There’s a problematic point-of-view in films about Africa that isn’t present in films from African filmmakers. I have noticed it in all the foreign films about Africa and foreign black countries I have seen up until now, from The Power of One (1992) in Apartheid South Africa, to the offensive Vers Le Sud (2005) and Blood Diamond (2006). Robert Favreau’s Un dimanche à Kigali (2006), in the same manner, is a voyeuristic look at Africa, from an outsider’s standpoint, the principal lure being, either the instability of the region or its exotism. The objective view adopted in the film objectifies Africa and Africans, turning them into filters for channelled bourgeois guilt or repressed sexual desire.
In Un dimanche à Kigali, Bernard Valcourt, a journalist from Quebec, assist at the growing tensions between two of Rwanda’s ethnic groups, the Tutsi and the Hutu, before the genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu Power, in 1994. Feeling a connection to Rwanda, he develops a relationship with a Hutu with Tutsi traits, and their love is challenged by the country’s unrest. Apart from the fact that the movie shows a limited point-of-view, that of the Tutsi massacre, it brings less perspective into the why of the tribal differences and the role the colonial powers, in this case Belgium, have played in the massacre, first categorizing Rwandan society, planting the seeds of the massacre, by standing idly by while genocide was being perpetrated. We have a fleeting wink into the global picture at the time with Valcourt’s visit of Canadian General in charge of the UN forces in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, ordered to stand down and not participate in the conflict, and Valcourt different unsuccessful attempts to “get the word out”. In Blood Diamond, the Sierra Leone conflict is given no background, no perspective, other than a general feeling that Africa has always been this way and will always be. We get the sense from the principal character, Danny Archer, that he loves Africa, despite all the violence and warring factions; it’s in his blood, we could say.
Both films adopt a foreign point-of-view to relate African life struggles. They’re an outsider’s perspective into a life-threatening reality for the continent. In Un dimanche à Kigali, Valcourt’s concern for the Rwandan people seems to go as far as his lover, the lovely Gentille, is threatened by the conflict. Her name implies passivity; she is a prop, Valcourt’s motivation, only developed as far as to give the story some validation. The other African characters receive the same treatment, only deserving of a slow-motion salute once they have succumbed tragically to the struggle. In Blood Diamond, the secondary African character, Solomon Vandy, dreams to reunite with his son and leave the African unrest behind. With the sacrifice of Archer, he gets his wish, appearing before a diamond industry convention in Britain to denounce the blood diamonds. The concept of Africa as the savage, Dark Continent, is a colonialist one. By treating Africa as a foreign object, these movies serve to perpetuate this inane hierarchy which keeps Europe placed atop the globe and centred, placing Europe “as the source and arbiter of spatial and cultural meaning”. What African films bring is a different perspective, where the hierarchy is blurred or at most cancelled out by the reality that African culture, which has inspired the European modernism movement, has as much relevance as Western culture.
In general, African films draw their importance from a myriad of tradition, life and rich experiences. It is in those, and the oral traditions of African storytellers, that African filmmakers draw their stories and from their present situations, they draw motivation for a militant, revolutionary or entertaining cinema. It is interesting to notice how these traditions have passed on to the African Diaspora, from the African Americans, to the Caribs, to the South Americans. But that is another subject altogether.
GHALI, N.: An Interview With Sembene Ousmane, in John Downing, ed., Film and Politics in the Third World, Autonomedia, New York, NY, 1987.
RUSSELL, S.: Idrissa Ouedraogo—Tilai/A Question Of Honor, in Guide to African Cinema, Greenwood Press, Wastport, CT, 1998.
ASHCROFT, GRIFFITHS, TIFFIN: Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, New York, NY, 2000.
PETTY, S.: Towards a changing Africa: Women’s roles in the films of Ousmane Sembene, in A call to action: The films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Petty, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1996, pp.67-86.