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So what is Africa?

by Sarah Mersch

Dok Leipzig – 52nd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (26 October – 1 November 2009)

Despite its more than 50 years of history, the Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film never featured an African film in its competition. That changed this year, with the Angolan Luanda, factory of music [above a still from the film] in the Dok Generation competition. It wasn’t the only African film in Leipzig 2009 – the special program "This is Africa?" featured 20 short and long films. Its aim: promoting a different view of the African continent. Only partly achieved.

«In German media, Africa is mostly associated with HIV, war, and poverty. To be honest, this makes me sick», festival director Claas Danielsen said at the opening press conference of Dok Leipzig.
Hence the festival’s aim to organise a special program featuring twenty African documentaries and short animated films, promoting a different image of Africa. 20 films from the last three years, grouped into seven thematic programs, dealing with women, exile, art, city life, ...

The festival named the section directed by Matthias Heeder "This is Africa?" – referring to the 1930s US-American production So this is Africa, but with an emphasis on the question mark at the end – questioning the German and European perception of Africa, discussing prejudices, wanting to destroy the stereotypes.

Jean-Marie Teno’s film Lieux saintes, that premiered earlier this year at Fespaco, focused on the role of cinema, taking St. Leon, a poor neighbourhood of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, as an example for the situation of cinema in Western Africa. In St. Leon, where there are no cinemas nearby and where people simply couldn’t afford going there either, video clubs are all the rage, screening DVDs of action movies or bollywood on a small TV screen.
Teno chooses a very personal, sometimes poetic approach when getting to know the area and its inhabitants – Bouba, the owner of the video club (which he has proudly named cinema club), and Jules Cesar, a djembé maker having his workshop just opposite. The djembé and the cinema have a lot in common, Jules Cesar and Jean-Marie Teno agree: they are both essential means of communication. But the cinema has partly lost its voice in Africa, where it is often almost impossible to watch African movies. And Europe encounters the same problem, so Leipzig could have been a good opportunity to get to know more current African documentaries.

And while there were a few pleasant surprises, films that chose a new cinematographic approach, a very personal point of view, an interesting topic - like Me broni ba by Akosua Adoma Owusu and Brent Dawes’ Because you’re gorgeous, that found an entertaining yet profound approach to dealing with the perception of beauty, like Licinio Azevedo’s mesmerizing Night Lodgers, Malam Saguiro’s profound The Gown of Time, or Makela Pululu’s brutally honest, personal Silent Response – most of the films that had been selected did not in any way live up to the expectations of showing the "new" Africa the festival wanted to present.

The choice of films was surprisingly limited to films that both in their topics as well as in their stylistic approach resorted to ethnographic cinema similar to what we had seen twenty years ago – rural areas, traditional healers, suppressed women. And even though those are certainly topics of importance today as well, it was the (old-fashioned) cinematographic approach that was striking – or rather the lack of concept, the missing reflection and consciousness of the role of the author.

Luanda, factory of music was one of the few examples that did go another way. In their documentary, Kiluanje Liberdade and Ines Goncalves go to a township of Angola’s capital in search for the success of Kuduro – a hypnotic, angry musical fusion of electronic beats, traditional Angolan rhythms and rap. There, they encounter DJ Buda, who owns two small studios, where the boys of the neighbourhood queue up to record their songs. While the film does not explicitly mention the politic circumstances, its vital music, the movement and energy show clearly that there is a new, young generation on the move in Angola, that wants to change the country.

And while especially some of the younger filmmakers where happy to be part of the festival, there was also a certain frustration in the air in Leipzig. «Why do we have to be put in a special box, an African box? Why can’t we just be part of the regular program?», Idriss Diabaté from Senegal complained – and the other filmmakers present nodded in consent. Obviously a special program always risks to promote exclusion rather than inclusion – especially in a case like Leipzig, where African filmmakers aren’t regulars at the film festival, and the choice of films unfortunately only rarely justified the special attention given to the section.

Ironically, it was a German production that offered one of the most interesting films not from, but about Africa: Rich Brother, in which director Insa Onken accompanies Ben, an asylum seeker from Cameroun on his way to become a professional boxer – and on his first visit of his family back in Cameroon. This sensitive, cautious film was – righteously so – awarded the Golden Dove for the Best Film of the German Competition.

Sarah Mersch | 52. International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

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