BY POPULAR DEMAND…WOLE SOYINKA’S KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE CODESRIA-GUILD OF AFRICAN FILMMAKERS

CODESRIA AT FESPACO

A NAME IS MORE THAN THE TYRANNY OF TASTE By Wole Soyinka

BY POPULAR DEMAND...WOLE SOYINKA’S KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE CODESRIA-GUILD OF AFRICAN FILMMAKERS

wole soyinka

Text of a Keynote Address Delivered at the CODESRIA-Guild of African Filmmakers
FESPACO workshop on:
Pan-Africanism: Adapting African Stories/Histories from Text to Screen
25 – 26 February 2013 Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

First, permit me to unburden myself. A little bit of carping is essential to mental balance
and, the Arts are no exception to this principle ofpsychological release. Indeed, that is an
understatement. I should have said: the Arts especially are the supreme example of that
truism. You and I know that there is no other humanpreoccupation that so readily provokes
either suppressed or exploding feelings than this singular expression of the human
imagination and inventiveness that we call the Arts. Within the prolific field on which we
are gathered here today – the cinema – there is a word that has become current, one that I
still find difficult to utter. It sets my teeth on edge, this hideous child of lackluster
imagination. And yet it appears to be a source of pride to the practitioners it implicates.
What one would have regarded as a singular aberration, a regrettable moment of a verbal
infelicity, has developed into a child of competitive adoption, sustained by a number of
would-be surrogate parents. One shudders to imagine how many other variations can be
squeezed out of the original banality, as each nation evolves a cinema industry and strains
to force the original horror into the tube of its own nominal identity – again, with pride!
Do I speak objectively? Of course not. I readily confess my subjectivity in these
matters. Acknowledging this in advance makes it easier to for me to wear the badge of
verbal fundamentalism without the slightest embarrassment. Having conceded that much, I
also have to state, on my own behalf, that it has not been for want of trying that I have
failed to reconcile my tongue to each new offspring of a nomenclatural misalliance. My
main trading commodity, as you all know, is largelyin words, so it is not surprising there are
some sounds that I find difficult to mouth – not simply in their own being, but on account of
their histories, their association and their limitless capacity to proliferate and people the
world of words with new infant monstrosities. This is said matter-of-factly. In addition
however, I do propose that words are allied to images.
Now, I wouldn’t go as far as Richard Ford, the American writer who, in declaring
himself a dyslexic, adds that he actually sees words as images. No, I wouldn’t make such a
far-out claim. However, I do subscribe to the view that words have shapes, which are in turn
evocative of more than the mere sound of them or their literal meaning. Indeed, one can
claim that some images become eventually attached to words with such intimacy that they
can no longer be prised apart – hm, I appear to be getting closer and closer to Richard Ford.
All right, let us simply try and sum it up thus: the power of suggestion goes beyond mere
suggestion. A word can distort the palpable reality that your own senses have already
determined. Where such a word is deployed as values and summation, as a category of
phenomena, even as a loose umbrella for a family ofproducts, it can distort other entities
under that umbrella completely, influencing their apprehension in our minds. Where we are
concerned with creative activity, the word can contract the scope, or reduce the quality
within the overall undertaking. In short, a word can inhibit or expand imagination. It can
prove a curse or a blessing.
Regarding the creative process, let it be understood that I am not necessarily
speaking of originality. I have read critiques of artistic works that appear to make originality
the benchmark of creativity, blithely dismissing such a work on the grounds that it is not
‘original’. Some masterful works – in all genres – have been produced that are based on
deliberate imitativeness. Or plagiarism. There are different kinds of plagiarism, some can
actually emerge as a new product of its kind, a kind of creative provocation, or a
commentary on the original, sometimes a sleight of expectations or attribution – what is
sometimes called signification – especially in American literary discourse. So, we are not
speaking here of originality.
