That’s the theme of INPUT this year; implying back to the lands where storytelling began, back to the origins of mankind, the origins of civilisation, so many beginnings. But there is also frustration at European and Western producers and broadcasters who impose their own sets of values, biases, and attitudes upon the peoples of the CONTINENT of Africa. So the title is at once a celebration, a point of contention, and an encouragement to try to get Westerners to mend their ways.
How many times have you referred to Africa, or have heard Africa referred to, as a country. Then there’s the prevalence of “PHDs,” or stories that focus on Poverty, Hunger and Death as one person called the all-too familiar stories about the peoples of Africa produced by western journalists and producers.
Of course, for a Shmohawk from Canada, this is all too familiar territory.
This evening, I wanted to experience a workshop called “Ousmane Sembene: A Tribute to African Cinema.” I didn’t know about this man from Senegal before, and neither did many others in the audience. So the first part was an introduction with a couple of short clips from two of this films, and an excerpt from a TV interview. I wish there were more to see, because even though these were 10-minute clips, they were fascinating, inspiring, and challenging. Sembene died four years ago, at the age of 84 after making films for 40 years. He is often called the “father of African cinema.”
The first clip is from “Faat Kiné.” Here what Wikipedia says about the clip and the confrontation between Djip the son, his father BOP, and his sister’s father, Monsieur Gaye:
At the party to celebrate the graduates, Djip’s father shows up, but Djip consistently refers to him as “Monsieur BOP” rather than “father.” Aby’s father, M. Gaye, also comes to the party, and she asks him to finance her college education. Her father is insulted and tells her to ask Kiné, despite the fact that it is Kiné who has raised Aby her whole life, while Gaye has given her no support. BOP, Gaye, and their friends are hooted out of the party.
Djip’s father abandoned the mother before the son’s birth, crashes the son’s graduation party to instruct him to go to a French university because they’re better than African schools. The son refuses. Uncles are drawn into the discussion; you must get on your knees, they tell the son, beg forgiveness from the father, and respect the elders. The son again refuses.
To many in the audience, the clip was about the generational issue, as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Just as in the film, the audience seemed split along generational lines with some of the older participants insisting that youth must, of course, respect their elders while many of the younger audience members disagreed.
The division, though, wasn’t as clear cut as age or generation. Sembene, you see, had layers upon layers even in this short clip. Djip’s mother, you see, was actually his father’s sister. Meanwhile, Djip’s elder uncles had raped young school girls and violated the very religious rules they expected him to abide by. However, this was never fully explored as the audience ignored the focus of the conflict – the son’s refusal to heed elders whom he deemed hypocrites. Do as I say, they insisted, not as I do.
The second film clip is of a film called Moolaadé. It dealt with another timeless issue, female circumcision. In this excerpt, the men have collected all of the radios and are destroying them as the source of corrupting ideas. A group of women then confront the priestesses who conduct the circumcisions, taking away their knives. The rebellious women then challenge the male council, telling them the Quran does not sanction female circumcision.
Do something about your wife, one man says. The man rises and joins his wife instead. So does another young man, against his father’s wishes. To the audience, it was again a clear issue of women asserting their rights to control their own bodies. But there was more here than the obvious. Sembene had men acting as well, letting us know that so-called “gender issues,” as the audience preferred to call them, are not only for females. By acting, the men showed that those of the male gender had just as much responsibility to ensure gender equality as the women.
In the end, one impassioned young woman stood at the microphone and told all that what was really important about the discussion on the films of Sembene was that she – a film student and someday film producer – had never even heard about (much less seen a film by) “the father of African cinema.” That, she insisted, was the real significance of the evening. It wasn’t whether his films were about colonialism, or disrespect for elders, or challenging religious dogma. It was that an African man could do such films 40 years ago “when my father cannot even say such things in public today.”
One other significant fact to leave you with… There was only a handful of pale faces in the audience despite the theme of this conference, its locale, and the topic of the workshop.