Utopia Unstuck

Africa-focused sci-fi films redirects science fiction so that it becomes a fissure in which new subjects can be seen and heard. One question, however, is who makes these films.

A still from Neil Beloufa's film "Kempinski."

I scuttled along to London’s Southbank Centre for the Africa Sci-Fi Screening, an event forming part of the month-long Africa Utopia season. Having failed to make it to Bristol in time to catch the event’s parent exhibition – Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction at the Arnolfini — I was curious to see what the combination of Africa and sci-fi might involve. There was a palpable buzz from the evening’s earlier book readings and talks, and the mood in the muggy Purcell Room was jovial. Not for long. Exhibition co-curator Al Cameron gave a verbose preamble to increasingly audible sniggering, followed by a second, marginally less verbose introduction from artis Mark Aerial Waller. I wasn’t timing it, but I’d guess at least fifteen minutes elapsed before a film appeared on the screen, by which point several people had walked out. It wasn’t until after Waller’s film –” Superpower – Dakar Chapter” (2004), a deliberately amateurish short involving renegade Senegalese scientists, the Orion constellation and temporal disturbance that panelist number three, design and fashion forecaster Cher Potter, finally got a look in, speaking pleasantly but somewhat tangentially about her work on future scenarios in her native South Africa.

Things improved significantly with the second short, Neïl Beloufa’s engagingly creepy Kempinski (2007). This is sci-fi at its most stripped down; opening with a man lurking in the dark amongst his cows, which seem to have become his sole companions. The film proceeds via a series of encounters with Malian men, who offer disarmingly touching present-tense visions of the future. During its most surreal moment, amid sinister beeping noises, the camera rests on a lab-coated man in dark glasses sitting in a dimly-lit room with a glowing, blank, flat-screen TV behind him. Suddenly, the film’s artifice – cameraman, artist, and constructed scenario – seems to crumble: we really are seeing the future.

Unfortunately, the future of this particular event was perhaps all too predictable, but nobody seemed to have foreseen it. After the high point of ‘Kempinski’, there followed further obscure and shambolic conversation from the panel, a downward spiral, which quickly accelerated once the discussion was opened to the floor for questions.

Oh, what a mistake. From the two audience members who managed to grab the mic before the event finished, the criticisms came thick and fast: disappointment at the event’s deceptively enticing title; disgust at the incompetent presentation; incredulity at the lack of African filmmakers on the stage … the critique was unrelenting, and nothing the panel said seemed to make any difference. By the end, an irate woman was on her feet, aggressively asserting that she would be making a formal complaint, to the accompaniment of supportive grunts and claps from the back of the auditorium. I staggered outside sweaty and confused, full of questions.

Africa is a Country interviewed the two curators here, and clearly it worked better within a gallery context, where a counterpoint between various works reflected a thoughtful curating of the works, and allowed more time and space for the ideas on science fictions of Africa, and what that might mean, to develop.

At this event, this counterpoint was thrown out of balance. Part of the problem was undoubtedly the title which as the most vocal audience critic observed, was at best an oversight and at worst deliberately misleading. At an event called “Africa Sci-Fi Screening”, one could reasonably expect to see a series of films, but in a slot of just one hour, there was only time for two shorts of under 15 minutes each.

Arguably a bigger issue, however, was the nature of the interpretation itself, which was lacking in discernible substance beyond some musings on the ‘ethnographic gaze’. There were moments when I began to follow what was being said, but my ability to do so rested on many years spent yawning over cultural theory texts in dusty libraries. It seemed to me that there’s a time and a place for scholarly rumination, and a public stage in front of an increasingly restive crowd is most definitely not it.

Cameron and his co-curator Nav Haq have argued elsewhere that Africa-based sci-fi like ‘Kempinski’ redirects science fiction so that it “becomes not a projection of the narratives of dominion […] but rather a fissure in which new subjects can be seen and heard”. But this is not the kind of thing that can easily be conveyed to an audience rendered unreceptive and defensive by almost an hour of incomprehensible flannel. The “fissure” with its “new subjects” were evidently utterly invisible to the majority who, despite the West African settings and characters of both Beloufa and Waller’s films, saw nothing but European (and, it need hardly be said, white) approaches, attitudes and interests in something that they had been led to believe was going to be ‘African’.

And this is perhaps the crux of everything that went wrong on this difficult night for all concerned. Even if, with a bit of thought, most people can see that there’s probably something to be gained from an event attempting to ask thorny questions about what ‘Africa’ might mean, and who and what can be ‘African’, in the heat of the moment, the urge to ‘showcase’ and to ‘celebrate’ can be uncontrollable. And, with a festival called ‘Africa Utopia’ as the backdrop, why should this be a surprise? Although the season does contain many exciting and potentially insightful highlights, I rather despair of the overall packaging, which recycles the old ‘see what Africa can offer the world!’ narrative.

It’s a tricky one. Do we really still need more cultural festivals wittering on about Africa’s sunny side? The Southbank Centre has already given us Africa Remix (2005) and now Africa Utopia – what next? Africa Epiphany? Perhaps London audiences are ready for something a bit more challenging. In fact, the word ‘utopia’ contains within it a well-documented pun: it derives from the Greek eu-topos, meaning ‘a good place’, but also from ou-topos, meaning ‘no place’. It’s a pity that this double meaning wasn’t drawn out more in the festival programme. As the vociferous crowd last week demonstrated, there’s a real hunger for meaty debate, for solid content and for new ideas. How to achieve this in a way that is intellectually stimulating, engaging and accessible is a question that I hope to see explored during the remainder of the festival.

Further Reading

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Soft targets

What was behind the assassinations in the 1980s of two key anti-apartheid figures: Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, and senior ANC official, Dulcie September?