Oral Tradition and the Aesthetics of Black African Cinema Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike


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Oral Tradition and the Aesthetics of Black African Cinema

Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike

This tremendous fund of African imagery, ritual-spiritual language, music, dance, metaphor and proverbs, the mythic components and poetic resonances of the oral traditions, when adopted to filmic codes, would produce film aesthetics that are African.

Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike

In his celebrated 1994 book, Black African Cinema, from which this text is selected, Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, a Nigerian film scholar, presents an insider’s perspective on films by black Africans: films, he explains, that best represent authentic African culture, history, and experience. Such films counter and correct the extreme misrepresentations of Africa in Western films, which have done more to spread and entrench primitivist stereotypes than any other art medium. Of countless examples, one has only to recall Hollywood’s Tarzan films to understand the mandate of black African film makers. Despite the harm such movies have done, however, in this reading the author makes a strong case for film as the privileged vehicle for authentic African expression. Ukadike underlines what he and many cultural historians consider the essential, shared element of African culture: its oral tradition, the tradition of the griot, the storyteller. “In the oral tradition,” writes Ukadike, comparing it with film, “the griot is endowed with multiple functions, as musician, dancer, and storyteller; he is the storehouse of oral tradition.” The prestige and potential of film, then, for black African filmmakers, critics, and their global same/other audiences, is in cinema’s griot-like ability to simultaneously employ verbal expression, visual language, and the performative: music, dance, and theater. Cinema’s message may be understood in any language and potentially bridges differences. Like other writers in this volume, Ukadike defines non-Western modernism as a synthesis of Western modernism and indigenous traditions.

The author asks us to consider this question: “How has African cinema imbued the dominant film structure with oral tradition to penetrate the African condition and bring to the surface African facts to inform the public?”

Source: Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Black African Cinema, 70-72, 201-216. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Francophone Origins
(…) France's interest in the development of cinema in most of its West African ex-colonies – Gabon, Congo, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Benin, Madagascar, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso – is certainly linked to the educational and cultural patterns that it adopted in colonial days, otherwise known as the policy of assimilation. This policy sought to "detribalize" the Africans by bringing them to the threshold of French culture. The French government, rather than regarding Africans as colonized people, preferred to call them "overseas Frenchmen."1 However, since the French did not recognize or respect local African cultures, and since they considered culture the basis on which French citizenship was determined, they resolutely embarked on a program of turning the elite of their African wards into Frenchmen. The historical impetus for discrediting the African way of life, in other words, lay in the ideology of imperialism, enshrined in this case in the principles of assimilation. Thus assimilation resulted in the creation of an elitist class of Africans crowned with what Bernard Magubane aptly termed "the accoutrements of Western civilization."2 This class of a few selected Africans was accorded certain privileges enjoyed by French citizens. More than any other benefit, their French education alienated them from their own culture.
Although directing films was one such privilege, some of the assimilated pioneers of African cinema did not cooperate with this policy,3 demonstrating that cinema in Africa transcends the ideological motivations rooted in a specific dogmatic interest.

Between 1962 and the end of 1980, a great majority of films made in the francophone region were partially financed through the assistance programs provided by the Coopération. Some of the first directors who benefited from this scheme between 1962 and 1970 were the following: Niger's Mustapha Alassane, Aouré, La bague du roi Koda (King Koda's ring, 1964), Le retour de I'adventurier (The adventurer's return, 1966), and Oumarou Ganda, Cabascado (1969); Senegal's Ousmane Sembène, Borom Sarret (1963), Niaye (1964), La noire de . . . (Black girl, 1966), and Manama Johnson Traoré, Diankha-bi (The young girl, 1969); Côte d'lvoire's Timité Bassori, Sur la dune de la solitude (On the dune of solitude, 1966), La fernme au couteau (The woman with a knife, 1968), and Desiré Ecaré, Concerto pour un exil (Concerto for an exile, 1967); and Cameroon's Urbain Dia Mokouri, Point de vue (Point of view, 1965).

