in the Americas. There is some merit in this criticism. We need to be more outwardlooking.

· Could the production of films with very low budgets, perhaps even videos - enabling you to build up your audience- be one possible solution ?

-That would be very difficult, in my opinion. You are right in saying that television is something completely different. It is the future, it is affordable, popular and is quick to bring you fame, but, as I see it, you need the big screen to enable people to dream. There is also the fact that the kind of budget savings possible in Africa cannot be achieved in Martinique. You cannot pay a skilled technician a pittance. Whether we like it or not, we are involved in an arena corrupted by money. Behanzin cost only 20 million French francs, and that was a historical portrait. What's that compared with Germinal? We could, I suppose, work in Betacam, as many of the Jamaicans do, but you have to remember that Jamaica places its video productions in the United States. People in the English-speaking world are more supportive, in this sense.

'I do not want to be held back by a country culture or language'

· You yourself do not appear to have gone through very lean times. Do you think you have had the right breaks ?

-Yes, I have been lucky. It all began, thanks to Christian Lara, with Adieu Foulard. I started off in this film with just a minor role but ended up being billed alongside Gregg Germain. I was then able to set up a dramatic arts school and started working with the director of The Towering Inferno and Death on the Nile on a film called Shina, Reine de la Jungle, in which I played one of the principal roles. The next step was to work in theatre, television and French cinema, filming with Carole Laure, Sammy Frey and Jeanne Moreau in Sauvetoi Lola. After that, I had a part in a Canadian series which lasted three years, called Cogne et Gagne, about a Haitian doctor. This was followed by an American series filmed in Italy which lasted eight months before I resumed to the West Indies for Behanzin. In between times, I have done a lot of TV work in Italy, Spain and Germany. This experience has strengthened my sense of being a citizen of the world. I do not regard myself as French speak and work in French, English, Italian and Creole and, if I have to, I will work in other languages and will study them. I do not want to be held back by a country, culture or language. In the West Indies, we have the advantage of being of mixed race so l have been able to play Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Ethiopians, and so on. If I am lucky enough to portray a West Indian, so much the better, but I won't be typecast. Work for me has no colour, flavour or smell -it is just me offering my personality, individuality and my West Indian character in my roles, in my films and in other countries.

· There is an impression that artistes in films in the South are sometimes hostages to their audiences, be they home-grown or foreign, who want to impose creative models on them.

-That is absolutely true. But as I have always said, I will reject what people want to make of me whether it is a colour, a stereotype or an archetype. This has happened to so many actresses who have allowed themselves to be swallowed up without ever seeking to open the door to their wider talents.

· Yet, in 'Behanzin', you couldn't be more West Indian, could you ?

-Having been able to achieve my independence in the face of pressure from West Indian audiences, I was happy enough to take on a totally West Indian role in Behanzin. At that time I came back with a greater desire to show people what I have done but I am first and foremost what i am and I can find myself whenever I want to. In other words, I can portray various roles, but I am aware of who I am and I never lose sight of that. That's the most important thing for an actress, particularly one who has to carry the flag as we do, like ambassadors for our countries. We work under close surveillance and there is always the West Indian public judging you and watching you-more than French audiences would judge their actors. We have a kind of torch to pass on and, when interpreting a role, we are necessarily forced to think about West Indian audiences and how they will react. I have just finished a slightly risque film- compared with what I have done up to now-and my greatest joy but also my greatest fear at the moment is to find out how the West Indian public will react to it. The saying 'no one is a prophet in his own country' is particularly apposite to the Antilles.

· In playing Regina in 'Behanzin' you appeared to give your all to your West Indian character. Would you say that it was your finest role ?

