PART 3: AFRICAN FILM: VIEWING A POSTMODERN EPISODE
Ken: Merci Professeur
Son, brother, husband, colleague, teacher, mentor, friend
Titles good enough even for the best of us
On this occasion have fallen short
Of expressing our deepest gratitude
In recognition of such aptitude
Devoted to a yearning multitude
So, we come bearing ovation
From Yaoundé, Dakar, and Ouagadougou
New York, Michigan and San Diego
We chorus merci professeur, thank you!
For over half a century of dedication
Your commitment to our edification
Diverse characters from across continents
Gathered together in one conference
Witnesses to your generous exchange
Urging many a faltering step
Becoming the dearly need help
Yours was the unpopular path to take
Choosing service over wealth and fame
Not a difficult choice for you to make
Repeatedly striving for humanity’s sake
Wherever this next journey takes you
May our ancestors be there to guide you
To a realm of unabating peace
Far away from sorrow’s kiss
Toyin Falola: You have noted in numerous publications that the African cinema has moved from the political to the postmodern, what do you think the African cinema is presently and what differentiates it from others?
Kenneth Harrow: African cinema has had to go through a revolutionary change in the 1990s as the economics of film exhibition and distribution meant the death of the celluloid film industry. Most of the theaters on the continent closed; most of the 35 mm or even 16 mm filmmaking ended. What remained was largely independent filmmaking made in collaboration with European producers, like Arte or the BBC. But Nigeria saved African film. Living in Bondage provided a model for video film production, and the crazy system of marketing to home audiences followed. After that, digital filmmaking, and nowadays major platforms, along with new mall theaters, have opened up the possibilities for African filmmakers again to find markets and make enough to pay their expenses. Tunde Kelani has tried it all, and largely survived, even if not enricheding himself through his work. Tunde Afolayan is another real model for the neoNollywoodean filmmaker whose talents and means provide for high postproduction values and scripts that are really intriguing, like The Figurine. And the stars! Nnaji and dozens of others. A miracle, a viable film industry that others throughout the continent now seek to emulate. Thank God for Nollywood, warts and all: it saved the day for African cinema.
As for what differentiates it, that is more complicate. African cinemas are really very plural: the styles in Nollywood are recognizable because the major platforms that support them, now including Netflix along with Irokotv or amazon etc., are setting standards for filmmaking throughout the world, and standards mean audience tastes, rules about values, images, plotting etc. In other words, a confining and limiting set of approaches all dictated by what sells. But wonderful smaller industries or independents are appearing everywhere on the continent, from East Africa, Sudan, S. Africa, Senegal, Angola, and elsewhere. The independent film groupings are producing very very exciting and innovative films. It is much harder within the constraints of Nollywood to be creatively innovative. But at the same time, people like Afolayan and Kelani work within the constraints and give us wonderful films as well. Not even Hollywood was all bad!
Toyin Falola: You often regard yourself as an Africanist and moving to Africa was the most fortuitous thing that happened to you, how was the experience?
Kenneth Harrow: I spoke to that above a bit. Memories of introducing literature to students in Yaoundé, wonderful open students who seemed to embrace all kinds of approaches that I offered. Great moments also in teaching at Cheikh Anta Diop, teaching Marxist and psychoanalytical approaches back in the 1990s, back when Birago Diop was still alive. Senegal gave me the lasting embrace of African thought and culture and life. Every day we went out, open to the world of Dakar, I found new understandings and pleasures. Not all was great, of course. But I was largely infused with the perspectives and values of the place, so that I came deeply to understand that Africa could only be a real thing, in our studies, when seen and understood through the perspective of the place, of being right there that moments, and seeing what was happening around us. I relearned that lesson in 2005-6, standing on the beaches of Dakar from which the pirogues departed, trying to reach Europe.
Of course, I only had a small piece of that world, but it was enough to establish a reality. Africa from a distance was largely empty of meaning. I remember one of our ALA conferences in a fancy resort hotel outside of Accra. The organizers warned the attendees against the perils of street food, of street risks, etc. They might as well have stayed home. The street was everything; the African hotel with its masks and dances for the tourists was nothing.
Toyin Falola: As a scholar on diaspora and migration and someone who lived in Africa, what can you say about the idea of African communitarianism, multiculturalism, and Pan Africanism?