We all share – with variations – a basic culture, and that culture places a heavy
premium on – for instance – child naming. ‘The child is father of the man’, as the poet
William Wordsworth reminds us. We can add, however that, for African societies, ‘the name
is father to the child’ – such careful thought, sense of history, hopes and expectations ride
on the name we decide to give a new human entity wehave brought into the world. Child
naming, on this continent, is itself a creative act. Only this last Friday, February 22, the
following observation appeared in the Nigerian journal, The NATION, on the back page
weekly column, Comment and Debate, an impeccably timed contribution to this address:
“Naming in Africa, especially in Yorubaland, is special gift that the ancestors as
progenitors of the nation bestowed on the elders. Names have meaning, and – as
they would have us believe, names push their bearers to actualize their encoded
meanings. (Oruko a maa ro omo) – literally – The name may mould the child. So you
don’t find any Yoruba parent giving to their babies names that embed evil
meanings”
Let it be admitted however that all we do is play variations on existing naming
templates, not that we strain to be fully original.The same process applies, as stated earlier,
applies to the creative process – styles, themes and even – very often – content. Actually,
this merely provides me an excuse to veer off and comment on a recent cinema controversy
– the subject and directorial approach – but one that does concern us here most intimately.
I am sure you have all heard of this film; it seems destined to become what is
sometimes known as a ‘cult film’, and largely because it so successfully plays variations on
established genres. I am speaking of DJANGO UNCHAINED, starring the actor Jamie Foxx,
with a superlative, though underrated performance in the role of the revolting, Uncle
Toming race traitor by Samuel Jackson. Its theme is Slavery, a subject that touches the
historic sensibilities of virtually all of us assembled here. Now, just as an aside – one cannot
ignore certain other aspects of the controversy it has stirred up. Slavery is a very serious,
even solemn subject. Such a weight of history, of race recollection rests upon it that one
cannot think of any aspect of that traumatic passage that lends itself to humour. AMISTAD,
even The Birth of a Nation with its open derogation of black slaves etc etc. – these films
conform to the expected treatment of that subject -heroic, tragic, indicting, inciting, racist
etc – certainly not mock-heroic. One’s instinctiveresponse to the subject is that it would be
indecent and insensitive to extract any shred of humour from Slavery, except perhaps what
is known as gallows humour. Long before DJANGO, there was the stage play Purlie
Victorious, later made into a film, starring Ossie Davies andRuby Dee. The same complaints
made about Purlie Victoriousare what I have read during the past few months – that is, at
least four decades later – by some black critics, among them, Spike Lee, a leading black
American cineaste. This is a trivialization of my history, complained Spike Lee.
That commentary leads us conveniently back to the thread of our main theme – that
criticism was based on a misconception – the director of that film was in fact doing what we
have identified as ‘signifying’. He was signifying on a number of cinematic genres, familiar
clichés, not least of which was the Western, the Cowboy film. Beneath the spoof, there was
serious thematic business. Even the sinister Ku Klux Klan was spoofed, and everyone knows
that there was never anything remotely amusing about those Knight Templars of the trilogy
of Lynch, Castrate, and Dehumanize.
By my reckoning, the film is most intelligently crafted, very much in the manner of
Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES, only, this time, our film is set in a slave plantation with
opulent trimmings, generous close-up helpings of blood and gore, and flying flesh. The ‘N’
word, that contempt ridden version of the neutral word ‘negro’, was also in over-abundant
usage, a feature that also offended some sensibilities. I found this complaint rather strange,
since it indicated a refusal to take into account, not only the fact that the word was
historically accurate, but that its proliferation in the film was deliberate, tripping glibly off
the tongues of the blacks themselves than off the white masters’. If excessive application
has ever been claimed to take the sting out of the offensive, DJANGO was definite proof of
this.
So, we are speaking of an original work of art that is anything but original, filled with
borrowings from so many genres. My complaint therefore is not against borrowings and
adaptations as a principle, but against the lack of originality that translates as plain,
unmediated imitation, or a tawdry, unenhanced borrowing that is conceived and delivered
on the very edge of the pit of banality, and out ofwhich it has no wish to clamber, once it
has fallen in. It indicates a pre-set mind, a basically unadventurous mind dressed up in castoff clothing, of which nothing can be expected except as a breeding ground, a reproductive
automatism of its own kind – especially in taste. We move closer to the substance of my
complaint – that of another unspeakable ‘n’ word that has taken such a hold on our homebred imagination. This ‘N’ word constitutes a mutative explosion that I consider most unfair
to others in the same creative field – the cinematic – more especially as there have been
predecessors who impacted on our cinema world without burdening themselves with such
a verbal albatross. Again, I must hold you in suspense for just a little longer while I skirt
around the subject, although I know that a number of you have guessed by now where I am
headed.
