"To tell stories is to be African," said Gaston Kaboré award-winning filmmaker from Burkina-Faso. And indeed, at Cameras d'Afrique: The Films of West Africa, LACMA's latest film festival, stories are told. In partnership with Loyola Marymount School of Film and Television and Film Independent at LACMA, film critic, Elvis Mitchell, selected 18 films written and directed by filmmakers from across West Africa to be screened throughout the month of October at LMU. In an age in which the global North largely focuses on the most negative aspects of African life like poverty, war, and the AIDS crisis, Caméras d'Afrique highlights how West Africans view themselves thus allowing for their own self-definition after centuries misunderstanding or overt denigration. Or in the words of Stephen Ujlaki, Dean of the Loyola School of Film, after "throwing off the vestiges of colonialism [African] filmmakers take full ownership of their image, and create a very different picture, one brimming with all the rich cultures of West Africa."
African films made by African filmmakers emerged in the mid-1960s following the end of European colonialism in the region. Beginning with the widely celebrated film, "Black Girl" by Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène, Africans replaced films fraught with primitive depictions of themselves, like those found in Tarzan or Hollywood's, African Queen with realistic tales of African workers, families and communities. These new films also included multi-dimensioned explorations of their triumphs and struggles. It was this shift from films rooted in the colonial gaze to the diversification of the African experience that Mitchell seeks to present within his selection of West African films. When asked about his film choices for the festival he stated, "A series like this expands the understanding of diversity in Africa...Film by film we get to expand people's points of view."
This expansion of the globe's point of view of West Africa can be attributed to the development and expansion of the craft across the region thus presenting both African and global audiences with an array of offerings. Most notably is the rise of "Nollywood"--Nigeria's film industry, which produces more than 1000 films each year. Though often with a low budget averaging between $25,000 and $75,000, these films hold mass appeal for their domestic audiences and even lend to the economic progression of the region. According to the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, Nollywood, alone, generates $590 million in revenue each year. But the entrenchment and proliferation of the film industry across West Africa reflects a much greater goal than the collection of revenue. The majority of films from the region are shot on extremely low budgets but maintain compelling narratives and in-depth artistry. Mitchell explains this by asserting that in nations with limited resources, opportunities to communicate with the people en masse are limited and as a result, all messages are significant. In his words, "Indie films in Africa are common because of the lack of funds. As a result, films made are personal and in Africa, the personal is political. Personal films are political films in Africa and are inextricably bound. There is no luxury of just making entertainment."
An excellent example of this phenomenon was the screening of Mama Keita's, "L'Absence" (The Absence) a tale of a Senegalese man's return to his home after fifteen years in France. Though the main character, Adama, sent money home to his grandmother and deaf younger sister he failed to communicate with them during those years and only after believing that ill health had befallen his grandmother does he return. The film explores the challenge of cultural reentry and the fracturing of family structures as a result of emigration. Within this film a variety of African perspectives are voiced. Older intellectuals chided emigrants to return with their resources and education to assist in the improvement of Africa, young criminals lamented a lack of options, globally-minded Senegalese decried Western imperialism all while Europeanized Senegalese searched for their positions in their traditional homes; the cacophony of modern West Africa was heard amidst a traditional tale of family and strife. In short, the politics of West Africa are the individual's narrative in the films of West Africa and Cameras d'Afrique..
As a conclusion to a round table discussion regarding the State of West African Cinema, Elvis Mitchell asked noted filmmakers, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Gaston Kaboré and Mama Keïta their first memories of going to the movies and whether that experience inspired them to later become filmmakers. Without a pause, Haroun recollected, "The first memory I have of going to the movies was seeing a Bollywood film in an open air theater as a child in Chad and a beautiful Indian actress stared directly into the camera, and smiled. It was years later that I realized that she did not smile directly at me and for me only. " He went on to discuss how that one movie moment compelled him to create images that would last in the mind of people. LACMA's film series, Cameras d'Afrique: The Films of West Africa. seems to serve as the realization of Haroun's aspiration, as well as the hopes of the other filmmakers seated on the stage. Each of them recalled other films that changed their lives like the films of Rossellini and Chaplin and Elia Kazan, but all of them wanted to expand upon the powerful medium which leaves audiences around the world in wonder. They each wanted to construct West African characters who would ultimately smile and leave the world hoping that they were smiling only at us.
Caméras d'Afrique: The Films of West Africa runs Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of October through October 28 (with free Monday-night screenings on the LMU campus). Click here for the full lineup.