The Pirogue is the sadly well-known wooden fishing boat which serves the illegal immigration crossing from West Africa to Europe. The Senegalese director Moussa Touré returned to feature films after a series of documentaries. Those documentaries already showed the ability of the director to catch some African social questions in chronicles of individual destinies: dealing with polygamy by filming his father and his wives (5 X 5, 2004), dealing with the issue of homelessness by filming a group of street kids in Brazzaville (Poussières de villes, 2004)…
Taking on one of the serious contemporary problems of his native country, the death of venturing migrants to Europe in the ocean, Moussa Touré chooses to do a fictional drama and turns it into a powerful and surprisingly colorful movie.
The protagonist, Baye Laye is an experienced fisherman and family man who is being forced by economic and moral pressures to be the captain of a refugee boat. After some negotiations, Baye Laye takes on board around 30 souls in his small pirogue. But the crossing soon becomes a nightmare.
Opening the movie, the oiled bodies of the Senegalese fighters who execute their lucky dance, decorated with their grigri, symbolize the cruel fate of illegal immigrants. They are the metaphor of the belief surrounding the movie: the belief of a better life in Europe even if it means risking one’s own life or the belief in the prayers, the sacred animals or the grigri which take away the boat from the waves.
The bodies also represent the paradoxes that lead the people to leave their native land. The bodies framed by Moussa Touré are a blend of beauty and wounds. Thus, the muscled bodies of the fishermen will become weaker as they will fight against the ocean.
Finally, the fighters’ bodies also symbolize the individual confrontations that give rhythm to the movie. The closing atmosphere of the tiny boat creates various confrontations: older against younger brothers, Guineans against Senegalese, men against women, city dwellers against country folk. But since the passengers’ situation becomes more and more hopeless in the middle of the ocean, those quarrels intensify as much as they disappear.
The quality of the movie resides in its beauty and the tenderness of the director regarding his characters. The omnipresence of the beauty underlines the nonsense of those fates, leaving their beautiful country, which doesn’t give them a bright future, to endure the sufferings of immigration from the trip to the hosting conditions in Europe.
By choosing the form of a classical drama, emphasized by a great soundtrack (made by Prince Ibrahima Ndour), Moussa Touré proposes a tender and respectful tribute to those who risk the danger of the ocean to find a better life and thus, delivers an incredible African look at an urgent issue.
The Pirogue – Moussa Touré – 2012 – 87’
From the beginning of this blog, I mainly talked about long feature films, but what about short movies?
To deal with this subject, I would like to focus on two shorts from two different countries. They both have in common the fact of being directed by young women from the New West African Diaspora.
Akosua Adoma Owusu is a Virginia born, Ghanaian filmmaker and artist. She made an acclaimed debut with her short movie Me Broni Ba (My White Baby) that has been shown at over 50 high profile institutions worldwide including The Museum of Modern Art, Rotterdam Film Festival, London Film Festival, DOK Leipzig, and Cannes Film Festival at Cinema des Mondes. The movie won a lot of prizes during those screenings such as the Best Documentary Short Award in Chicago Underground Film Festival (2009) or the Second Prize of Documentary Short in Athens Film & Video Festival (2009).
Nikyatsu Jusu is an American born to Sierra Leonean parents and graduated of the NYU Tisch School of Arts. Her first film is named after a provocative title, African Booty Scratcher and tells the story of Isatu, a young Sierra Leonean American who is at the intersection of two cultures—or perhaps three, her mother’s culture, American culture and US high school culture. Her story is told at a rapid pace where the movements of the handheld camera answer the rhythm of the protagonist’s words.
African Booty Scratcher
While Nikyatsu Jusu situated her first movie in the US, Akosua Adoma Owusu shot it in Africa. Me Broni Ba is a lyrical portrait of hair salons in Kumasi, Ghana. The legacy of European colonialism in Africa is suggested by images of women practicing hair braiding on discarded white baby dolls from the West. The film is constructed with a series of vignettes, set against a child’s story of migrating from Ghana to the United States. It is a mixture of fact and creative storytelling: blending jazzy tunes, documentary footage, slow motion images, and other audio and sound tracks.
