African cinema may, for most, be top of the blindspot list. The history of filmmaking, distribution, and access to cinema in African countries is contentious: for most of the 20th century Africa as a whole was represented exclusively through the eyes of the nations and kingdoms who colonized it, western filmmakers from Europe and the Americas shaping the world’s opinions of this continent and its artistic contents with their colonialist perspectives. Even ethnographic films (e.g. Jean Rouch), while depicting a more realistic version of various nations such as Nigeria or Cote d’Ivore, bore the outsider’s gaze. That all changed in the 1960s. In his 1983 documentary Camera d’Afrique, Férid Boughedir states that with the release of Ousmane Sembène’s debut short film Borom Sarret in 1963, “for the first time, the image of Africa had come from within.”
Camera d’Afrique, which was presented in a new 2K restoration as part of the AFI Silver’s New African Film Festival, remains an essential manuscript of the evolution of African cinema and its expressions of a violent, colonial history through art. Boughedir names a remarkable roster of filmmakers and films that can serve as one’s own compass—giants like Ousmane Sembène, Med Hondo, Souleymane Cissé, and Djibril Diop Mambéty are of course opined on extensively, but the documentary also shines a light on Omaru Ganda, Paulin Vieyra, Alkaly Kaba, among many other unsung artists. Boughedir notes how the cinema movement in Africa was like an explosion, with many filmmakers—most of whom were European-taught—emerging as prominent artists “within the span of only a few years.” It’s perhaps first and foremost important then to consider the “African cinema,” as it is collectively called, as being born out of a common history from European and American imperialism imposed on the continent that resulted in an artistic reckoning with it. Boughedir recounts how the cinema started as a movement of depicting realities, with films like Sembène’s Black Girl (1966) and Med Hondo Soleil O (1970), and as Hondo himself states, “aimed to make films the voice of my fellow-countrymen, the voice of Africans, Blacks, and Arabs.”
The comprehensive usage of great film clips from some of the continent’s most politically charged, realist, yet imaginative films rounds out the ways African cinema depicted the many clashing religious and cultural conflicts that provided inspiration. A scene from Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) sees the traditions of pre-colonial Africa, Muslim influence, and French colonialism colliding in a single sequence where a French man brands a woman with a hot iron while others do their daily prayer. Then a group of Muslims pick out boys from a local tribe and perform a conversion ceremony, giving them Muslim names—one being Ousmane, the name of Ceddo’s director. Boughedir’s conscious choice of clips illustrate beautifully how cinema’s history is both retroactively connected to African history while being a parallel commentary to its present state. This structuring of scenes understands that religious and cultural influence don’t exist in a vacuum––they keep having an indelible effect, for better and worse, through time.
There is a constant struggle to separate the specters of colonialism and the control Europe had on Africa for so long, one that eventually seeped from artistic metaphor into real-life action and created a truly independent film culture in the continent. People like J.C. Edeline, head of the U.G.C (which was the premier distributor of films to French-speaking Africa), saw the new crop of “African cinema threatening an extremely lucrative monopoly which European film suppliers imposed on African screens.” Boughedir shows shots of several Spaghetti Westerns and French Noir film posters lining the walls of local cinemas with crowds deciding what to watch, cut with interviews of filmmakers lamenting their struggles to achieve funding and be taken seriously as workers with a voice. Souleymane Cissé says he doesn’t discourage young filmmakers from pursuing cinema, but “try to prepare them not to expect miracles. We are just starting, and we are misunderstood, and we have to do everything ourselves.”
The industrial nature of cinema, from its production to distribution and even awards bodies, channels competition and resentment under the capitalist structure. When African filmmakers found a voice of their own, they automatically became rivals of the European film conglomerate. Filmmaker Moustapha Alassane is also shown, in a public-hearing scene, making the case that “if our culture interests you, you would work with us… but you’re here for business and you don’t admit it.” Camera d’Afrique traces the changes in African cinema eventually leading towards the formation of an industry of its own, where popular films become financed and showcased—such as Nigeria’s “Nollywood.” The development of this is of course a double-edged sword in its latching of unique cultural expression onto Western-influenced capital, yet offering the independence and agency for African filmmakers to profit from their own labor.
A scene from Soleil O shows a disheveled man by a fire in the forest, tearing off dollar bills from his clothes and casting them into the fire. Boughedir’s documentary is remarkable in how it intertwines cinematic metaphors with the real-life trajectory of a continent’s cinema culture evolving and changing with socio-economic forces. Camera d’Afrique is an invaluable primer to better glean the interconnectedness of history and art that defines the unique visionary works of African filmmakers—a launching pad urging cinephiles to dive into a long-neglected cinematic history and continue its increasing footprint and influence on the world cinema stage.