-It really is a good role. In this profession, you spend a lot of time 'superficialising' yourself, so to speak- building yourself up to be an all-purpose actress, to be manipulable in the physical sense of the word. Then when you get a role like this, where you have to divest yourself of any artifice and be completely authentic-to be a real person-you wonder whether you will be able to do it. I have spent so many years getting rid of my accent and walking with a rolling gait as required by so many typecast roles. I have had to acquire a 'cheap' side over the years. You are always being told to 'watch your accent', 'remember to speak in a slightly sing-song way', 'pay attention to your movements' and so on. Then, suddenly you have to forget all this, walk normally and find yourself again, because you are being asked to offer freshness, truth and splendour. It's good if you can do it because then you feel that there is a purpose to life. You tell yourself 'I am in this profession, and although I may have lost myself I can find myself again'. You are happy that you can get this across fully to the public and, in a role like Regina, let the audience know that you are there to remember things about yourself which you might one day forget.

· 'L'exil de Behanzin' is an encounter between Africa and Martinique by means of a fine love story between two people who should not have met. Is this juxtaposition of Martinique and Africa a climactic relationship; one of attraction and repulsion ?

-Yes and rightly so. When we were at school, Africa had a flavour and image of savagery. It had negative connotations, conjuring up everything that shouldn't happen and everything that was different. I remember, as a child, being addressed as a 'Congo black'. As a student, I had my first opportunity to discover Africa, thanks to my African colleagues. In being able to portray Regina, where love triggers a collision between two worlds, and where a page of history that had been torn out is replaced, I regarded it as a stroke of luck. For many years I had told my compatriots 'you don't know Africa at all. Go there and discover what Africans are really like. They are our brothers. You will see where our true roots lie and realise that 'the savage' is not what you think'. I was confronted with this character who tells an African black that Africa is not home and is not me and, at the same time, falls in love with this Africa which is so complex and so close, such a mixture of myself. The character reminds you of all the old cliches about Africa handed down from the last century. At the same time, the film criticises the fact that, at that time, we were prevented from really knowing who this exiled King was and why he was in Martinique. The shock of the arrival of King Behanzin was suppressed. So the film is there to remind us that nowadays we are Creoles more than Africans, West Indians or blacks: Creoles, according to Chamoiseau, with our own identity, which is a mixture of several cultures. We have to accept all those who have come back and who have lived off our cultures. We have to incorporate this collision between different worlds.

· Briefly, what will be your next appearance on screen ?

-I have just finished filming Les caprices d'un fleuve for Bernard Giraudaux. The film is also about the colonial period, this time in Dakar. It deals with both the scorn and fascination evoked by Africa in the white man arriving there. We cover revolts by the Moors and the tribulations of the Goree slaves, but it's also the story of mulatto women in Saint-Louis who manipulated the whole scene: colonists and rebels, whites and blacks. They did this by using the weapons at their disposal, namely their beauty and their knowledge of the two worlds. They employ both the dignity of black women and the 'magnificence of white women'. That's the kind of character I play, which is the opposite of Regina. When all is said and done, the woman featured in this role is only an agent, the intermediary who enables the colonist to learn about life before falling in love with a slave girl who will enable him to realise his dreams.

· It would appear that you are also involved in the perfume business ?

- Yes. Two months ago in Martinique I opened a flower fragrance shop, where we use the remedies our grandmothers used to treat disease. We make use of what we have to hand locally. I have been studying plants for a year now, organising courses and giving lectures. The good thing about this is that it gives me the opportunity to think about other people rather than myself, which is what happens in my career as an actress.

· This work as a businesswoman is not going to interfere with your career as an actress, then ?

-Film work leaves you with lots of spare time. I wanted to share it and to give some of it to Martinique and the West Indies. I create dreams through film, but I wanted to offer something specific. People have a great need to be listened to. But rest assured, I don't think of myself as a businesswoman. This activity will not make my fortune, only give me inner happiness.

ÆTHIOPIA and the Ethiops The peoples of the Horn of Africa

by Xavier Van der Stappen

The 'Cultures and Communications' Association will be presenting a major exhibition, lasting six months, on the Horn of Africa at the Royal African Museum in Belgium. A large number of European museums are participating in this event which is intended to reflect the cultures of the many ethnic groups inhabiting this part of Africa.

