Thursday, March 01, 2007

Celluloid heroes

Last Sunday, Forest Whitaker won the Oscar for Best Actor at Hollywood's Academy Awards. Whitaker won for his role in 'The Last King of Scotland' where he played Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Whitaker's award was viewed with some pride in Uganda, where the film was shot. I found this a bit odd. Ugandans should feel shame that their society allowed Amin to rise to power and maintain his insanity for seven years. Ugandans should feel shame that it required the intervention of foreigners (the Tanzanian army) to overthrow Amin, rather than a domestic popular uprising.

I'm not a big fan of the crap Hollywood usually puts out but Whitaker's one of my favorite actors, so I'm pleased his work was rewarded. However, his win prompted an interesting discussion about how African stories are told to western audiences.

It's not a revelation that most western news reporting about Africa focuses on misery. As the widely admired black American journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault points out in her excellent recent book, western reporting from Africa focuses on the four D's: death, disaster, despair and disease. Westerners are fed a lot of heartwrenching or infuriating tales of death in Africa and little about life on the continent. Movies, which are inherently fiction, are even more skewed in this regard.

Almsot all popular Hollywood films with Africa as a setting focus on this misery. Brutal dictators ('The Last King'). Uncontrollable disease ('Congo'). Grotesque exploitation and its horrors ('Blood Diamond'). Racial tension (any film about apartheid South Africa). The only films that eschew this model are the ones where the star is Africa's nature, its landscapes, its animals (either in a romantic or nightmarish way) and the travails or westerners who live there... movies where actual African people with actual lives are irrelevant, or at least incidental ('I Dreamed of Africa,' 'Out of Africa').

Even in those rare movies where a good, moral black African is the protagonist, it must be set amidst horror ('Hotel Rwanda').

Basically, in any film set in the continent, Africa must be exotic. The Africans who live there (when they're actual drawn as serious characters) must be either evil monsters or sit passively while oppressed by the powers that be. Africans with normal desires, like educating their kids or feeding their families, don't make these films. Exotic, nightmarish or romantic, these make good stories. Pandering to audiences' preconceptions makes a good story. Well, not a good story, but a profitable one.

And even stories made by African cineastes can't always avoid the financial consideration. Most such films are made with the backing of (mostly) European money. Investors want a story that's going to appeal to European filmgoers. Therefore, these films usually include themes that are easily digestible. Modernity vs progress. The nobility of tradition. Exile. Filmmakers are often pressured to modify their work in such a way that European filmgoers can identify with them, even if it's not the story the filmmaker wants to tell.

Sadly, the lack of domestic cinematic infrastructure in Africa means that the interests of western financiers and filmgoers will continue to be an essential consideration. Even the movie houses that do exist in Africa tend to show mostly Hollywood or Indian flicks.

This discussion comes at a particularly opportune time, as we're in the middle of the bienniel FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso.

The BBC's Network Africa has a bunch of interviews with some of the key figures at Africa's most important film festival.


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