Soviet cinema and African filmmaking

Abderrahmane Sissako’s oblique suggestion of what a ‘socialist friendship’ might be in his first film, "October" (1993) set in a then-declining Soviet Union.

Still from "October" by Sissako.

In a scene from October (1991)—one of Abderrahmane Sissako’s first films—a young West African student named Idrissa crouches to the ground in a Moscow park, and presses a handful of snow against his face. It’s a baptism of sorts: an immersion into the starkness of black and white, the color restrictions of Sissako’s low budget production visually reflecting the strict demarcations between races in then-contemporary Russia. Nothing speaks clearer of the racial divide than the white frozen ground pressed against Idrissa’s face, a face blackened and scratched by the now-degraded 16mm.

But, this is also Idrissa’s way of embedding his image into the world around him. Shut out by his pregnant girlfriend Irina and isolated from Russian society, Idrissa’s gesture serves to imprint his image into the Russian landscape.

This scene, amongst many others in the beautiful 38-minute film, communicates Sissako’s oblique suggestion of what a ‘socialist friendship’ might be. Although the film explicitly deals with the historical fact of an interaction between African people and the USSR, it leaves the cultural and political implications radically open. What Idrissa’s imprint might be is left abstract.

To delve into this relationship between the Soviet superpower and various African countries is to recognize—on the one hand—the historical fact of an interaction, a relationship. It’s well documented that Russia provided military support to many African liberation movements, sometimes via Cuba. Military support to armed resistance movements, pedagogical assistance in the form of filmmaking equipment and training, guerrilla training by Che Guevara himself in Congo, arms to the MPLA in Angola, support for Cabral, Neto, Michel… through shared ideals ‘Socialist friendship’ was the USSR’s means of coaxing African countries whose national identity was being forged upon a revolutionary nationalism toward socialism; to become extensions of the Soviet empire.

But what is harder to trace is how this “friendship” filtered into aesthetic and thematic affinities between Soviet Cinema and African filmmaking, based on the surprising embrace of African filmmakers by some of the most prestigious filmmaking schools in the Soviet Union. The “father” of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène, along with Sarah Maldoror (we wrote about her films here), Souleymane Cissé and Sissako all studied in Moscow. 400 000 other Africans also studied in the USSR throughout the period 1950-1990. Where France shunned the artistic development of its colonized countries while it still had the power, Moscow embraced them. Whether for diplomacy, advocacy, as a form of soft power or as a means of propaganda, it is clear that cinema was a tool through which the Soviet Union wanted to extend itself; through images it saw its own expansion into Africa.

So, what emerges from an investigation into African filmmaking and its relationship with the Soviet Union—particularly in West Africa during the 1960s-1990s, and cinema cultures in Lusophone countries in the 1970s—is a cinegeography of socialist friendship.

It’s clear that it was always an uneven relational geography. Cinema as a means of political promotion, both subtle and explicit. Through the reclaiming of the image of the self (a trope of African liberation movements) the Soviet Union—through aesthetics and thematics infused with ideology—hoped their involvement with African cinema would push socialist-leaning liberation movements toward Socialism, with a big S.

An example. Sarah Maldoror, the first African woman to direct a feature film, was specifically invited to Moscow to study because of her relationship with Mario de Andrade, one of the heads of the MPLA. Her films were as embedded within the Angolan liberation movement as she was, and her Soviet film training capitalized on her relationship with the MPLA to share its political approach toward filmmaking. After her training in Moscow, Maldoror went on to be assistant director on Gillo Pontercorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and made her own films Monamgambée (1969), Guns for Banta (1970—seized by the Algerian army before the final edit was made and never recovered) and the seminal Sambizanga (1972) (viewable here in full). Maldoror’s films are powerful militant films. They imaginatively document armed struggle while investigating the notion of ‘struggle’ itself, and posing questions to the role of art during liberation movements.

But why, other than a political affinity, was Russia so invested in African cinema? Josephine Woll suggests that the Soviet Union saw a parallel in the establishment of its own cinema. In her brilliant article, “The Russian Connection” (in Françoise Pfaff’s book Focus on African Films), Woll presents the affinity between the two cinemas to be based upon the imagined symmetry. For the Soviet Union, the transition from tsarism to communism was akin to the change from colonialism to independence. This chimed well with emerging African filmmakers.

