Im a Cinephile, phewwww, there , i said it. i LOVE movies, there are few other things i love more than a great movie. In addition to that i’m a film maker myself , so talking shop about movies the movies i’d love to make,the one’s i wish i had made and the directors i admire is one of my favorite past times and something i often find myself doing when i get with fellow cinephiles.
When i express the desire to make certain genre specific films , with stylized dialogue, pop culture references, every once in a while i’ll get some Afrocentric Malcom X type that says “As an African, you need to tell ‘African’ stories, tell “our stories/culture”. This has increasingly begun to get me peeved.Why!! Because it presupposes that there is something specific that is an African story.
What exactly is an African story, and why should i be restricted to this? Should creativity or artistic expression be limited to your genetic code, culture or geographical settings? Is an Artist born in France only limited to drawing the Eiffel Tower, Croissants,Stripped shirts and Marie Antoinette. Is a German writer bound to only write about WW2, German engineering, and skinheads????.
It reminds me of a time a friend was mad at MTV Base when it first came out. Mad at their assumption that because we were African we only listened to Hip Hop and R&B ,and therefore they never showed any Rock or Alternative music.Should creativity be limited only to what one has experienced or sees around them?
If George Lucas had stuck to this “your culture” babble he would never have created the Star Wars franchise, there would be no Superman, Lord of the Rings, He Man, Robocop or any story beyond human experience
So what is the definition of an African Story?
Is it one set in Africa?
Is it one that tells of a historic event or historical figures?
Is it something that puts African traditions and culture on display?
Is it one that involves out fore fathers , mythology and superstitions?
Is it one from South Africa ,Kenya , Nigeria or Sudan. If there is an African Story is there also a European story, that British,French,Italian, Russian film makers have in mind and should tell?
Is the African story that which Hollywood has portrayed in films like Amistad, The God’s must be Crazy , I dream of Africa. Those films that give westerners the idea that we all run around in loin cloth chasing wild animals and retreating to out huts. Or is it those War child,Famine,poverty, martyr boring ‘African’ movies that win at festivals but you wouldn’t want to watch at the cinema even if they gave you a free ticket , pop corn and a massage.
I suppose Native American film makers should only make films about Tepees, Totem poles,Peace pipes, performing rain dances and being chased by cowboys.
When you talk with some people about making a film.You get excited , cos it’s inspired by a classic, it has stylized dialogue, great sequences and enough pop culture references to blow QT’s and Kevin Smith’s collective load. They start to push , an African Story agenda on you. “That’s not African,you have to make an African Movie”. You have to make something bus drivers, area boys and people in the village can enjoy. By the time they are done, they have watered down every creative juice from your idea and it is a bland,dull semblance of it’s former self. An emaciated version which you’d cross the street to avoid.
But let’s really take a look at this from a Global point of view. Tarantino has Italian roots, Guillermo Del Toro has Hispanic roots,Hitchcock was British and Truffat was French, all great directors from diverse cultures.But you never see any of them , making films that say “hey , look at me, this is my culture.And i hardly think when picking projects , any of them thought, “Hmmmm. Let me tell them, my Italian,Hispanic,British or French story”. Nor do the fans, go to the cinema thinking,”i want to see a European story”.
I, like many others grew up reading books by foreign authors like Enid Blyton, Roahld Dahl, Judy Blume ,Alan Ahlberg,Dr Seuss etc Not for a second did i read the back of the book and say ,”Huh, that’s a good British/Swedish story, let me read it”. The one and only thing that drew me were the characters,the story, the plot and the reading pleasure i perceived I’d get from reading them.
Also as a cinephile i love a wide range of movies. From the works of Frank Capra to Hitchcock to Woody Allen to Guy Ritchie etc . They make great movies, which you can enjoy regardless how different your culture is from theirs. It never feels like you are being schooled on their culture. The engaging story with interesting characters is what grabs the viewers attention, and if we learn something new about another culture , that’s great.
Now, there are specific films that are like constant exposition of a certain culture, which still manage to be entertaining . Usually stories involving ; Culture clash, e.g An Indian girl growing up in England wants to play football much to her parents chagrin . A wedding eg A Greek Girl marries outside her culture and the groom learns how bizarre their traditions could be. Fish out of Water stories do this quite well.
If say, someone chose to adapt Chimanda Adiche’s book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ for the big screen, THAT would be a good telling of the Biafran Story, not only will it cover a significant aspect of history, but many traditions and cultures of the characters involved. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was a brilliant African story, the key word being STORY. It was a human story that happened to be set in Africa, and that is why it did so well. The events could have happened half away across the world ,granted a few changes here and there,but it was the human story, and not the African story that captured our attention.
Like in mythology, it’s the construction of the stories and the characters that capture us, and not necessarily their geographical location. For example, Shongo is a mythological god of thunder in Nigeria, but all the way over in Scandinavia , they have Thor, in Greece it’s Zeus in Roman mythology it’s Jupiter. Some could surmise that it’s all the same character seen from different cultural perspectives. Now, their geographical locations will affect the cultures they come from, and there is where the culture is put on display.
For example,if we properly wanted to tell a story “our story” distinct from a Western story, with elements of our culture;let’s take a coming of age story, with characters , say 12 years old boys.
They skip going to after summer tutorials(lesson) to instead go shoot at lizards with catapults, throw sticks at fruit trees in a crazy neighbors house, and get chased, a general day of adventure and exploration.They are pre teen boys morphing into adolescence and developing new interests, and we see how it affects their friendship, as some mature faster than others. Wrap all those element around the story of one of the boys dealing with his father’s conflict with the extended family over his turning down of a Chieftancy title that could make them all rich because of it’s clash with his “western” religious beliefs, BOOM, there’s a story.
And things along those lines.
Many “African” films that manage to make it to film festivals , are , stating it bluntly, DULL . They may have great cinematography and performances,but are more effective as Valium than entertainment, and won’t be flying off DVD rental shelves anytime soon. And personally, even the African American films,with themes that shout “i am black, hear me roar”.”We are black here’s how we are oppressed”. Let’s put sentiment aside,i find them exhausting,a bit depressing and have no desire to watch them.
If instead of setting out to tell a good story, you want to force feed er sorry, i mean educate people on “this is my culture check us out” , you might as well go and make documentaries for National Geographic or The History Channel.
Now don’t get it twisted, there are stories that need to be told. Historical events, both from the immediate past and from yesteryear. Figures in our nation that need biopics made about them. Dark stories of keeping traditions that need to be brought to light so they are eradicated, it’s not all about escapology. But, that all depends on the interest of the story teller. Directing is often equated to getting married, If one is not totally passionate about it, there is no point. There is a reason Michael Bay makes different type of movies from Michael Moore, or Kevin Smith from Paul Greengrass.
So i am not totally opposed to telling stories that inform both the world and upcoming generations ,who we are and where we are coming from. But back to the case at hand
We need to tell a great human story that captures the emotion,and imagination. Whether it be to make one laugh, cry, shout or sit down and reflect, should be the most important agenda. Tell an engaging story with fascinating characters FIRST and then, the location,nuances, idiosyncrasies, slang and speech patterns and world view of your characters will represent their culture, THEN you have your African Story. KAPISH.