While it is true that Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, Eritrea and, most recently, Djibouti have experienced a certain amount of unrest, it is also the case that media reports about these countries often focus exclusively on negative images, leading to a pronounced bias in the view that the European public may have of these countries. The exhibition's aim will, therefore, be to reveal the diversity and cultural richness of this region. Some may say that it is wrong to talk about culture under the current circumstances, but how can we understand the hopes and aspirations of peoples who are so far away, if we do not take account of their identity and of their most enduring possession: their culture ? After all, it is cultural differences and more particularly their historical, social, physical, economic and religious elements which produce both ties and conflicts.

The cultures of the Horn of Africa are amazingly diverse and are a good illustration of the interdependence of economics and culture. Most of the ethnic groups in question are highly specialised in their production of goods although the overall effect is variety. They are thus able to preserve their independence while remaining open to other groups through trade. At the markets, where most of the trade takes place, one soon discovers that while external appearance is determined by the religion to which one belongs, it is also a function of the economic activity of the group. The finery, hairstyles, scarification, body painting and tattoos are all signs which indicate membership of an ethnic group. The burgeoning industrialisation of East Africa has not yet eradicated the very varied craft activity of this area. To make light of this truth is to display a lack of awareness.

The name 'HIOPIA', the Latin term for Ethiopia, was given by Mediterranean visitors to the Christian Empire of Africa. In ancient documents, this term was used to cover what was later called Negricia, or 'the country of black people'. This was a region which had poorly defined borders but which aroused particular curiosity as it was shrouded in enduring myths and legends. The use of the term 'the Ethiops' in the title is intended to illustrate the diversity and poetry of the peoples inhabiting this part of the world.

For those with a fascination for the past and for an empire long gone, or who want to see beyond the tragic media images, a visit to the exhibition will be a time of discovery. As they pass through the various sections, visitors will go back in time to discover a rich past which will help them to gain a better understanding of the present: extraordinary geological formations, the distant beginnings of the first hominids, thousands of stelae which have not been published before and the forgotten kingdom of the legendary Queen of Sheba. The story then goes on to show the adventure of Judaism. On the high plateaus, Christianity succeeded in shaping the isolated descendants of King Solomon; then Islam appeared and allied itself with Christianity to overcome the pagan tribes. A succession of kings tried, with varying degrees of success, to dominate the Horn of Africa politically during a period of over 4000 years. Then the first Europeans arrived, determined to penetrate the mysteries of a world both close in faith and distant in its rites.

A plough, some teff, sesame and neuk plants, a grindstone and a collection of ceramic articles reveal the everyday life of the millions who have cultivated the high plateaus. Opposite, a richly decorated Afar tent emphasises the pastoral side of Ethiopean life. The decorated surfaces of everyday objects speak volumes about these men and women who worked every day just to survive. Thousands of varied and surprising objects bear witness to an existence characterised by know-how, skill and ingenuity, but also to the differences from our own lives.

Previously unseen collections are brought together for the first time in Europe, at a prestigious location with an international reputation. It took a team of specialists two years to go through this vast region and collect all the evidence of cultural richness, which was previously not known to exist. Pottery, personal adomments, weapons, neckrests and seats, wickerwork and weaving, clothes and examples of the goldsmith's and silversmith's art breathe life into a section organised according to subject. A street in Addis Ababa and a gallery of modem and contemporary art enables the artists of the towns to express themselves. Craftsmanship from churches, bibles, manuscripts, processional crosses and polychrome paintings from the thirteenth Century tell of centuries of Christianity in isolation. Concluding with a lavish collection of photographs to place the various sections of the population back in context, the exhibition will be a comprehensive source of information about the Horn of Africa and the many and varied communities which in habit it.