I still recall the first Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, which marked the formal outing of
contemporary African cinema even as a rudimentary exploration of the genre. Yes, some of
the products were amateurish, but they already bore the stamp of genuine exploratory
minds at work, interrogating the new medium. Even the clumsiest was refreshing, and of
course the more skilled were inspiring. If my memory were not so clotted, I would reel off
new names. I recall the young Djibril Diop however, and – I think – Oumar Sissoko from
Mali. What remain fresh in my minds are snippets ofscenes – such as the satiric use of the
tro-tro, the passenger lorry, to ridicule the pretensions of a figure of the Europeanized black
sophisticate – that species that is known in Nigeria as Johnny Just Come, or Ajebota.
(Weaned on butter.) This figure of fun considered himself unfortunate to be compelled to
ride in the same conveyance as peasants, workers and other ‘uneducated’ beings. It was a
simple but hilarious film, I recall, that introduced the viewer to the makeshift existence of
semi-urbanised life, a picaresque work filled with incidents along a journey that covered the
gamut of daily survival and challenges, inducing the passengers of the tro-tro transportation
into a transient community. Our principal, played by the young Diop himself, was reduced,
coat-tails and all in that suffocating Sahelian heat, to push the tro-tro when it broke down.
Don’t ask me why I recall that scene so vividly after so many decades, but I wish that
the young aspirants to the cinema trade would have the opportunity to watch such films, if
only as a basic lesson of extracting a film nearly out of nothing, on what must have been a
shoe-string budget, bringing reality to life without the ponderous injection of excess
craftiness. Beginnings can be very instructive, especially beginnings that are deceptively
artless. They strike at recognizable truths without the cluttering of over-laboured
techniques. Perhaps, at the back of my mind was recollection of one of my all-time
favourites – Fellini’s La Strada, with the unforgettable performance of Giulietta Massina in
the archetypal role of the tragic clown. I am not making the same claims of accomplishment
for both – by no means. They are both variations onthe same theme – the many faces of
The Road, my own favourite foraging ground, admittedly – and there the comparison ends.
That touch of creative innocence however – perhaps that is what sticks so charmingly to the
mind.
And then of course, there was the already socially dedicated hand of Ousmane
Sembene who grew in self-assurance as he tackled increasingly demanding historical, and
contemporary social themes – one and all were gathered in Dakar, brimming with
confidence in multiple disciplines, a churning magma of artistic forces of a postindependence generation. It is evidently too late now, to appeal to those who have
embraced – yes, we come close to the ‘n’ word, I am gearing myself to utter it – yes, those
nationals who have fallen for the hackneyed short cut to their own naming ceremonies.
Even more thankless than preaching to the convertedis preaching againstthe converted.
When so much time has passed and a habit become deeply engrained, what forces of
persuasion can one muster to undo that mind? As we say in Yoruba – t’ewe ba pe l’ara ose,
oun na a d’ose. If the leaf wrapping of soap sticks too long stays too long to the soap, that
leaf also turns to soap. So, peace unto all upon whose sensibilities I have certainly intruded.
This drawn out exposition is not really addressed to them; rather it is a simple entreaty to
those who have not yet succumbed to the lure of thesoap and leaf. To you, I plead: Imagine
if the then putative film venture that made its organized debut in Dakar 1966 had been
lumbered with the name – Dollywood? Every ensuing product is already doomed in the
mind with its associated baggage of infantilism, even before its exposure. Just imagine the
annunciation of – A Dollywood film festival. Or perhaps ‘Sellywood’ for Senegal? Nothing
could be sillier.
If only it stopped at subjective revulsion? However, there are more provocative
questions, such as: Does the branding influence the product? If you give a product a
deleterious name, does it affect, in advance, the consciousness of future producers? If, on
the other hand, a propulsive, challenging name, one that even intimates more than it
presently is, would that provoke in the artiste a tendency towards adventurousness,
experimentation and originality? Or are we merely indulging in self-flagellation? If the
pioneers of 1966 had grouped itself around the formulation – Dollywood – would we have
produced today’s Suleyman Cisse, Ola Balogun, Kola Olaniyan, Bello, and the rising
generation of cineastes? Consider this, following the mentality at the base of this,
FESPACO, because based in Burkina, would be Bullywood. Or perhaps, since that is so close
to Bollywood – Bellywood. Try and think – just one more!- of anything more ghastly, more
ghoulish than the contribution from Ghana – Ghollywood! Well, you know where it all
started. However, do the emerging Nigerian new breed still deserve to be associated with
that commencing second-hand clothes market tag , or with an evolving designer cut
production, catering, not for the lowest common denominator in taste but for more
discerning audiences, and/or raising – and surprising – expectations in their limited scope.
