Telling Stories of Africa in Film

Written by guest blogger Denise Deby, a Canadian who has worked on international issues, and is discovering the power of stories in shaping perspectives and prompting actions.

The stories we in North America hear about Africa are usually bleak.  My recent scans of news headlines have told me about “violence,” “starvation,” and “political crisis,” but little else.

If I look hard enough, though, I can find some alternative story lines about this diverse and complex continent.  I heard some at Africa: New Visions in a Time of Global Crisis, a conference marking the launch of the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

One of the speakers was the acclaimed West African filmmaker Gaston Kaboré.  The former director of Burkina Faso’s national film centre, Kaboré runs Imagine, a training school for filmmakers that supports the development of African cinema.

Kaboré described himself as a storyteller who uses film to give Africans a voice to recall and tell their own stories.  While doing graduate work in history, he examined stereotypes of Africa and Africans found 19th century European drawings used to justify colonialism.  He observed similar clichés in contemporary films.  He recalls, “it looks like we [Africans] do not exist at all, because other people are telling our story.”  Kaboré switched to film school, then decided to become a filmmaker.

In Kaboré’s first feature film, Wend Kuuni (1982), he blended oral storytelling approaches from his culture with “cinematic language.”  He used traditional storytelling techniques like narration and “flashback within a flashback” to tell a story that his people could identify with.  (He was so successful in this that filmgoers thought Wend Kuuni, which he had written, was a traditional tale.)

By rooting the film in people’s understandings of time and of relationships with nature, for example, but also incorporating elements like western symphony music, Kaboré showed people that their stories were relevant, and worthy of being told on film.  And although he began by telling stories locally, the stories were of wider interest — Wend Kuuni and its sequel Buud Yam (1997) have won awards in Africa and internationally.

At another level, Wend Kuuni and Buud Yam are metaphors for Africa itself.  In Wend Kuuni, for example, the main character regains his voice after years of being mute, a parallel with Africa finding its “voice” after colonisation.

We viewed Kaboré’s most recent film, a short documentary called 2000 Generations of Africans (2009).  Its message was powerful and positive: that Africa, the source of humanity, is the promise yet to be fulfilled of humankind.  New hands, dreams, and aspirations will shape it, and Africa will be at the heart of the future which is yet to be written.

Kaboré is realistic about what can be achieved through film: “I’m only a filmmaker; I know that I cannot change the reality like that but…I try to contribute to rebuilding the self-confidence of African people…because only through that are we going to find our own way of developing.”

Aboubakar Sanogo, a Carleton film studies professor, reinforced the idea that African film can contribute to defining Africa’s future.  He presented a selection of African audio recordings and film images that showed alternative visions, in contrast to “discourses of crisis that shape, define and frame ways of seeing the continent” such as hunger, war, aid and development.

The conference’s aim was to highlight ways of understanding what’s happening in Africa, good and bad, that are neither overly pessimistic nor overly naïve.  More details are available on the Institute of African Studies website.

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