Two years ago, I spent nearly six months in Cameroon. To prepare myself, I picked up books on everything relating to my home country. Growing up feeling disconnected to the culture of your parents’ ancestral home is something many children of the African diaspora feel, and I was determined to bridge that gap as quickly as I could.
Of course, this isn’t an easy task. Making up for twenty-four years of growing up in the U.K., saturated by a culture that felt both familiar and foreign, was an undertaking I thought I was ready for. I needed an entrypoint–something to latch onto that gave me an understanding on this place I was so desperate to call home. Enter: African cinema.
Over the last several decades, African cinema has garnered international acclaim. Many films from the continent are unique in the way that they deal with the parallels between Africa’s past and how it relates to its present. With this, we see films that discuss a wide range of issues including the political, ideological, societal, and cultural institutions that were put in place by their colonisers and how these interact with traditional institutions. Other topics such as sexuality and the impact of gender roles are also often explored.
African cinema is an important medium for cultural awareness and enables the people of the continent to tell their stories, ambiguities and all, instead of their stories being told to them by their former colonisers.
Below, I break down some films from this era of Cameroonian and Senegalese cinema, one that is often overlooked but includes themes that resonate with African people throughout the diaspora.
“I wanted to trace cause and effect between an intolerable present and the colonial violence of yesterday… To understand how a country once composed of well-structured traditional societies could fail to succeed as a state.” – Jean-Marie Téno
In Afrique, Je Te Plumerai, Jean-Marie Téno uses his native Cameroon as a case study for the continuing negative effects that neo-colonial cultures have on traditional African societies. Cameroon has a unique history in regards to colonialism, as it is the only country in Africa to have been colonised by three different European nations. The film starts in present-day (early 90’s) Cameroon, where Téno examines the impact of press censorship, government-controlled media and the influx of French literature. In the film, Téno shows French propaganda newsreels from the 1930s, where the presence of the French in the country is positioned as a ‘civilising mission’ whereby destroying traditional social structures and replacing them with Western European social structures is deemed necessary for the benefit of Cameroon as a whole. Those who lived through the struggle for independence talk about the efforts the French went to ensure that any popular nationalist movements were quashed. They also recall how the French installed puppet dictators who continue to loot the country to this day.
The main theme explored in this documentary is the devastating result of centuries of colonialism. Téno refers to this as a ‘cultural genocide’ – an extensive effort to wipe out the cultural identity and dignity of the African people. In the film, they show footage of the former president of France, Charles De Gaulle saying that he “understands what Africans had to put up with under European colonisation”. However, his words mean nothing when European colonisation simply took on a different shape in the form of ‘neo-colonialism’ under the rule of dictators who continue to exploit and steal from its populace. In the film we hear a French song played called “Alouette, je te Plumerai” which translates to “Lark, I will pluck your feathers off” and alludes to the title of the film. To Téno the lark represents Cameroon; its feathers first plucked by centuries of colonialism, and now by corrupt native officials.
In this film, the Ceddo or “commoners” are trying to hold onto their traditional culture in the face of Islam and Christian European imperialism. When a local king named Demba War decides to join the Muslims, his daughter, the princess Dior Yacine, is abducted to protest against being forced to convert to Islam. There are several men who try to rescue her, each attempt a failure. The film is as much a story about trying to rescue a princess as it is about depicting the conflict between Islam and Christianity and their fight to ensure cultural dominance over traditional Senegalese society.
Although the film is set in the past, the exact time period remains vague. The Senegalese village encapsulates the centuries of transition West African societies went through because of outside influences, forced assimilation, greed, and corruption, whose effects are still felt today, and encourages the viewer to examine the film in the context of this.
The main theme in the film is that much like European Christian imperialism and colonialism, the introduction of Islam in Senegal had some exploitative purposes and was not a peaceful or benevolent enterprise. The Ceddo symbolises an opposition to the influence of foreign religions and cultures in an effort to protect and preserve their own indigenous culture.
In many of Sembène’s films, he aimed to demonstrate the important and crucial role that women have and continue to play in the development of Africa. In Ceddo, the narrative shows that gendered, religious, and political oppression is intersectional. The male protagonists spend the whole time fighting while they fail to recognise and ignore the wants of the strong and resilient princess Dior, instead treating her like a possession.
Touki Bouki is a cinematically beautiful avant-garde film following the travels of motorcycle-riding Mory and his college student girlfriend Anta as they move around Dakar, Senegal, looking for ways to obtain enough money to fund their trip to Paris. Through the course of the film, the main characters are closely tied together, particularly in one scene where they have sex on a cliff edge, shadowed by Mory’s horned motorbike. The scene itself is particularly profound in the way it shows love and intimacy between two African people, a scene seldom shown during this time, one that seeks to free itself from imposed western stereotypes of African people. The closeness between the two characters ends in the last scenes of the film when it is time to board the ship to France. Mory is overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving Senegal and returns to land to be reunited with his motorbike, thus abandoning his love interest to travel to France alone.
Mambéty examines the social structure and status quo of Senegalese society and the ways in which the younger generation have to navigate through this. Mory and Anta are outsiders, and like many young people in Africa, are still influenced by their colonial past, believing Europe to be a place where they can live out their dreams and illusory goals. They believe that living in France will earn them the dignity and respect they are denied in their home country. One of the aspects that make this film so interesting from a stylistic standpoint is the dream sequence where we see the main characters projected images of themselves in Paris and Senegal.
Xala follows the rich Senegalese businessman El Hadji, who lives a life of opulence and decides to take a third wife. On their wedding night, when it comes to consummate the marriage, he discovers that he is unable to perform sexually. El Hadji believes he has contracted a curse or ‘xala’ and throughout the film, we see him go to great lengths to rid himself of the curse. During this process we see him go from rich businessman to a man who ultimately loses everything.
Filmmaker Sembène uses a curse causing sexual impotence as a metaphor to observe some of the problems facing post-colonial Senegal. One of the main points made by Sembène is that even though they struggled for years to gain their independence and remove centuries of European influence, the African government officials and the rich have simply co-opted the European ideals and turned their backs on African tradition. In other words, it is the same story just with different faces. Sembène’s creativity is apparent in the way he manages to discuss a difficult topic, political corruption, in a humorous and enjoyable way.
These Senegalese and Cameroonian films dispel the common belief that African stories can be told by anyone. Though they came at a decisive moment in the post-colonial art world of the continent, they resonate today. Colonialism is a feminist issue. Religious oppression, gender-specific oppression, and the lingering effects of colonialism disproportionately affect African women. A fact that still rings true to this day.
It’s a common experience of diasporic youth to feel like there are so many gaps in their family history. These films helped me fill those gaps and gave me an understanding of what the world my grandparents and aunts and uncles lived in was like. This is why it is so important to support the efforts of artists from marginalized groups, because that bridge-building ability is lost if our stories are told by anyone else.
Rebecca is a biracial (White British & Cameroonian) girl currently languishing in the perpetual cold of N.W England. She is a history graduate who thoroughly enjoys 90’s American sitcoms, post-apocalyptic fiction, portrait photography and African contemporary art. Instagram