Even a casual study of current film making indicates that the Nigerian film occupation is
rapidly by-passing the stage of such retarded infantilism. So why should the films of such
artistes continue to be classified under that unprepossessing monstrosity of a verbal shroud
known as – here it comes at last! – Nollywood?
How do we extricate – both for internal and external references, including potential
markets and consumers – the grain from the chaff, the silkworm from the congealment of
the pupae? See what the Indian film industry has churned out so prodigiously since it
succumbed to the perverse name of Bollywood. Thousands of films emerged, mired in that
same bollywood mush. It took a Satiyajit Ray to plot a truly original path through the morass
with his masterful Pather Panchali, the first of a trilogy of ordinary lives that opened the
eyes of viewers to the vast world of mundane rhythems, East and West Africa. See what toll
this has taken in the conditioning of audience tastes, expanding to southern, and West
Africa. We must point out however that there may be a correlation between the product
and the environment that brought it to life in the first place. Each phenomenon of naming
is not unrelated to the social space of that namingceremony. The social, political, business,
religious….indeed the entire interactive environment of Nigeria, birthland of Nollywood –
unpredictable, raucous, egotistical, callous, sentimental, irrational and pugnacious all at the
same time – the manifestations that make up Nigerian reality are so grossly improbable that
it sometimes appears to me that all you have to do is set up a camera in an office, in a
market, in the motor garage or indeed any street corner, go away for lunch, and return
several hours later and – voila! – a film has already been shot, ready for only a little editing
here and there, but virtually ready for release as a truthful reflection of Nigerian life. This,
by the way, is not entirely speculative. Some Nollywood products have been made that way.
Indeed the very material raunchiness of Nigerian life does create a tendency to
reach out towards improbabilities. Nigerian social actualities are of such a nature that the
film-maker’s creative mind feels a compulsion to top it with excess in order satisfy the
demands of novelty. In other words, life around thecontemporary film maker, where the
grossest excesses take place every day but are treated as the norm, forces imagination to
reach outside and beyond reality to convince itself that it is at work, that it is not merely
imitating reality. Everything is oversize in the birthplace of Nollywood – oversize
consumption, oversize class distinctions, oversize exhibitionism, oversize egos, oversize
superstition, oversize dehumanization, oversize corruption, oversize inflation – both human
and economic – oversize national real estate, oversize pugnacity, oversize garbage heaps,
oversize decay, oversize media, oversize foreign investments, oversize churches and
oversize mosques, oversize consumerism by an oversize elite, even oversize First Ladies
with oversize vulgarity, oversize rapacity, avariciousness and overreeachiousness. You will
not find that last word in the dictionary, but I happen to come from the land of Nollywood,
where, if an expression is outside your non-existent vocabulary, you have the licence to
make up your own.
As a dramatist, I think I can sympathize with the artistic representation that goes
after the grossest aspects of the environment with a sheer oversize productivity at the
expense of quality. After all, when I wanted to capture the sheer brutishness of existence
under one of our most notorious dictators, did I not reach for the Theatre of the Absurd – in
Alfred Jarry’s UBU ROI? I proceeded, quite deliberately, to try and top the already grosteque
excesses of Jarry’s adaptation in my creation of King Baabu. Reality could no longer suffice.
The same creative process probably affected those early video lords. The Nigerian creative
mind opens his newspaper day after day and what lurid headlines confront him? with the
headlines: RITUALIST CAUGHT WITH FRESH HUMAN HEADS, BODY OF ONE MONTH OLD
BABY WITH MISSING VITAL ORGANS – MOTHER IN CUSTODY, KIDNAPPERS INVADE
CHURCH, ABDUCT OFFICIATING PRIEST ; BOKO HARAM KILLS SEVEN HEALTH AIDF
WORKERS; BOKO HARAM ABDUCTS SEVEN CONSTRUCTION WORKERS; TWENTY-SEVEN
BODIES WASHED ASHORE ON THE BANKS OF RIVER BENUE; PROPHET ARRESTED WITH FIVE
HUMAN SKULLS AND A BABY FEOTUS…. and so on and on. These are not made up
headlines. Is it any wonder that the film-maker goes for the horror genre where the staple
news is that the local chief is cooking up his subjects piecemeal, order to make millions or
win a local government election.
