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Deloitte Ignite 2012: Introduction to African film

As we begin two days of Africa on the Piazza, John Akomfrah examines the influence of a seminal African film.

By John Akomfrah (Writer, artist and filmmaker)

1 September 2012 at 10.36am | Comment on this article

When I sat down with June Givanni and David Lawson to plan the cinema screenings for Deloitte Ignite Africa Weekend, there was one film above all that informed our discussions. However, we did not feel the need to include it in our programme. Some films are so powerful that their influence can be felt throughout cinema history.

Here’s a little known fact: since 1895, when cinema’s founding fathers Auguste and Louis Lumière sent a cameraman to north Africa to film ‘actualités’ on their newly patented cinématographe, Africa has always known film. 1895 was also the founding moment of cinema – the year in which the first images were recorded with remarkable new techniques – so it’s fair to say that Africa has always been part of the history of film.

Watch footage of the River Nile in Egypt, filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895:

However, histories are always laced with irony. And one of the ironic reasons why Africa’s early involvement in cinema is not widely known is that it has been overshadowed by another influential cinematic event: a 'year zero' when the continent unquestionably became part of the cinematic family.

1963 is the year in question. In this year, a 40-year-old trade-union-activist-turned-novelist wrote, directed and narrated a film that for many is the most significant ‘beginning’ of African cinema. Such were the tremors set off by this film that whenever someone now refers to 'African cinema', they are almost always, knowingly or otherwise, invoking what this film set out to achieve.

The director’s name was Ousmane Sembène (he died, alas, in 2007) and Borom Sarret (The Wagoner) is the film. Only 20-minutes long and by today’s standard a sketch, Borom Sarret tells the riveting yet harrowing story of a poor cart driver struggling to make ends meet in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Watch a clip from Borom Sarret:

Even by African standards, Ousmane Sembène arrived relatively late on the film scene. Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, for instance, directed his first feature film Daddy Amin in 1950. And affecting though Borom Sarret is, it was certainly not the first African film to gain international recognition. As early as 1949, another Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif had his film The Adventures of Antar and Abla nominated for the Grand Prize in the Cannes Film Festival of that year.

Nor can Borom Sarret claim to be noteworthy because of its technical innovation. If a prize existed for such an honour, Sarie Marais (1931) would win hands down. Directed by Joseph Albrecht, this 10-minute short set in a British POW camp for Boer prisoners was Africa’s first talking picture. Borom Sarret wasn’t even the first Senegalese film. Even that singular privilege belongs to another remarkable director and his first outing: Paulin Vieyra’s L’Afrique sur Seine (Africa on the Seine), produced in 1955.

Borom Sarret has something unique though. The film had a reach and an ambition that, to this day, remain the defining ethic of African cinema in all its multiplicity. Borom Sarret achieved this by simply saying that things that are understood to be ‘natural’ (poverty) are in fact ‘historical’ (a post-colonial reality). And it did so by bringing a forensic eye and an unflinching and unvarnished gaze to the continent’s unfolding dramas and realities.

So whenever you hear an African director say that they want a film to 'capture African reality’, or 'document African society’, or that they prefer to make films about ‘dramas’ rather than ‘conditions’, you know you are in the presence of that short film made back in 1963.

All of the films included in Africa in the Piazza are, in spirit, the children of Borom Sarret.

John Akomfrah is a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective. He is co-curator of Africa in the Piazza, a two-day series of open-air screenings in the heart of Covent Garden.

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