Guide To African Cinema
Book Review by Suzanne MacRae
Guide To African Cinema
Guide to African Cinema, by Sharon A. Russell. Westport: Greenwood P, 1998. 184 pp
This book belongs to a series, Reference Guides to the World’s Cinema, which intends to provide “a representative idea of what each country or region has to offer to the evolution, development, and richness of film” (ix) for a general as well as scholarly American audience. According to the series editor, the guides must be comprehensive yet selective and may reflect the author’s “idiosyncrasies” (ix). Guide to African Cinema is more selective than comprehensive, and its idiosyncrasy at times compromises quality.
Sharon Russell provides relatively brief essays on forty films and sixteen directors drawn predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the films (thirty of thirty-seven) and directors (ten of eleven) come from West and West Central Africa. All five North African directors and two of the three [End Page 202] North African films comes from either Egypt or Algeria. There is but one Nigerian entry and none from Mozambique. Although West Africa does dominate African film production, the geographical scope should be more diverse and inclusive. Because Russell’s coverage of North Africa is too skimpy to be useful, and she is more knowledgeable about Black African cinema, she should have concentrated on sub-Saharan films. Such bifurcation is commonplace and sensible in African studies since the geographic division reflects distinctive cultures, language, and cinematic histories. Russell is strong in her recognition of women’s contributions to African cinema with a biographical sketch of Sarah Maldoror and essays about four films directed by women.
Russell’s main goal–to highlight good-quality films of varied genres that combine entertainment with articulation of distinctive African perspectives–is fulfilled. But some of her rationales for selection/exclusion seem arbitrary or inconsistently applied. She rules out some but not all films with European directors yet includes several made by white Africans. Although her benchmark is the degree of African participation and expression of the African perspective, she omits the fine South African film Mapantsula, directed by a German, even though it centers on Johannesburg township life under apartheid and reflects the extensive collaboration of Thomas Mogotlane.
The controversial The Gods Must Be Crazy is vetoed on the grounds of racism although she admits that a Black African friend finds merit and pleasure in the San (Bushman) protagonist as African trickster. My judgment is that the film satirizes the silly, arrogant white characters and applauds the natural dignity, skill, and good sense of the San. Since Russell disagrees with such positive interpretations, would it not instruct American viewers if she published a persuasive indictment?
A curious criterion for excluding Reassemblage (which the author likes) is her discomfort at possible Western misunderstanding of its nudity–not the fact that director Trinh T. Minh-Ha is an outsider (naturalized Vietnamese American) whom Frank Ukadike has chastised for continuing the “romantic and paternalistic treatment of Africa” (Black African Cinema [Berkeley: U of California P, 1994] 54). The logical remedy for Russell’s apprehension would again be a corrective explanation.
Other selection criteria invoke different problems. Russell provides no rationale for excluding (with one exception) all feature films that run under an hour. More troubling is her use of films only readily available to the American public. This decision precludes some important films; it does not credit the increasing access afforded by more vendors, more titles, and less expense for video format. By discounting the growing interest in African film represented by film festivals, conferences, and academic courses, Russell forfeits the opportunity to expand public curiosity and knowledge about African cinema.
Frustratingly, Russell does not consistently match entries for directors and their films. Some directors of films that merit an entire essay are not similarly honored; for example, Quartier Mozart, Battle of Algiers, and Finzan have individual entries, but directors Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Pontecorvo, and [End Page 203] Cheick Oumar Sissoko do not. Conversely, Haile Gerima has his own entry, but his major films Harvest 3000 Years and Sankofa are discussed only in their director’s sketch.
Russell’s fairly short (thirteen pages) introduction discusses several important issues: 1) effects of colonial racism on African film; 2) distinctions among First, Second, and Third World cinema; and 3) characteristic African film styles, particularly orality and the “fantastic.” She depends heavily and somewhat uncritically on the ideas of Paul Willemen, Manthia Diawara, Teshome Gabriel, and Frank Ukadike. Her failure to question their theories is particularly unfortunate in the case of rigid formulae for contrasting Africa’s Third Cinema mode with Western styles. The Third Cinema profile derives from Latin American films and has been applied to African cinema less, I think, on actual similarities and more on the assumptions that 1) economic and political parallels produce identical cinema and 2) the worth of African cinema hinges on its stark differences from Hollywood fare. It is true that meaningful distinctions can be drawn, but the differences have tended to be exaggerated and unsubtle. Further investigation of the discrete features would be worthwhile.
Russell’s discussion of orality rests on firmer ground, yet this section is quite brief, and the murky distinction between oral “digressions” and Western “subplots” needs sustained explication. The segment on the “fantastic” is troublesome in that the term itself embodies a Western epistemology and metaphysics. Africans would not use the word in the sense she intends. Also, Russell conflates myth, fable, sorcery, magic, marabout therapies, and even the dwarf of La vie est belle into one Procrustean concept. Although Russell insists that the African understanding of the supernatural differs from the Western, she fails to specify how. Her use of the term real as the opposite of fantastic to describe how Africans connect the spiritual and physical imposes the Western view. To Africans the spiritual realm is at least as or more “real” than the physical world. Here distinctions become more blurred than clarified.
But some aspects of Guide to African Cinema are quite helpful: biographical information about directors describes their training and major films and provides complete filmographies. Russell rightfully and consistently places films into historical/political context. However, her exhaustive plot outlines, which often attempt to record virtually all events in sequence, are tedious and at times confusing. Some sketches contain factual errors or questionable interpretation (e.g., pp. 11, 12, 41, 45, 91, 132). A succinct, clear summation of the overall shape of the plot would be preferable and would free space for evaluation.
Very useful is the list of film rental and sale distributors with snail-mail address and telephone number (some toll-free); many vendors have faxes; a few, e-mail. Russell briefly lists the genre and provenances for the films each distributor carries. It would be nice if film titles were specified, but Russell points out that the mutability of distribution rights would soon render the list out of date. The bibliography of works cited is helpful though somewhat stronger on books than articles. The index has limited utility since only titles/names with extensive or multiple references are listed. [End Page 204] Names and titles that appear only once or infrequently are absent. The index should have been complete.
Guide to African Cinema would be better if it were longer and yet more focused. If Russell had limited her scope to sub-Saharan films, she could have provided additional and/or enlarged entries for directors and films such as: 1) Adamo Drabo, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Flora M’Mbugu-Schelling, Salem Mekuria, and Sarah Maldoror; 2) Mapantsula, Yam Daabo, Baara, Finye, Harvest 3000 Years, Soleil O, Sarraounia, Mortu Nega, and Sankofa. More thorough and accurate grounding of the film analyses in African cultures would afford better context and interpretation, major functions of a guide for Western audiences. The author should have viewed all the films that receive extensive commentary; sole reliance on second-hand sources is neither sufficient nor completely dependable. Thorough editing/proofreading to eliminate typographical, spelling, and punctuation errors is imperative. Are there no longer any working editors? A rush into print may account for some of the problems, but authors and publishers should value quality over speed.
Despite its deficiencies, Guide to African Cinema is useful, especially for the general public, and is jargon-free. Russell should be commended for her interest in explicating the relationship of films to their political milieu and for attending at times to their cinematic aspects. Her book is superior in scope and information to Keith Shiri’s thin, expensive Directory of African Film-Makers and Films (Westport: Greenwood P, 1992).
Suzanne MacRae is a Professor of English at the University of Arkansas.
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