An inclination towards accommodating foreign models of the sensational then
follows, faced with such gargantuan proportions of societal reality begging for expression –
and where is this to be found but in the ready-made formulae of cheap Hollywood?
Cheapness calls to cheapness. Where what are generally valued as social assets – and that
includes human life itself – are held so cheaply, the artiste may consider it beneath him or
her to expend more than the cheapest representational responses. The precedence is not
lacking. The early contemporary African- American black directors rode to cinematic
prominence on the shoulders – in case we have all forgotten – of what came to be known
and early described as BLAXPLOITATION Movies, filmsthat exploited Blackness, albeit in a
stereotypical and imitative genre, substituting black actors for Grade B white actors, black
environment for white, but catering equally to what was considered low taste – Richard
Rowntree in the SHAFT movies, and even, BLACKULA instead of that classic horror genre of
limitless exploitative potential – DRACULA, all blood and gore, only black blood this time,
albeit red. What is the difference between Blackula’s fangs fastened on the jugular of a
prostrate black victim and, the fangs of the insensate ruler fastened on the life-blood of a
prostrate generation?
All that conceded, the objective of art does not exclude transformation, and by that I
do not mean simply – societal transformation. Indeed, you may have observed that I do not
say – the objective of art is to transform society.No, I deplore that familiar, ideological but
dictatorial demand of art. The objective of art is also – among other purposes – Revelation.
Whether Revelation leads to transformation or not, is a different issue. The primary
objective of Art is to constantly transform itself, its own modes of expression and
representation. The objective of Art is also to be chameleonic and protean – that is, to
change shape and colour at will, to supersede both reality and expectations. Yes indeed,
the goal of transformation is not only desirable, it is an integrated element of what art does.
We do not want us to get bogged down with that ancient, ragged discourse based on a onetrack,
reductionist relationship of art to society, what the artiste’s obligation is etc. etc.
Writers have put themselves through this wringer, especially during the phase of ideological
self-bashings that all societies undergo, and in particular societies that have been victims of
imperialism and colonization – including cultural degradation from external forces. Film
makers should please understand that that discourseis daily overtaken by events, and we
should now primarily interest ourselves in how the cineaste, as artist, transforms the
material at his or her disposal. What applies to the writer, painter, musician, sculptor, even
architect is just as pertinent to the film-maker.
Nonetheless we must acknowledge that there is a kind of imagic immediacy that is
more applicable to the cinema than to other forms of expression, including even theatre.
Cinema is a powerful tool for transformation, no question about that. However, just as in
literature, the cinema can easily become a medium of crude propaganda that is totally
devoid of artistic solace, blaring out an ideological line as a substitute for creative rigour.
Art is is own rigorous master; it makes demands, and the primary responsibility of the artist
is to fulfill those demands. This, for instance is what makes Sembene Ousmane a cineaste of
great versatility, one of the most consistent that the continent has produced – his ability to
embed a social message in a work without sacrificing its artistic vision. I have singled out
Sembene Ousmane because the same kind of artistic integrity is apparent in his writings –
God’s Bits of Wood – for instance, as in his films – CEDDO or XALA.
Must films carry a message? My answer to that is: does Harry Potter carry a
message? All we know is that those films – like the book itself – carry a wallop and
generates envy in the minds of most film makers. Nothing wrong with envy, by the way.
Indeed envy can actually be a good motivator. Eventhe Vatican is not free from it. About
four or five years ago, the Vatican issued a condemnation of the film series as a dangerous
endorsement of Satanism. Well, my reaction was – oh-oh, here comes the green-eyed
monster eyeing the greenbacks flowing into the box office. After all, has the Church, ever
since its mammoth success with the bible, ever come up with another literary success
story? To rub pepper in the wound, each time some lavish, money-spinning production
from the scriptures takes place – like The Ten Commandments, with the over-muscled
Charleston Heston in command – the Church gets no royalties whatsoever. I think we
should simply dismiss the Church’s demonizing encyclicals. Fantasy is a different matter.
