Academic journal article French Forum

The Appeal of Hybrid Documentary Forms in West Africa

Academic journal article French Forum

The Appeal of Hybrid Documentary Forms in West Africa

Article excerpt

Once political independence was achieved at the beginning of the 1960s, sub-Saharan African documentary filmmakers became guardians of colonial memory, preserving the past and transmitting its cultural heritage. They also documented the new historical path of their countries, working with the rudimentary means at their disposal, outside a developed film industry. The stakes were high and the obstacles real: the onus was on this first generation of African documentary filmmakers to visually articulate their cultures but with little or no trained personnel nor equipment. Cultural denigration had been one of the principal components of the policy of assimilation implemented by the French imperial regime in Afrique Occidentale Francaise. Whilst cultural nationalism reigned supreme upon the transfer of power, the statesmen at the helm of these fledgling independent states soon fell prey to using documentary cinema to propagate overly flattering images of their "feats." An atmosphere of auto-congratulation quickly prevailed and this genre was condemned to being the chosen means to propagate state ideology.

One may note that docu-fiction has often been considered the most appropriate form to express the vision of several filmmakers at key moments of African cinema. For example, Afrique sur Seine (1955), Borom Sarett (1963) and Lettre paysanne (1975), all docu-fictions, represent respectively the first film made by an African filmmaker (albeit shot in France), the first African short film, and the first feature length film directed by an African woman. What is it about this form that answers the formal and aesthetic needs of the filmmaker at a particular moment in time?

The purpose of this article is to answer this very question by first exploring the different constituents of docu-fiction, as their manipulation and modulation were determined by the role accorded to documentary as catalyser of change, engagement or education. I will then proceed to examine the previously mentioned Afrique sur Seine and demonstrate why docu-fiction was used to depict the trials and tribulations of immigrant life in Paris in 1955. Particular attention will be paid to the elaboration of a highly original and multi-faceted voice-over. Given the importance of ethnographic film in forging a Western gaze on Africa, I think it is worthwhile to explore another hybrid form: ethno-fiction. The latter results from the crossing of ethnographic, real and imaginary discourses, and I will study their application to the rural setting of Safi Faye's Lettre Paysanne. I will then evaluate the extent to which ethno-fiction confronts the ample Western ethnographic film canon whilst articulating a practical discourse destined primarily for the participants in the film through the scale of camera shots and their duration. The film Nationalite: immigre (1975) by the Mauritanian Sidi Sokhona will constitute the final ease study of this article. This lesser known documentary represents an audacious formal adventure that analyses the economic and political reasons that incite African immigrants to leave their countries to find themselves subsequently in precarious conditions in France. The interplay of different narrative devices, fictional and real, to denounce immigrant exploitation will be the focus of our analysis of this film.

Before giving a brief history of documentary practice in Francophone West Africa, let us define the term "docu-fiction," as mutations of the nomenclature are as numerous as its hybrid cinematic components. "Docu-fiction" is the generic term used to describe the various sub-categories of the cinematic flux between the imaginary and the real (docu-drama, mockumentary, etc.). Various combinations of the four basic components of "docu-fiction" determine its end "appearance." These components are documentary form (voice-over, interviews, talking heads, etc.), documentary content (real people, places and events), fictional form (plot and the elaboration of characters) and fictional content (made-up characters, places and events). …

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