Sembène made the move from literature to filmmaking precisely because he thought films could reach a greater audience. Books were reliant upon literacy, whereas cinema could speak to the masses. Sembène, sharing the ideas of Fanon and Cabral, said that “in the tempestuous zones of revolutionary war, the only form of artistic expression in armed struggle.” How could cinema ever be separate from politics? Cinema was a tool. Cinema was a means of creating a new political-cinematic constituency. This was a fundamental symmetry in cinematic politics that linked the Soviet Union with its African friends.

But, further than this explicitly political approach to artistic practice which was instated at the beginning of an independent African filmmaking culture, the writer Miron Chernenko wonderfully points out that ‘at the time that African filmmaking was emerging in the 1960s, cinematography’s genetic code was already instilled with the pathos of Russian revolutionary film art’ (in: Pfaff 2004), along with the poetic realism of the 1930s, and the humanism of Italian neorealism. African filmmakers in the 1960s were entering a cinematic arena already imbued with the coloring, aesthetics and thematics of Russian film. This became articulated even more sharply because of a shared sense of political history.

The palpable skill for atmosphere links DeSica and Sembène, or the foregrounding of the industrious masses links Safi Faye and Mark Donskoy. As Sembène famously said of art: “art for arts sake fails to grow out of living soil, and therefore cannot be fruitful.” The comments, statements and manifestos written by filmmakers at the time reflect the absolute urgency of political action. Art as a weapon, as a form of militancy.

To make the affinities between certain films themselves, here are some examples.

Woll makes a brilliant point in her essay, that Sembène and Donskoy share the ability to dramatize the brutalizing effects of regimes, without demonizing those who become brutal themselves. The regimes change; tsarist Russia, colonialism, the ills of newly-independent countries, but the characters affected by these political circumstances are never condemned themselves, but shown to be affects of the system.

The policeman in Borrom Sarret (a clip here), who thwarts the poor cart driver just as he’s finally caught a lucky break is a cog of the colonial system, not an brutal man himself. Confused, bumbling, corrupt El Hadji in Sembène’s Xala is thoroughly stuck in Sembène’s wicked constellation of the traditional and the modern in then-contemporary Senegal. El Hadji is a metaphor for the impotence of the new political bourgeoisie.

This shares a crucial symmetry with the characters in an Eisenstein film, or perhaps even later in Tarkovsky’s work. Characters like ‘the priest’, ‘the cook’, ‘the captain’ aboard the Potemkin, or ‘the writer’ and ‘the professor’ stumbling through Tarkovsky’s zone, all embody a different strategy for dealing with (political) realities. They assume narrative significance for their social or political roles. Their name is their function. The same can be said of classic African films. No character is superfluous to the political intent of the film. Each embodies a position, a function. El Hadji in Xala, Maria in Sambizanga, Diminga in Mortu Nega; they all say something about society—the individual is the sum of a social network; a plural.

Another important link is the use of pacing and silence. Pacing, in many Russian films is a political tool, a means of didacticism. Slow scenes, the unraveling of slow sequences of action allows thought processes and rituals to unfold in nearly real time. A contemplative quietness is created; it spurs thought in the audience, and thought, according to revolutionary maxims, leads to action.

For example, in Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga, Maria’s journey to save her husband Domingo, who has been seized by the Portuguese authorities, is slow and frustrating. She is repeatedly thwarted by the authorities while Maldoror cuts to scenes of beatings in the prison; Domingo edges closer to his brutal death, as Maria—increasingly exhausted—runs from police station to town office, searching for her love. But through frustration, Maldoror creates an unavoidable support for the liberation movement in Angola.

Sissako’s October also capitalizes on slowness and near silence (the film has very little dialogue and almost no non-diagetic sound). What isn’t said is more important. In what is held inside  Idrissa and Irina, unsaid, is what Sissako’s film profoundly questions, the silence probes what a socialist friendship really means.

October also seems to make a direct reference to Tarkovsky’s epic Andrei Rublev (1966), where the final scene is awash with color after a long film of black and white. Color jumps out. Sissako seems to reference this arresting image in his film too, where Irina prepares a bunch of roses from Idrissa, she pricks her finger, and a split-second color shot of her bleeding finger jumps out. Here, the direct reference between Sissako and Tarkovsky seems to suggest this affinity, a collaboration—a friendship—as continually present.

This article – a compilation of notes for a talk at the NYAFF at the Lincoln Centre last week – is greatly indebted to Ros Gray, who teaches and writes about cinema culture in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola; Kodwo Eshun and his ideas of a ‘cinegeography of the militant image’; Jeremy Hicks, a soviet film scholar at UCL; and the articles of Josephine Woll.

About the Author

Basia Cummings is a writer and film critic based in London.

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