Africa: Films that show the wonderful combination of native African beauty in dance, form, masks, costumes and energy combined with Arabic and Western modern architecture.
Doclisboa 2011 showed a rich retrospective of documentaries on the liberation movements of the earlier Portuguese colonies in Africa such as Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. These films gave the viewer a rare opportunity to re-evaluate the European role in Africa. The Pan African Festival of Algiers (1969) by William Klein, is a true film classic yet a rather unknown film (it was just recently remastered by TV ARTE).
Shot on 35 mm with a crew of 12 outstanding cameramen or directors, the film reminds us how a documentary can be an art piece in itself. The film is a wonder combined with superb pictures, unconventional and yet strictly defined montage, amazing use of contrasting music and the exceptional subject itself, the festival. What most of us have probably forgotten by now, is that Algeria was once a very rich and powerful country in the late 60s. Algeria was then the rallying point for all the world’s revolutionaries. At that time, several Portuguese colonies were still fighting for their independence, and the South African apartheid regime continued to dominate the region. In 1969, Algiers organised what was to become the most notable cultural event in Africa, the first Pan-African Cultural Festival. Each African country is represented by one cultural group, and they sing and dance in their amazingly varied forms throughout the streets. This is another time, a time where the streets still belong to the people. Through the film we sense the intense feeling of communion as we watch artists, poets, musicians, writers, revolutionary freedom fighters talking, meeting and jamming together. The mood is infused with a militant Third World spirit. You feel the pride of being an African. What makes this film such a legendary classic? Not just the unique cultural spectacle, but also the absolute craftsmanship of the filmmakers. William Klein was commissioned by the Algerians to do the job, not just because of his anti-American stand in his earlier movies (Mr. Freedom, 1968, is still considered to be the most anti-American movie ever made), but also because of his reputation as the “father of street photography”. Besides being a top fashion photographer in Paris, he made over 250 commercials and one of his first documentaries, Muhammad Ali, was immensely popular in the freshly liberated countries of North Africa.
The original idea was to make multiple films on this festival by the best directors from several left-wing countries such as Cuba, Africa and Poland. However, they could not come to an agreement so Klein decided to hire several directors who were also cameramen like himself and who could work independently. By employing 12 highly professional filmmakers, we get a piece of every part of the festival, day and night. The film begins with a montage of archives from the wretched repression of colonial times. Naked black bodies in chains, rebels hanging from trees, European caricatures of the Africans, all this is edited against classical music contrasting with the African drums and the powerful speech of Eldridge Cleaver, the fugitive leader of the Black Panther Party. We are fully introduced to the suffering of the African continent and then plunged into the streets full of dance and pride. We are celebrating liberation and freedom. The film lets the viewer immerse himself/herself in the crowds. We are running in the streets feeling the music and the dancing and then we are in a dark backroom, quietly observing African dancers preparing themselves. We follow the anticipation in the eyes of the participants and the spectators. From the massive festival parade we jump to the beautiful intimate observation of female jazz singers (some were living in Algeria in exile), chilling out.
From the atmosphere in the room we can tell that they don’t know each other well and yet, a soft and spontaneous jam session starts while their babies crawl all over them. The musicians who appear in the film include Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and Archie Shepp, here shown in their free jazz improvisations together with the traditional Algerian drum musicians, Choukri Mesli, Barry White and many more. We understand now that this must have been a very important moment in jazz history, fusing native African drums with jazz elements and creating this wonderful synergy. We return to the packed stadium where Algerian elders are showing their mastery of horse riding and warfare. The 35 mm film is momentous, shooting in slow motion the spectacular sprint of the horses with warriors on their backs firing off shots from their rifles. We cut to simple dorms where women slowly paint their naked bodies and prepare themselves for a dance. All these sections have their own look, their own rhythm and it all falls into place with excellent editing. The film shows the wonderful combination of native African beauty in dance, form, masks, costumes and energy combined with Arabic and Western modern architecture. The late 60s still represents the aesthetic forms of the modern world, a world still not conscious of the environmental disaster lurking around the corner. The sun shines and it all blends beautifully together in this documentary with an aesthetic and yet raw look to it.
