Intimacy in Africa, on film

Bringing attention to African filmmakers who challenge prevalent cinematic depictions of the continent.

Sembene on the set of Moolaade in 2003. Image Credit the Sembene Estate

When Hollywood does Africa, there’s little in the romance and love department, unless it’s about Karin Blixen making ill-fated choices (in white colonial men) or some random family who move to Africa and fall in love with the land … and the flame trees (you know the list I’m thinking about). When a white do-gooder escapee from European/British stultification falls for a gorgeous Ugandan–she’s going to get chopped up by Idi. If ever we see black characters falling in love, their romantic world is overshadowed by various external crises—warlords, corrupt politicians, locusts, famine, war (then a nice white aid worker helps one kid). Love is rarely explored in terms of the emotional and existential crises that love between two white people from America or Europe is explored, or in a silly, light-hearted way that focuses on the couple’s respective families and friends behaving badly (as in the style of, say, ‘Love Jones’ or the remake of ‘About Last Night’).

Intimacy in Africa at the University of Chicago hopes to change some of those skewed perceptions. The series is curated and organized by Erin Moore, a comparative human development graduate student at the university, whose goals for the series include bringing attention to African filmmakers who challenge prevalent cinematic depictions of the continent.

The six films that make up the series, according to Moore, provide a comparative perspective on issues of “domesticity, intimacy, sexuality, subjectivity and affect in Africa and the diaspora.” Through their focus on the domestic sphere, this set of films provides a space in which ideas of love, intimacy, and sex are brought to the foreground even as they are shaped by and impact larger issues of politics, history, and culture. Thus while these films–set in and between Senegal, France, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Mali, Mozambique, Uganda and the United States–grow out of engagements with the historical and social conditions of colonialism, post-independence, and globalization, they also articulate the roles intimacies have played and continue to play in African lives. Each film will be followed by a short discussion, creating a forum for viewers to engage with the individual films and also as a unified body of work.

The series kicked off with Ousmane Sembènes first film, “Le noire de (Black Girl)” (1966), which follows a young Senegalese woman as she migrates to France to work for a wealthy French family. Packed into this short film are representations of migration, labor, race, loneliness, and longing. Here’s the trailer:

The series then moved on to several films centered on questions of love and solidarity. The first was Souleymane Cissé’s “The Wind” (1982) from Mali (screened two nights ago), the story of a young couple from opposite worlds: the daughter of a military general and the son of one of Mali’s chiefs. As the film tracks their relationship, it examines the conflicts between “modernity” and “tradition” and critiques the effectiveness of the military administration that runs the state. As it works to bridge generational gaps, the film also offers hope for the young people of Mali in its representation of the potential of a solidarity movement against the regime.

The next film to be screened at the end of this month, “The Silences of the Palace” (1994), is also the first full-length feature film directed by an Arab woman. While it also takes up issues of love and solidarity, Moufida Tlati’s film traces the lives of women who are forced into sexual and domestic labor during the end of the French protectorate in Tunisia. In the face of their torment and torture, the women who reside in the ruling king’s palace must band together for their own survival. Alia, the film’s protagonist, returns to the palace after ten years to memories that continue to haunt her in the present.

The series then switches genres (on May 13th) to the 2013 documentary “God loves Uganda,” a film that has screened worldwide and already won numerous awards. In the film, director Roger Ross Williams exposes the anti-homosexual Christian missionary movement in Uganda and links it to North American evangelicalism. This powerful documentary provides a critical look into a disturbing cultural phenomenon, and the screening will be followed by a discussion with the director as well. Here’s the trailer:

BTW, Brett Davidson reviewed “God Loves Uganda,” together with another film dealing with gay rights in Uganda,” for Africa is a Country. You can can read it here.

With “An Uncommon Woman” (2009), the series turns to Abdoulaye Dao’s comedy about a successful businesswoman in Burkina Faso who decides to take a second husband as revenge for her first husband’s infidelity. Cast with some of the best actors of Burkinabe cinema –Georgette Paré, Serge Henry, Bakary Bamba, and Augusta Palenfo –the film focuses on issues of jealousy, infidelity, romance and revenge as it challenges traditional marriage practices in the region.

Finally, ‘Intimacy in Africa’ ends with “Virgin Margarida” (2012), a film based on real stories of women who endured Mozambique’s 1970s “re-education camps” that were established to transform former female sex workers into “new women” for a newly independent nation. (In April 2003, Corinna Jentz interviewed the film’s director, Licínio Azevedo, for Africa is a Country.)

Wrapped up in revolutionary politics, the film’s main protagonist, Margarida, is mistakenly transported to the camps where she, along with the other women, suffer the harsh realities of life there. In the face of adversity, the captive women’s strength, as well as the protection they offer  Margarida provides a hint of optimism. Azevedo’s film dramatically explores this forgotten chapter of Mozambique’s history and highlights broader questions about sex and gender in Mozambican society.

‘Intimacy in Africa’ serves as an important showcase of both popular and marginalized films about Africa and Africans. The series begins on April 1st at the University of Chicago and will run through June 3rd. The series is free and open to the public.

Click here for more details.

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