On Cinema

Out of Africa

To get a handle on African cinema, watch Mandabi

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The African film Lingui, from Chad, was in contention for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Festival, but lost out to Julia Ducournau’s Titane. Despite Chad’s oil-wealth, its population of 16 million inhabit one of the least developed, poorest, and most corrupt countries in the world, and there is barely a film industry there. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is practically a one-man band and the actresses in Lingui are non-professional.

Haroun, who served briefly between 2017 and 2018 as Chad’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Crafts, was a student in France and has lived in Paris since 1982, having fled his homeland’s civil wars. Yet all but one of his eight features have been made in his native country.

“When I was nine years old, one of my crazy uncles took me to the only picturehouse in Chad,” he told an interviewer in 2017. “We didn’t have any cinema of our own. Bollywood and Hollywood films were screened there. Imagine, you are so young, you have seen no television, no smartphone, you didn’t even know that something called cinema existed. It was a magical experience.”

The experience of seeing a film was so vivid that it became a plot point in his second feature, Abouna (2002). Set in the capital city N’Djamena, it concerns two young brothers whose father has abandoned the family out of shame over his unemployment.

They go in search of him and visit a cinema where the posters advertise Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Yaaba, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. Thinking that they see their father on screen, the younger one stands up and shouts out: “Father, it’s me!” They steal the film, intending to examine it at their leisure for further clues as to their father’s whereabouts.

The wordlingui” means “sacred bond” in Chadian Arabic and refers to the emotional bond between a mother and her daughter, and also with the wider community of women. Amina, a single mother in her early thirties and eking out a precarious income from stripping wire out of tyres in order to make stoves, finds that her 15-year-old daughter, Maria, is pregnant and in need of an abortion in a country where it is illegal except when the mother has been a victim of sexual violence or her own health is in danger. Together they try to evade the restrictions. Shot in vibrant colours and despite a tight running time of 87 minutes, Lingui allows its characters emotional breathing space as they confront their shared dilemma.

“If I don’t bring images from Chad, my country will be forgotten,” Haroun has said in an interview. “I have to make films to give other images of my country, rather than the cliché images of war, et cetera. It becomes more than a passion. It becomes a duty.”

Anyone wanting to get a handle on African cinema should go back to one of its earliest examples, which enjoyed a brief cinema revival this summer before its current release on Blu-ray. Mandabi (1968) was the second feature by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène and the first feature to be made in an African language, in this case Wolof.

Once again we have Martin Scorsese to thank for initiating the restoration of a little-seen classic. The central character, Ibrahima Dieng, is an unemployed father of seven, with two wives, a devout and charitable Muslim, who lives on credit and charity himself. His world is turned upside down when he receives a money order from a nephew working and living in Paris.

This might seem like manna from heaven, but to cash a money order in Senegal he must have an identity card, and in order to obtain this he needs a birth certificate, which means paying for a photograph. Meanwhile, rumours of his imminent wealth have spread and he is beset by his eager wives, his sister, his creditors, and random beggars.

He is duly conned and, with his self-esteem finally shattered by his cousin’s betrayal and the photographer’s fraud, Ibrahim and his wives go back to a life of making ends meet and keeping up appearances.

Night of the Kings is a visually arresting prison flick

Oscars entry Night of the Kings, from the French-Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte, has finally reached UK cinema screens (via the 2020 Venice and Toronto film festivals), and is now available to stream on Curzon Home Video.

Night of the Kings is set (although not shot) in La Maca prison. The Mr. Big among the prisoners is soon to commit suicide and hand over to another “king”. In the meantime he plucks a young male pickpocket from among the new arrivals and gives him the name “Roman”.

Like Scheherazade, Roman must weave a tale for an audience of prisoners until the “red moon” goes down or face death by suspension from a meat hook. It’s a visually arresting prison flick with the West African oral tradition of the griot — the tribal storyteller and incantator — at its centre.

Lacôte does not believe in “African cinema” — as a continental phenomenon, it’s too patchy to be meaningful. Nonetheless he sees hope in transnational co-productions. Night of the Kings was lucky to find additional investment in France, Canada, and neighbouring Senegal and a champion in British-African actor David Oyelowo, who came on board as an executive producer after seeing the movie at the Toronto festival.

Meanwhile, Haroun’s Lingui has yet to find a UK distributor. In cinemas next year perhaps? If we’re lucky.

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