The phenomenological real

A book by writer Melissa Thackway and director Jean-Marie Teno highlights an ethical and politically engaged partnership between filmmaker and film critic.

The cover of Reel Resistance: The Cinema of Jean-Marie Teno Boydell & Brewer © 2020.

Melissa Thackway and Jean-Marie Teno, the co-authors of Reel Resistance: The Cinema of Jean-Marie Teno, are major figures in African cinema. Thackway, a scholar and translator, has written a key book on African film, Africa Shoots Back, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Thackway’s contributions have included collaborating with Francophone African filmmakers on English translation and subtitling. Teno is among the most acclaimed African filmmakers working today. Born in Cameroon in 1954, during the colonial period, Teno attended schools in Cameroon, England, and France and worked in radio and television before making his first film in 1984, a short called Hommage. Teno’s documentaries, focused on the everyday experiences of Africans living under neocolonial conditions, represent significant contributions to the canon of African cinema. Thackway and Teno’s work, the first book-length study centered on Teno’s films, brings their deep knowledge of and love for African cinema to bear on Teno’s work.

Two interconnected objectives animate Reel Resistance: it promotes Teno’s films, making the case that “from both an African and world perspective, [Teno] is a major filmmaker of our times.”. Less explicitly, the book returns to and reaffirms the political commitments that motivated African filmmakers of earlier periods. Confronted with today’s expansive and heterogeneous field of African media and film forms, which includes genre films, Netflix series, art films, Nollywood, and larger numbers of documentaries than ever before, the co-authored book insists that committed African cinema, of which Teno’s films are exemplary, remains urgently important.

In the introduction, Thackway describes the book as “a joint dialogic work that combines both the written and spoken word.” The distinction between writing, in the form of film analysis, and speech, as rendered in published interviews between Thackway and Teno, structures the volume. In the first half of the book, a brief historical overview of African documentaries provides context for Thackway’s series of “critical insights” about Teno’s twelve films. Organized in discrete sections, Thackway’s insights identify and analyze common features, or “trademark signatures,” of Teno’s documentaries, such as the adoption of a unique “poetics of resistance” and the insertion of Teno’s extradiegetic first-person commentaries. Thackway puts forward a survey-style analysis of Teno’s body of work as an “ensemble,” examining narrative and stylistic patterns as demonstrated across several films.

One of the most interesting observations discussed here concerns Teno’s exploitation of the serendipitous happenings and encounters that make up reality in his creative technique. Teno adopts a mode of cinematic realism that incorporates this excess actuality, the contingencies that narrative features and documentaries tend to edit out in their efforts to construct coherence. Thackway calls this reality supplement a “trigger” that incites entire films, as in the documentaries Chef! and Lieux Saints. I might go even further and call Teno’s preference for the unanticipated an “aesthetics of chance.” Engendered at narrative, visual, and aural registers, this aesthetics enacts what film scholar Lúcia Nagib calls “ethical realism.” Nagib has singled out filmmakers dedicated to exploring the unpredictable and unrehearsed dimensions of the production context in their films. These are artists, she writes, who desire to “feel part of, and responsible for, [the] material world and want to change it for the better. ”Teno’s disdain for “standardization”—and his embrace of a fluid and open filmmaking practice that follows the unexpected possibilities made available during production when film crew, camera, interlocutors, passersby, animals, and material environments interact—demonstrates Nagib’s ethical realism. But, as crucial is that his presence as filmmaker is part of his documentaries. Thackway argues that Teno’s “I,” present in voice-over narration and sometimes heard from behind the camera, affirms his location “within and as part of the world he films,” a method of “speaking out” that is central to his radical, decolonial project.

The second part of Reel Resistance features several interviews Thackway conducted with Teno and, finally, two appendices, one that reprints selections of Teno’s writings and the other a comprehensive bibliography of Teno’s films. Several extraordinary photographs of Teno, taken over a 30-year period, and which appear to be from Teno’s personal archive, enhance the artfully selected film stills that complement Thackway’s compelling analyses. The book’s visual archive includes an image of a very young Teno, a film camera hanging around his neck, shaking hands with Thomas Sankara during his first trip to the FESPACO African film festival in Burkina Faso in 1983. Other photos of Teno at work with cast and crew on locations in Ghana and Cameroon highlight his pared-down production practice.

The book offers non-specialist readers the perfect introduction to Teno and African cinema more generally. For scholars and students of African film, it touches on several areas that suggest directions for future research. This is particularly the case with the interviews, which are full of fascinating details about Teno’s background, his work methods, the camera operators and editors with whom he has collaborated, the cameras he has used, and the effects of new technologies on his art. To my mind, we need a lot more research on the labor of African filmmakers, ethnographies of their attempts to secure resources, win awards, and find distributors, as well as of their production and postproduction processes. Reel Resistance provokes questions related to this topic and many others, and more praiseworthy, it models an ethical and politically engaged partnership between filmmaker and film critic, revealing the potential such synergy produces.

Further Reading