Kenneth Harrow: Whatever is true is also a lie. Esu teaches us that. Communitarianism in Africa can get sold as an easy commonplace, just as the notion of individualism in the west is a trite commonplace. We have to say specifically where it is that the family operates in our lives, where our ways of life are impacted by the values we learned in the community at home. When I first went to Africa, everyone I met had grown up as a child in the village, and carried those ties into the city. That was 50 years ago, and now there are generations whose lives began in the city, and in cities where the neighborhoods were mixed. I think of Wolof now as a language infused with non-Wolof words; and that is true of all African languages, especially as media outlets include European language broadcasts, as educational instruction at higher levels is in English or French, as people travel more, interact outside the community. In other words, it is normal in Africa, as always, for people to learn from other people, including the most basic tool of all, language. In the U.S. most people speak only English; in Africa most people speak three or more languages. More important, the population is perhaps 50% urban, where old village communitarianism is now dead—as indeed it is in villages. On the other hand, communities are formed in opposition to those outside them, as Amselle claimed, and Africans learned quickly that real freedom from colonialism had to come by uniting in opposition. Panafricanism has always been betrayed everywhere; yet it has always returned in the face of common exigencies and the need to face common dangers. China is the new powerhouse on the block; Africans have to learn to speak Mandarin to thrive; but have to learn also how to do business against the Chinese, not simply with them. Chinese trawlers are no better than European ones. They all steal Africa’s fish. I don’t see how something as basic as preserving the fish off the coast of the continent for African diets can be accomplished without a common bond of struggle against globalized capitalism.
Toyin Falola: What is the most challenging thing you encountered during the journey of intellectual enterprise and mentoring graduate students over the years?
Kenneth Harrow: It was simply the gradual loss of jobs for my grad students, meaning loss of students specializing in African literature and cinema. My department, for instance, had a steady enrollment of 1100 students in English. It is under 500 now; and of those 500, only 200 do literature. The number of students who would do just African literature or cinema is zero. A few would undertake broader black studies, but not enough for a class, even. That shift, gradually seeing the change from African studies to postcolonial, was described for me by Jeyifo, whose work at Harvard—the elite institution—was marked by the same as that in my state university. From postcolonial to global, from the humanities to business studies or education etc., a radical shift. And with it, the balance of male and female students shifted radically, where the classes in my final years, especially at the grad level, were all or almost all female. Jobs and the threat of unemployment changed the market and thus enrollment patterns.
Additionally, theory, understood as poststructuralism and then postmodernism, gradually shrank and disappeared, with material studies replacing them. No more Derrida, no more deconstruction, no more psychoanalysis. Spivak lamented this shift ten years ago. Now she too will be forgotten, along with Bhabha and their generation. The new we always need to learn is focused on the body, the materiality of the media, not its ideologies; the identities of the players, never mind the essentializing that is implied in that. And me, too, I’ve changed in my interests. I’ll save that for my final answer.
Toyin Falola: As we live in a divisive world and a world where refugees are finding it difficult to live, what is your idea on the concepts of refugee solidarity and safety?
Kenneth Harrow: I am a country specialist in Rwanda and Burundi for Amnesty International. I see myself as a collaborator with Human Rights Watch, Medecin Sans Frontieres, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and all the other rights organizations devoted to protecting the rights of people, including journalists, human rights workers, gays and lesbians, political opponents, minority populations, and so on. I’ve worked in this capacity since 1993, so I can say this is an important part of my life. If you consider that Rwanda underwent a genocide, and Burundi lost maybe 300,000-400,000 people in the 1970s-1990s; and that the number of refugees from central Africa is in the millions, you have to be a rock not to be deeply moved by these realities. The world of the global north, the U.S. and Europe, has failed to protect the rights of refugees. There are 80 million people who have been displaced from their homes by violence and oppression. The politics of Trump or Berlusconi is their enemy. That means we have to struggle against the anti-immigrant forces here in the States, and in Europe. Where are all these displaced peoples? In camps, in various African and Middle Eastern countries, in poor or underresourced countries, like Uganda or Kenya, or even in Tanzania, the DRC, Rwanda, everywhere in fact in Africa. Camps spilling over from Morocco to Libya and millions growing up in camps. Their lives have limited possibilities, and there, across the water, money and real possibilities. The global world order is built on one premise: what is mine belongs to me, not you. It is an immoral order, and it will be a long haul to try to reform it.
PART B – INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS BY TOYIN FALOLA
The story of the film in Africa is not as recent as many perceive it to be. Films were screened in Egyptian cinema as early as 1896, and by 1935, film studios in Cairo had begun production. In Sub-Saharan Africa (a geographical term that I always use with reluctance), the story has been slightly different. Even where the technology was available, Africans in some locations were generally prohibited from making films, especially considering the potency of films as a means of cultural and political advocacy—the 1934 Laval Decree is a case in point. Thus, the portrayal of Africa (south of the Sahara) was left in the sole monopoly of Western filmmakers who portrayed the people in a deprecatory fashion—as “exotic,” “savages,” and “cannibalistic.” These followed the dictates of the dominant thought (colonial propaganda) of the period. However, on the eve of independence (the 1950s), black film production began in Paris, and eventually, the French-speaking regions led the revolution in African film production into the 1980s until the renaissance engineered by Nigerian film production in the 1990s.