The best known among the French-aided films are Ousmane Sembène’s Borom Sarret and Black Girl. With the release of Borom Sarret, the impact of a serious indigenous African film production was felt. When it was exhibited at the 1963 Tours International Festival in France, it not only made history as the first black African film seen internationally by a paying audience but it also made an impression on the international scene by winning a prize – the second African film to do so after Aouré. Since then, recognition has accorded it the status of the first professional film ever made by a black African. Shot in Dakar, Borom Sarret, only nineteen minutes long, is unquestionably an African masterpiece. It dealt, in embryonic form, with important issues that later became dominant themes of black African cinema and which Sembène and other filmmakers since then have emphasized in greater detail. In the filmic treatment of microcosmic situations, Borom Sarret is deliberately allegorical, structured to evoke national (and by implication continental) specificities, through the introduction of "fragmentary discourse" that reveals coded political messages. The contrast between the urban poor and the urban rich of Dakar served as the basic subject, but Sembène interweaves a series of vignettes to present African life in a neocolonial setting. But this neocolonial setting reflects, in the first place, the disappointment of being colonized. Here we see a poignant attack on the African elite who have replaced the white colonial administrator, on cultural alienation, and on social and economic exploitation, all pointing to the mantle of misery that was to prevail under neocolonial African governments - civilian or military.(…)

Oral Tradition and the Aesthetics of Black African Cinema

Black African cinema and African artisan crafts, both influential vectors of oral tradition, share a sociocultural structure - a system of ideas and images - as collective synthesis of a society that never tires of defining itself to itself and to the rest of the world. Here lies the core of a tradition that gathers elements of reflection and introspection, provoking real-life discussion of the African condition. Using allegorical means, black African cinema achieves this, thus placing new emphasis on the well known African tradition of making a point with stories - an important aspect of African life not widely disseminated to the outside world, except in literary circles.

The structure of African storytelling is composed of a variety of cultural and symbolic configurations. Much of this variety is enunciated . . . in the cohesive web surrounding the relationship among the text, the spectator (audience), and the performing artist (orator-narrator). This symbiotic relationship among the artist, text, and spectator, which African writers have so eloquently stressed,4 has also posed problems for African novelists and filmmakers, problems concerning language and the means of technical reproduction - the Africanization of the medium. For example, writing in Africa's languages is inhibiting since numerous languages abound. Chinua Achebe, Nigeria's veteran novelist, felt that the English language was capable of transporting his African views, noting that the language must "be a new English still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings."5 This view is antithetical to Ngugi wa Thiong'o's radical advocacy of writing in African languages in order to restructure African literature.6 Like other controversial passages in the article from which Achebe's statement was extracted, and seen in conjunction with early African writers who held similar views and who are often criticized by African writers,7 Ngugi's dictum would also be limited and fails to provide an antidote to the problems of Ousmane Sembène, a novelist turned filmmaker. (…) With film, the visual images can spread the message more effectively. Even if the language used poses some problems, the message of the film image is still discernible to the viewer. Written literature and film depend on technology, but film transcends oral tradition and literature because it allows for wider coverage by producing audio and visual images simultaneously.8

The choice of film production means acceptance of European technology and codes of representation. But as to their application in the African context, it was only a short time before African fllmmakers discovered the means of integrating traditional aesthetics into the stylistic repertory of world cinema. These modes of representation would resonate with indigenous codes and African sensibility. Like the African novels which developed precisely out of this instrument of cultural symbiosis, one of the expedient ways to inject African cinema with a dose of authenticity is to exploit the interlocking elements of the continent's cultural heritage. This tremendous fund of African imagery, ritual-spiritual language, music, dance, metaphor and proverbs, the mythic components and poetic resonances of the oral traditions, when adopted to filmic codes, would produce film aesthetics that are African.
Black African cinema, in this regard, has already dedicated itself to a genuine refurbishment of the continent's culture. The significance of its services to the African people is that it is persistent in highlighting images of historical experience, cultural identity, and national consciousness in past and present struggles. Whether some of the views expressed remain optimistic or pessimistic, whether they provide solutions to the impending crisis or not, the point is that these films are presenting debatable issues to the public by utilizing African cultural associations in a unique fashion no foreigner is capable of providing. How has African cinema imbued the dominant film structure with oral tradition to penetrate the African condition and bring to the surface African facts to inform the public? Is this tradition holding, and how has it been utilized in filmic narrative patterns?

Oral tradition and the aesthetics of African cinema are becoming the subject of exploration by African film historians and critics whose studies are pertinent to the understanding of African film practice. While Mbye Cham9 links Sembène's storytelling capability to that of the gewel (griot or storyteller) and the lekbat (also storyteller), Françoise Pfaff10 sees this trait encompassing Sembène's narrative techniques in such films as Borom Sarret, Xala, and Ceddo, where the griot's role is elaborated. In another perspective, while Manthia Diawara11 analyzes the role of the griot in Sembène's films, this analysis is extended to the work of other directors - providing a detailed examination of oral tradition as an aesthetic device in cinematic narrative in the same way that Teshome Gabriel12 explores oral narrative and film form in Harvest: 3,000 Years.


