Saturday, March 10, 2007

Color me cynical...

So yeah, we were on the way to Yinka Davies and we still haven't gotten there, have we? I was trying to post some music and stuff in the next installment and I've been trying to figure out the most efficient way to do this in the new Blogger (which has been a bit hard to do since I've had limited Internet access over the past two weeks). I will get back to the story soon enough, but in the meantime, I just wanted to check in and throw up some random rants and raves.

A little while ago, someone asked me to speak a bit further about my disdain for "calabash cinema" and my frustrations with the expectations many western audiences have of African films that I briefly alluded to in this post. Just the other day, I was thinking about how to broach this subject when something threw the issue into stark relief for me. As it turns out, it wasn't a film but a book. Or rather, some people's reactions to a particular book.

The tome in question is Aya, an album bande dessinée (that's a fancy French way of saying "comic book") by Ivorian writer Marguerite Abouet and French illustrator Clément Oubrerie. fleur d'Afrique actually hipped me to it about a year ago when it was awarded the prize for Best First Album at the prestigious Angoulême festival, and a second volume has since been published in France. Now, thanks to the good folks at Drawn & Quarterly, a sumptuous English translation has hit the shelves on this side of the Atlantic. Needless to say, you should probably take a peek at it, as it is some pretty darn nifty stuff. Trust thine own eyes more than mine impeccable taste and astute recommendation? Fine; take a look at a preview here. Still not convinced? There's some additional pages to be viewed here (they're en français but if you ask me, Oubrerie's shimmering, elastic linework is adequately expressive in just about any lingua you please).

Aya is a sweet and breezy yarn centering around the title character, a regular 19 year-old girl in late-1970s Abidjan, as she and her two friends Bintou and Adjoa grapple with weighty issues like overbearing parents, too-aggressive boys, sneaking out of the house at night to hit the club, how to perfectly roll your tassaba in that inimitable African woman fashion when you walk and trying to figure out just what you're going to do with the rest of your life... Basically, regular 19 year-old girl shit. Imagine John Hughes or the Hudlin Brothers' House Party in Africa. Or maybe even Valley Girl. And just like those great teen comedies of the 1980s and early '90s, it's fairly lightweight in the plot department but mines resonance from the humor and humanity of its characters.

But as I said before, a certain kind of western audience often has a hard time digesting humanity in African stories (Lord knows they can barely swallow even the idea of African humor). It's not their fault, really... They're just not that used to seeing African stories in which the characters are presented as actual people rather than as people-shaped embodiments of social problems. Africans are not really people to identify with; they're people to feel sorry for, or superior to (depending on the particular political and philosophical temperament of the individual viewer). Or maybe to kinda admire for their naive joy and resilience in the face of crushing hardship. Just about every review of this book I’ve read gushes with palpable amazement at the fact that its characters are, y’know, so goshdarn relatable! The preface to the English edition, contributed by one Alisia Grace Chase, PhD of the University of Minnesota, acknowledges as much in the very first sentence:

"The amorous hi-jinks narrated in Aya seem so familiar, so nearly suburban in their post-adolescent focus on dance-floor flirtations, awkward first dates, and finding just the right dress for a friend's wedding, that to many western readers it may be difficult to believe they take place in Africa."

(Can't you just see the reader choking and sputtering in shock: What the--??? Where's the genocide? Where's the female genital mutilation? The forced marriage? The babies for us to adopt? I mean, this story is supposed to be about Africa, right? But-but-but these characters seem not too different from me and my people! They even watch "Dallas" and "The Six Million Dollar Man" on TV! This shit is totally BLOWING MY MIND, man!)

Dr. Chase then rightly indicts the media for its role in shaping and perpetuating the stereotypical image of Africa in the western popular imagination:

"Inarguably, the western world is becoming increasingly aware of the myriad cultures on this massively diverse continent, but swollen bellied children, machete wielding janjaweeds and too many men and women dying of AIDS continue to comprise the majority of visual images that dominate the western media."

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that she seems to fall into the same trap herself. Maybe it's just me being my cynical self, but somehow, Chase's subsequent explanation of Aya's social context comes off to me almost as a disclaimer of sorts. Like the reason Aya is not a grim narrative of African suffering is because it takes place during the belle époque of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny's "economic miracle" that made Côte d'Ivoire one of the most prosperous and poltically stable countries south of the Sahara for thirty-some years, with then-capital Abidjan notching up a glamorous rep as "the Paris of Africa."

In other words, this story is an anomaly. An African Elseworlds. A brief, amusing curiosity before we return to our regularly scheduled programming of Unremitting Misery, Hopelessness and Horror® that is the African Reality™. I call bullcrap.

When Chase surmises that "Aya's dream of becoming a doctor, while dismissed by her conservative father, was very much a possibility" is she suggesting that it's not a possibility today? When she wistfully reflects that "Bintou's hip-bumping moves in the open-air maquis and Adjoua's make-out sessions at the '1000 Star Hotel' were commonplace teenage pleasures that took place in such working class suburbs as Yopougon" does Chase honestly believe - even in the wake of an interminable brutal civil war - that Ivorian teenagers are not doing the exact same thing right now? Is the idea that people still make love in Africa and not just war that far-fetched?

African pleasure. It's a concept so rare as to be mythological in an African cinema that is hellbent on catering to a western audience that seems to want Africa to function as a deep, dark, truthful mirror that reflects back to them just how good they have it. That wants Africa to always teach it something, much like the fabled "magical negroes" of Hollywood lore.

Sometimes I wonder if that has something to do with why the world cinema elite continues to ignore Nollywood: the fact that these crude movies' devotion to sheer pleasure somehow deprives them of gravitas in the eyes of the self-appointed arbiters of cinematic veracity. I mean, just the other day I was reading the latest issue of Sight & Sound (well... it's the latest issue on the stands here, anyway)... The African Cinema issue. Which manages to avoid mentioning Nollywood even once. Ain't that some shit?

Look... I know that there's more than enough issues surrounding Nollywood's almost characteristic crappy writing, hammy acting and general technical ineptitude to keep the British Film Institute from taking the Nigerian movie industry seriously. Hell, I could even understand how a fairly conservative org like the BFI might shy away from recognizing movies primarily shot and distributed on video as "cinema" in the first place. But to put together an issue surveying the state of filmmaking throughout the continent and make not even a cursory mention of the first far-reaching, self-sustaining, indigenously popular film industry in African history that produces movies that Africans actually watch? Especially when they see fit to devote like a whole two-page feature to "white conscience" pictures like Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland and Catch a Fire in which Africa serves as little more than an exotic backdrop for white people learning shit? Alas and alack, Sight & Sound! As quoth Jeru da Damaja: "Ya playin' yaself!"

Damn... I'm rambling (as usual). I didn't mean to do that, fam. Like I said, I just wanted to post some rants and raves. And now that we've gotten past the ranting, let's rave a little, shall we?

Go pick up Aya now and thank me later.

Also, a few days ago, my man Temi drew my attention to an in-production Nigerian short film called Area Boys, directed by this morning to an in-production short film called Area Boys, directed by Omelihu Nwanguma.

Take a look at the trailer:

Looks pretty good, no?

It looks pretty good.

That's all I'm really gonna say for now, because if I talk any more, I might have to start hating. Hard. Actually, I think it looks damn good and I'm just a little bit jealous. Nwanguma seems to have succeeded in conveying at least some of that dynamic Lagos energy and grit that is absent from virtually ALL Nollywood movies and which I'll admit we failed to adequately capture during our first foray into shooting TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (I'm sure Denis would remark favorably upon the abundant yellow hues in the color palette!). So yeah... I guess this is all the more motivation to step up our game in the next round of shooting.

Apparently, Nwanguma & co. are trying to raise some finishing funds over on the Area Boys website. I found it somewhat interesting that they've actually posted up their proposed budget (nobody - and I mean nobody - discloses that information in Nollywood) and believe it or not, the amount of money they're spending on this one short is roughly as much as the budget for the a lot of 2-part Nollywood features. I'm glad they're not skimping on quality. I get really excited when I see cats trying to raise the bar for the nascent New African Cinema, so I'm totally rooting for them. If you're all about supporting quality African film by African filmmakers telling African stories for African audiences, by all means, stop by and show them some love.

Okay... I've talked enough, haven't I? I'll stop for now, but I'll be back later.

And I will finish telling that damn Yinka Davies story.


aflakete the wunderkid said...


Gracie Chase said...

Come on, I did not mean that Aya cannot become a doctor, or certainly, that people do not make love. I had one-thousand words to contextualize the historical period, and yes, it actually is very hard for most young people to procure a good education in Ivory Coast right now.

Gracie Chase said...

Furthermore, if you read about Youpogon today, you'd find that few young women would want to sneak out at night. An anomoly? Not in its potential, but in its inability to be reconciled at this moment.

Gracie Chase said...

the author states as much, when she returned to her home after 15 years, she cried, people were starving, they do not have the joy they did. here's a link to an interview with her:

i wrote what i did not to continue the media sterotype but to illustrate how much ease and pleasure is contingent on economic health

you are being too cynical by half, at least in regards to my essay

KangolLove said...

This Aya book looks worth checking out. I always like weird French comics. And I have to admit I felt guilty for glancing at her in that panel where she's wearing nothing, but hey, you say she's 19 so I don't feel that bad. OK, yes I do.

AFKAP of Darkness said...

hey gracie chase!

i had a feeling that you might come forth to defend yourself, and i'm glad that you did!

as the subject heading of the entry indicated, i had the cynicism dial turned all the way to 11 when i wrote this one and to be honest, i did actually feel a bit concerned that i might be coming off a bit hard on you... or worse yet, that it might appear that i was lumping you in with the "calabash cinema" enablers that i have issues with. that was not my intention at all.

on the other hand, while i understand your attempt to encapsulate the social milieu of Abouet's story within a limited space, i really do feel that you might have--inadvertently--fed into that familiar afro-pessimistic mode.

i had actually read the Abouet interview you linked and was gonna reference it in my blog entry, but i kinda rambled right by it! i know that she said that she didn't recognize today's Cote d'Ivoire as the one in which she grew up (almost any African who returns after a long time away can relate to that on some level) and that she wanted Aya to show a different face of Africa from the one that is most commonly seen in the western media.

but think for a moment of the bleak vision of Africa depicted in the media, constantly painted in stark, absolute tones without any gradations of humanity...

now you have said that it is "difficult" for Ivorian youths to procure a good education... okay, fair enough. but in your preface, you suggested that it was impossible. there's a considerable difference in wording there. especially when you consider that a lot of Americans actually don't know that there are universities in Africa at all. while attempting to salute Abouet's beautiful, nostalgic vision, you're running a real danger of validating certain preconceptions about modern Africa as a land without hope.

i've never visited Yopougon myself and i don't doubt that it is probably quite a bit more dangerous today than it was 30 years ago, but from what i have heard about it, it is still a bubbling nightlife quartier and youth center, full of nightclubs and maquis (especially Rue Princesse) as shown in pix like these:

is it really that far-fetched to think that the basic narrative of Aya could have easily been set in the contemporary context?

of course, obviously it was not... so that might be beside the point. but what i am really saying is that ultimately, African people are people. and while there are some pretty tough times to be had by people all across Africa, and there's no denying that people's social problems do impact their lives in very real ways.

my issue, though, is with the extent to which people in the West seem to expect our problems to define us. with the belief that abject misery be viewed as the default reality for Africa and any portrayal of Africans as just regular people needs to be qualified in some way.

i'm sure that's not what you meant to do, so i apologize if it seemed like i was beating up on you about that.

AFKAP of Darkness said...


in that case, i'd love to see your reaction to the girlfight scene, when a tittie pops out!

Kwasi said...

You know I finally watched that trailer....

That I want to see.

Gracie Chase said...

hi afkap,
you know, i have though both long and hard about this, and you ARE right, i did not bring it full-circle, and i think this was due to one, trying to express abouet's own sadness about the present state of country, and two (probably the most difficult thing) trying to elicit sympathy for the crappy turn of events in a nation left high and dry by the french industrialists and bankers who profitted and then took off (and remember, both presses publishing AYA are French nad/or French friendly. I appreciate your critique, but your rancor took this art history prof who really is just trying to promote the things she loves (like AYA) off-kilter. peace for now...alisia

AFKAP of Darkness said...


i'm glad that we understand each other's positions... and again, i apologize if i ripped into you a bit too hard. i only meant to touch on the first paragraph of your essay before attacking some other reviews i read that were entirely much more naive and offensive... but i kinda lost myself in my tirade and lingered on you for too long!

my rancor is mostly tongue-in-cheek anyway. if anything, i probably tend more towards frustration than anger.

but hey... we cool.

Seven said...

I've been slipping on reading your blogs man....will hold a marathon afkap reading session this weekend though