An oblique public voice

Revisiting the films of Malian-born author and filmmaker Manthia Diawara.

Filmmakers Mikail Isah bin Hassan and Nasiru B. Mohammad with Manthia Diawara. Photo by Carmen McCain CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Three years after publishing African Cinema: Politics and Culture, his first book and perhaps the most cited scholarly text in African cinema criticism, Malian-born author and filmmaker Manthia Diawara released a documentary titled Rouch in Reverse (1995). This halting homage and evaluation of the impact of Jean Rouch, the famous French cine-ethnographer, is a perplexing achievement in using privileged access as an opportunity for critique, a work limited by the process that makes it possible. In the words of Diawara, the film’s narrator, Rouch would not have entertained such requests from many filmmakers. Those who might be upset that Diawara let his man off too easily can take solace in the fact that this was his first film, and that making films is not easy.

(Trained as an engineer, Jean Rouch moved to West Africa after World War II. Starting from 1947 and through the 1980s, he made over a hundred ethnographic films about a broad variety of topics in African history, the French-speaking countries his stomping grounds. The reach of that work is so far and deep that any proposed attempt to turn the camera on him—to reverse the gaze, as it were—had better be ready to beat the man at his game. The film Petit-à-Petit (1970) is Rouch’s controlled permission for such an undertaking; in it, he gets his African collaborators—figures such as Safi Faye, Damoure Zika and Ilo Gaoudel—to “study” French natives in their natural habitat. Compared to Chronicle of a Summer (1966), the great exemplar of cinema verité, however, Petit-à-Petit comes across as light amusement.)

Soon after his first film, Diawara published In Search of Africa (1999), a book of integrated chapters that, though dealing with scholarly materials more suited to classrooms and the lecture circuit, are written in the style of a personal essay. The book has a film component, and thus staged, the writer-filmmaker fashions a style and an attitude. He has since kept at it.

With An Opera of the World (2017), Diawara’s essay-films arrive at a clarifying pass. It is perhaps his most conceptually heightened work to date. It has a self-consciousness that comes from the conceptual nature of migration as a contemporary phenomenon and the classical elements that are associated with the opera as a form. The way the film is edited also makes it increasingly easier to appreciate what the writer-director is trying to do in his films—what one may call the defining, or recurring, features of his work as a filmmaker. By using the ideas of philosophically inclined Martinican writer Édouard Glissant to frame the editing of the film, Diawara seems, finally, to have come to an idea of his own intellectual practice. One can say that his previous films have been attempts at developing just such an idea—that he had been in search, not so much of Africa, as the title of his second book has it, but of a voice that can carry the weight of what he has to say.

Working with limited resources and primarily through commissions from European cultural institutions for mid-scale shows for galleries, Diawara has directed nearly a dozen films. These films are typically hamstrung to rely on interviews and staged incidents that Diawara largely—though unobtrusively—mediates. In Conakry Kas (2004), he travels with a cameraman to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, from which his family had been expelled during Sékou Touré’s rule. There, he films an impromptu performance in an open-air arena. The performers, like the venue, are relics of the African Ballet, the dance company created by nationalist poet Keita Fodeba—the same poet about whom Frantz Fanon writes with fierce optimism in his classic The Wretched of the Earth (1963), and who ultimately fell out of favor with Sékou Touré and was executed for imagined conspiracies.

Bamako, the Malian capital and Diawara’s birthplace, is where his family relocated to from Guinea. It is also the setting of Bamako Sigi Kan (2003), which unfolds as a series of deep-focus encounters with figures of the Malian elite, acquaintances of the filmmaker. They debate social, sartorial, and economic issues, arguing over migration to France. Diawara sits among them but never appears on camera. Strikingly, his cameraman, African American poet and filmmaker Arthur Jaffa, is shown walking along a Bamako street.

The film Négritude: A Dialogue Between Soyinka and Senghor (2015) pitches the ideas of the Nigerian-born Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka against those of Léopold Senghor, the founding president of Senegal and a leading proponent of Négritude, a quasi-philosophical idea about the natural essence of blackness. Soyinka, younger than Senghor by nearly three decades, animated African literary circles in the early 1960s with his famous quip, “A tiger does not need to proclaim his tigritude; he pounces!” He has frequently tried to add nuances to that bon mot: later in his writings, he came to affirm several of the notions about Négritude, becoming close friends with Senghor and writing about him at different times with the kind of interest that few black writers have extended to the legendary poet. The tiff initiated by that original pronouncement has endured, however; it becomes, in the film, the basis for Diawara’s quest to think through issues of democracy, multiculturalism, and the like. The dialogue that he sets up between both men is uneven: Soyinka responds to real-time questions while the viewer encounters only brief, isolated footage of Senghor’s interviews.

Diawara’s preferred cinematic style is poised, conversational, and deliberative. It is an approach that, as he offered once in defense of the overall tone of his work, has allowed him to bypass academic protocols in his reflections on African and black intellectual traditions. Where scholars go out to the field, to the site of material, with a pen and a notebook, Diawara brings a camera that, though he doesn’t himself wield it, often shapes how and what he sees. La Maison Tropicale (2009) is about an architectural curiosity—the building of French-style houses in tropical countries—and another person might approach the topic as a journal article.

