Thursday, December 15, 2011

Has History been kind to African cinema

 The Amakula Kampala Cinema Caravan Festival is many things, on at the National Theatre, a fixture on the Kampala film and social scene, not well publicized, among other things. But over the years, I have been to the last four mind; it can’t be faulted on its programming. Its strength and indeed the main draw for me are the rich and varied films on show that I would otherwise never have seen. The least you expect from any self respecting film festival is to be entertained, educated and even offended by the selection of films on show.
This brings me to this year’s event which runs from the 14th to the 17th December at the National Theatre. On this year’s program on day one, is a silent film by Harold.M Shaw entitled The Overlanders made in 1916.Like anyone whose been to this festival knows, the evening screenings offer rather eclectic fare. This choice by the festival directors intrigued me and by the time I got to my seat on the upper deck of the theatre I was ready to be regaled. Percussion Discussion provided the live score of traditional Kiganda drums, engaalabi, shakers and vocals. The presentation on their part was flawless in that in no way was it intrusive and the viewer is left undistracted to watch this film.
The film is about the Great Trek of the Boers that is the ancestors of the Afrikaners in South Africa. These people traversed South Africa looking for a place to settle, dispossessing the indigenous natives along the way. This film focuses on the battle of Blood River which took place on December, 16, 1838, a day that lives on in infamy, to borrow a phrase from FDR. I think the festival directors would have been better served showing this on day 3, December 16, it has symmetry to it. The Boers equipped with gun powder and rifles massacred Dingaan the Zulu King’s warriors and it is this event that is celebrated in the film.
The filmmaker to be fair cast Africans in their roles rather than whites with painted faces that was the staple of minstrel shows and Hollywood at the time. That is the most I can say for the film the rest is painful to watch, the African stereotypes of gullibility, servility are there for all to see. It is humiliating to watch the proud Zulu warrior, Sobhuza portrayed as a man who owes his conscience to Christianity as taught to him by a white missionary. Any student of South African history will cringe at the premise of this film.
It is also worth mentioning that most nations have exploited each other before or since, the Zulu empire itself was built on exploiting among others the Khoesan who are the South African aboriginals, so called bush men. Therefore my issue with the film is not only personal moral reservations about lionizing exploitation but also portraying the victims of exploitation as better off for it, even complicit in their own downpression and the perpetrators as noble in their intentions that just happen to involve  plunder.
The duplicity of the  white settlers in manipulating the Zulu’s to turn against each other best seen when Sobhuza assassinates  King Dingaan, because the latter killed  Sobhuza’s baas(South African slang for slave owner); Piet Retief, is glossed over and the weak mindedness of King Dingaan or his lack of intellectual self defence played up.
Film some say has no responsibility other than to entertain but film has been used by among others Leni Reifenstahl, a Nazi apologist, even our own government, to manufacture consent, propaganda which history itself is guilty of.
 Bantu education springs to mind, South African youths were taught self loathing( a government policy mind you) that is at the root at many of the problems in the black community, such as xenophobia, the very problems that the late great, Steve Bantu Biko dared to confront through his Black Consciencessness Movement.
All in all it’s a film worth seeing if only to recognize the propaganda value of film. Be that as it may I was entertained by Percussion Discussion’s live score, clearly offended and yet I can’t say my understanding of South African history is enhanced at all by this film. Don’t take my word for it though, come on down to the UNCC (National Theatre) and see for yourself.

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