Africa is the birthplace of civilization. Africa is the poorest continent on earth. Africa is the nightly news. Africa is myth.
We continue to be swamped by notions of Africa, but a genuine picture from the place can still come as a shock. Instead of old clichés of a "dark continent," sub-Saharan African filmmakers offer us images direct from Africa's streets, its villages, its history, even its future. This series of films leaps from a dusty city to a lush forest, from a war zone to a hotel room steeped in sex. Each picture is an original.
African cinema grew up alongside Latin American 'Third Cinema', and still aims to confront its societies with difficult truths. Sembene continues to challenge the powerful with his films. He and colleagues like Souleymane Cissé and Cheick Oumar Sissoko, both from Mali, created a strong foundation of politically engaged art cinema from the 1970s through the 1990s.
Two of the five films in this series build directly on that foundation. Le silence de la foret, by Didier Ouénangaré and Bassek ba Kobhio, offers a uniquely African spin on a dilemma that tortures westerners -- how to "help" Africa. In telling the story of a European-educated African who seeks truth in a pygmy village, this film uses the tools of social drama to extend its critique of colonialism in several directions at once.
Fanta Regina Nacro's La nuit de la verité draws an even more direct line between drama and real-world events. Her story of a wartime truce that descends into butchery was partly inspired by the murder of her own uncle.
Suspected of political treachery, he was burned alive in an open pit. Nacro recreates this horrifying scene in her film, but her critique is not limited to African carnage. "Yugoslavia was the point of departure," she has said about the film. "After the war in Yugoslavia, I hoped that the whole world would realise this kind of violence is not restricted to the black peoples of Africa."
Even as La nuit de la verité and Le silence de la foret push the legacy of Sembene forward, a new movement in African cinema has emerged. More personal, more open-ended, more likely to ask questions than state criticisms, these are films in which the primary drive is rhetorical rather than narrative. Even when they use fictional elements, these are essay films. To capture the lurid farce of corruption he saw unfolding in Cameroon, Jean-Pierre Bekolo turned to the absolute freedom of science-fiction. The result is provocative, erotic, and in its own way revolutionary. Abderrahmane Sissako and Mahamet-Saleh Haroun pursue a more indirect argument, influenced in part by the sly films of Chris Marker, though there are many more strands at work as well.
Bye Bye Africa and Heremakono explore African identities that are always already hybrid. Their protagonists exist between city and village, between
Africa and Europe, between history and the future. At the same time, Sissako and Haroun deliberate smudge the boundary between fiction and documentary. Their films are acts of individual imagination, in which "facts" can carry the same weight as dreams. Sissako and Haroun represent a globalised Africa on screen. This new world is a product of their own cultural formation, of the changing realities in urban Africa, and of new, low-cost means of production that allow more immediate films to made more quickly.
This is the state of African cinema now -- not pictures from a dark continent, but ideas about worlds, lit up in a thousand colours.