Ababacar Samb-Makharam's Jom, coproduced with Germany's Zweites Deutschen Fernsehen (ZDF television), is a good example of black African cinematic strategy completely reliant on oral tradition. In this film, a griot relates to his listeners the story of Dieri Dior (Oumar Seck), who murders a French colonial administrator. In the rage that follows the revenge, Dieri, rather than surrender, decides to die a dignified death by killing himself. The ramifications of this dignified act are recalled through the story of Khaly during a present-day labor strike. (…)

Narrated by a griot, the film reveals the multidisciplinary talent of the storyteller. Samb-Makharam acknowledges in his production notes that the griot "is also an endless source where painters, writers, historians, filmmakers, archivists, storytellers, and musicians can come to feed their imaginations.”13 In the oral tradition, the griot is endowed with multiple functions, as musician, dancer, and storyteller; he is the storehouse of oral tradition. The peripatetic nature of his performance enables him to recount to listeners the history of the entire community. His audience can in turn pass such knowledge on to others who are not present, in an endless transmission-passing from mother to sons and daughters, generation to generation. It is this type of knowledge that would precipitate, if need be, mass mobilization. (…)

If in Jorn Samb-Makharam's structure illustrates the use of a historical narrative form of storytelling, Kaboré’s Wend Kuuni is a prototype of creative candor for its definitive advancement in the effort to utilize specifically African cultural elements to create indigenous cinematic aesthetics. Basically, Wend Kuuni is a revival of the family-oriented film fashioned after the African oral tale tradition; it depicts a young boy's traumatic experience of losing one family and finding another. (…)

If one of the principal constituents of oral tradition is organization, examination, and interpretation of society's past and present, Wend Kuuni shows that the fragmentation of linear images and their remolding in "new configurations and contexts," to use E.H. Gombrich's phrase,14 can be achieved by blending oral art with cinematic art. In this film, the whole process of juxtaposition is conveyed by decoupage15 specifically through parallel montage, extensive use of continuity editing, and with admirable characterization and performances by the nonprofessional cast. These elements, also comprising shifts and transgressions (of oral tradition and dominant cinematic conventions), assist in capturing the graphic images of the boy's transformation and the centralization of the film's rugged humanist qualities. As the narrative shows, Kaboré eschews chronological order by inverting the linearity of the tale as it would be told in oral narrative by employing the above filmic devices. (…)
(…) Visages de femmes [1985, Ivory Coast] by Désiré Ecaré, makes a different contribution to black African film aesthetics through oral tradition. Ecaré's innovative use of song and dance, here functioning as a vital narrative element, holds the film's structure together while other significant cultural oral traditions come into focus. (…)

Visages de femmes begins with ten minutes of song and dance. Beautifully composed and shot mostly in close-up with a few medium shots, it begins with two drummers dexterously providing the exhilarating music that draws a large village crowd in colorful traditional attire together, happily dancing the two-step. This wonderful scene, masterfully choreographed, catches the gay exuberance of the denizens of Loupou, in a sequence so compelling that J. Hoberman noted that "one would be proud to show [it to] a Martian as evidence of life on earth."16 There is no dialogue omnisciently telling the viewer what is happening. The visuals are self-explanatory, providing an introduction to the African culture. (…)

Like other filmmakers mentioned, who base their creative approach on oral tradition, Désiré Ecaré, actor, dramatist, and filmmaker who studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris, also believes oral tradition to be a mainstay of African film language. In his work, oral tradition functions as a way of conceiving cinematic structure, a way of seeing, a view of the cosmic universe, and a way of articulating political and cultural possibilities. This means that, while the structural underpinnings in his films revolve around this cultural precept, his work is also based on an ideology that seeks to de­bunk rigid methodologies. Like Kaboré, Ecaré favors multiple narrative structure, as opposed to, for instance, Sembène’s linear narrative style. But where Kaboré and Sembène clarify through simplicity and meticulous attention to detail, Ecaré uses an elliptical film style. (…)
(…) Visages de femmes is crafted around excellently choreographed dancing and singing. As in grammatical construction, where a punctuation mark breaks a sentence, the dancing and singing sequences play a similar role in the story line. Both are elements of form and content reinforcing the structure without breaking the flow of the diegesis; both also function as well-intended transition devices. In traditional African cultures the reason why oral tradition has had such an enormous impact on communication is its reliance on one of the most powerful elements of culture, the indigenous language, for its exposition. Since the employment of the oral tradition reflects patterns of everyday life, the narrative trajectory is easily understood. This sensitivity to a particular cultural heritage promotes a greater level of self-awareness and suggests avenues of social change. (…)