Even when he turns to materials that typically invite scholarly analysis, as he does in African Film: New Forms of Aesthetics and Politics (2010), Diawara’s mode of engagement is light and exploratory. He writes with a clear voice, and the outlay of his ideas, projects, and hunches mimics a kind of cinematic language, unobtrusively processing sound and sundry images from Berlin, Ouagadougou, Cape Town, and Lagos into a curatorial thesis. This approach gives room to other voices that range from voluble to sententious, and Diawara looks on patiently, nodding, pulling back, trusting in the editorial stage to bring discussions or disagreements to some sort of closure.

The strongly public voice has never been hard to hear in his films, but it has always sounded politically oblique. It is as if, to Diawara, the standing of the African intellectual out of home, a simultaneously political and aesthetic stance, can only be inferred from the editorial process; as if the act of making that inference in one case requires the kind of cultural sophistication that comes from having known all the other films.

In An Opera of the World, Diawara’s voice finally becomes audible as directly political. He succeeds in subordinating the personal perspective that is integral to the essay-film to the political character of migration as a Malian, African, and global issue. His editorial choices, and especially the manipulation of the soundtrack against archival images, open up—against all attempts at suturing—the wound of voluntary, precarious migration as a transnational eyesore.

It is worth noting that this film is based primarily on a libretto—Bintou Were, A Sahel Opera—by Chadian playwright Koulsy Lemko; it was performed in Bamako at least ten years before the film was made. This is important because it makes it possible to view this film in comparison with works like Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, which was released in 2006, and with Diawara’s own “malaria” memoir, We Won’t Budge (2003). One consequence of such an approach is an increased awareness of the diverse forces driving not only the quest after European refuge among young and old African expendable populations, but also the prioritization of this phenomenon in artistic narratives.

Are there, for example, comparable quests within the West African subregion, that is, Malians moving to Accra, the way Nigeriens and Burkinabes used to go looking for work there and in Abidjan?

In his sole appearance in the film, Lemko discusses the nature of chanting in African art. The delivery mode of the griot, a mixture of chanting and singing, seemed so suited to opera, and the major characters, especially Bintou and the smuggler, do the incredible work of acting—making Soninke sound, well, operatic. It would have been more helpful for an understanding of this claim if Lemko had more time to speak about his work, and in particular about the process of composing this particular libretto. Without the cinematic device of assemblage through which the opera is edited into a singular narrative of migration, Bintou Were is sufficient as a regional documentation of the phenomenon; it carries a weight different from Bamako, where migration, though similarly fraught, is just one of several set pieces.

But at best, this sufficiency can only be inferred. The editing puts the viewer in the reflexive position of watching the opera as a show, one set against theoretical analyses of opera as form. These analyses are presented by Alexander Kluge, Richard Sennett, and Diawara himself. The placement of that meta-commentary, in addition to other elements of standard practice such as interviews with Senegalese writer Ken Bugul and other activists in the cause of migration, feels uneasily like European theoretical elaboration of African artistic raw materials. Without Lemko’s own explicit comments, the viewer is left with little more than speculation about the status of the poetic or narrative acts that power the recorded performance. Listening to those scholarly discussions of opera brings to mind the ponderous question posed by scholar Abiola Irele in his essay, “Is African Music Possible?” “What novel contribution to the universal patrimony of music,” he asks, “can be made by a work written for that wonderful instrument [the kora]—say, a ‘Concerto for Kora and Orchestra’—that has not already been made by the organic fusion of oral utterance with song in the Manding epic of Sundiata?”

Nonetheless, these analyses, especially those by Kluge and Sennett, are worthy of attention—as are Diawara’s interjections. Kluge’s definition of opera is different from but not necessarily opposed to Lemko’s. This is Glissant’s tout-monde in practice: to stand in the world rather than for the world. That the film does not reveal much more about the perspective of the Chadian author is an editorial decision that Diawara has to answer for.

The film achieves its high moment in two justly climactic instances. When the diegetic sound of Bintou’s hollering and the percussion in Oumou Sangaré’s song are intercut with the image, from Al Jazeera, of exclusively Eastern or Middle Eastern refugees making a rough passage, we see the linked destinies of all refugees irrespective of age, region, or color, an intimation of the eventual objective method of statistical accounting in which the phenomenon will be rationalized. Diawara does not make the point, or even create sufficient contexts to make it suggestive, but making Greece the setting of some of the encounters invites a particular kind of reflection. Greece was the classical “root” of racialized European civilization, but it became the paradigmatic insolvent nation-state some years ago. It remains, too, one of those regions where Europe comes into contact with its racial or cultural others. Furthermore, Bintou’s willful murder of her newborn baby is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and her own willed suicide keeps the viewer grounded in a idea with which the Old Mali of Sundiata is fully at ease: that death is preferable to shame. Walter Benjamin had the same idea—with tragic consequences.

Further Reading