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Diversity in the Stacks: African Cinema

Posted on by Charles Cobine

The Penn Libraries has been collecting film and media from around the world for decades, including films by African directors and about Africa. In Africa, access to contemporary cinema and film distribution varies widely from region to region. The African film industry stretches from the Maghrebi cinema in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to both historical and modern films from South Africa; from the films of francophone sub-Saharan Africa to the recent international successes of Ethiopian cinema; from the productions of a booming Nollywood in Nigeria to the lesser known films of faraway Madagascar. 

It is no simple task to represent the entirety of the Penn Libraries film collections under the rubric African cinema. The regions and cultures of Africa are vast and diverse, and although there are always passing references to what sounds like a monolithic African film culture, African cinema, and African series, there are clearly numerous African film and television industries across Africa. African film includes early classics and propaganda, Francophone, Anglophone, and Indigenous film, art cinema, and short films. It encompasses the film festival cultures of Ouagadougou’s FESPACO (Festival Panafricain de Cinéma et de télévision de Ouagadougou) and Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival (also called the Journées cinématographiques de Carthage, or JCC), and even includes observational filmmaking by anthropologists.

Anthropological films were some of the earliest films acquired by the Penn Libraries. Library patrons can find these films in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center and the Penn Museum Library collections, which are usually on VHS tape. Today, of course, more films are available to stream, including films that depict cultures around the world produced by the Royal Anthropological Institute and Documentary Educational Resources (DER). The DER videos, available in the Ethnographic Video Online collection through the streaming video platform Academic Video Online (AVON), include the series by cinema verite filmmaker John Marshall, who documented the !KungSan people (Ju/’hoansi) in what is now Namibia from the 1970s to the 2000s. The films depict the nomadic hunter-gatherer society, with scenes of everyday life, including hunting, collection of wild foods, dancing, ceremony, illness, children at play, and conflicts over land and water rights. Famously, in N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman, Marshall addresses the transformation from traditional nomadic life to one focused on agriculture and the restrictions of settlement.

Films by and about Jean Rouch, the French pioneer of ethnographic film, also feature in the video collections in Van Pelt Library and the Museum Library. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Rouch filmed his subjects in West Africa, in Mali and Niger, and provocatively explores the ceremony and intellectual traditions of the Dogon in northeastern Mali. Film scholar Alan Cholodenko notes that in Rouch’s controversial film documenting spirit possession rituals among the Songhay people in Niger, Les Maitres Fous, Rouch lets his presumably Western audience of ethnographers explore what they consider “primitive” culture and consider how the “otherized” African subjects of the film mock and also adapt Western culture in their own lives. Other Rouch films include Jaguar, Tracking the Pale Fox: Studies on the Dogon, and Madame l'Eau

The Penn Libraries is also home to critiques of Rouch’s work, namely Malian filmmaker and scholar Manthia Diawara’s Rouch in Reverse and a behind-the-scenes chronicle of his work with Nigerien collaborators, Rouch’s Gang.

It would be remiss to write of African film culture without addressing West African popular film, including classic Nollywood features--films, and “video-dramas” from Nigeria. Among the Nigerian classics available in Van Pelt is the television adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which was a huge hit in 1980s Nigeria. Another classic is Adamu Halilu’s Shaihu Umar (1976), a Hausa historical drama adapted from a novella by Abubakar Tafewa Balewa. The story of a mother and son in a late 19th-century Islamic slave trade caravan, it was recently restored by ArtMattan Films. In addition, Van Pelt’s video collection includes work by acclaimed Nigerian director Tunde Kelani, famously known as “TK” in Nigeria. TK’s Ti oluwa ni ile (The East is the Lord’s) Parts 1-3, a tale of indigenous religion and an attempt at escaping vengeful deities on ancestral land, is one of the best selling Yoruba dramas of all time. Other works of TK in Van Pelt are Saworoide (Brass Bells) and Agogo èêwò (The Sacred Gong), political thrillers commenting on post-military era Nigerian democracy, exploitation, and social class, and Thunderbolt, an adaptation of Adebayo Faleti’s Yoruba novel Magun, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello

Many Nigerian films in the Penn Libraries collections are in the VCD format, rather than the  standard DVD format that most people in other parts of the world are familiar with. When placed into a DVD player, VCDs often begin playing immediately--unlike DVDs, they lack a starting menu, are not broken into chapters, and may vary in image quality. To unfamiliar eyes, they may look pirated, but they are not. In fact, the VCD format remains crucial to the home video market in Nigeria, where streaming and Internet access remain out of reach for much of the population.

On the other side of Africa, off its southeast coast and across the Mozambique Channel, is the large island nation of Madagascar, which has its own small film industry. The Malagasy language is only taught at two universities in the United States--the University of Pennsylvania and Brigham Young University--and 80% of these students of Malagasy attend Penn. Two years of course work in Malagasy fulfills Penn’s foreign language requirement, so the Penn Libraries has made efforts to acquire Malagasy-language films whenever possible, including the work of perhaps Madagascar’s most revered filmmaker, Raymond Rajaonarivelo. Films in the collection include Tabataba (Rumor), a dramatized account of the Malagasy Uprising of 1947 and the first Malagasy film to play at Cannes, and Quand Les Étoiles Rencontrent La Mer (When the Stars Meet the Sea), a story of a young boy, a survivor of infanticide, who must navigate superstition, violence, and the injustice of a bad lot in life. 

This year, the Penn Libraries acquired five more films from Madagascar through Laterit Productions, all available to stream: a documentary about Malagasy ingenuity and recycling, Ady Gasy: The Malagasy Way; An Opera from the Indian Ocean, about Réunionese composer Jean-Luc Trulès and his opera Maraina; Songs for Madagascar, featuring prominent Malagasy musicians discussing environmental awareness; and Fahavalo, Madagascar 1947, a documentary about the Malagasy rebellion of 1947 featuring testimonies from eyewitnesses and resistance fighters.

Students of early cinema may be interested to learn that Van Pelt also has a collection of films from the distributor Villon Films, which specializes in films that cover the apartheid era of South African history. These films include early South African and American silent films that illustrate now-offensive early 20th century representations of African people. One such film is Rastus Among the Zulus, produced by Philadelphia-based German-American Siegmund Lubin, whose Lubinville film studio once stood at North 20th St. and Indiana Ave. in Upper North Philadelphia. 

South Africa’s oldest surviving film, De Voortrekkers, is also part of the Villon Films collection. It depicts the “Great Trek” of South Africa’s Dutch-speaking settlers, the Boers, and their battle against the Zulu at the Battle of Blood River. South African film scholar Edwin Hees describes the film as a myth-making work of Afrikaner nationalism, and it was shown to Afrikaner students in schools for decades during the apartheid era in South Africa and presented as historical truth. Ironically, at the time of its filming, Zulu actors played their improvisational part with such enthusiasm that they won the fictional battle against their on-screen Afrikaner enemies. 

This collection also includes later South African propaganda films and newsreel films about the outlawing of the African National Congress (ANC), 1960s treason trials, resistance activities, and protests. Also available is the 1993 documentary film directed by Peter Davis, In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid, which revisits many of the demeaning misrepresentations of black South Africans in South African film history.

If there are African films that you would like to see in the Penn Libraries collection, please feel free to suggest a purchase or reach out to Librarian and Coordinator of the Social Sciences Collections, Lauris Olson, or Cinema and Media Studies Librarian, Charles Cobine. The films discussed above can all be found in the Penn Libraries; the list below highlights other acclaimed films that you will find in the collection.

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