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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Josef Gugler
Indiana University Press,
202 pages, $24.95
Seeing Africa on film


African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent is not only a great treat for movie fans but a book that will enlarge any reader’s horizons. While the mass media almost completely ignore Africa and the current administration is too busy talking about democracy to take a serious look at its problems, Josef Gugler’s assistance in African Film is a desperately needed corrective.

Mr. Gugler, previously director of sociological research at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda, now heads the Center for Contemporary African Studies at the University of Connecticut. His book demonstrates the serious yet pleasurable way he draws on movies while introducing his students to African sub-Saharan reality. Let’s face it: Few of us know what Africa looks like -- all we ever get are photographs of wild game taken by wealthy tourists -- and we don’t know what Africans look like; all television (occasionally) shows are a few shots of starving children. When we search for Africa in film, the multiplex offers us “Out of Africa,” in which Meryl Streep and Robert Redford lounge in the Garden of Eden, Europeans are seen as “masters of that universe ... and Western viewers identify with them and their view of the land and the people.” An even more widely distributed alternative, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” though quite effective as slapstick comedy, is an all-too-easily swallowed restatement of South Africa’s late, unlamented apartheid ideology.

Mr. Gugler makes clear how difficult it is for Africans to present their real faces and their own voices and to interpret their own history in the all-important contemporary medium of film. Africa is desperately poor and even today its filmmakers remain dependent on outside financing and technical resources to make movies and are too rarely successful at getting them shown abroad. The many languages spoken in each country, the small number of theaters and the meager income audiences can allot for entertainment all magnify the problem of developing an authentic African cinema.

What has already been produced, however, is as impressive as it is largely unshown in the United States, and as valuable for Americans as for its various local audiences. Idrissa Ouedraogo’s “Yaaba,” for example, makes Mr. Gugler think of Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.” It gives audiences a long-overdue, realistic picture of life in a contemporary village in Burkina Faso, though Mr. Gugler comments that the real village is less isolated than it appears in the film. The movie, which won the main prize at Cannes in 1989, emphasizes cooperation and tolerance, celebrates the grandmother of its title and is typically African in its deliberately slow pace, quiet humor and absence of violence and sensationalism.

Mr. Gugler combines careful analyses of 17 movies with valuable short chapters that present a historical-political analysis of the African struggle against colonialism, the fight for majority rule in South Africa, betrayals of independence in several countries and an overall glance at Africa’s exploited and neglected peasantry. Although sympathetic with the deprivations from which most Africans still suffer, Mr. Gugler is always an honest critic of shortcomings in the movies discussed. As a widely read student of African culture, he also offers helpful analyses of novels by André Brink, Njabulo Ndebele, Ousmane Sembène and José Luandino Vieira, as well as Wole Soyinka’s “Kong’s Harvest,” a powerful play by the Nobel Prize winner. The play’s ending was changed when it was adapted for the screen.

Mr. Gugler also exhibits a sharp knowledge of the practical difficulties encountered by African filmmakers during production, such as the frequent inability to see rushes until it is too late to make corrections as well as problems in adapting from one medium to another. Ousmane Sembène, however, the “father” of African film and one of the world’s great directors, succeeded in recasting his novel, “Xala,” to reach a Senegalese audience, adding powerful songs and implicit criticism of both the pseudobourgeoisie and his country’s political leaders.

To combat the widespread ignorance of Africa by American students -- as well as the rest of us -- it would be encouraging to see a widespread use of African Film in our colleges and to see teachers, even if they are not specialists like Mr. Gugler, obtaining many of the films he discusses from New Yorker Films and California Newsreel. Audiences would be enriched esthetically and politically and might even begin to “re-imagine” our world.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic and is the author of Robert Bresson: A Religious Style in Film (Continuum).

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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