“In Africa, an old man who dies is a library that burns.” It is the quote that appears, superimposed on an imposing tree, almost at the beginning of Fad’jal, 1979 documentary feature film directed by Safi Faye. Moments before, some children at school have recited lines learned by heart about the life of Louis XIV, the former king of the country of which they have been a colony. At first glance, you can understand the meaninglessness of this rote learning about a man who at such a distance seems an imaginary character and the enormous gap that exists between what is learned in school and the reality of the community in which these children live. What follows is a portrait of everyday life, work in the fields, how it is plowed, how it is watered, how the animals are fed and later skinned in the slaughterhouse, how palm baskets are woven or how they are grind the grain.
You can also see the double burden of women, for example in a striking close-up of a small child that rocks slightly roughly, and as we understand in the next shot, more open, it does so because it is hanging from its mother , that he is manually grinding cereal and carrying it with him. With all this activity to survive, sequences are alternated in which the griot, the oral narrator who knows the traditional stories, explains the origin of the town where they live. Their stories are the only words spoken in the film, which revolves around the transmission of the story. The appointment that opens it provides a fundamental clue.
Safi Faye was the first sub-Saharan female film director. His film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, emblem of France and its culture, and in a way this milestone represents a conquest of the anti-colonial struggle that began years before (in cinema it began in the 1950s) and carried out “with the tools of the master”. This is the title of the summer cinema cycle that the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid has programmed until the end of August, in collaboration with the Lavapiés Museo Situa network of collectives and with the curators of Ana Useros and Chema González.
The program looks at the birth of African cinema, the development of its own imaginaries and the reappropriation and combination of cinematographic and narrative elements. The oldest films that are screened are You Retour d’un aventurier (Western 1966 through which the Nigerian Moustapha Alassane shows some submissive traits of his compatriots), Bon Voyage Sim (an animated short, also by Alassane, who specialized in animation as a result of his stay in Canada, where he learned with Norman McLaren), as well as La noire de … Y Mandabi, both by Ousmane Sembène, probably the most famous of African filmmakers, who found in the cinema a more powerful and far-reaching tool than literature – written in French – with which he began his career. Sembène studied cinema in Moscow; Safi Faye also began her career encouraged by Jean Rouch, as did Alassane. It is not that African filmmakers developed with their backs to European cinema, but that they managed to adapt it to their own ways and themes, often with a lot of humor, to tell their own life from within, beyond the classic representations that have limited them to a combo of beauty plus extreme poverty.
Perhaps the most obvious case of appropriation of the story is from the film Africa Paradis, a 2006 co-production between France and Benin directed by Sylvestre Amoussou, in which the adventures of a white Frenchman are told who, in a near future in which Europe has fallen into misery and unemployment levels are very high, decides, desperate, illegally entering prosperous Africa, in search of a better future. Of course, things are not going to be easy. Through this reversal game, the film not only denounces the economic and social inequalities between different countries, but also the pseudo-sentimental and ultimately lazy treatment that stories of Africans shot by Europeans tend to receive.
As the curators themselves explain, the cycle does not intend to make an exhaustive review of African cinematographies, but to project a selection of good films, worthy of being counted in the canon, that give an idea of how sub-Saharan filmmakers developed their cinema based on the fifty, coinciding with the first declarations of independence. The interesting thing about the case is that they appropriated a language or a method, the cinema, which at that time was very consolidated and sophisticated. To the movements of the cinema of the moment, such as neorealism or the new waves, they added their own tradition, which tends more towards the oral than the visual. This trend can be seen not only in Fad’jal, but in other films of the cycle and, paradoxically, it results in films that are sometimes very silent, which indicates that perhaps orality does not exactly have to do with constant exposure to the word, but rather consists of a way of living and transmitting the words. things.
As it says in the Cameroonian Lieux saints (2009), by Jean-Marie Teno, the yembé dressing table that announces the films that are going to be screened soon in the small cinema that sometimes even serves as a mosque, “history needs someone to pass on”. It is an unexpected and revealing point of view, since it makes us see a new entity to the history, be it the big one or the intimate one, and we are entrusted with the mission of transmitting it (either by playing the yembé, making films, telling it out loud or according to our own system). And continues the yembefola (“The one who makes the yembé talk”) that “the cinema tells people things they don’t know, and allows them to discover things they have never seen; he goes from country to country sharing his message ”. This is how tradition is transmitted.
‘With the master’s tools. Tales of African cinema‘. Reina Sofia Museum. From July 9 to August 28.