Neorealism and African Cinema

Continuing with the theme of reassessing national cinema historiography, I came across an interesting essay by Rachel Gabara ("'A Poetics of Refusals': Neorealism from Italy to Africa" QRFV 23.3 [2006]) challenging the hermetic notions of African filmmaking practice. Tracing a lineage of Italian Neorealism to Africa and reading the works of African filmmakers (notably Ousmane Sembene) against neorealism's aesthetic traditions, the author notes from the outset,

Scholars have tended to write about African film as if it existed in an odd sort of isolation, only reacting against and rejecting the themes and styles of colonial and neocolonial European cinema rather than participating in international cinematic traditions (201).
Is that possible? Not to doubt Gabara too much on this – after all, she has done the scholarship review that I have not – but something seems odd about the statement. For one thing, Gabara later criticizes critics who limit "the terms of discussion to the vocabulary of the European canon" (209). Perhaps fair criticism, but the problem then would be seeing too ardently Sembene participating in international traditions, no? More to the point, it seems so clear that Black Girl appeared in and circulated among the same cinematic discourse of, say, Gillo Pontecorvo's films that it's hard to imagine that no one has remarked on it.

What Gabara adds is to trace the importance of neorealist practice and theory to the Latin American Third Cinema polemicists. It's a useful synopsis of the connection, and the bibliography is a good one-stop-shopping starting point for those interested in reading up on Third Cinema. As she notes, it's a twisted route, but her account is convincing.

I'm open to her broader point – that Sembene and some of the newer African reflexive documentarists employ neorealist stylistic tropes in their film language – but I really would have liked more fleshing out of the thesis. Sometimes, realism seems undertheorized, as when the term simply has a commonplace meaning of showing things as they "really are" (209). At other times, the textual analysis is suggestive but too brief. Nonetheless, I found her use of Jurji Lotman's "poetics of refusals" a productive way to approach the filmmaking choices of Sembene and others. It's an interesting project and one that might get fuller treatment in Gabara's promised forthcoming book on Francophone autobiography in literature and film.

Finally, Gabara's essay left me with a couple of questions, which I think would be fruitful avenues to explore.

1) Riffing off of Mark Betz's essay, what impact did coproduction have on the direction of African cinema? Is it possible to read the difference between a (relatively) Europeanized Black Girl and a (relatively) Africanized Ceddo as a shift in industrial practice?

2) I'm not up on my African cinema, but clearly there's a gap we're talking about... the post-Sembene filmmakers who wed high production values, the narrational ambiguity and pacing appropriate to the international art film, and elements of the fantastic or mythical. I'm thinking of films like Yeelen or Wend Kuuni. These don't seem to me to be operating in any neorealist capacity. I'm actually interested in their poetics of refusal... are they reacting against Sembene and the representational politics of anticolonial struggle? Are the newer, second generation of African filmmakers in turn reacting against the previous aesthetic? Maybe a lot has been written on this, I simply haven't read the literature.


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