Each time I see news coverage of mile-long queues winding round a cinema theatre where a
new Harry Potter book is being launched, and the same endless queues when the next
Potter film is due to open – grandparents, parents,children of all ages – I fantasize about
meeting Madame Multi-billionaire Rowlings in a dark alley where there are no witnesses.
As that opportunity became less and less likely, I began to think seriously of matching skills
against hers, but based on our own African mythological resources. Needless to say, the
very first step of the creative idea is always the easiest part – which is to think to oneself –
hn-hn, that seems to be an interesting idea. Then the second step forward is – hn-hjn-hn,
that is a very good idea. Then the third, which is of course – wait a minute, that really is a
brilliant, creative idea. After that, other distractions intervene, and a dead-end looms in
view. I know I shall never even succeed in setting down even the mere film treatment of a
Harry Potter success. Others can, however, and should. Why should a Bambara equivalent
of the Potter series not also take the world by storm? If anyone here has a new idea on the
subject – but without the Nollywood stamp – let me announce right here that I am open to
propositions. But don’t even bother to get any ideas on the subject unless you have the
preliminary, capital idea – which is how to raise the capital.
Motivation is a question that any serious artiste must face – and do note that I use
that expression deliberately – ‘serious artiste’. Artistic seriousness is not a contradiction of
material success – all it requires is honesty, the courage to come to terms with the question
– why am I in this occupation? Why did I choose togo into it? If it is to make money, then
you must study the consumerist trends, and apply yourself to them. But then, if you are also
a serious artist, you decide whether you wish to indulge that taste by remaining on that
same level or – take it to a higher state, however slight, even though your starting blocks are
set firmly on that track known as popular appeal. Creativity lies in advancing the level of
one’s artistic choices. Yes, the practical questionof even ‘breaking even’ is not to be pushed
aside – whether we like it or not, no serious film artist can blithely ignore the economics of
taste – and there lies the tyranny. Taste in itselfis a very ambiguous, indeed vexatious issue.
Taste, one has to acknowledge, can be a snob affectation, or elitist consciousness. How
does one define good and bad taste? Is minority taste necessarily the most refined, while
the majority is despised as the fodder of the masses? Taste? The pulp video producer would
probably sneer. Taste? The only taste I know is the taste of food and anything that puts
food in my mouth – that’s good taste!
Yes, taste. The often intolerable weightiness, yetlightness of taste! Even censorship,
ever opportunistic, cashes in on Taste – this or that is in bad taste because it goes against
African – or increasingly, religious – culture, as if culture is static, not dynamic and evolving.
This is what many advocates of culture fail to understand. The extreme policy choice of
outright and extreme censorship in the name of cultural purity – most notable in societies
that are infected by the virus of religious fundamentalism – banning or controlling the
means of reception – such as video cassettes, satellite dishes and even – books. are of
course, futile and retrogressive. The incursion of the negative or dubious alien cultures,
values and tendencies, is best countered by the strengthening and exposure of indigenous
cultures, ideally in innovative ways, not by creating a hermetic society, closed to all external
development. Even BIG BROTHER AFRICA, a series I thoroughly detest – suitably overhauled
– is not, as format, without cultural and transformative possibilities. To be able to watch, for
instance, a group of young people – christian, moslem, buddhist, traditional believers such
as the aborisa – interacting as normal beings, worshipping in their own way day in day out,
indifferent to the frenzy of religious extremists, within an intimate environment – now that
may speak meaningfully to viewers regarding one of the most devastating crises of
cohabitation that currently confronts us – the crisis of the aggression of faith, now ravaging
swathes of our continent.
Images are the most powerful ambassadors of the cultural exchange, and thus, the
cinema and video can affect modes of thinking, perception and – most pertinently – human
regard. The temptation for the African film-maker is to attempt to be a Stephen Spielberg
when it is possible to make a small classic of memorable dimensions. Such gems exist,
manifestations of the claim: Small is beautiful. Having served on quite a handful of film
juries since the sixties – African, Asian, Latin American, Eastern European and others, I do
confidently assert this. It should not suffice to display only new films on occasions such as
this. There are some modest but inspired works thatrequire to be made more accessible,
films that were made when Africa had greater leisure, when internecine wars had not worn
out the creative resources of the younger generation, driven into exile, lodged in dungeons
for expressing dissident views through their art, turned into child soldiers or driven
underground by the rampaging virus of bigotry, and vulgar, murderous religious
fundamentalism. Courage is constantly on call.
