Everyone has their own Paul Biya

What would happen if the president goes missing? The people wouldn't care. They've learned to live without him.

Paul and Chantal Biya with the Obamas at a state function in Washington D.C. in the United States (Amanda Lucidon, Wiki Commons).

When someone says “Jean-Pierre Bekolo,” I think of the opening scene of his 2005 smash hit “Les Saignantes”: Adèle Ado suspended and twirling in a harness above leopard print sheets. The middle-aged man beckoning her down is in tiny silk thong; she fucks him to death. Of course it is very sexy, in a way that is explicit rather than graphic. You can see all the shiny eyes and tension in anticipation of contact, rather than bared breasts and wagging genitals. The intimacy of the scene, which grows with the guy’s vulnerability, is more surprising than his death. Especially after we learn that the man was a top official in the Cameroonian government.

Few governments want a sex scandal less than Yaoundé’s. President Biya, who has been in power for 30 years, has developed an elaborate and particular public image. His persona doesn’t age or show signs of weakness. (The courts famously sentenced the journalist Pius Njawé to two years in prison for reporting that Paul Biya had a heart condition.) Jean-Pierre Bekolo explains, “If you think about him, he puts you in jail.” So imagine seeing Biya in a love scene. Or worse, seeing him as a man with human frailties. This is what Bekolo shows us in his latest film, Le Président. Here’s the trailer:

I spoke with Bekolo ahead of the film’s US premiere (August 15th at New York’s Spectacle Theater).

The premise is simple. When a barely-fictionalized president disappears under mysterious circumstances, a TV reporter named Jo Woo’du works around the clock to find out what is happening. But when he interviews people on the street who might know about the disappearance, they instead give him confessions about their own problems and fantasies. To ask them about Biya is to ask about their own lives. The president’s visage is so fully present that it becomes the flickering backdrop against which their own lives are experienced. Woo’du himself explains that when he was born, the president was president; when he became a journalist, the president was still the president. The image of Biya is thus overlaid with details from other people’s lives. With such personal material pixelating the official projection, the president’s persona becomes compromised. Everyone has their own Biya.  Bekolo investigates the situation using popular aesthetics:

Television is being used … as a place where everything is possible. […] By watching the film, people can go beyond what they know. Right now there is a television boom in Cameroon. There are over 100 [local] TV channels. Obviously the film is made up, but I had to create the dynamic/rhythm of all these little screens — not to animate them, but to use the television aesthetics to tell a story.

Even as the film plays with near-holographic transmissions on the TV screen, we enter into some very fleshy politics. Le Président oscillates between a meditation on the specter and the body, and a concrete political situation. Bekolo toggles between Woo’du and his interviews, and the president himself. We learn that he fled the city when he realized how vulnerable he was without the people’s support. In this ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario, the president wanders around deserted city streets, thinking about what he’s done.

Bekolo explains, “You’re not seeing much. It’s very narcissistic, it’s just this guy talking more about himself. You don’t see much about the investigation. We just see this old guy who is suspicious of everything…” At some point, a well-known rapper appears in front of the president to challenge him on his record.

Even as the president’s policies are questioned, Bekolo humanizes him with the tenderness and playfulness that characterizes his films:

In the backdrop, in Cameroon, the president should be the only one that’s perfect. No one else is allowed to be good. Everything is criticized. It’s something people don’t even realize they’re doing. Even if we know people are not perfect, we shouldn’t use the same techniques of the regime. […] Some people feel Le Président is very calm, and end up liking him. They think that being critical means he’s a bad person; but it’s not about whether he’s good or bad. He’s been there too long. This guy was minister when Obama was one year old. It doesn’t matter whether he’s done good or bad, he might even be a good person. Between him and himself, when do you know when it’s time to go? That was my intention, really.

Still, you can see why this film would be a nightmare for Biya’s French press office. Efforts to stop Le Président from screening in Yaoundé have drawn international attention to censorship in Cameroon (Al Jazeera here; see also AIAC’s Katarina Hedren’s piece here). As he has said elsewhere, Bekolo was surprised that French officials have refused to show the movie:

L’Institut français said no we can’t show this. So I had to ask why and they told me, go and get yourself censored first. Even if you are censored there, I personally think we shouldn’t show this film because it could trouble. It would be like interfering with internal affairs. So it was like I’m a political party. I can’t understand why anyone would be so nervous to look bad in front of a president who’s 80 years old and has been in power for 30 years. To throw away what has been their Freedom of Speech and country pride and human rights, all this stuff. When it comes to funding for African film they are completely aligned with a dictator.

At base, censorship is about denying someone’s presence. In Cameroon, Bekolo says that the regime has even tried to censor prayer, because families keep praying for people who are in jail. The government has taken away the physical body, but the person is called back through prayer, and continues to haunt with their name. The effort to control what is seen and not seen produces new specters; the censored body leaves its traces in unpredictable ways.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.