Action movies, bilingual tunes and the exorcism of a family of six: channel hopping in Cameroon

After a cosy night watching Dutch reality TV, daily viewing in western Africa retains all the entertainment and human drama - but the stakes are very different indeed.

I wrote, a few weeks ago, about the joy of discovering the television of a foreign place. Back then I was in Rotterdam, watching a Dutch variation of the popular UK Saturday night dating show, Take Me Out. I was grateful to see if not a familiar face, then a familiar format: something that made sense to me when the language did not.

On a work trip to northwest Cameroon a week ago, I had the reverse: a common language (half the time their official languages are French and English) but largely unknown setups. That is how I came to be watching a pastor on a stage in what looked like a megachurch, delivering a family of witches from the eternal damnation that surely awaited them if they continued down their dangerous and destructive path. The screen was grainy and the sound was poor, but the subtitles and the overly animated gestures of everyone onscreen involved kept me going.

It was no Take Me Out I grant you, but it was entertainment and human drama on a similar level, even if the stakes were very different.

The language when we landed in Yaounde, in central Cameroon, was firmly French: the road signs, the calls of the currency exchange guys outside the terminal, the hotel receptionists. As we moved further into the northwest, the signs began to change – by the time we’d reached Makénéné, the grip of French has loosened and given way completely by the time we ended up in Bamenda. I mentioned the northwest of the country specifically, as it is a firmly Anglophone area: under German colonial rule until their defeat in WWI led the League of Nations to hand it over to the British, who were governing Nigeria next door. In 1961, they joined the already independent République du Cameroun, which is one of the reasons why Cameroon does not have a single Independence Day (interestingly and unnecessarily confusingly, the name ‘Cameroon’ is actually of Portuguese origin). My first two days in Cameroon had been spent in Bamenda, and the hotel television gave a mixed diet: National Geographic, Al-Jazeera, BBC World (obviously) as well as French-speaking channels like TV5Monde Afrique, a Nigerian channel or two (NTA and whatever the aerial could pick up) and a curious Arabic-subtitle movie channel (which is how I came to be watching an uncanny valley Ray Winstone/Sean Bean hybrid utter the immortal “I’ve come to kill your monsta!” in Beowulf one warm night).

In Bamenda, I had managed to watch Live and Let Die, as crisply as the 70s intended, with breakfast, but then we moved further north, going up into the astonishing mountains and vastly more rural regions of Kumbo and Ndu, where television reception was a lot more mercurial. The proximity of Nigeria means a shared cultural identity as well as television one. So there were music channels with Africa-wide music, and a few Nollywood film channels too. And of course, there were the religious channels, featuring bearded men against backdrops of the Ka’aba and the evangelical Christian channels, on one of which I spotted the witches of two generations.

The drama of this particular scene cannot be overstated. There was organ music playing in the background, a constant, tinny sound on the television speakers, and the minister stalked the stage with purpose. The man of the family had his family lined up: two girls, one looked newly out of her teens and the other a few years younger; and two teen-looking boys. He spoke as though in a trance: “That one is my daughter,” he said, pointing at one of the boys. “I recruited the boy for her.” He carried on ‘revealing’ who was who in that dazed-but-sure voice, and each new disclosure brought forth a whimper and a head clasp from his wife, who kept exclaiming “I did not know! I did not know! All these witches in my house, pastor! OH, GOD.” And then when the confessions were over, the minster began casting out the witches. They left via shudders and eye rolls, leaving the bodies they had inhabited without prior permission in convulsive waves and spasms. The minister laid on hands, and compelled them - in the name of Jesus – to leave. And leave they did. The family looked around them, stunned by their deliverance; the congregation’s voice rose as one, marvelling at the awesome sight.

Even for all the time spent in Nigeria growing up, this made for a compelling spectacle. Cameroon – and Africa at large – is broadly made up of religious societies (there’s a reason the Catholic Church sees its diverse population as a ripe growth area) and of course, television reaches far more than the church on the corner can. Onscreen, a rolling tickertape gave addresses for the next gatherings of the faithful in two cities across the continent: in Nairobi, and some 2,000 miles north-west in Lagos. There was a prayer line with a Nigeria country code, and an email address to send prayer requests to. Globalisation is real, and God is a part of it.

Back in Bamenda a couple of days later, the morning I was due to drive back to Yaounde for my flight home, I turned on the telly and came face to face with 80s-era Sylvester Stallone – weird wet-look mullet, rippling muscles, shirtless, dog tags nestled in his tanned cleavage – in Rambo III . All the swearwords had been muted out, so there was no ‘shit’ or ‘bastard’ or even ‘son of a bitch’. But the scenes of torture and killing remained intact, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Rabinson/Wikimedia
Show Hide image

Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism