The first time I saw Ousmane Sembène’s Borom Sarret, I was in film school. Struck by the wagoner’s candid voiceover, and the way it contrasted with his routine labor of picking up passengers in his wagon, I wondered why I hadn’t seen this film earlier. I wondered why many of the people I knew hadn’t seen it. There was movement in this film, but this character seemed not to be getting anywhere, mirroring the Neo-colonial context in which it was set. This film was only the beginning.
Noted film critic Elvis Mitchell will curate a month-long film series entitled Caméras d’Afrique: The Films of West Africa, running from October 3 – October 28, 2013 in Los Angeles. Named for Férid Boughedir’s groundbreaking documentary, the series is hosted by Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television, in partnership with Film Independent at LACMA, and will highlight some of the region’s most powerful works, with selections by Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, among others.
In what seemed more like a conversation, I spoke with Elvis Mitchell about his hopes for the series, the emphasis on West African cinema as part of distinct world of varied African cinema, and the need for more black film critics. Screenings for the series will be held throughout October at LACMA’s Bing Theater on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Free community screenings and select Q&As moderated by Mitchell will take place on the Loyola Marymount University campus every Monday night. For full program line-up please visit: sftv.lmu.edu/sftvevents/
Shadow & Act: When did you start developing your interest in West African cinema?
Elvis Mitchell: I’ve always had this interest. I think there’s so many great, important films that come from places other than Europe and America. Steve Ujlaki who is the dean of the film program at LMU came to LACMA and to me for this program, and I just thought the time had come to show these films, especially Touki Bouki, which is a great 1973 film by Mambéty. It’s such an amazing film to see the European influence on African film, and how he uses that kind of storytelling tradition as a taking off point. Touki Bouki is a great take on the way pop culture affects people, similar to the way that Godard worked.
And really, one the greatest filmmakers ever came from Senegal, Ousmane Sembene, who is just a remarkable filmmaker-and I got to meet him 20 years ago when he was in San Francisco for the San Francisco Film Festival. So, when this opportunity came, I couldn’t move fast enough.
S&A: That’s awesome. I love Touki Bouki.
EM: Isn’t is great?
S&A: Yes, it’s a great film.
EM: You see a movie like that, and you get the same feeling as when you see Godard’s Breathless. And you see movie stars. Mambéty knew how to choose actors who also have great screen presence and as a person of color, it’s so exciting to see something like that.
S&A: Definitely. I was watching the video that you did for LACMA for this series-
EM: Oh, I’m sorry (laughs). I’m sorry you watched that –
S&A: No, I loved it and got some background about some of the films. You said the series brings you joy because it’s bringing attention to the art of an area that deserves more attention than is received in America. And I was wondering what you think some people in America think of when the term “African cinema” is referenced, or when it’s brought up? Do you think there’s this general perspective, or not enough attention to it at all?
EM: I think it’s what you said about not enough attention, and weirdly when people bring up Africa, they still tend to think of it as a monolithic term as if Africa is a nation instead of a continent; A nation without different cultures and traditions.
I think if some people know anything about African cinema it’s something like the The Gods Must Be Crazy, which is such an awful, condescending movie that debases African participation, and anything I can do to shift that and draw attention to rich and widely varied films that come from there- because there’s all kinds of filmmakers from Senegal, you have Mambety, and Haroun with Grigris. And we show Cameras D’Afrique which gives audiences that don’t necessarily know the African film culture, the chance to see how fascinating and idiosyncratic all these movies are, and that documentary is such a great title for the series too.
S&A: Were you involved in the selection of the films?
EM: I worked with Steve and really curated the series. It’s sad because we only have so much time and so many films to show. It’s just sad- the lack of knowledge that people have about these films as you were bringing up in your question. African films should be thought of as offering as many different points of view as the film of any other different continent. Nobody would say that French film is all European film, or Italian film is all European film. And in the same way that those places have different filmmakers that speak to different issues, all the countries in Africa have that too.