Me Broni Ba
Through those fresh movies, both directors claim their hybrid identity: being as much American as African. While Owusu’s is mixing avant-garde filmmaking with West African storytelling, Nikyatsu Jusu follows the tradition of African Americans inspired by directors like Spike Lee. The two women could be seen as symbols of a Diaspora which reflects multiple identities, histories and experiences of those born in the United States with Western African traditions. Two talents that must be followed!
Me Broni Ba – Akosua Adoma Owusu – 22’ – 2009
African Booty Scratcher – Nikyatu Jusu – 13’ – 2008
As we have seen, immigration is one the main topics of the New African Cinema. In most African movies, the main character is bound to leave his country to earn money in Europe and send it to his family. African Paradise offers a completely different vision of the subject. Actually Sylvestre Amoussou imagines the other way round: what if the Europe was economically devastated and a wave of European immigration came to Africa?
In the year 2033 of an imaginary future, Africa has become a powerful federation while the crisis in Europe leads to famine and civil war. Like many Europeans, the protagonists, a young French couple, arrives illegally in Africa looking for work. Pauline is a teacher who is hired as a cleaning lady by a moderate member of the parliament, Modibo. Meanwhile, her husband, Oliver, a computer specialist, tries to escape from the transit camp where he is jailed. Both of them like other Europeans will endure all the common humiliations of migrants from everywhere: racism, fear of police, disdain and problems with administration…
For his first feature, Sylvestre Amoussou signed a social and political satire blaming prejudice on migration and xenophobia on political parties. Yet, despite the director’s generosity helped by the pretty soundtrack made by Wasis Diop, the low budget and the poor acting of the protagonists undermine the impact of the movie. The characters are built on stereotypes, so everybody could recognize real life situations in them, but too many stereotypes also keep us from diving into this imaginary experience which could have been an exceptional call to tolerance.
Africa Paradise – Sylvestre Amoussou – 2007 – 86’
I will do a small break in my movie reviews to have a look at something new in African production. At the last Cannes Film Festival, the Senegalese director Moussa Touré announced the creation of a Panafrican Film Fund that he will sponsor during the year 2012. The main reason that pushed the director to sustain the creation of the fund is the possibility to finally shot movies in the own director’s language. The fund is imagined as future tool of solidarity between African countries and the idea was born four years ago with a certain number of objectives:
– To financially support the production of movies for cinema and television and the finishing of movies already produced
– To facilitate the emergence of African films and quality TV series
– To promote South-South cooperation
– To link the African cinema with its local audience, answering its aspirations
– To make possible the reappropriation of the proper history and culture by one billion Africans
The Fund’s headquarters will be established in Cartage, Tunisia. In this city, was also born the Fepaci (Panafrican African Director’s Federation, created in 1969). But the fund is still a project since few countries have confirmed their involvement in it: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, RDC, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Gambia, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal, Chad and Tunisia.
For the Tunisian director, Ferid Boughedir, the importance of the fund is to guarantee the independence of African cinema by getting the same financing structures the European cinema industry already has. Now, we just hope that the fund will go on even with the logistics and financial difficulties that may imply such an initiative.
For his debut feature, Cheick Fantamady Camara offers a personal vision on a regular theme of African cinema, traditionalism vs. modernism. In Conakry like in every place in the world, the collision between traditions and modernity is more devastating when love is at stake.
BB is a young political cartoonist who works at a liberal newspaper. He is in love with his boss’ daughter, Kesso, a talented computer-scientist and model. But BB is also the son of a strict Imam, Karamako who refuses the union between his son and a woman from a modern urban family such as that of Kesso. When Kesso becomes pregnant with BB’s child, Karamako leaves his son no choice, either he refuses the child or he will be chased away from his family. Karamako’s desire is indeed something completely different; he wants to send BB to Saudi Arabia in order to study to become an imam.
In Conakry, the rain refuses to fall and the government decides to authorize a collective prayer led by BB’s father. When BB discovered that the government has planned the huge prayer because they knew the meteorologistsforecast rain, BB decided to denounce the manipulation by publishing, without the agreement of his boss, an outrageous cartoon only signed with his pen name. The religious organizations soon condemned the cartoonist and when BB announced to his father that he was the one they wanted to put in jail, the relationship between the father and the son came to a point of no return.
