Learning How to Appreciate African Cinema as a Young, White Westerner

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April 20th 2017

"Yeelen" "Yeelen"

I recently attended an intimate African film screening program here at a local local library in Berlin, Germany where I live, which was set up by local experts of African cinema to highlight cinematic developments over the years, and showcase the growing talent in contemporary African film.

I attended the series by chance. I just happened to be strolling by the venue and saw a sign on one of its exteriors that said a film titled "Yeelen," directed by Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé, which I had never heard of nor seen before, was being screened that evening. The poster struck me. The image of a young barely-clothed boy on his knees, respectfully, holding up what looked like a white orb of some kind (it's actually one of 2 symbolic eggs in the film) in his outstretched hands towards an older robed man, on his feet, looking down on the boy, with a vast desert and a setting sun as the backdrop. Of course after seeing the film I would find out what the scene represented in the poster was all about. But the image immediately reminded me of "Star Wars." I saw what looked like some kind of father/son conflict. Remember I had not seen the film at this moment and knew nothing about it. And after seeing it, I felt somewhat justified in an argument I would later make with a friend on the universality of stories and film language.

In "Yeelen," suffused with myth and ritual, it's a fantasy that tells of a young man with magical powers who journeys on a quest to find and defeat his sorcerer father. Sometimes cited as the greatest African film ever made, as I would later learn in the discussion that followed the screening, this beautiful fable follows a boy who flees his murderous father, grows to maturity in the wilderness, and returns to confront his paternal nemesis. Stylized and deliberately paced, "Yeelen" forces the viewer to navigate fundamental oppositions: change and tradition, life and death, light and darkness. The film does not decidedly favor one side or the other; instead it explores the interrelations between them. At least, that was my interpretation.





During the discussion that followed, a member of the audience (a white woman; and I should point out that the audience here was 100% white, including myself), apparently disgusted by what she had seen, emphatically criticized the film. Her argument? By showing any part of Africa as traditional (instead of modern, I assume), was to show Africa as still backward. And in her view, Souleymane Cissé's landmark film presented a "dangerous" portrait of the continent and its people. To paraphrase her: "What Africa needs now is not more of this kind of image that glorifies its unsophisticated past. African films needed now should instead focus on the modern cities, the modern lives and and the countries within the continent as part of a global movement." In other words, an Africa that looks like Europe; after all, Africa was once under European colonial rule. Watching her speak, a sad comment here is that she actually felt that she was speaking from a place of caring and understanding, as a crusader for Africa. How dare the white organizers of this screening show a film like this to other white people in a country outside of the continent of Africa that, as she seemed to believe, presents an African people in retrograde. We must show how much they've evolved, is what her words ultimately meant, and the more she spoke, the more I cringed in my seat.

I spoke to one of the professors who organized the screening series afterward, and, as I learned, this kind of misplaced outrage is sadly common and is emblematic of Europe's relationship to Africa, even still today. Paternalism has usurped past colonial relations, as some Europeans believe it's their duty to "help" African people understand themselves and how best to tell their own stories, and document their own images (as I have learned from reading this blog, this is something that African American artists are also combating in the USA. I looked it up and read all about the patronizing phenomenon that has come to be termed "Whitesplaining"). Believing this to be good will, we (white Europeans) fail to recognize how this kind of attitude is simply a repackaging of age-old thinking and a reinforcement of prior imbalances.

I stumbled upon this Shadow and Act blog in almost the same way I found the screening of "Yeelen." After the screening, I wanted to find out more about the film and the filmmaker, and so I did what most of us would probably do and got on the Internet to look it up. And my search brought me to a number of websites, including Shadow and Act - first to its previous home at Indiewire, which then led me here. And I'm glad I found it. In my daily web surfing, I must admit that I don't read a lot of black film coverage, because, if I can be honest, as a 28-year-old white male student living in Berlin, I've never really looked for it. Not that I'm representative of every 28-year-old white male living in Berlin. But living in a bubble, if something is not put in front of us or isn't already familiar to us, we probably won't go looking for it, even though I specifically was raised by parents who consider themselves aware, forward-looking, progressive thinkers, and who raised me to think critically about the world around me. But I'm a subscriber of Shadow and Act now, and I suddenly find myself more engaged than I have ever been with cinema of Africa and its diaspora. But after seeing "Yeelen," I most certainly have a lot more to see and experience before I can speak with any kind of authority. I'm just here to share one experience I recently had that I thought readers of this blog would be interested in.

However, I can use the brain that I was given, and my critical thinking skills to understand how ill-informed and misguided the frustrated woman who expressed her "concerns" at the screening I attended, was and probably still is. I didn't engage with her afterward, although now I wish I had. I would've told her that African filmmakers are not in need of this "activism" that she seems to believe people like her are responsible for. Instead, she should understand that African filmmakers are developing their own cinematic language - one that is not there to satisfy Western expectations and stereotypes of what African cinema should be. And however well-meaning she might believe she is, her paternalistic attitude towards "Yeelen" also prevents people like her from realizing and therefore challenging their own belief and value systems. By not taking the film seriously, her superior stance blinds her from the possibility of actually learning something from the film, and from the overall experience of watching and discussing it with the same reverence as she would a film by Fritz Lang or Wim Wenders. It prevents people like her from realizing that the image of Africa that they want so strongly to save is very much rooted in European cultural and intellectual history. As my father and I later discussed the experience I had, this distinct division between the traditional and the modern world, consciously distancing oneself from tradition, is a belief that is shared by most Europeans. It's a worldview that was initiated in the "Age of Enlightenment." And this woman's quarrel with the film she saw is rooted in that.

And so, I would've also told this woman that what she misses here is that both the Western and the African point of view are deprived of their potential: the former does not allow themselves the opportunity to see and understand with new lenses; and the latter is only lectured to, from supposedly higher intellectual ground, instead of being listened to, granting the rest of us a greater insight into their respective ideals and positions, so that both sides can benefit. She would've learned, as I did, that one ultimate allegorical interpretation of "Yeelen" is that the filmmaker sought to encourage and applaud the sacrifices made by young Africans to restore justice to their societies, when most of their elders either complied with corrupt governments, or believed themselves to be powerless, and incapable of ever making an impact on those same unscrupulous structures of authority. Or to maybe put it another way, to use that popular catch-all phrase, the children are the future.

Would she have listened to anything I had to say? Maybe not. She seemed very assured about her stance, and even the organizers of the event, who are far more knowledgeable than I am, couldn't get through to her. She seemed sadly very comfortable in her, as we say, Weltanschauung. I will leave it to you to look that word up if you're not already familiar with what it means.

I would like to thank Tambay and his commitment to having this online space where outsiders like myself can discover and learn about some of that which we know little about, and for allowing me to share my experience and thoughts. I hope to continue to learn as much as I can from every source I have access to, after all, what is life if you're not growing and evolving; and I hope to contribute more from my perspective over time. And to my white Westerner generational contemporaries, I would say, we are are the future, so it is in our best interest to speak less and listen more, shedding ingrained perceptions and supremacist tendencies - or get left behind in a world that's rapidly changing whether we like it or not.




by Jonas Keller on April 20th 2017
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