S&A: Most definitely. I know that for me, Ousmane Sembene’s work is very influential. I know that one of his works is in the series. Was it hard to decide which one of his films to feature and can you talk about some of your favorite work by him?
EM: So, you’re going to have to answer that question because you know how hard it is- (laughs)
S&A: Yeah, because there’s so many good ones.
EM: One of my favorite films of the last century- two of my favorite films actually are Faat Kine, and Moolaade. I love both, and Sembène really made a point of making them not male-centric, but dealing with distinct women’s perspectives in Senegal. I think a good place to start with Sembene is at the beginning, and Borom Sarret is a remarkable film that we’re featuring in the series.
S&A: That was the first film by him that I saw in film school. Shifting a bit, how did you become interested in being a film critic? I think a lot of S&A readers would be interested in your insight as a black film critic, and how you’ve navigated that field.
EM: I don’t really know, I mean it was something that I always loved. I always saw a lot of films my whole life, and had a bunch of really great opportunities, and have been really lucky that I get to make a living doing this, and hopefully add another point of view to these conversations. It’s great to have Shadow & Act and see what Tambay and the writers here have to say about things but I wish that there were more to bring about conversations because a lot of things don’t get talked about.
I’m remembering a year ago in an interview with Joaquin Phoenix talking about his career, and he started asking me about black film. He talked about this film he turned down because it was it was too racist to do because of the treatment of African American actors in a studio film, and to my surprise, it didn’t get picked up anywhere in mainstream film coverage and I was completely shocked. He talked about not wanting an Oscar and that got picked up everywhere, but nobody talked about him basically calling out the studio system for being racist. That was completely unbelievable to me and it just shows that we still have a lot farther to go in terms of expanding the parameters of our conversation about film, television, and pop culture.
I’m also thinking about your piece on Call Me Kuchu – and talking about people of color writing about film. That seemed like a real personal thing to you; how you talked about your own trip to South Africa and how it informed your take on Call Me Kuchu and I just thought was a really cool thing to read.
S&A: Thank you. That film was really powerful so I was glad to write about it.
EM: And Mother of George is another film that asks questions of traditional roles of women in African culture. I remember seeing that film at Sundance, and seeing a film with people of color that was so beautifully photographed was amazing.
S&A: I loved how it questioned the roles of women and the expectations of fertility.
EM: There’s so many great films coming out. It’s still kind of astonishing to me how certain films get ignored, and that film ended up getting ignored and didn’t get the attention that it deserved at Sundance.
S&A: That’s unfortunate. Are there any films you’re looking forward to in particular?
EM: I just want to be surprised, and that’s one of the things I’ve always prized from new movies from around the world. I’ve been to Poland in the last couple years, and there’s a lot of great stuff coming out of there. I’d like to see more stuff coming out of Africa.
I taught a class on African American images at Harvard and it was great getting students who come in from Nigeria and tell me about great films made straight to DVD, and these films are number one at grocery stores and gas stations, and the next week the DVD is pirated and another film becomes number one, and it’s this constant process of films coming out and people just watch it in their homes, and I’d be interested in more DIY kinds of things, and to see more of that stuff.
S&A: What would you say people can expect from the Cameras d’Afrique series?
EM: I think they should expect to see a level of craft in filmmaking and artistry that places these films on the same stage as films from any place in the world. I think that people don’t know a lot about these movies of this part of the world, and should come in with an open mind, but come in- and come and try out these movies, see what they like and what they don’t like. I want this to stimulate people in ways they’re not expecting because they don’t know what the movie is. We’re also screening for people who know African film and want to see it advance, but it’s also fun to get people who are seeing these films for the first time and I want to get people to take a chance on films they don’t know.
I always tell people go see something you don’t know about. Something you didn’t read a ton about on the internet. Something that you don’t know what’s going to happen because I think that kind of pleasure of finding something new and discovering it, creates a hunger in you, and I am hoping that is how people will come out of this.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area, based in Los Angeles. She writes for Bitch Magazine and Shadow & Act.