Filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno doesn’t pull his punches. His 1992 film Afrique, je te plumerai became a classroom staple for the thoughtful and unsparing way it tied postcolonial problems to colonial practices. Une Feuille dans le Vent (A Leaf in the Wind) is Teno’s newest release. Like most of his other films, it too sits at the troubled border of the colonial and postcolonial, worries and wonders about power. Ernestine Ouandié was the daughter of Ernest Ouandié (whom she never met), a Cameroonian independence leader of the UPC, executed by the Ahidjo government in 1971. Teno had known of her for many years and finally met Ernestine in 2004 on a return visit to Cameroon. She began to tell him her life story. In a brief interview Teno said: “I was so amazed by what she was telling me about her life. So I brought the camera from my car and she started telling me the story again. It’s almost like she threw her life on me. But I am not a psychologist. So I spent a few years thinking about it.”
Ernestine’s mother was Ghanaian and she was born, she says in the film’s trailer, in Yaba, Nigeria. This marks her story as part of the Pan-Africanist history of Cameroonian nationalism, a history powerfully told by Meredith Terretta in Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State Building in Cameroon (Ohio University Press, 2013).
In 2009, while living in the US, Teno learned that she had taken her own life. Teno returned to the interview, three hours in length, to see what justice could be wrought from tragedy: “This is still part of the trauma of colonial history. And she is a perfect example – the daughter of someone who is really one of the most important people of Cameroon’s history, and because of the silence surrounding the sacrifices her father did for this country … it was too painful. She couldn’t live with that.”
The film’s title comes from something Ernestine Ouandié says to Teno in their conversation: “How do you expect a leaf taken from a tree to survive?” Teno asks this question to Cameroonians and to Africans. He asks: “How can we continue to live without understanding what has happened?” And: “What do we learn about human nature when we see that this woman’s childhood was so miserable? The abuse she endured at the hands of her relatives was like the abuse in the colonial period, the very things her father fought against.”
The film is disarmingly simple: a recorded conversation. Interspersed are a few images of a tree in the courtyard, pen and ink drawings Teno commissioned, and archival footage. If the film’s style is spare it is a simplicity that is the product of tireless work and a keen filmic sensibility. It lays bare the affective costs of public silence. It indicts the public and heroic with the domestic and interior. Pushing further in that direction, I can’t help but wonder if her story might not have been different if Ernestine had been Ernest Jr.
Known for his first person narratives, Teno here cedes narrative primacy to Ernestine. His characteristic practice — documentary as interrogative of power — loses nothing in the exchange.
Teno screened this film in July 2013 in Marseilles and in mid-October 2013 at the workshop “Digital Paradox: Piracy, Ownership, and the Constraints of African Screen Media,” held at Indiana University, Bloomington, where I had the opportunity to speak with him. It screened in late October 2013 at DOC Lisboa, at the RIDM in Montreal, the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, and the Rencontres Documentaires de Libreville in November 2013. In March 2014 it will screen at the Colours of the Nile Festival in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and at Louxor, Palais du Cinema in Paris, France.