The previous (modern-era of Structural Adjustments and military rule) that ushered in the renaissance of African cinema, spearheaded by a crop of Nigerian creatives who identified the instrumentality of film and took advantage of the latest technological innovations in the sector—the VCR—to deliver a message; drawing the attention of the masses to the superiority of morals and traditional values, especially in the face of the immoral excesses of the military ruling class which was a threat to social cohesion, has passed.
It is, however, still the case that the brand Nollywood has transcended its modest beginnings of catering to local audiences both at home in Nigeria and other parts of the continent, and that it has also grown into a vehicle for the projection of Africa’s socio-cultural content and values to the world, becoming a model for other budding cinema projects around Africa. African cinema has indeed expanded to include other independent, smaller industries, which (together with Nollywood) are adjusting to the changing times, adapting the sophisticated tastes and demands of a new (postmodern) era as well as those of such platforms that can guarantee the profitability and maximum coverage of its works into its content.
As a progression from the previous modern era, the postmodern era has witnessed an intense expansion of capitalist operations and interaction modes. Cinema/film, similar to other areas of socioeconomic endeavour, has not been spared from its transformative influences. A critical driver of the changes in this era is technology. The revolution recorded in telecommunications, especially regarding the facilities for online monetary transaction and the capabilities of “smart” electronic gadgets fitted with global (internet) connection and video viewing facilities, have altered the organization of cinematic production, distribution, grossing and content. Platforms such as Netflix—a technology, online-based film streaming service that has the capacity of servicing global audiences for a fee—are developing a growing influence on cinematic content around the globe.
As a symbol of African cinema, made obvious with its elevated global rankings (second), it can manage the demands and expectations of a different era and its peculiarities. Though its preoccupations are not as “political” as in the previous era, African cinema has largely maintained its moral standpoint, highlighting social ills and the consequences of partaking in them with titles like “Evans the Kidnapper” after a notorious kidnapper apprehended in Nigeria. Apart from serving the dual purpose of global African cultural edificatory and morality crusader, African cinema has provided employment opportunities for young professionals within the industry, benefitting from an expanding class of leisure-seeking African middle-income earners who frequent mall theatres to unwind. In all, African cinema, notwithstanding these pressures from changing tastes and commercial demands, has remained a close reflection of a postmodern African society’s intricacies under capitalist influences.
“Do not judge a book by its cover” is an idiomatic expression that derives its wisdom from an accepted truism, which is the peril inherent in pre-conceived judgment, especially based on hearsay. This danger in relying on pre-conceived and or ill-advised perceptions, especially its role in promoting misleading and unrepresentative narratives, is one reason why historians and others (in the information industry) who appreciate the implications of misinformation insist on first-hand accounts or experience. Africa is no stranger to misrepresentation or the propagation of misleading narratives about its culture, traditions and its people (especially from the West), either deliberate—as in the expression of colonial mentality that is still evident in the depiction of Africa(ns) in today’s Hollywood films—or unintentional—in a creative license. This, however, does not make it acceptable practice, not in academia and certainly not in the mainstream media. This also calls attention to the absurdity that is a professed Africanist that has never visited Africa.
As Kenneth Harrow’s account confirms, many of the misconceptions and unflattering depictions of Africa stems from the notion of individuals and groups who have never been to Africa. Another group includes those who visit but whose visit(s) were organized to avoid or minimize their interaction with the environment—the people and the culture. Also, unfortunately, some Africans, either as a result of their having been conditioned through years of exposure to Western propaganda outlets such as Hollywood, with its penchant for Eurocentric narratives, or for the reason of their inability to appreciate—as Jesus alluded “a prophet has no honor in his own country”—what is before their eyes, or for one disappointment or the other they blame on Africa, speak depreciatingly of it. But again, just as Harrow’s experience shows, Africa, like every other part of the world, has a division into the flattering and the unflattering. So, what one needs is a responsible guide, an open mind and sometimes a gracious host to experience it in all its boisterous communitarian glory and unlock the “pleasures” of African life.
Suppose the African community is less communitarian now than before, as Harrow hinted, a by-product of its continuous interaction with Western culture, its division of society into urban and rural dwellings and emphasis on individualism. Collectivism is primary to African culture. Even in Africa’s cultural diversity (with over a thousand cultures), there are certain practices, values, philosophies, and ideals common to several. This sense of collectivity is demonstrated in the combined efforts of societal members to preserve the idea(l)s, which have been identified as relevant to their collective survival and destiny.
It is a fact that urbanization has altered traditional forms of African communitarianism. African society’s definition is assuming a more complicated construct, symbolized by language hybridization and other modes of (external) cultural assimilations. But these transformations are not enough to suggest that African societies are not communitarian in outlook. Given, multiculturalism has posed challenges for African societal cohesion, sometimes making it difficult for said societies to adopt a set of commonly shared values around which they can rally to defend their collective heritage in a united Pan-African undertaking. However, this is understandable given Africa’s historical antecedent: a colonial past marked by socioeconomic and political intrigues that produced arbitrary multicultural and multi-national polities. However, just as Africa could in the past, whip up enough Pan-African fervor to challenge a common adversary in European imperialist colonialism, it still retains the potential to do so now, under the right leadership.