Try and recall the number of film makers – in company of writers, painters and other
creative individuals – whose lives have been snuffed out for attempting to actualize their
vision of humanity, and I am not simply speaking of cases that made international
headlines, such as the Dutch film maker, Van Gogh, who was gunned down in the streets of
Holland for a film that denounced the oppression of women under narrow, twisted,
chauvinistic interpretations of scriptural texts. Before van Gogh, film-makers had been
routinely cut down in their prime during the fundamentalist upsurge of Algeria – in some
cases, sent into exile. I recall the case of one film-maker who resisted all efforts to by
concerned friends and colleagues to make him relocate to Europe for his own safety. He
however made a habit of spending at least two months a year away from the Algeria of
that time, as a therapeutic regimen, simply to decompress, to ease off the tension of daily
survival in his homeland. These are themes that youwill confront sooner or later. You will
be confronted with life-impacting choices. The video cassettes – DVD, CD-Rom etc – are our
allies. They are handy weapons in the battle for creative freedom – let us not hesitate to
use them. It is only a matter of time – if it is not happening already – when we shall be able
to download entire films via satellite onto hand-held phones, escape into a transformed
vista of humanistic possibilities, uncensored, snatching hours of refuge from the agents of
mind-closure, from criminal minds masquerading under religious fervour.
Let us not mealy-mouth about, or underestimate theenemies of creative life – they
are in reality no more than brutal, unconscionable replacements for the old order of
political repression by alien imperators, from which our nationalist pioneers have laboured
and sacrificed to extricate our humanity. If you made a film today about paedophilia in
Nigeria, and the plight of girl children who, victims of so-called religious permissiveness, end
up as pathological wrecks of vestico-vaginal fistula, be sure that you will incur the ire of
those perverts who, exposed as confirmed, serial paedophiliacs, actually sit at the apex of
your law-making structures – as in my own Nigeria. They will team up with the homicidal
deviants of the religious mandate and attempt to snuff out your existence, be they called
Boko Haram or whatever else.
We are all living on the edge or daily survival – if you are still in the exemption zone,
if you think you are immune, take it from me, you soon will discover different. It is a virulent
contagion. And so you must make up your mind but – make your choice. In the early days of
this now notorious insurgency, a television newscaster was deliberately shot and killed by
one such group. Deliberately, I said, with murder aforethought, since the killers sent a
message afterwards that this was a collective punishment for journalists who – in their view
– had distorted accounts of their activities – as if it was possible to distort a pattern of
activities already more bestial than anything the Nigerian people had encountered in
postcolonial times. So just think what the risks are when you confront such retrograde interests
with stark, realistic moving images of their anti-humanist mission. The creative founts are
being shut off everyday, and the mere business of survival is driving potential talent off the
abundant terrain for the flowering of their genius. Reminders of what was produced in
African film immediately before, and during the continent’s early energized burst of
creativity, that inspirational surge from the flushof independence, should always be made
available as yardsticks of the possible, and the relevant. This is what guarantees continuity,
and continuity in the Arts is as essential as the DNA spiral is to human evolution.
Themes change, as does fashion, but art is constant. If you asked me what is the
pressing theme of this moment for us on the African continent – for those who feel
compelled to be socially relevant, who do not feel artistically comfortable or fulfilled unless
their lenses are directed inwards into the anomalies of society – permit me to isolate that
perennial theme that weighs us down on this continent. It is an answer you should have
discerned from the foregoing, but let me spell it out even more succinctly by calling your
attention to events that are undoubtedly very freshin your minds.
The literary treasures of Timbuktoo are invaluable. As a writer, I experienced days,
weeks of anguish when the neo-barbarians of our times invaded Mali, with the avowed
mission, already brutally executed in other places – such as Somalia and Northern Nigeria –
of resuming an age of censorship that one thought the world had repudiated at least a full
millennium before. Valuable as these manuscripts are however, perhaps filled with hitherto
unheard-of narratives for the jaded film-maker seeking to break new grounds – but never
mind even if they are devoid of such – they mainly serve as a solid, prideful foundation, as
heritage. They are monuments to the past, the measure of a people’s creative, and
potentially transformative signposts of the future.That tangible future however, is what we
read in the products of the contemporary artistes, and most especially those artists who
employ the most contemporary medium of expression –the cinema.
