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Africa’s Oscars

African cinema is in a fix, yet at the top Burkinabé film festival, Katrina Manson finds no

Amid the dust and the donkey carts, there is a sign here in Ouagadougou, bright red against the night in swirling French neon: “40 years of cinema; 40 years of dreaming”.

It’s a dream worth savouring. As women balancing trays of lemons on their heads sashay through the streets and mopeds whirr about the dusty downtown, Burkina Faso – one of the world’s poorest countries – does not seem to be the most obvious home to the movies. But as the pan-African film festival Fespaco celebrates its 40th anniversary, the country whose name translates as the Land of Honourable Men is striving to create an Africa-wide film industry that represents the continent’s own people.

“Our African audiences really need our images,” says Gaston Kaboré, head judge at this year’s Fespaco, and a revered Burkinabé director whose film Buud Yam won the top prize in 1997. “They need stories that carry them, and they need us to give accounts of our own images and culture. We make our films for them.”

The breadth of films at Africa’s Oscars shows that the continent’s film-makers are doing just that. This year’s winner, Teza, charts the horrors of authoritarian rule under Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam; the runner-up, Nothing But the Truth, reveals the dashed hopes of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process. Mascarades, an Algerian comedy, came third.

“In the 1960s African films were preoccupied with designing the new political environment after colonialism,” says Keith Shiri, director of the UK film festival Africa at the Pictures. “But now there are so many other issues that films are tackling.” Whether a village love story set in Cameroon, corrupt civil servants plundering the state in Burkina Faso, gangsters doing bank jobs in Johannesburg, or diaspora returnees finding fault with Dakar, Fespaco’s films find many ways to speak to the continent.

“No one can carry Africa better than us,” says Gohou Michel, 42, a celebrated comedy actor from Côte d’Ivoire. He wears a gold chain with a golden map of Africa dangling at the end: “It’s a symbol of what I need to do.”

Yet cinema in Africa is in a fix, and lacking big backing, African show business could do with a few more conjuring tricks today. Burkina Faso might be home to striking monuments to the wonders of 35mm film – an upturned multi-coloured camera in the middle of a roundabout; the Fespaco headquarters, shaped like an enormous reel of film – but increasingly film-makers are turning to digital. Often they produce for the TV and DVD markets, for poor audiences that prefer to stay at home and watch telly, because it’s free and the regular soaps keep them company.

Despite prodigious piracy, DVDs are doing well in Africa. Nigeria’s “Nollywood” home movie industry produces more than 2,000 films a year and rakes in $450m annually, making it the world’s third-largest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood. But cinema screens are closing at speed. In the arid northern town of Ouahigouya, the final two projectors stopped turning at the beginning of the year because producers refused to let their reels be shown on such clapped-out projectors. Michael Raeburn – whose film Triomf, about incest among Johannesburg’s poor white trash, was in this year’s official competition – said he only entered Fespaco because his French backers asked him to.

“Their projectors are tractors, lawnmowers,” he told me. “The last time I was in it they sent back my 35mm film ripped to shreds. I could hear the sound of celluloid cracking.”

Despite the nods to Cannes, with red carpets and nightly poolside hobnobbing, several festival screenings spluttered through sound and image failures. And as film-makers are increasingly backed into financial corners, donor money and foreign funding may pull one string too many. “Too strong a dependency on external financing is negative for the development of an indigenous African style,” says Kaboré. “You have to be sure that the centre of gravity is within our own camp, in terms of economics, culture and psychology.”

In his effort to secure big US financial backing, the South African director Zola Maseko capitulated and cast the American actor Taye Diggs in the lead role of his film Drum, the story of a black South African journalist’s fight against apartheid, which won Fespaco in 2005. “I sold out, I admit it,” Maseko told me this year, putting up his hands in surrender. “I spent ten years trying to raise the money for that film.” But he regretted the compromise: “I’ll never do that again.”

For the clutch of film-makers still shooting for the big screen, the commitment to independent financing is growing. When, after years searching for backers, Raeburn was told to secure Meryl Streep for the lead to gain US backing, he finally gave up. He cut his budget tenfold, got a Zimbabwean accountant onside and made his film with unknowns, in the local Afrikaans.

For the right film, the audience is there. Cinema-goers sat two to a seat in support of local ­directors’ films during Fespaco. And when the Burkinabé director and satirist Aboubakar Diallo released his self-funded comedy Môgô-puissant a couple of years back – about a young village marabout who is so successful at seeing into the future that he becomes the president’s right-hand man – it broke all national box-office records, beating takings for the Bond film Casino Royale, which was out at the same time.

“It’s not the number of films we produce or the box-office takings that matter, it’s that cinema has really captured the spirit of the people,” says Hema Djakaria, director general of national cinematography in Burkina Faso, who refuses to let go of film. “Taking pleasure in a real night out, an event, is a special thing for the people here. Cinema is a school of life, and that has no price.”

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain