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Why Americans are the Stars of African Cinema

Dr. Z. Asava considers how Africa is seen on the cinema screen

This month sees the arrival of the latest film on Nelson Mandela to hit our screens, Invictus. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman plays the first black president of South Africa as he tries to find a way to unite a country on the brink of a civil war. The film is adapted from John Carlin’s book ‘Playing the Enemy’, and recounts the events of the run up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup when Mandela met with François Pienaar and strategically attempted to use sport as a path to reconciliation by shifting the Springboks position from a symbol of apartheid to a symbol of nation.

Pienaar is played by Matt Damon, in fact, like most films we consider African, Invictus has a dearth of African cast or crew. Sadly most African movies, i.e. those made by Africans with African money, do not get international distribution. Like the film industry in Ireland, many local films lack the means to access other countries and so cannot make a global impact. The problem is that the films that do get seen around the world are Western and provide a Western view of Africa. Now, while no one would argue that Far and Away is an accurate descriptor of Irish life, the views of films such as Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland replicate an already dominant view of a starved, war-torn continent. As fair as this is a comment on isolated situations, without any alternative views, the other Africa, of the arts, of scientific and architectural achievement, of cities as diverse as any in Europe or America, gets left behind. (The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival’s only sub-Saharan African film, The Silent Army, is on child soldiers.) And while Mandela is arguably the greatest political figure of our era, the series of American names on Invictus’ leading credits reiterates the implied inadequacy of South African actors and film technicians, despite the country’s position as one of the largest industries on the continent and its Oscar success just 4 years ago with Tsotsi (Best Foreign Film).

In fact it is astounding that so few films from Nollywood (Nigeria is the world’s third largest film industry), Ghana, Burkina Faso or Senegal make it through to even our arthouse film festivals when it is West Africa that leads the African film industry. Yet, there are positives to be had from an international cast making a film about Africa. It attracts global attention to local products, boosts the tourism industry and activates new interest in old problems – Matt Damon has already set up ‘Not on Our Watch’ to raise awareness about the Zimbabwean crisis. What would really make these films special is if they could offer more than an American perspective and sponsor or showcase local talent. Perhaps then one of the leading actors from Tsotsi might then come to know the success of other Oscar winners like Glen Hansard who appeared on The Simpsons with Marketa Irglova after they won Best Song for their music in the Irish sleeper-hit Once.

What Invictus will do is reemphasise the incredible triumph of Mandela’s political career, in evading civil war through the uniquely South African policy of truth and reconciliation (very nearly adopted in Northern Ireland), and reinstating the rights of equality. On a local note, the film may also serve to heal readers’ wounds as we mourn the absence of Ireland’s team from the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa, and turn our attentions to our more successful rugby team.

Invictus’s title, Latin for ‘Invincible’, refers to an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley which Mandela found a source of inspiration in troubled times. It is a reminder to all of us to have hope in all situations whether regarding the power of representation, the unending winter or the recession: ‘My head is bloody, but unbowed... I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul’.

8 November 2010   

 

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