Clouds over Conakry is constructed as a tragedy. There are two clans whose children are in love. Kesso’s family representing modernity: the father runs a liberal newspaper and the mother, a travel agency. The conversations within the family reveal the freedom of speech of each member of the clan, women or men. The situation is different in BB’s family, centered on the patriarchal figure of Karamako, who always has the last word on his various wives. The languages they use, French for the first one, Malinké for the second, even with the resistance of BB who always speaks French, also divide the clans.
In this context, BB becomes the link between those two clans. The director also adds secondary characters, such as BB’s singer ex-girlfriend or Kesso’s shop-owner aunt, the mediator of familial quarrels, who convey lightness in the tragic situation of the lovers. It also shows Camara’s subtle treatment of an obsession in New African Cinema: the difficulties of young people facing a divided cultural heritage.
Clouds over Conakry – Cheick Fantamady Camara – 2006 – 113’
When We Were Black is a TV mini-series coming from South Africa, created and directed by Khalo Matabane and produced by Bornfree Media for SABC1.
The story is situated in Soweto, during the 1976 uprising. Fistos, an intelligent but shy teenager, meets Mangi, the girl of his dreams. She is the daughter of a local liberation preacher and also the girlfriend of Modise, a rising star in the world of student politics. The tagline is simple and universal: “Love in a time of revolt.” When We Were Black is an initiatory journey of a teenager who is trying to become a man by learning the art of seduction within a revolutionary context. While Fistos is facing the pain of unfulfilled love, he also has to get through the violence of his township.
But When We Were Black is not a hopeless vision of Apartheid. Actually, what strikes one the most is the colourful atmosphere, really in the spirit of the 70’. All the details of the clothes and haircuts show that the seventies-hippy-fashion also passed by the townships. But what makes Fistos’ neighbourhood so special is the enthusiastic music, the Mbaqanga. What also makes When We Were Black a UFO in the world of TV series is the handheld camera, the close-ups, the rapid pace of the editing and the brick colour of the frame reflecting the ground of the Townships. It’s a bit disturbing at first glance, but then you dive into this unexpected world and start to dance to the music and suffer for the clumsy Fistos. Indeed, the great value of the TV mini-series is the kindness of the characters, especially Fistos’ family, but also his funky schoolmates. They also reveal the ambiguity of being Black during Apartheid, which means being oppressed and not free to go everywhere in the country. But being a young black in the 70’s townships of Soweto also means love, having fun and struggling for your future. All the powerful hopes of this generation are well summarized in the title When We Were Black, which immediately sounds like the fight of Muhammed Ali against George Foreman in Kinshasa captured by the movie When We Were Kings.
When We Were black – Khalo Matabane – 4 x 60’ – 2006
Since 1987 with La vie est belle (1987) directed by Ngangura Dieudonné Mweze and Benoît Lam, the Congo-Kinshasa has been considered as a country without cinema. For his feature film debut, Djo Tunda Wa Munga achieves the double task of beginning the renaissance of his national cinema (hopefully) and delivering an exciting thriller influenced by Quentin Tarantino.
The plot is quite universal. The hero Riva is a handsome bad-guy who comes back home after 10 years in Angola. Of course, he carries with him a lot of money brought by a stolen truckload of gasoline and plans to resell it in Kinshasa, where fuel is lacking. Riva is not a cautious gangster. While his former boss from Angola is looking for him and his stolen truck, Riva is partying and spending all the money he got in nightclubs, brothels or by helping a beggar child who soon becomes his best accomplice. During these hot nights, he falls in love with Nora who happens to be the mistress of a local crime lord. Riva seduces Nora and is, of course, soon pursued by her boyfriend’s men.
Meanwhile, the angry Angolans, who want their gasoline back, organize themselves to find Riva. Cesar, the boss, blackmails a sentimental army commander. Soon, she uses her network of whores and priests in Kinshasa to help them.
The main force of Viva Riva comes from its charming characters. Firstly, Cesar, the Angolan boss, is a dandy who speaks French with a seductive Portuguese accent, but hides an extreme violence. Riva is as fast as he is stupid and is helped by his best friend, a driving schoolteacher, married to a hot-tempered woman and father of two children. Nora is a beautiful and smart woman married to a stupid gangster. There is also a gallery of nice whores, an old mama pimp, a villainous priest and zealous police officers.