Then, ask this question: what is the social condition of such artistes? What would
have been their fate if the zealots had been permitted to retain and consolidate their
asphyxiation of culture in Mali. There is no need to speculate. Simply demand of the
Suleyman Cisses, the Oumar Sissokos of that nation, ask them from which direction they
encountered the greatest obstacles in the practice of their trade – directly or indirectly –
over the past decades of cinematic engagement? I am speaking of those entrenched
censors constantly spreading their shadows over creativity. Enquire what themes, so
pertinent to the present and the cause of full artistic expression, have raised the hackles of
the religious irredentists of society, to the extent that governments have often been obliged
to ban the screening of such films, in order to appease such atavists.
Yes, indeed, if you seek the iconic images of our time, you will find them in the plight
of women who are being lashed publicly for showing off an inch or two of bare flesh above
their ankles. They are to be found in the disfigurement of individuals whose hands have
been amputated, equally on account of stealing a loaf of bread as for shaking hands with a
human being of the opposite sex. You will find them in those blood-drenched pits where
women have been buried to the neck and stoned to death by a public for the crime of giving
their bodies to whomsoever they please. They proliferate in images of men awaiting
execution for yielding to the impulses of that biological make-up that responds only to
others of the same sex and result in homosexual relationship. You will find them in the ruins
of the heritage of the past as well as the rubble of the centres of leisure and enlightenment
– the theatres, the artiste clubs, and the cinema houses. We cannot all, and for much
longer, evade the call of re-constructed images of nine female health workers, shot in cold
blood for the incredible ‘crime’ of inoculating ouryouth against the polio scourge that fills
our streets with human millipedes crawling in between vehicle wheels in traffic, eternal
beggars from the leftovers of our indifferent elite. Yes, you, our front-line film makers from
West to Southern Africa, who have used these very images of the cripple, the blind, the
amputees, the stunted, the twisted and mangled from birth to press your message of
responsibility on society, or even simply – as in Ghollywood, Nollywood, Bellywood etc. – to
pander to the thrill of the grotesque in voyeuristic audiences , maybe it is time to delineate
a cause-and-effect between the prevalence of those unfortunates on our streets, and the
brain infection that leads to the deaths of nine health workers, women who are dedicated
to preventing the very ailments that produce such malformed humanity. Or the three
foreign doctors from North Korea whose throats wereslit for no other crime than that of
ministering to the ailments that must beset a people with a grossly deficient proportion of
medical practitioners per populace.
Yes, these are impositions from the hands of the latest in the line of internal neocolonialists,
and their backers, the external imperators. And such pressing issues of our
post-colonial times, alas, are obscuring the battle against corruption, camouflaged
dictatorship, social marginalization, hunger, lack of shelter, and the brutal alienation of
political practice – that urgent issue is easily summed up as bigotry, intolerance, the
degradation our own very humanity in the name of antique interpretations of sectional
scriptures. The prime issue of our time however remains painfully the same, the ultimate
battleground, as ancient as it is eternal: that battle is one between Power and Freedom.
Power as exerted, not this time by the state but byquasi-states, without boundaries, and
without the responsibilities of governance. History demonstrates however that Power is
transient, while Freedom is eternal. Let our film practitioners engage in this battle – but
only if battle is in their blood. If not, do not despair or burden yourself with guilt: simply,
make – films.
But films need capital. They require subsidy. For the younger generation, a fraction
of what governments waste, what politicians steal, what civil servants divert, the total value
of the holdings of two or three indicted or fugitive governors from Nigeria or elsewhere on
the continent, stored in offshore businesses with their mattresses stuffed with cash in place
of cotton or kapok, the sum of off-shore properties, of which more and more are being
confiscated – thanks to a slowly evolving conscience of some European nations – and
occasionally restored to national ownership…..a fraction of all this is more than enough to
turn the African continent into – do excuse yet another neologism – the Fespascene – or
perhaps the Fespacity of the world. Or whatever. A veritable film Valhalla, if you prefer,
only anything but, absolutely not yet another exocentric, dumbing down, brain-dead cliché
such as – Africa’s – Allywood!

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