Harrow draws attention to the multi-lingual proneness of African urban dwellers. This is extended to other forms of cultural exchange (intermingling and coexistence) in cuisine, apparel and etiquette, as an expression of the African community spirit, which has endured the transition from a monocultural rural (village) setting, to an urban (city) multicultural existence. The right leadership can aid Africa in overcoming economic difficulties that inspire intolerance (xenophobia) and rouse the people up to the real threat to their collective (not individual) existence, either from the East or the West. Thus, communitarianism, though waning, is yet alive in various parts of Africa. It also possesses the potential for bridging the divide of multiculturalism, which can facilitate a take-off of Pan-African undertakings.
As the subsequent aspects of this narrative would reveal, (Western) capitalism and globalization have nearly always represented more trials for Africa—especially where it claims it is intervening in Africa’s interests—than it has served to alleviate any of its sufferings. From film for propaganda purposes to the negative economic and political policies that gave Africa (SAP) conflicts and refugees in Libya, South Sudan and Congo, Africa has had little or no reprieve. African film is a critical avenue to share our individual stories, first among ourselves and then to the world.
Kenneth Harrow raises a fundamental issue that ails African society, which is a key component for Africa’s socioeconomic progress in its youth’s profitable engagement. In the last decade or two, “employability”—which in itself has assumed a different meaning—has developed to become a very critical consideration when choosing a course of study and, in effect, a career path in Africa. This can be attributed to one or all three of the following reasons: an outdated African educational system that offers limited (viable) career choices in today’s world and is not focused on self-engagement; limited employment opportunities; and the nature of available employment opportunities.
The changes in scholarship demography that were ongoing during Harrow’s time as a tutor in Africa have assumed greater dimensions, especially after the turn of the millennium (2000). In Africa, population explosion has increased the competition for the limited jobs available, today’s labor market is technology-based, and scholarship is gradually (maybe too gradual) adjusting to reflect labor requirements/demands. As such, scholarly fields that were previously considered lucrative do not enjoy such status anymore, and positions or career paths that were observed to be dominated by a particular gender have seen a greater influx of the other and vice versa.
Unfortunately, government investments in education in some African countries have not recovered from the Structural Adjustment Program period’s austerity measures. Thus, lack of funding—even from private sector partnerships—has limited the options of career paths and the extent of development along chosen career paths. Taking African cinema as an example, only a few elite schools and private ventures offer tutorship on the now-advanced technological skill set that goes into its production and other business aspects. If comparisons were to be made with other climes that also feature thriving film industries, contrasts would be found in the extent of government patronage and available educational opportunities—elementary drama class, college acting guilds/troupes and professional film schools.
The refugee question in Africa is second in importance only to the conflicts, political repression and other socioeconomic and climatic changes that produce them. Africa, as Harrow rightly identifies, has had a long-standing refugee problem. And it is fairly common knowledge that the West has played more active roles in creating the conditions for the explosion of refugee numbers in Africa and elsewhere than it has done to check both its sources and provide succor. However, the involvement of Harrow and others like him—both as individuals and as members of local and foreign non-governmental organizations—in the struggle for human rights and the plight of refugees in Africa and elsewhere speaks to the remnant of hope in humanity.
It is indeed true that the West can do more to curb the growth of refugee numbers and cater to the needs of existing ones. The West can take a cue from Angela Markel and Germany by relaxing its stringent immigration laws and allow for the resettlement of people (refugees) in dire and hopeless situations. The West can also strive to reduce the frequency with which it starts wars and exacerbates existing ones by turning them into proxy affairs to challenge rival European nations’ interests in the affected regions. It must also be honest in its insistence and interventions (preferably through the UN or other regional bodies like the AU) towards upholding democratic leadership and practices (the rule of law) worldwide and in Africa.
At home in Africa, more steps must be taken by individual nations to empower regional bodies such as the AU, ECOWAS and others to either discourage conflict through uniformly respected sanction measures, step into conflict situations to broker or enforce peace when necessary, and return an existing refugee to their place of origin or resettle them in areas where their safety and economic survival can be guaranteed. There should be collaboration between countries directly or indirectly affected by the refugee problem. Those who are distanced from the problem can also contribute resources directly to affected refugee populations wherever they might be temporarily settled. And African nations can come together to exert whatever political pressures are at their disposal on the traditional sources of the refugee crises in Africa. African citizens must also do more to stand up against the abuses of human rights, freedom of expression, fraternization and sexuality.
Toyin Omoyeni Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.