Providing a contrast in form is the film, Ten Days with the Guerrillas in Mozambique Free (1972) by Franco Cigarini. This is 24- minute-long, b&w, 16 mm reportage showing an extraordinary closeness to the guerrilla leaders and the white man’s revolutionary vision in this pristine little village in the northern forest of Mozambique – where we see men and women and still dressed in the native way as we know it. It must be mentioned that it took over ten years of sporadic warfare – and major political changes in Portugal – before Mozambique gained their independence in 1975. This can give us an understanding of the glorified view of the guerrilla activities. However, knowing how history developed for the next 40 years we cannot help but feel rather unnerved by what we see in this film. The film portraits a blind admiration of the white man’s revolutionary cure, in this case an Italian, commissioned to aid and give political support to the guerrilla movement. Women, with children on their backs, crawl on the ground and plough the dry earth with their bare hands while all the boys and men are trained in communist doctrines. I am not sure which scene bothers me the most, the one where the white men instruct them on how to deforest large areas or where they train little native boys to be soldiers. What makes this film so honest, in a way, is that the author of the film is absolutely uncritical of what he sees. The whole film ends with a scene of a little naked 3-year-old boy picking up a stick and pretending it is a rifle. Franoc Cigariai continues to document the ongoing cooperation and aid that the Italian municipality had with the guerrilla movement and later the liberated Mozambique. His films are reduced to smiling faces, aid deliverance, agreements signed and tribunes filled with people and clapping hands. In the long run it is really depressing.
Last, but not least, I would like to mention Solar Eclipse (2011) by Martin Mareček. The film won all possible major awards at the Jihlava IDFF 2011, and is worth mentioning as a fresh new look on the white man’s involvement in Africa. The film takes place in the remote Zambian village of Masuku. Two Czech peaceloving characters, Milan and Tomáš, brought electricity to a school and clinic in this remote village in 2006 by setting up solar panels. Four years later, they return one last time to inspect and conduct the final hand-over of their project. The film follows them over the course of hectic days and pitch-black nights, offering an uncensored look at the pitfalls of development aid. We witness all kinds of miscommunication and blown fuses, different worlds passing each other by and interacting.
Solar Eclipse is a humorous and touching film without judgment, direct commentary or preconceived notions. We laugh and cry over our main Czech hero who is in despair over the leaking water pump in the main square. It is not a part of his project and he is not asked to fix it, but it bothers him so much that he can’t free himself from the urge to repair it. Only then he finds out that no one is interested in maintaining it and it breaks again. Because the entire story involves just one simple renovation project, it allows us to sense the otherness, the self-evident differences between a life being lived here and now and a Western culture that thinks in terms of investments and the future. In this way, the film differs from many others that have tried to capture the African soul through a prism of imported emotions. The director’s perspective in this observational documentary of pure everydayness leads us to ask basic questions as to the sense and meaning of white men’s expeditions – whether they are led by inconsiderate lust for conquest or the need to give and help.
What do these films tell us? Do they express something about Africa and its diverse cultures and their liberation movements? No, not really. With the historic perspective these films have shown, they illustrate the change in the European ideology and view of Africa from the idealistic, and perhaps naive 60s to the goodhearted, and at the same time exploitive modern day. It is good to be reminded of the pride the newly liberated Africa expressed before the appearance of Aids and other calamities, and at the same time, I feel shame when I watch the white man putting rhetoric and guns into the hands of children as in Franco Ciagranini’s reportage from the early 70s. In the video reportage from the 80s we see only aid conveys. The locals are greeting the cars full of gifts with parades and celebration – but we see, 30 years later, that these aid policies have most probably led to the breakdown of their self-sufficiency. The tractors that were received with such praise lie abandoned in the dried out fields of today. Watching these films can only make us question whether it was ever a good idea to intervene in Africa – whether it was with arms, rhetoric or gifts.