rom the marvelously well-orchestrated opening sequence of this film, one is immediately struck with the conviction that African music, as the adage goes, can emerge from African dance steps, lyrics can take their cue from oral poetry, and live performances can be a reassemblage of African rituals and folk opera. In the oral tradition, music and dance serve as bridges to the animating forces of nature, which is why in traditional cultures they are inextricably linked with aspects of everyday life. In this function, every rhythm generated is associated with particular activities, where rhythmic complexities serve to differentiate one particular African song and dance from another and one function from another. The rhythm of African music and dance is inspiring in its sophisticated and intended form. It evokes and manifests the cadences of creation, life and death struggles, and generally accompanies ordinary ceremonies usually requiring a group of musicians and dancers who perform communally with no strings attached. Contrary to the negative anthropological misinterpretations of African song and dance in Western films and television, which usually emphasize the exotic, for Africans, song and dance are not just accessories to life, they are transmitters of culture, indispensable to African existence.(…)

1 A policy change was adopted in the late 1940s in recognition of Africa's role in defending France in World War II, when the Ministry of Colonies in the French cabinet was renamed the Ministry of Overseas France. Ironically, it was also during this same period (1944) that the French colonial authorities massacred the Senegalese infantrymen awaiting repatriation at Camp de Thiaroye (the title of Sembène’s film) after they had fought for France during the bloody confrontations against the Axis.

2 Bernard Magubane, "A Critical Look at Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial Africa." Current Anthropology 12, no 45 (October-December 1971): 419-443.

3 Although scripts were censored and politically explosive ones rejected, anticolonialist films such as La noire de, Soleil O and others, whose productions could not be easily suppressed, could be manipulated through distribution. The Cooperation could choose to control the impact of these films by buying the rights to distribute them only in French cultural centers in Africa (or not distribute them at all).

4 For instance, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Currey; Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986) A.Hampate Ba, "The Living Tradition" and J.Vansina, "Oral Tradition and its Methodology," both in General History of Africa: Methodology and African Prehistory, ed. J. Ki-Zerbo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 166-203 and 142-163 respectively.

5 In his 1964 speech "The African Writer and the English Language," now in Achebe's collection of essays Morning Yet on Creation Day (London: Heinemann, 1975), 62.

6 In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong'o makes his position clear. See "A Statement," xiv, and especially chapter 1, "The Language of African Literature," 4-33.

7 See Ngugi, Decolonizing the Mind, 19.

8 For fuller discussion of technology and image reproduction, see Jean-Louis Baudry's “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," Film Quarterly 28 (Winter 1974-75): 39-47.

9 Mbye Cham, "Ousmane Sembène and the Aesthetics of African Oral Traditions," Africana Journal 13 (1982): 24-40.

10 Pfaff, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène.

11 Manthia Diawara, "Oral Literature and African Film: Narratology in Wend'Kuuni," Presence Africaine no. 142 (2d Quarter 1987): 36-49. Also "Popular Culture and Oral Traditions in African Film," Film Quarterly (Spring 1988): 6-14.

12 Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World, 27.

13 From Production Press Kit, Jom.

14 EH.Gombrich, The Story of Art (Oxford: Phaidon, 1978).

15 See Jean-Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," 40.

16 J.Hoberman, "It's a Mod, Mod World," Village Voice, 17 February, 1987,67.
Ousmane Sembène: La noire de (Black Girl); Senegal, 1966. Courtesy of New Yorker Films.
Gaston Kaboré, Wend Kuuni (God’s Gift); Burkina Faso, 1982, Courtesy of the British Film Institute. Ukadike, p. 211
Ababacar Samb-Makharam: Jom, ou l’historie d’un people (Jom, or the Story of a People); Senegal, 1981. Courtesy of the Françoise Pfaff Collection.


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